Röstigraben: a cultural border in Switzerland

Marie-Madeleine & Giuseppe Renauld | Live the World

November 23, 2022

If you have already been to Switzerland, you probably know what rösti is. This traditional Swiss dish made of grated potatoes fried in a pan originates from the Canton of Bern, the capital of Switzerland. But it has become really popular everywhere in the country.

Photo © credits to iStockphoto/ALLEKO

We are not going to talk about food in this story but about a humorous, imaginary border that splits the country into western (French-speaking), central and eastern (German-speaking) Switzerland.

Switzerland peacefully gathers a great diversity of cultures: Four official languages are spoken around the country - German (62.6% of the population), French (22.9%), Italian (8.2%) and Romansh (0.5%). These languages are directly associated with different traditions, lifestyles and mindsets. Despite identifying themselves as a single country, the Swiss acknowledge these differences and use them to tease their neighbours or make fun of themselves.

Photo © credits to Wikimedia Commons/Marco Zanoli

The word “Röstigraben” illustrates this perfectly. Literally meaning rösti ditch, this Swiss-German word first appeared during World War I. Switzerland was neutral at the time, amidst the German Empire and the French Republic: the opinion of the Swiss was in support of either Germany among German-speaking regions or France among the French-speaking areas of Switzerland. Another food-related word is used to name the border between German-speaking and Ticino, i.e. the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland: Polentagraben (polenta ditch).

The röstigraben is both a language and cultural border stretching from the valleys in the Jura Mountains in the north, along with the lakes of Biel, Neuchâtel and Murten. Then, it goes along the Sarine River through the Swiss highlands (plateau), a largely flat and hilly region between the Jura Mountains and the Alps. It crosses cantons, cities and villages such as Fribourg, Murten and Saanen. In these cases, both French and German are used in administrations and schools. Next, the border continues through the Alps and the Rhône Valley in the Canton of Valais up to the Italian border with Aosta Valley.

Photo © credits to Marie-Madeleine & Giuseppe

Apart from the language separation, the use of the word Röstigraben spread in the 70's to designate more specifically a cultural cleavage between the two sides of the language barrier. In the Swiss political system, elections are regularly used for public decision-making.

Photo © credits to Wikimedia Commons/Ludovic Péron

Located in the centre of the city of Fribourg, near the Sarine River, a monument celebrates the Röstigraben and the strong connection between the two areas of the country. Since its early history, Switzerland has been a country of diverse cultures and languages. Switzerland or the Swiss Confederation is a country made up of 26 cantons or states, of varying size, all exerting strong local power. The federal-state plays a very tactful role in both protecting specificities of each state and coordinating diverse needs and expectations. Probably, notwithstanding the differences, this is why all around Switzerland you find a nation with a strong patriotic identity.

Photo © credits to iStockphoto/RossHelen

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