Learning Swiss by the Numbers

Although it is enormously important, only learning the Swiss language doesn’t make one Swiss. Some of the small, but important differences present themselves in the form of numbers.

Handwritten Numbers

1, 7, 9 and oftentimes 4, the most important being 1 and 7, are written a little differently in Switzerland. Get these two wrong and you will be singled out as a non-Swiss. The number 1 has an upswing. Depending on the length of the upswing it can easily look like an upside-down “V”. A shorter upswing can make it look like a sloppily written 7 in English. To prevent confusion there is always a cross in the 7s.

In America this is certainly not normal. Once I listened as my aunts and mother giggled about a Sudoku book where the 7s were crossed. “It looks so strange” and “that is so European” were their comments.

9s and 4s are not as critical as 1s and 7s but there are minimal differences. 9s are written like lowercase “g” with a curvy tail and oftentimes 4s look like short lightning bolts. Cute.

Having worked in places that dealt a lot with numbers I changed the way I write numbers. I do it now without thinking. When I’m in the States I have to make a conscious effort to write them “correctly”.

Numbers Larger than 4 Digits, Decimals and Symbols

Luckily when writing prices, like in America, there is a dot between Francs and Rappens. Nothing new there. In Germany they actually use a comma! In Switzerland, when the number is above 999 an apostrophe is used where a comma would be used in English.

English: $1,250.36

Swiss: CHF 1‘250.35 (the Swiss round off to the nearest 5 Rappens)

German: € 1.250,36 (oh my, this would take getting used to)

Speaking of money and disregarding the Swiss Franc/US dollar exchange rate for a moment, who has more money: an American or a Swiss billionaire? $ 1,000,000,000.00 or CHF 1’000’000’000’000.00. That makes a Swiss billionaire an American trillionaire. Not a mistake you would want to make when dealing with that amount of money. Luckily (or maybe not), a problem I have don’t have.

I might be going out on a limb here. I can imagine that at some point in history the Swiss used commas where they now use dots. When measuring something you might ask someone to tell you the length. You might get something like this for an answer: four comma two five. You would still write it: 4.25. Is the spoken language lagging behind the written language?

Something I learned very quickly, was to use “Nr.” instead of # in front of numbers. Way back then, no one here had a clue what it meant. That symbol is well known now, it as a “hash” mostly used together with “tag” to make hashtag. Social media brought another English word to the world. The direct translation of # from non-social-media Swiss to English makes me smile: “fence”.


Time can cause big time problems for me. The Swiss use both the 24 hour expressions and the 12 hour expressions. Ah, my problem is with the 24 hours thingy, right? Wrong. Surprisingly enough I understand that well. My problem is with the 12 hour expressions.

In English, for example one would say “five-thirty” or “half past five”, easy enough. The Swiss rarely say “five-thirty” but prefer “half-six”. In English you look back to the last full hour and in Swiss forward to the next. You might think once you know that, there is no problem. Wrong again. This has happened at least twice to me, I hear the time in Swiss. I talk to someone, saying I have a meeting at that time. I translate it back and forth in my mind, six and half fixing the time mentality to six-thirty!

In a Swiss society of punctuality, being one hour late for an appointment of any kind does not make you popular. I guess the terminology would be a “no go”. But, like I said it happens and after such a fiasco I’m extremely careful when dealing with times. Then 7 or 8 years later, wham, it happens again. I guess I get careless, thinking I have mastered it. Right.

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