I don’t speak German. I tried to learn, and I ended up able to say some obscure phrases, ie “Ein Junge ist unter einem tisch” (A boy is under a table) and “Das flugzeug fliegt” (the airplane flies). Sure, I look for all opportunities to use these useful phrases, but to be honest, they are few and far between.
Once I got here, I realized that I could use some more practical phrases to help me with shopping and daily interactions with Swiss people. On the first day, I found myself using Spanish to talk to the grocery store clerk. She’d rattled on about something that sounded like this: “blah wah zuh gah vre go?” But, she was smiling, and I figured that she was just asking if I found everything I needed. I mean, if she were an American clerk, that’s what she’d be asking (well, just in English). So what did I say? “Si.” No, not all foreign countries speak Spanish, dummy.
I got a funny look, but the fact that I was nodding my head probably clued her into what I was talking about. It’s amazing what you can communicate with nods and hand gestures.
Another problem with learning German words ahead of time is that they don’t help me a heck of a lot here. In Switzerland, they speak Swiss German, which is sort of like German, but it’s not technically a written language. It’s a derivative of German, but it’s different enough to be its own unique language (sort of like English is Germanic but less closely tied to its root language). Everybody here writes in “high” German, but all social interactions take place in Swiss German. It’s not very convenient for those of us who want to prepare ourselves ahead of time. Unless we feign deafness and ask everyone to write things down for us, we’re a little stuck.
By the way, who writes in one language and speaks another? There’s something wrong with that. Just pick one and stick with it.
So, I’ve realized that I need some fundamental Swiss German words.
I asked Chari to clue me in on some basics, which I just have to figure out based on sound, since remember, it’s not technically a written language. I asked what I should do to say hello and goodbye.
You’d think this would be easy, but no, it’s not. The general Swiss greeting, something like “good day” (guten Tag in German) is Grüezi. People kept saying this all the time to me, and I had no clue what in the world they were saying. People hold out the long vowel sound in the middle, so it’s very guttural. It sounds a bit like a digestive process. It’s even worse when I say it.
But, just when I thought I had Grüezi down (by the way, nobody agrees on how to spell that either), I was out walking by the lake one morning and everyone was saying “Morga” to me. Apparently, this is good morning, but everybody says it slightly differently, depending on which kanton you’re from. People can tell where you’re from in Switzerland by your “Morga.” As for me, they just think I’m choking on something. Don’t ask me what you say when it’s in the evening because my greetings don’t cover that event. I just don’t plan on greeting anyone past 3:00 p.m.
Apparently, you get told goodbye with several different words, and It’s not kosher to reply with the same phrase. So, when a clerk says “Wiedersehen,” (Auf Wiedersehen in German) you say “adjo” (warped version of the French adieu), or wieder luege (a uniquely Swiss German twist on the German “see you later”). Chari and I had a hard time figuring out how to spell these things, by the way, since they’re technically not written words.
All this language learning is exhausting. For emergencies, I asked Chari to tell me how to explain that I don’t speak German (as if that isn’t going to be obvious enough immediately after I open my mouth). She first gave me a long sentence, but I knew that speaking German to explain that you don’t speak German is always a bad idea. It’s like the people here who say they speak “a little bit of English” and proceed to speak better English than most of my college students. No joke. I don’t want to give the impression of false humility.
So, she came up with “kein Deutsch.” We practiced it a few times, so I got it down. And now, as soon as somebody starts speaking Swiss German to me, I blast them with a “kine Deutsch,” as if I’m a leper shouting “unclean!”
Yes, that’s me, wandering around Zurich, proclaiming the fact that I can’t speak their language. If you’re Swiss and you attempt to communicate with me, please forgive the sudden outburst. It lasts just a moment, but it’s for your own good. You really don’t want to listen to me butcher your language.