Thursday, May 16, 2013


What do the Swiss have when they don’t have work? They have Freizeit.

Of course, in German all nouns are capitalized, so the upper-case ’F’ here should not be a cause for concern. It is visually important, though, especially for the non-native speaker of German, and the word itself is just slippery enough in translation to be more compelling still. A compound word that is transliterated as “Freetime,” Freizeit eludes simple translation. The English language is not nearly as free and easy with compound words as the German, where any number of words or phrases even loosely related are gladly turned into words as eye-watering as 

das Vierwaldstätterseedampfshiffsfahrtsgeselschaftskapitänsmützensternlein, 

a word that in English is a rather long and almost independent clause: "The star on the hat of the Captain of the steam ship, on the Four Woods Lake": 

Therefore for Anglophones, “free time” is cheapened by its construction: the position of the modifying adjective “free” suggests that this is only one of many modulations of time: before we know it, it will be “work time,” “quitting time,” “commuting time,” “dinner time,” and “bed time.” 

Surely this is roughly what the prophet of Ecclesiastes had in mind when he intoned that ‘To everything there is a season’? 

Not so for the Swiss-German speaker, for whom Freizeit is an island entirely unto itself, requiring entire wings of department stores and subsections of websites to be devoted to it. In fact, in Switzerland life seems to be divided into Freizeit and Everything Else; Arnold van Gennep has warned us of the psychic dangers of dichotomizing the universe in this way. 

And so perhaps with Freizeit we arrive at another fundamental rich point of Swiss semiology; the irreducibly untranslatable. 

Who understands Friezeit, understands Swissness.


  1. In the interests of proper spelling and Swiss nitpickiness :), it's actually

    das Vierwaldstätterseedampfschiffsfahrtsgesellschaftskapitänsmützensternlein

    which means "The small star on the hat of the Captain of the Four Forest-State Lake's steam ship company.