Are there any differences between Italian and Swiss Italian?

Martina Russo, Italian & Swiss Italian Marketing Translator

April 24, 2020
Reading Time: 12 minutes

Are there any differences between Italian and Swiss Italian?

The million-dollar question.

If you have been to Ticino or Grigioni – the two cantons where Italian is spoken in Switzerland – you have probably wondered how different the two variants (Italian vs Swiss Italian) are from one another.

It’s also a fundamental question that many businesses ask themselves when they want to enter these markets. Should they use the same collaterals for both countries, or localize them separately?

In this article, I want to provide you with the ultimate guide on the differences between “Italy Italian” and Swiss Italian.

But before we dive into the linguistic side of things, we need to take a step back and take a quick look at the cultural and political background of both countries.

I don’t want to bore you with a cultural and historical essay, but you need to have a good understanding of the history of both countries to appreciate how they differ when it comes to language.

Switzerland

Geography, economy, politics & history

Switzerland is a landlocked country in Central Europe. It neighbors with Austria, France, Italy, Liechtenstein, and Germany, with whom it shares much of its history and of its culture.

Approximately 60% of its territory is mountainous, with a central plateau of hills, plains, and large lakes.

Its geographical position in central Europe and neutrality have paved the way for Switzerland to become one of the world’s wealthiest and most politically stable countries.

Switzerland is not a member of the European Union and uses its own currency, the Swiss Franc.

Although it’s a small country, it’s densely populated with about 8.5 million citizens over an area of 41,277 sq.km.

Originally inhabited by Celtic tribes, the area that we now know as modern Switzerland came and stayed under Roman rule during the Gallic wars in the 1st century BC until the 4th century AD.

The Swiss Confederation was founded in 1291 as a treaty of alliance between the cantons, and it formally gained independency from the Holy Roman Empire in 1499.

Switzerland then became a centralised federal government in 1848, with a new constitution that replaced the federation of sovereign cantons that has existed until then. The country has enjoyed tranquility and has maintained a position of neutrality throughout conflicts ever since, having fought its last (civil) war in 1847.

Languages

Switzerland is a federal republic made up of 26 cantons, with its administrative capital in Bern, and has 4 official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh (which you will very rarely encounter online, because it’s spoken by a very small minority).

The cantons in Switzerland are autonomous and each has its own authorities. The Swiss (Germans) even have a word – with a slightly negative connotation – to describe that every canton has its own culture, history, and identity: Kantönligeist.

After the cantons detached from the Roman Empire, the Germanic Alemanni conquered northern Switzerland and imposed their language – today’s Swiss German; or, more precisely, the many Swiss German dialects – on the population.

In western Switzerland, the Burgundians adopted the language of the local Gallo-Romans, and the region soon started communicating in standard French. The other regions of the country kept their Latin-related dialects (Romansh and Italian).

Inevitably, these cultures and languages all influence one another on a political, governmental and day to day basis.

(It’s also interesting to note how the Swiss Germans, Swiss French and Swiss Italians relate to one another, but that’s a different topic for another article.)

Today, (Swiss) German is the most-widely spoken language in Switzerland (64.9%), followed by French (22.6%) and Italian (8.3%). Romansh is spoken only by 0.5% of the country’s population.

Italy

Geography, economy, politics & history

Italy has four land borders to its north, where the Alps separate the country from France, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia. The rest of the country stretches out to sea and forms the Italian peninsula, together with the islands of Sardinia and Sicily and smaller island groups. Within the country there are two independent enclaves: Vatican City and San Marino.

Five of Italy’s 20 regions are “autonomous” in the Italian Constitution: Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Sardinia, Sicily, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, and Val d’Aosta. Most of these have at least one other official language and are bilingual (usually, the same language spoken in the neighboring country).

The very existence of these regions is the result of Italy’s highly fragmented past: over a span of more than 3000 years, Italian history is characterized by numerous unification attempts, separations, and failed empires.

After unifying as a nation-state in 1861, Italy was involved in continuous conflicts. Mussolini’s Fascist dictatorship, forced upon the nation in 1925, was defeated in 1946 and replaced by a republic, allowing for economic revival.

