Diglossia and Local Identity: Swiss German in the Linguistic Landscape of Kleinbasel

Edina Krompák

Abstract

The city of Basel is situated in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, in the geographic triangle of three countries: France, Germany and Switzerland. Everyday urban life is characterised by the presence of Standard German and Swiss German as well as diverse migrant languages. Swiss German is ‘an umbrella term for several Alemannic dialects’ (Stepkowska 2012, 202) which differ from Standard German in terms of phonetics, semantics, lexis, and grammar and has no standard written form. Swiss German is predominantly used in oral forms, and Standard German in written communication. Furthermore, an amalgamation of bilingualism and diglossia (Stepkowska 2012, 208) distinguishes the specific linguistic situation, which indicates amongst other things the high prestige of Swiss German in everyday life.

To explore the visibility and vitality of Swiss German in the public display of written language, we examined the linguistic landscape of a superdiverse neighbourhood of Basel, and investigated language power and the story beyond the sign –‘stories about the cultural, historical, political and social backgrounds of a certain space’ (Blommaert 2013, 41). Our exploration was guided by the question: How do linguistic artefacts –such as official, commercial, and private signs –represent the diglossic situation and the relation between language and identity in Kleinbasel?

Based on a longitudinal ethnographic study, a corpus was compiled comprising 300 digital images of written artefacts in Kleinbasel. Participant observation and focus group discussions about particular images were conducted and analysed using grounded theory (Charmaz 2006) and visual ethnography (Pink 2006). In our paper, we focus on signs in Swiss German and focus group discussions on these images. Initial analyses have produced two surprising findings; firstly, the visibility and the perception of Swiss German as a marker of local identity; secondly, the specific context of their display