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As full of holes as a….


The main thing ‘every child knows’ about Swiss cheese is that it’s full of big holes. The only problem is, it usually isn’t. About the only type with big holes in it is the rather rubbery Emmental, which has served as the basis for what masquerades as ‘Swiss cheese’ in North America, giving rise to the phrase ‘as full of holes as a Swiss cheese’ – which can even be said of such things as government policy. There are English-speakers who even concoct some local colour by replacing the words ‘Swiss cheese’ with ‘Gruyère’ – a product they have clearly never seen in their lives. In actual fact, one of the characteristic features of Gruyère cheese is its completely smooth, hard surface; any Gruyère that came out of the mould with holes in it would surely be rejected, to be sold either in grated form or as a part of a ready-made cheese fondue mix – abroad, as in Switzerland fondue is made from scratch, using the cook’s own favourite blend of cheeses. One or two other Swiss cheeses (e.g. Tilsit) do have small holes, but often only cracks. In short, the idea that holes are a typical feature of Swiss cheese is a myth.

But more and more holes are starting to appear in another classic element of Swiss culture – the notion that it is a harmoniously multilingual country. In a Slovenian novel I read some years ago, the hero finds himself in the Swiss capital Berne halfway through the Second World War; and a woman selling bunches of Edelweiss in the street (an improbable cliché in itself) addresses him as Mein Herr, Monsieur and thanks him for buying her wares with the words merci, danke! – as if multilingualism means using more than one language the whole time and switching back and forth between them in mid-conversation, and as if all (or at least most) Swiss people do so, or are capable of it in the first place.

In actual fact, the everyday language used in Berne is the strong local dialect of German (in its typically Bernese variant), and that’s what you’d be addressed in, then as now; if you turned out not to understand Bärndüutsch, then you’d be addressed in Swiss-accented standard German, and finally perhaps in another language (these days almost certainly English – although German-speaking Swiss do often have a good command of French, they would only use it to someone with a noticeable French accent). In any case a flower-seller – assuming anyone would even have been allowed to wander the streets hawking such things in straitlaced, strictly regulated Switzerland! – would surely have been hard put to it to speak even standard German, let alone anything else. It simply wouldn’t have been worth her while to bother. Another piece of concocted local colour.

There are one or two Swiss towns and cities that straddle the German/French linguistic boundary, such as Biel/Bienne and Fribourg/Freiburg. Their inhabitants do have a reputation for switching back and forth between languages in mid-conversation – but I’m fairly sure this too is a myth, for it would be impractical, and confusing. I’ve encountered this with native Dutch-speakers who, hearing my slight English accent, sometime dot their Dutch conversation with (often incorrect) English words and phrases, as if this will aid communication. Of course it does precisely the opposite, and I have to insist they stick to one language, preferably Dutch – my ear’s attuned to it, and I don’t expect to hear English words in the middle of it. When Dutch people that I don’t know but have already addressed in Dutch ‘automatically’ switch to English, I continue speaking Dutch back to them until they get the message: I’m a Dutch citizen, and here in Holland I expect to speak Dutch to other Dutch citizens.

I’ve already discussed this in an earlier post called Primitive Switzerland; but today I was struck by a further sign that this myth is being eroded, and that Switzerland is changing.

When I lived in Switzerland in the late 1970s I was struck by an advertisement on the doors of the then still very common telephone boxes, which were all owned by the still unprivatised Swiss post office: in the French-speaking part of the country (where I lived) the slogan was rappelle-toi, appelle-moi!: ‘remember/don’t forget, call me!’, a clever play on the rhymes between the verbs rappelle/appelle and the pronouns toi/moi. The equivalent slogan in Italian-speaking Switzerland was pensaci, chiamami! – not quite so successful, but a trace of the rhyme was there in the two verb endings -a followed by the pronouns -ci and -mi. The literal meaning there was ‘think about it/don’t forget, call me!’, and this gave a clue to the slogan in the German-speaking part of the country. If standard German had been used it would have been denk dran, ruf an! (‘think about it, call me!’), but instead the slogan was in Swiss-German dialect (presumably a centralised version based on the majority Zurich version): dänk dra, lüt a! Something in the use of the spoken dialect rather than the standard written language made the German slogan all the more appealing, since the telephone is of course a spoken medium, and the dialect is the first language used throughout German-speaking Switzerland, at all levels of society, including government.

Back in those days, it was perfectly normal to translate all public messages into all three of the country’s languages – and if necessary also the fourth, even though it was only spoken by a steadily dwindling minority in a small area of eastern Switzerland. Lip service is still paid to the use of Romanche (since the 1980s it has appeared on the country’s colourful banknotes alongside the other three languages); but its speakers do not have a university or even a television channel of their own. After the evening news on one of the two German-Swiss TV channels there is an hour of Romanche: a current affairs programme called Telesguard (‘Teleview’, which only provides local news, contributing to the unfortunate sense that Romanche is a purely parochial, folkloristic affair), followed by a children’s news bulletin called Minisguard. And that’s it. You also notice that some of the people interviewed in the programmes don’t in fact speak the language; the conversation is then in either the local version of Swiss German or else standard German, and there are no Romanche subtitles or voice-overs, for all Romanche-speakers are simply assumed to be bilingual (as is nowadays indeed the case – ‘monoglot’ users of the language no longer exist, which means that the language has effectively become superfluous). Worse still, there are no German (let alone other) subtitles or voice-overs while Romanche is being spoken – the assumption being that no-one other than native Romanche-speakers would need or want to understand the language. So any native German-speaking inhabitants of the region (or anyone else) who might be inclined to learn it cannot use the broadcasts to do so – either they already know it, or they never will.