In its most recent history, Italy has been at the forefront of European economic and political unification, joining the Economic and Monetary Union in 1999.

Despite Italy being the fourth largest European economy, persistent problems include a high unemployment rate, corruption, organized crime, a slow economic growth and economic disparities between the South and the North.

Language

Until 1861, the year of its unification, Italy had been divided into several different states, which were usually under foreign rule and spoke different languages.

Also, classical Latin had been used as the official language for centuries, although it was only mastered by the literate and rich.

Plebeians and soldiers spread their own variation of Latin from North to South. When the Roman Empire fell, the inhabitants of the Italian peninsula spoke many different, non-mutually intelligible local languages and dialects, each with its own vocabulary, grammar, and phonemic system.

Dante later introduced the Florentine “volgare illustre”, in an attempt to unify the country’s language. [To this day, modern Italian spoken in Florence is regarded as “official Italian”.]

However, most of the people were illiterate and had no real need no need to communicate outside their local area, so they continued to use their dialects, fueled by a strong lack of uniformity between social classes and between rural and urban areas.

The ability to communicate between regions who spoke wildly different dialects is also theorized as the reason why Italians use their hands to communicate, with over 250 identified gestures:

[…] Italians developed them as an alternative form of communication during centuries of foreign occupation — by Austria, France and Spain from the 14th through 19th centuries — as a way of communicating without their overlords understanding.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/01/world/europe/when-italians-chat-hands-and-fingers-do-the-talking.html

In 1950, less than 20% of the Italian population spoke Italian fluently in their day to day to life.

Around that time, it was the introduction of nation-wide mandatory education and the introduction of television that had the biggest impact in unifying the language.

Today, Italians from across the country all speak standard Italian, albeit with strong accents that are easily identifiable and placed in their region, or their local area. With the exception of some areas of the North, such as Milan, young and elderly alike continue speaking their original dialects (and in some cases, distinct languages).

They remain so different from one another that they are unintelligible to speakers from other parts of the country.

In 1950, less than 20% of the Italian population spoke Italian fluently in their day to day to life.

Around that time, it was the introduction of nation-wide mandatory education and that of television that had the biggest impact in unifying the language.

Today, Italians from across the country all speak standard Italian, albeit with strong accents that are easily identifiable and placed in their region or local area. With the exception of some areas in the North, such as Milan, young and elderly alike continue to speak their original dialects (and in some cases, distinct languages).

They remain so different from one another, that they are unintelligible to speakers from other parts of the country.

Ticino: Swiss head with Italian heart?

Ticino is the largest Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland. Here, Italian is the only official language.

It’s located in the southernmost part of Switzerland and shares a large border with Italy.

Its dual nature – Swiss canton, Italian language – is rooted in its history.

Ticino was absorbed by the Swiss in the late 15th century after being passed on between the lords of Como and the dukes of Milan for centuries.

In 1798, Napoleon put an end to the Swiss German domination of the canton. For a while it was an independent republic, until it was re-annexed to the new Swiss Confederation as a free and equal canton in 1803.

Ticino had to endure several economic and political problems and was only able to emerge from its rural slumber after WWII.

Nowadays it thrives as a tourist attraction and on international trade, but it isn’t entirely worry-free: being home to such a small percentage of the Swiss population, it often struggles to make its opinion count in national decisions.

A dual identity: Swiss – Italian

The Ticinese have a clear, dual identity: They are Swiss – Italian.

It’s a combination of Swiss efficiency and Italian passion / language that makes them unique.

First, the Ticinese don’t like being considered Italian.

The confederation is well organized, the laws here are better enforced and observed by the people, and the Italian political culture is widely different from that of Switzerland.

The salaries in Ticino are typically higher than the ones in Italy (albeit lower than the majority of Switzerland). This naturally attracts many Italians, who ‘steal’ their jobs and are happy to work for less.

This scenario has caused many tensions over the years, with borders gradually becoming harder to cross, permanent migration becoming more difficult and an increasing sentiment of discrimination toward their southern neighbors. This sentiment is also tied in with other very Italian concepts, such as the mafia and corruption.

On the other hand, they feel more Italian thanks to the language, culture and cuisine they share with Italy, and in particular with the region of Lombardy (Milan).

