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Counting in Switzerland is not as easy as 1-2-3

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“Guest blogger and soon-to-be LA visitor, Bern-based Diccon Bewes, will share some of his fun observations about Switzerland through the eyes of a British expat. Diccon’s stories remind us “Auslandschweizer” about our homeland’s quirkyness – and offers a “Swissness Manual” for non-Swiss friends trying to figure out why we Swiss are sometimes… …quirky.

Save the date: on Thursday, June 23rd, Diccon will be at the Beverly Hills Hotel for an evening hosted by the Chariman and Board of the Swiss-American Chamber of Commerce. Come join us, have fun, and take home a signed copy of “Swiss Watching” (email SwissCenterLA@gmail.com for pre-purchase opportunity at a special price)” M:)

Last time I started with a crash course in all things Swiss, from A to Z; this time we take a look at numbers. After all the Swiss are a nation of bankers, so numbers are really, really important to get right.

Counting in a foreign language should be simple. Even if you are linguistically challenged, you can probably stretch to un, deux, trois from memories of school French. Or uno, dos, tres if you’ve ordered beers in Mexico, and you might even manage eins, zwei, drei from countless war films. But this is Switzerland, where nothing is that easy.

The issue is not the four national languages, which are rarely used together unless you happen to be playing multi-lingual bingo. The real issue for number novices is how the Swiss use their numerals. In English numbers, such as a phone number, are generally given one digit after another: 021 364 7958 (all Swiss phone numbers, including mobiles, are ten digits) is said as ten distinct numbers with a slight pause between the three groups; a Swiss person would say that same number as zero twenty one, three sixty four, seventy nine, fifty eight. Not too difficult to follow in English, but in German, numbers are all backwards: zero one-and-twenty, three four-and-sixty, nine-and-seventy, eight-and-fifty. Try writing that down as someone is saying it and you’re bound to get a wrong number. Literally. You have write the 0, then leave a gap and write 1, go back to the 2, jump over to the 3, over again to the 4, back to the 6 and so on. Perhaps this numerical leap-frog is a way of breaking up otherwise scarily long German numbers. That 364 would be written as dreihundertvierundsechzig, which is quite a mouthful.

The Swiss way of saying phone numbers may sound odd, but at least as far as the languages go, it’s logical. The same can’t be said for the emergency numbers. In a country where everything is organised to the last millimetre, how is it possible that each emergency service has its own number? That’s federalism taken to ridiculous lengths. You have to ring 117 for the police, 118 for the fire brigade and 144 for an ambulance. What happens if dial the wrong one by mistake? And if you need a policeman and a fireman, do you have to ring twice? It would be laughable if it weren’t so serious. Plus the fact that directory enquiries is 1818; no surprise then that the fire service sometimes get callers asking for the number of the local pizzeria.

Making things more complicated are the local variations on normal numbers. Until I came to Switzerland I thought I could count in French and German. To show that they are really Swiss and not some French province, the people of Romandie have their own versions of 70 to 99. In the bingo example above, the frankly ridiculous quatre-vingt-huit would be huitante-huit in Switzerland. Easy once you know. As for Swiss German numbers, they were the cause of one of my more embarrassing expat moments. A new-ish friend was giving me his mobile number, patiently saying each number in turn, but in his Bernese dialect. The last three digits were 896, which sounded something like achty-noony-sechsy. All I heard was ‘afternoon sex’. Unaccustomed as I am to being propositioned in the vegetable aisle of Co-op, my face went as red as the tomatoes behind me. Apart from my blushes, the other outcome was me learning Swiss numbers asap. The one that still makes me smile is five: in Bern the ugly German fünf becomes füüfi, which brings a little white poodle to mind.

But there are even bigger number problems than that. The Swiss, like most other Europeans, use a comma for a decimal point so that my book costs 29,90 francs. To complicate things further, an apostrophe is used to replace the comma in numbers over four digits, eg it might sell 1’000’000 copies. Then, if it were to sell a thousand times that number (ie 1 plus 9 zeros), in Switzerland that would be a milliard; a Swiss billion is a million million (1 plus 12 zeros). That means it’s scarily easy to mistranslate numbers, and that much harder to become a Swiss billionaire. Such a hurdle hasn’t stopped a fair few of them achieving exactly that status, something I can only dream of, once I have counted sheep in German to fall asleep.

Written by swisswatching

May 5, 2011 at 2:11 am

Posted in Little Switzerland

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