Intonation as an Identity Marker in Swiss-German

Leemann, Adrian

University of Berne, Department of Linguistics, Switzerland


As soon as a person starts speaking, he/she not only communicates semantically meaningful units but also a great deal about himself/herself. Swiss-German dialects always convey aspects of the speakers’ regional background (Werlen 2005). Our dialects are used by all Swiss-German speakers in virtually every communicative context, which is one of the reasons why on most linguistic levels they have been described fairly well. Yet, a profound description of the dialects’ suprasegmentals is missing; thus, one aspect of dialect as an identity marker has not been examined. Our Swiss National Science Foundation project tries to fill exactly this gap: in recording two Alpine and two Midland dialects, we work out a gross geolinguistic model that reveals the main prosodic features of these dialects. We collected material from two dialectal regions: Berne (BE), which represents a Midland dialect, and Brig (in the Canton of Valais, WS), which represents an Alpine variety. The data was collected via spontaneous interviews with Gymnasium students.

In following a predominantly phonetic approach (Fujisaki 1983), we obtained first results regarding the intonational structuring of the two dialects. It was hypothesized that WS speakers generally produce more local accents, put more local accents on unstressed syllables as well as on grammatical words; and, finally, their pitch range was assumed generally higher (Leemann and Siebenhaar 2007). The insight we attained from our analyses, however, turned out somewhat different. Results show that the WS indeed produced more local accents on an absolute level – yet, relatively speaking, due to their faster articulation rate, they can produce a higher number of local accents. In addition, the WS turn out not to set more local accents on unstressed syllables or on grammatical words. As for the last point, the higher pitch range, we confirmed that the WS demonstrate significantly higher pitch variations on a local as well as on a global level.

These results indicate that, on a micro level, phonetically motivated differences in intonation exist between the two dialects - which, on a macro level, can be viewed as one aspect of identity marking through language that is different between the two groups. In terms of intonation, it is primarily the higher pitch range of the WS group that accounts for the productive differences of the two dialects. As a group, the Swiss research subjects distinguish themselves in structuring intonation largely through local accents, as opposed to Standard German where global accents are in the foreground. These analyses shed a new light on differences in dialectal prosody that are not phonologically but phonetically motivated.

Fujisaki, Hiroya. (1983). Dynamic characteristics of voice fundamental frequency in speech and singing. In MacNeilage PF (ed.): The Production of Speech. Heidelberg: Springer, 39-55.

Leemann, Adrian and Beat Siebenhaar. (2007). Intonational and Temporal Features of Swiss German. Proceedings of the ICPhS, Saarbrücken 2007, 957-960.

Werlen, Iwar. (2005). Mundarten und Identitäten. Dialekt in der (Deutsch)Schweiz – zwischen lokaler Identität und nationaler Kohäsion. Lenzburg: Forum Helveticum, 26-32.

Session: Paper session
Identity 1
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 15:45-17:15
room: 12