Phonetic stability across time: Linguistic enclaves in Switzerland

Büchler, Andrin; Leemann, Adrian Martin (4 September 2019). Phonetic stability across time: Linguistic enclaves in Switzerland (Unpublished). In: UK Language Variation and Change (UKLVC 12). Queen Mary University of London. 03.–05.09.2019.

The present paper shows results of a study on two historically related but geographically separated Highest-Alemannic dialects of Swiss German. Between the 12th and 14th centuries, speakers of Valais German (southwestern Switzerland) emigrated to the Grisons (southeastern Switzerland), forming so-called Sprachinseln (enclaves) of Valais German in a Romansh- speaking area (cf. Zinsli 2002; Waibel 2013). One of these enclaves, Obersaxen, still exists today. The sociolinguistic situation in the enclave has changed substantially in the past decades: incoming germanisation of the Romansh-speaking area as well as a flourishing tourism industry (Collenberg 2016) have led Obersaxen’s inhabitants to increasingly converse with speakers of mostly Eastern Swiss German origins – while the dialect speakers of Valais Swiss German (southwestern Switzerland) have not seen a linguistic influx of such magnitude. In the present contribution, we study how these related, but geographically distant communities have changed linguistically over the past decades. We expect that increased contact to other Swiss German varieties in the enclave has led to dialect levelling on a number of linguistic levels.
Data for this study was gathered via an online-questionnaire, using crowdsourcing methods to reach out to speakers living in these remote regions. Translation and sentence completion tasks were used to test ten variables situated in the phonological, morphological, syntactic and lexical domains. To examine how the two dialects have developed over time, we took a real-time approach: the responses of 300+ participants were compared to the most recent large-scale description of Swiss German dialects, the Sprachatlas der deutschen Schweiz (SDS), which largely reflects the linguistic situation around 1900.
Results suggest stability on the phonetic level and somewhat more flux in the morphosyntactic and especially the lexical domain – a general trend of linguistic change which has been reported previously for German-speaking Switzerland (cf. Christen 1988). The unrounding of Middle High German (MHG) /y/ to /i/, for example, is still consistently prevalent in both regions. Similarly, palatalization of MHG /s/ to /ʃ/, e.g. /ʃi:/ ‘they’, has remained stable. The other phonetic variables examined show a similar pattern – thus the two dialects appear to still sound very similar despite having been geographically separated for 800 years. Morphosyntax and lexicon, however, exhibit substantial change. Our findings reveal clear tendencies towards adoption of supralocal variants. For example, the positioning of auxiliary and participle of ‘to be’ in subordinated clauses has remained stable in the Valais but has been reversed in Obersaxen; it has assimilated to the positioning found in Eastern dialects of Swiss German. In terms of the lexicon, the variant Aichen ‘butter’ is currently being replaced by the more general variant Butter in the canton of Valais. In Obersaxen, however, Aichen was replaced centuries ago. We discuss historic and sociodemographic factors (such as increased mobility, tourism and age) that may explain these patterns. Contact and convergence towards another German variety is rather unique for a German Sprachinsel.

KEYWORDS: language change, Swiss German, dialects, sound change


Bohnenberger, Karl (1913): Die Mundart der deutschen Walliser im Heimattal und in den Aussenorten. Frauenfeld: Huber. (= Beiträge zur Schweizerdeutschen Grammatik 6).
Christen, Helen (1988): “Convergence and divergence in the Swiss German dialects”. Folia Linguistica 32: 53–67.
Collenberg, Adolf (2016): „Obersaxen“. In: Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz. Version of the 08.12.2016.
Sprachatlas der deutschen Schweiz (SDS) (1939–1997). Begr. von Heinrich Baumgartner und Rudolf Hotzenköcherle; in Zusammenarb. mit Konrad Lobeck, Robert Schläpfer, Rudolf Trüb und unter Mitwirkung von Paul Zinsli hrsg. von Rudolf Hotzenköcherle. Gesamtwerk (Einführungsband, Bände I–VIII, Abschlussband). Bern/Basel: Francke.
Waibel, Max (2013): „Walser“. In: Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz. Version of the 20.08.2013.
Zinsli, Paul (2002): Walser Volkstum in der Schweiz, in Vorarlberg, Liechtenstein und Italien: Erbe, Dasein, Wesen. 7. ed. Chur: Bündner Monatsblatt.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Speech)


06 Faculty of Humanities > Other Institutions > Walter Benjamin Kolleg (WBKolleg)
06 Faculty of Humanities > Department of Linguistics and Literary Studies > Institute of Germanic Languages
06 Faculty of Humanities > Other Institutions > Walter Benjamin Kolleg (WBKolleg) > Center for the Study of Language and Society (CSLS)
06 Faculty of Humanities > Department of Linguistics and Literary Studies > Institute of Germanic Languages > Sociolinguistics

Graduate School:

Graduate School of the Humanities (GSH)

UniBE Contributor:

Büchler, Andrin, Leemann, Adrian Martin


400 Language
400 Language > 410 Linguistics
400 Language > 430 German & related languages




Andrin Büchler

Date Deposited:

08 Jun 2021 16:15

Last Modified:

05 Dec 2022 15:47


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