Switzerland’s National Day on 1 August represents togetherness more than independence. Commemorating the alliance struck between three cantons, or states, in 1291 that created the country, it’s a distinctly Swiss holiday. On one level, the celebration basks in traditional music, political speeches, bonfires, fireworks and more. On another, as reflected in the local iterations among its 26 cantons and many communes, cities and villages, it becomes variations on a theme.
Such differences are expected in a country with four official languages. But as much as languages (and associated cultural influences) can accentuate disparities, they can also create bonds.
If something can really unify people on Swiss National Day, it’s the grill. A word that sounds distinctly English, “grill” actually has French roots, as in gril, a grill pan, or grille, a screen or an oven rack. “Barbecue”, its close associate, originated in the mid-17th century from the Spanish barbacoa, a wooden framework for sleeping on or for drying meats. Well before that, the act of grilling began shortly after people learned how to control fire over 500,000 years ago, according to the Food Network.
What became popular in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s has now, thanks to persistent marketing, taken Swiss culture by storm. Anglicisms incorporated into German, such as Steak, Mixed Grill, Spare-Rib-Halter and Outdoorküche, among others, help to enrich grillen, and the Swiss variant, grillieren, as the hobby du jour. Grill Ueli is the celebrated Swiss BBQ Champion, who demonstrates his skills on TV and in promotions. And spreading a Western feel, The Grill Sheriff greets Swiss-German enthusiasts on the web with a “Howdy, Zäme” (“Howdy, y’all”).
The essence of all this is that the words associated with the old-fashioned love of grilling can be added to the curious and fascinating ways that language unifies people, bringing them together across geographies.
To all you Swiss, Happy August 1st – and pass the frankfurters.