I’ve now found the Romanche equivalent of the clever slogan on the phone boxes – and it’s very sad. A great opportunity was missed to present Romanche as a full-fledged national language by using exactly the same pun all over Switzerland. Instead, no rhymes, no references to ‘remembering’, ‘thinking’, ‘calling’ – just the utterly pedestrian Il telefon – tia vusch (‘The telephone: your voice’). Of course, it’s great that the Swiss post office bothered to give phone boxes in the Romanche-speaking areas a slogan in the local language at all – but you can’t help feeling their hearts weren’t really in it. I don’t know the language well enough to be sure, but I can hardly believe there was no way to come up with a similar pun, and perhaps even a better one. Maybe the whole idea was to avoid too literal a translation of the German slogan – but the result was something that suggested Romanche simply lacked the resources to make the same nationwide joke. ‘Don’t stall, just call!’, ‘It’s not too much to get in touch!’, ‘Your choice, use that voice!’.

A tired old language, ready for the scrapheap? Of course it isn’t; but the way it’s treated you might well think so.

What made me think about all this is a very recent Swiss referendum initiative. Under Swiss law, referendums must be held if a certain number of voters collect the necessary signatures in favour (a procedure officially known as an ‘initiative’) – and, unlike in countries such as Holland or Slovenia, the results are binding. This time the issue was the decision to reintroduce strict immigration quotas, following a 2014 referendum launched by the right-wing nationalist Swiss People’s Party (or Union of the Democratic Centre, depending on which of Switzerland’s languages you speak). This has screwed up the country’s long-standing bilateral negotiations with the European Union; the Swiss haven’t yet actually voted to join the Union, but since most of their trade is with the EU, they are surrounded on all sides by EU member states and tens of thousands of EU citizens cross Switzerland’s borders daily to work there, it is clearly in their interests to maintain good relations with Brussels. But one of the conditions for continued negotiations is to maintain free movement of people across the border, which means unrestricted immigration from EU countries – something Switzerland surprisingly agreed to back in 2007.

The 2014 referendum having changed all this, Brussels has put the bilateral negotiations on hold; and this year a new initiative was launched to reverse the result of the referendum, on the grounds that it had forced Switzerland into a ‘blind alley’ that prevented any further rapprochement with all its immediate neighbours. The initiative was known in German as Raus aus der Sackgasse!, literally ‘Get out of the blind alley!’. and similar slogans were created for the French and Italian campaigns: Sortons de l’impasse! and Fuori dal vicolo cieco!

But the German slogan Raus aus der Sackgasse! made clever use of the words Raus and Sackgasse to create the acronym RASA – hence die RASA-Initiative. And what I now notice is that the initiative is referred to in French-speaking Switzerland as l’initiative RASA and in Italian-speaking Switzerland as l’iniziativa RASA. In other words, a pun entirely based on German words has simply been adopted in the country’s other main languages, even though it means nothing in either of them. I can’t find out what’s been done in Romanche, but it’s a fair bet that it’s RASA there too.

RASA is of course catchy, and there’s a hint there of the Latin phrase tabula rasa (‘back to square one’, ‘start again’, which is the whole point of the initiative). But could someone perhaps have thought up a French or Italian phrase that matched this acronym – or could an equivalent local acronym based on the French and Italian slogans perhaps have been devised?

The point is that no-one has bothered – and, to my mind, this is the beginning of the end for all three of Switzerland’s minority languages. Slowly but surely, German is becoming accepted as the ‘source language’ on the Swiss political and cultural scene.

A polemical book written in the mid-1980s by the French-speaking regional activist Clovis Lugon, called Quand la Suisse française s’éveillera (‘When French Switzerland wakes up’), bluntly stated: pour les Romanches, il est trop tard; pour les Tessinois, il est bien tard; pour les Romands, il est temps (‘for the Romanche Swiss, it’s too late; for the Italian Swiss, it’s very late; for the French Swiss, it’s time’). The book’s cover was emblazoned with a drapeau romand (‘French-Swiss flag’) that combined several telling and provocative features: the French blue-white-and-red tricolour, the miniature (= inconspicuous) white Swiss cross in the top right-hand corner that is also found on the likewise tricolour flag of the French-speaking Swiss canton of Neuchâtel, and the two-coloured stars that mark the flag of the mainly French-speaking Swiss canton of Valais. Not the French flag, but certainly not the Swiss flag either.

At the time it was widely condemned by the Swiss political establishment, as was a then commonly seen car bumper sticker in which the international ‘CH’ abbreviation for Switzerland was overlaid with the French word Romandie (‘French Switzerland’).

But the problem has not gone away. Holes in the Swiss cheese?

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