TravelTraveler Magazine

Learning Swiss

There is no such thing as the Swiss Dictionary.

I know because I’ve been searching for one ever since I began plotting my trip to Europe’s little landlocked country in the middle. Yes, there are a few Swiss German dictionaries in print and even one half-baked Swiss German app that I downloaded for 99 cents, but these are inherently incomplete: not all who speak Schwyzerdütsch are Swiss, and not all Swiss speak Schwyzerdütsch.

I freely admit that part of my longstanding attraction to Switzerland is that this country is the exception to almost every rule regarding nation-states. There is no Swiss dictionary because there is no “Swiss” language (there are four). The country’s pluralism is not some recent colonial legacy but voluntary and ancient, surprising (ahem) in the midst of a continent that frankly does not have a great track record in the department of cultural pluralism. Also, Switzerland never takes sides, does not have a singular head of state, and only just joined the United Nations. And just to reinforce how different they are, the Swiss national flag is square and not rectangle.

That Switzerland is stubbornly unique made me love her even before we met. The whole idea of the stand-out Swiss and their country of mountains has tickled me like a chronic scratch—and yet, somehow, despite my severe travel disorder, I have failed to ever set foot in this one country that acts like the free space on the bingo card of Europe.

It seems everyone I talk with has already been to Switzerland, or else they know absolutely everything about the country. Tell someone you’re headed to Switzerland and they’ll be sure to slip a few Swiss stereotypes into your carry-on—just for good measure.

And yet as a traveler, all these stereotypes make me wonder: How can so many people define a country that has no dictionary? How can any outsider claim to know a place when the natives themselves have yet to arrive at any common definition?—where language changes from valley to valley, and the country answers to four different aliases:

Suisse, Schweiz, Svizzera, and Svizra.

This is why I want to learn Swiss.

I believe that every country is a mystery and that travel is the only way we even begin to brush away the dust of misconception in exchange for those hidden gems of truth about any people or place. A good traveler is one who constantly discovers that he or she is wrong about a given destination—someone who can rewrite their personal dictionary about some country again and again, getting closer to its heart every time.

So far I’m of the opinion that the entire world is wrong about Switzerland. They all know this country by reputation, but I am eager to learn it by heart. Thus I have come to this country— so that I can “learn Swiss”, one word at a time.

No, there is no such thing as the Swiss Dictionary, and so I shall have to write it myself, starting now.

Swiss 1.) Adjective; Pertaining to Switzerland. 2) Noun; The native inhabitants of Switzerland. 3) Not what you think.

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Flying to Switzerland (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)