Language is a complicated matter in Switzerland. The nation has four official languages and numerous other languages and dialects. On top of this some Swiss have had to cope with shifting language borders. Between 1860 and 2000, 83 municipalities, known as communes (in French), Einwohnergemeinde1 (in German), comuni (in Italian) and vischnancas (in Romanche), changed their official language. Of these 83, 44 switched during the last 60 or so years.
Since 1950, six communes have switched from German to French, one from Italian to German, two from German to Italian, one from German to French and back to German again, one from Italian to German and back to Italian, one from German to Romanche and back to German, and 32 from Romanche to German.
Most of them are near language borders, but a few, like Orselina in the canton of Ticino are not. Between 1930 and 1980 German speakers were the majority in the small comune near Locarno, despite the comune being surrounded by majority Italian-speaking comuni.
One commune, La Ferrière, not only changed its language from German to French, it also changed cantons, from Bern to Jura, when the canton of Jura was created in 1979.
Four communes in the canton Fribourg, Pierrafortscha, Courgevaux, Courtaman and Wallenried, have changed their official language. Pierrafortscha and Courtaman (now part of Courtepin) switched from German to French, while Courgevaux went from German to French and back to German, and Wallenried flip flopped from German to French to German and then back to French, between 1950 and 2000.
One commune in Vaud, Champmartin (now part of Cudrefin), switched from German to French in the 1960s, and another in the canton of Neuchâtel surrounded by francophones, Thielle-Wavre, switched from German to French in the 1980s.
On the other side of the Alps in Ticino, the commune of Bosco Gurin, switched from German to Italian around 2000, while the small Italian-speaking commune of Orselina, experimented with German in the 1970s before switching back to Italian.
The largest number of linguistic switcheroos have occured in Graubunden. Since 1950, 32 communes have changed their official language from Romanche to German. Another, Bivio, near St. Moritz, changed from Italian to German around 2000.
Switzerland had 26 cantons and 2,287 municipalities in July 20162, with an average population of around 3,640.
The Swiss federal government gives Switzerland’s cantons freedom to decide on linguistic matters. For example the canton of Vaud’s state constitution designates French as the official language, while the canton of Fribourg’s specifies German and French as official state languages. Supermarkets in Fribourg typically have signs in both French and German. Other multilingual cantons include: Graubunden (Romanche, German and Italian), Valais (French and German), and Bern (French and German).
The main bilingual towns, Biel (Bienne), Fribourg (Freiburg) and Morat (Murten) are shown on the map above, along with Switzerland’s linguistic regions.
1 German speaking municipalities use a range of names. For example, Appenzell Innerrhoden (Bezirk), Glaris (Ortsgemeinde), Zurich (politische Gemeinde) and Nidwald (Gemeinde) all use different terms.
2 The history of communes – Swiss federal statistics office (in French, German and Italian)
List of Swiss communes that changed linguistic region – excerpt from 2000 census (in French)