Ticinesi are typically Swiss in their tendency towards moderation when it comes to political parties; for their pragmatic solutions; and for their propensity to strictly respect the laws.

They also identify themselves as Swiss as a result of belonging to a federal state that grants them full political and institutional autonomy, albeit within the limits set by the federal constitution.

However, representing such a small percentage of the Swiss population (approximately 350.000) and having become part of the country only in recent history, comes at a price:

“As the Ticinesi see it, Switzerland is a country in which they form a political minority and are subject to paternalism and potential discrimination on the part of the German-Swiss majority. Switzerland also represents a sometimes rather narrow and boring way of life, which contrasts with their own Latin and Italianate character. These are some of the reasons why Ticinesi do not like being regarded as Swiss.”

Source: https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/italian-swiss—-or-swiss-italians-/6795750

A different localization approach for different markets

As we have seen, treating your Swiss Italian market as Italian because of the language shared by both countries would be a big mistake.

Before showing you several examples of linguistic differences (we’re almost there, I promise!), there is also one important component that you shouldn’t fail to consider: Mindset.

A Swiss Italian can tell a poorly-localized text from miles away. They will be able to tell whether that marketing collateral has been written for them and with them in mind, or if it’s just being repurposed after being originally developed for their Italian neighbors.

The Swiss Italians are tired of being considered the same as Italians, or not having their voice heard.

If you take a look online, you’ll see that an outstanding amount of Swiss companies localize their websites in German, French and English, and expect the Ticinese to juggle information in a language that isn’t native to them.

This often makes them feel excluded and not valued as a community.

If you develop a highly targeted localization plan, you’re bound to stand out in this market and win a loyal customer base for years to come.

(I partner up with Amazon Digitec, Switzerland’s biggest digital shop – basically, the Amazon of Switzerland – to translate their blog content into Swiss Italian. Their Swiss Italian audience know that an effort is being made to include them, and our work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Read the case study here.)

Now, back to our original million-dollar (or francs?) question:

Are Italian and Swiss Italian really different?

Short answer: Yes, they are.

While at a first glance they may look very similar, once you dive a bit deeper you’ll be surprised to find how many concepts are expressed with wildly distinct terms.

Switzerland and Italy have fundamentally different cultures, political structures and infrastructures.

These differences can be found in every aspect of the language – ranging from daily expressions and date formats to terms used in legal or medical texts.

The accent, variety of Italian and dialects spoken in the northern region of Lombardy (the region of Milan) are very similar to the ones spoken in Ticino.

I come from this part of Italy, and don’t have much trouble understanding the dialect of Ticino. Many words flagged as “Elvetisms” are also terms I have been exposed to growing up, while they would be completely alien to Italians from other regions.

Another important note is that Swiss Italian inevitably uses many loanwords and calques from Switzerland’s other official languages.

Lastly, Swiss Italian tends to avoid anglicisms and welcomes “brandisms”, meaning the adoption of brand or product names as common nouns, which is less common in Italy. One theory is that brand names are more easily handled in a country like Switzerland, because they don’t need to be translated!

Here are a few concrete examples of differences between Italian and Swiss Italian.

Italian vs Swiss Italian: A guide to the main differences

The linguistic and cultural factors outlined below need to be taken into consideration when localizing for a Swiss Italian audience:

  • Style and register: Swiss Italian tends to be more formal and polite, probably under the influence of Swiss German, that always addresses readers with “Sie”; therefore, in Ticino you will encounter the use of “Lei” much more frequently than in Italy, and this will often leave Italians a bit puzzled. However, in recent years there has been a tendency to be a bit more informal (depending on context), and now the use of “Tu” is more widely accepted.
  • Currency
  • Punctuation: in Swiss Italian we tend to use « » instead of “ “; 100.000 (Italy) usually becomes 100’000 (Switzerland)
  • Date format: for example, 10/05/2014 (Italy) becomes 10.5.2014 (Switzerland)
  • Product / item names: as mentioned above, many nouns inherit an established brand’s name.
  • Grammar structure: can slightly vary between the two, with Swiss Italian being more concise and using shorter sentences.
  • A whole lot of terminology in the legal, political, health, insurance, and medical contexts – among others.
  • Education system: the education system structure is completely different from the one in Italy.Let’s see a few concrete examples.

