Language / Switzerland

Peculiarities of Swiss French

Just a few weeks into my French conversation classes with the Geneva Interns Association (GIA) and I’ve already been exposed to those small differences that make Swiss French, the variety spoken in Geneva, different from France French (the Parisian dialect in particular, which is the one that is normally taught in French courses).

For one, in what I would consider Standard French, figuring out how to say the numbers from 70 onward can typically get a bit complicated. Up until 69 things make sense (6 : six ; 60 : soixante ; 61 : soixante et un ; 69 : soixante-neuf). To be able to say numbers starting at 70, you need to go back and make sure you learned how to add well in your algebra class. Instead of saying some derivative of sept (7) for 70, in Standard French 70 is soixante-dix (or literally, “sixty-ten”; 60 + 10 = 70), 80 is quatre-vingts (or, “four twenties”; 20 + 20 + 20 + 20 = 80 of course!), and 90 is quatre-vingt-dix (or, “four twenties-ten”; 20 + 20 + 20 + 20 + 10 = 90).

However, Genevans (I can’t speak for other, Francophone Swiss) are straightforward when it comes to numbers.

70 : septante (from sept, for 7)

80: huitante (from huit, for 8)

90: nonante (from neuf, for 9)

Another cool thing is that while in Standard French the end of verbs, conjugated for gender and singularity/plurality, are written differently but pronounced essentially the same, Swiss French speakers differentiate gender in their pronunciation (giving the listener a bit more information without needing to give any context beforehand).

For example, in Standard French the passe compose form, or the past tense, of ALLER (to go) – using the auxiliary verb ETRE (to be) – is written and pronounced as such:

Subject Pronoun (m/f + s/pl) + Auxiliary Verb (ETRE) + Verb in Question (ALLER) — Translation — Pronunciation

(m. s.) Il est allé — He went — / Eel-et-aleh /

(f. s.) Elle est allée* — She went — / Ehl-et-aleh /

(m. pl.) Ils sont allés** — They (all males or a mixed gender group) went — / Eel-sohn-taleh /

(f. pl.) Elles sont allées — They (all females) went — / Ehl-sohn-taleh /

*When French verbs are conjugated in the passe compose with the auxiliary verb ETRE, the verb in question must agree in gender with the subject. For male subjects, nothing is added on; for female subjects, an extra ‘e’ is compulsory.

**When French verbs are conjugated in the passe compose with the auxiliary verb ETRE, the verb in question must also agree in with the subject in terms of singularity and plurality. For both males and females, an extra (but silent) ‘s’ is added on.

If you notice, the verb ALLER is always pronounced the same in Standard French, whether the subject of the verb be male or female, singular or plural. The only way one has of knowing whether or not the subject is singular or plural is from the auxiliary verb ETRE (3rd person singular: est ; 3rd person plural: sont). Gender is inferred from the context.

In Swiss French however, there is a slight change in pronunciation that allows you to know the gender immediately, whether or not any context was provided. I honestly wouldn’t have noticed it unless my French teacher had pointed it out. It’s so slight that I think only a native French speaker would have noticed.

The same phrases in Swiss French would look like this (the same), but sound like this (just a bit different):

(m. s.) Il est allé — He went — / Eel-et-aleh /

(f. s.) Elle est allée* — She went — / Ehl-et-aleh-ee /

(m. pl.) Ils sont allés** — They (all males or a mixed gender group) went — / Eel-sohn-taleh /

(f. pl.) Elles sont allées — They (all females) went — / Ehl-sohn-taleh-ee /

Therefore, we know whether or not the subject of the verb is singular or plural from the auxiliary verb ETRE, just as in Standard French, but in Swiss French an extra / ee / sound is added on to the end of the verb for female subjects. I wonder if close contact with Italy and Italians had anything to do with that…

Finally, rather than using the verb DINER to denote ‘to have dinner’, Swiss French speakers use SOUPER, or ‘to have supper’, instead. DINER is actually used to mean ‘to have lunch’.

/end linguistic geek out

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s