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An introduction to Swiss French

Just coming to the end of a pleasant but rather surreal working holiday in Verbier. It would be self-indulgent, on this platform, to talk about anything other than some share-worthy Swiss French language points, so I won’t mention the hiking trails and scenery (spectacular), the cheese-heavy cuisine (mouth-watering), the prices (eye-watering), or the people (so nice!) …

I have been reminded of my time attempting to learn Spanish in Spain: I remember feeling like an educationally sub-normal idiot for the whole time I was in Granada, but as soon as I ventured to the verdant northern coast of Cantabria, I realised that I had been battling with a version of Spanish that was the equivalent of someone coming to the UK to learn English and landing up in Glasgow’s Possilpark.

The French may scoff at how slowly the language of Moliere is spoken in Suisse romande, but it certainly makes it easier for us, would-be French language communicators.

Granted, a lot of the French one hears is that of visitors to the region, who are speaking it as their second language, but even the real locals seem to talk in the way that according to the textbooks, they actually should! Very different from the parts of France that I have most frequented.

Granted again, maybe it is because this is such a tourist-dependent region that they must moderate their speech if they want their local businesses to thrive, but it is not merely that they appear to pronounce words more slowly; there are tangible examples of how even the vocabulary of Swiss French is simpler, at least for people coming at it from an anglophone background:


Maybe it’s too obvious to start here, but:

These numerical simplifications work in other parts of the francophone world as well, in Belgium for example.

In our lessons only last week, we were discussing how certain French place names have made their way into common expressions. ‘Se faire limoger’, for example, has an interesting history, and it has come to mean ‘to be dismissed from a position of responsibility’.

Well, there is a great addendum to our list: ‘être sur Soleure’, which means to be drunk.

Every expression has an interesting back-story, and this is no exception:

Soleure is the French name for the German-Swiss town of Solothurn. Back in the day, this was a key trading port on the river Aare, and one of the most important products was wine, being shipped from France towards Zurich. The crew were understandably keen to sample the produce, presumably for quality control purposes, and so when they disembarked in Soleure, this came to be a euphemistic way of describing their level of blood-alcohol.

And by the way, as well as meaning “Cheers!” like elsewhere in the French-speaking world, “Santé” is also used as the reaction to a sneeze. It’s more common to say “A tes souhaits” in France, but the Swiss version, which means 'health', reflects the German influence.

Un petit conseil: the locals are saying that it's going to be a great year for skiing. There is a special berry which only appears in abundance when it is going to be a heavy snow season. I'll level with you; I have no idea which berry that is - this photo is just for decoration. But you might want to plan a ski trip...

I am indebted for most of this new-found knowledge, by the way, to two young mecs I got chatting to in a café as they were visiting Verbier from Montreux, for a spot of Sunday mountain-biking: Eris (short for Erisman) and David (at 2.02m / 6’7” not short at all!) Thanks again, mes potes, if you are reading this.

Ah yes. In French-French un pote = a friend, a mate, but here in Switzerland it has an unfortunate second meaning: faire un pote = to be in a bad mood.

Very wisely, they had brought their bikes up as far as Verbier by télécabine, avoiding the need to park a car. “To park” your car in Paris, is probably just as difficult as it is here, and not only that, but you are also restricted to just two options of a verb to use: “garer” or “stationner”. In Suisse romande you have a third option: to use the local word, “parquer”. Again, much easier for us Brits!

If I had said “Merci” to them for giving me this spontaneous lesson in the local lingo, they might have responded “Service!” which is a common, if rather formal, way of saying you’re welcome. You don’t hear that in France either.

Je vous présente Bertie. Un caniche* très mignon. Des amis m'ont invité à le garder pendant deux semaines ; c'était la principale raison pour laquelle j'étais à Verbier cette fois-ci.


Despite his Swiss blood, Andrew Wenger has shamefully scarce experience in the language of Suisse romande – the French-speaking third of Switzerland. In SameSky French lessons we tend to focus on standard French, but we are always open to the discussion of words and phrases from any part of the francophone world.

Please contact us here if you would like to find out about joining one of our groups: We are currently in the process of setting up a new French group for complete beginners – we also have places in intermediate and advanced groups, and we offer courses in German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, and Mandarin…

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This is the transcript for Episode 7 of the SameSky Languages FRENCH podcast. It covers adjectives, the subjunctive and 'verlan' slang

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