A Swiss French Lesson with a Romand



This post was contributed by Léa Reynard. 

When people talk about Switzerland, the listeners either confuse us with Sweden or automatically think about banks and chocolate (the best in the world by the way), and sometimes neutrality. But there is so much more to us than that, even if our country is really tiny and lost in the middle of Europe. Did you know that Switzerland has 4 official languages (French, German, Italian, Romansh)? But to understand each other, we generally use English, which isn’t included in that number. Kind of confusing and surprising that there are so many languages for a small nation of 8.5 million people, and that we still get along and are doing pretty well.
The majority of Swiss people speak German (but people actually speak Swiss German between them, which isn’t understandable for most German people). Some speak Italian, others Romansch, a language very close to Latin. But the one language that we’re going to look closely into today is French. After German, it’s the most spoken language in this country, and even though it’s really close to the one spoken in France, our accent is a bit different and we have some words and expressions that the French don’t get. So when I meet new people, it takes them a little while to discover that I’m Swiss and not French if I don’t tell them, but a little phrase or word said differently usually betrays me (and then they start asking about how rich I am, and I regret using a Swiss expression).

Today, I’m going to help you with those Swiss French words that you will never learn in French class but that you will need to know if you would like to understand everything and act more local, while visiting the French part of Switzerland.

ça joue?
In Switzerland, a phrase we often say is « ça joue? », where we use the verb jouer, to play in English, to ask if someone or something is alright. For example, when making plans with someone, you can ask « ça joue pour toi? », literally translated to “does it play for you?”, but it actually means “is it alright for you?”
So you can see that us, Swiss people, tend to change the literal meaning of a word quite a lot.
Another example I can give you is with the word pire = worst in English.
But here in the French part of Switzerland, we use it with a positive connotation. You will hear young people say « C’était pire cool cette soirée! », or « Pire joli ton nouveau sac! », but they actually emphasize the adjective that follows by using this « pire ».
There’s another word that is used the same way – the word monstre. It’s taken from the noun monster, but used as an adverb to accentuate how big the thing we’re talking about is. « Mais c’est monstre bien! », « J’ai monstre envie de manger », I really, REALLY, want to eat something now.
But this one is used more in the country-side part of Switzerland, so you won’t hear it as much.
A thing that must be confusing for French people is that we also use the word adieu, which is used to say goodbye to someone if you’re not sure to ever see them again, when greeting a friend. « Adieu, comment tu vas? ». But honestly, if you ever come here and want to act cool, don’t use that! It is used mainly by the older generation, living in the mountains and not in the city, and nowadays, young people use it only to joke around.
My sister’s boyfriend, who is from Southern France (but lives here), once told me that he found it very weird when, in response to merci , we say service!, and not de rien, which is way more common. It actually comes from « À votre service! », which means at your service, but is very formal, and used more when talking to people of higher status, at work or to someone in power. So we shorten it to service.
Another expression that is different in France and in Switzerland is « Santé! ». In France they only use it for cheering, while having a drink with friends. But here, like salud in Spanish, it also means “bless you” when you sneeze, which is said like « à tes souhaits! » in France.
Now I’m going to introduce you some Swiss French words that you will be confused about at first, but they will be very useful if you plan on coming here.
The most useful one is without a doubt natel, cause you will hear it everywhere! This word means phone here, so it’s in pretty much every conversation. It easily gets confused with the word attelle by French people, which is actually a brace, something you use when breaking your bones, and has nothing to do with the Swiss word, that comes from an old smartphone brand and became a commonly used word.
Another funny word we often use is foehn, which means hairdryer for us. I like this one because the foehn is in fact a hot wind we have in Switzerland, and I find it kind of smart to call something blowing hot air the same name as a wind that does the same.
While eating in Switzerland, you have to get used to our different way of calling our meals. Our days start with a déjeuner, followed by a dîner at midday and we eat a souper at night, coming from the word soup, because that’s what they used to eat at diner before. (This difference with the French even got me to lose some points on Duolingo, because saying souper for diner is so natural for me that I forgot it was dîner in usual French.)
We also count differently as in France, and we’re not trying to do some maths while speaking about how many chocolate bars we just had. So instead of soixante-dix, we say septante (which is way more logical in my opinion). Then, we say huitante for eighty and nonante for ninety. So next time, when tired of breaking down eighty in four times twenty while having a conversation in French, just say it the Swiss way!
Something I think is important to mention is that this Swiss French slang varies from a region to another. People will talk differently depending on the canton they’re from, or if they live in a city or in a little village. The inhabitants of Geneva tend to speak more like French people due to their physical closeness, while others will have a stronger accent from their region, that is inherited from the place’s old dialect. So even though there are differences, this list of 10 Swiss French words should apply for all the Romands, the French-speaking Swiss.
Have fun practicing!

Meet Léa:  I’m a 20-year-old Swiss girl, studying translation at the university of Geneva, and hopefully studying in England and Mexico over the next years. I’m passionate about languages, travelling and music. Discovering new cultures and meeting new people from all around the globe are my favorite things of all. Keep up with me on IG. 

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