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Swiss Baby Names: A small country with a wide variety of names

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By Rene Brunner, of babynames.ch

Switzerland is quite a small country: it has roughly the area of the state of Maryland, but a larger population (eight millions versus six); Virginia has about the same number of people, but is double the size.

A key element in Swiss nomenclature is its linguistic split. Nearly three-fourths of Swiss citizens have a dialect of German as their native language; a little less than one-fourth speak French, and the remaining few percentages have Italian as their mother tongue.

These three languages give us three separate naming traditions: The speakers of German choose names in a way very similar to the (much more numerous) German speakers in Germany and Austria, the French speakers share names with France, and Italian names dominate where Swiss speak that language. Interestingly, however, the hit parades of popular names don’t show much overlap with neighboring countries: You will find only a few of the Top 10 German names in the corresponding list of most popular names in Germany in any particular year, and likewise for the other two languages.Comparing Swiss naming customs with those in the US gives quite a list of divergent practices.

As a Swiss, you don’t invent names, for example. The reason you don’t is because there are strong social conventions against that, and even some legal guidelines. It must be quite clear what is a name and what isn’t. For most names there is also agreement on how to write them; “kre8ive spelling” is almost completely unknown.

There are only a small number of unisex names in use, and most of them are the result of some “accident,” such as Andrea, where a German female name happens to have the same spelling as a male Italian name. Swiss people want to be able to identify the gender instantly from the name.

In English, and also in other languages like Turkish and Albanian, quite a number of common words are in regular use as given names, words for positive character traits or beautiful things from nature for example. None of the three languages of Switzerland shares this feature. There are no German names like Hoffnung (hope), Engel (angel) or Kristall (crystal).

So, while naming in Switzerland is dominated by quite traditional appellations from Western culture, mostly of Germanic, Latin, Hebrew or Greek origin, there are also some quite interesting niches.

As if three native languages were not enough for such a small country, there is in fact a fourth one called Rhaeto-Romanic, a Romance language somewhat similar to Italian. It is endangered – less than 1% of Swiss speak it as their first language – but it does contribute some unique and interesting names, like Corsin, Reto, Pirmin, Andrin (boys) and Flurina, Madlaina, Mengia (girls).

In their everyday life the Swiss do not speak traditional German, but a dialect called Swiss German that is different enough from the standard language to give people from Germany quite some trouble understanding it.

There are a number of typically Swiss German short or pet name forms like Köbi, Ruedi, Ueli, Walti (male) and Fränzi, Bethli, Trudi, Gritli (female), though most of them are considered somewhat old-fashioned nowadays.

Genuinely Swiss names are quite rare. Regula (Latin for “little queen”) is one, associated with Saint Regula, a patron saint of Zürich, the largest city in Switzerland.

For still more info about Swiss names you can check the following page of Swiss Statistics: http://www.bfs.admin.ch/bfs/portal/en/index/themen/01/02/blank/dos/prenoms/01.html

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René Brunner is a Swiss IT professional who has collected given name etymologies in his spare time for over ten years. The result of these efforts can be found at http://www.babynames.ch/

 

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