By Claudia Quesito
Italian is widely spoken in many countries and is the national language of Italy, San Marino, Vatican City, as well as one of the national languages of Switzerland. While there’s virtually no difference between the Italian spoken in San Marino, Vatican City, and Italy, Swiss Italian features several variations that might puzzle many Italians.
Within Switzerland, Italian is spoken in Canton Ticino and in some areas of Canton Graubünden—that is, the Southern part of the country—and is the native language of the 8.2% of the Swiss.
Overall, the biggest difference between Swiss Italian (or Italian Swiss, as some call it) and standard Italian is that the former is highly affected by the other Swiss national languages, German and French.
Linguistically speaking, Swiss Italian features many prestiti linguistici (word loans) and calchi (calques)—words or constructions that travel from a language to another, changing and adapting in the process. And so, for instance, while in Milano you check il meteo (the weather forecasts), in Lugano you check la meteo; the word is, indeed, feminine in French.
Also from the French, we have giurista instead of avvocato to mean lawyer. The French term for lawyer is jurist. Giurista in used in standard Italian too, but with the meaning of law scholar. We also have comandare instead of ordinare for ordering at the restaurant; the French say commander. Switching to German, while in standard Italian, insulation translates as isolamento, in Swiss you’ll probably hear isolazione; that -zione suffix is common in Switzerland and is clearly an influx from German.
A term virtually unknown in Italy, but used in Switzerland is the dialectal ghello, meaning change or coin. Italians would say monetina, centesimo, or spicciolo. Some Swiss words are not standard in Italy, but somehow are used in the North, especially in Lombardia, which borders with Canton Ticino—like colonna for line or queue instead of fila.
Finally, some words are influenced by local institutions: in Switzerland, for instance, long-distance buses are run by the Swiss Post and are therefore called autopostali instead of autobus. Or natel for (telefono) cellulare, from the national mobile telephone company (Nationales Auto-telefonnetx).
So be aware of these variations, because if you travel to Svizzera and you pick up your natel to check the autopostale schedule, your Italian friends might have a hard time understanding what you are talking about!