👉🏻EXAMPLE 1: RETIREMENTS SAVINGS

The term RETIREMENT SAVINGS often appears in the market research surveys I translate or localize (Italian to Swiss Italian) for my clients.

The translation for this term in Italian is “risparmi previdenziali“.

In Swiss Italian, however, the same thing is called “averi di vecchiaia“, which literally translates to “old-age assets”.

The Swiss Italian term is actually a calque from the word used in German-speaking Switzerland: “Altersguthaben”.

If you are from Italy and are reading this post, I’m sure your jaw has just dropped to the floor!

👉🏻EXAMPLE 2: FLASHING THE HEADLIGHTS

In Italy, people flash their headlights for a variety of reason.

For example, if someone has been annoying them on the motorway with reckless driving; if they want to thank someone for letting them overtake them; or if they just drove past a police car who’s checking the speed of vehicles and they want to warn people (i.e. complete strangers) coming from the opposite direction.

To flash the headlights, Italians say: “fare gli abbaglianti” (lit. “to do (flash) the headlights”).

Its Swiss Italian counterpart, however, will leave any Italian speaker really confused. In Ticino, to flash one’s headlights is translated as: “fare i bilux / biluxare”.

The Swiss Italian term originates from a brand name, i.e. the first dual filament lamp that was launched on the market.

👉🏻 EXAMPLE 3: SELF-SERVICE

This is one of the classics, and one of my favorites: “self-service” (as in, restaurant / shop)

In Italian, we simply use the English word.

This is an indicator of our tendency – which some of us may or may not find cringeworthy – of introducing (and often butchering) English terms into our everyday language, because “it’s cool”.

A tendency that most Swiss Italian despise.

And, to prove it, they have their very own word for self-service: “servisol”

Which is made of 2 words (servire – soli) and would literally mean “to serve – (one)self”.

The word “Servisol” was first introduced in the ’50s by Swiss cooperative Migros, when they opened their first self-service shops but didn’t want to use an English term.

However, over the years it became a generic noun and is now commonly used by the Swiss Italians.

👉🏻EXAMPLE 4: RECYCLING

“RECYCLING” as in, waste separation.

Italian: “Raccolta differenziata

Swiss Italian: “Raccolta separata” (which is another calque from Swiss German)

On Swiss Italian websites you might find both terms (also because they’re often localized by unaware Italian translators).

However, on Italian websites you’ll never come across “raccolta separata”. Italian speakers will find the Swiss Italian term very odd.

“Brandisms”

In more than a handful of instances, both languages tend to use brand names instead of actual nouns (e.g. the Italian ‘Scotch’ for ‘adhesive tape’ from the trademarked name ‘Scotch tape’), whatever brand might have originally produced that particular item or that has established itself on that market.

In Swiss Italian, this happens more often.

Here a few examples:

A few more examples

English: Promotion |  Italian: promozione | Swiss Italian: promuovimento

English: Residency permit |  Italian: Permesso di soggiorno | Swiss Italian: Permesso di dimora

English: Vehicle registration certificate |  Italian: Libretto di circolazione | Swiss Italian: Carta grigia

English: Driving licence |  Italian: Patente di guida | Swiss Italian: Licenza a condurre

English: Civil invalidity |  Italian: Invalidità civile | Swiss Italian: Assicurazione invalidità

English: Health insurance |  Italian: Assicurazione sanitaria | Swiss Italian: Cassa malati

English: Ice hockey |  Italian: Hockey su ghiaccio | Swiss Italian: Disco su ghiaccio

English: Make fun of (someone) |  Italian: Prendere in giro (qualcuno)| Swiss Italian: Scherzare (qualcuno)

Conclusion

I hope that you have found this article useful, and are now more equipped to step into the Swiss Italian market with confidence.

Developing a highly localized approach for each market will make you stand out and help you create a loyal customer base.

As Leonardo Da Vinci once said, “Details make perfection, and perfection is not a detail“.

Being culturally and linguistically aware of these details can heavily influence your success in either region.