The Sarine River skirts the edge of Basse-Ville (lower town), dividing both the canton of Fribourg and the city of Fribourg into two sectors: German-speaking and French-speaking. The city of around 40,000 people is clearly one of duality: street signs are all in two languages; residents can choose whether their children will use French or German in primary school; and the university even offers a bilingual curriculum.
However, head to medieval Basse-Ville, caught between the German- and French-speaking divisions of Fribourg, and you’ll find yourself in a no-man's land where the two languages have become one: le Bolze.
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Speak to any Swiss national, and you’ll likely find them enthralled with the topic of communication, probably because languages are so incredibly diverse within this small country. The nation can be geographically divided into three major language groups. The south, which shares in the famous lakes of the Swiss-Italian lake region, is Italian-speaking. To the west near Geneva is French-speaking; while central and eastern parts of the country, such as Zurich and St Moritz, rely on German (and the south-eastern canton of Graubünden even includes Romansh speakers).
It gets even more confusing when you throw in the various dialects, such as Franc Comtois, a French dialect spoken in Switzerland’s Jura and Bern cantons; and Swiss German, which is learned at home and only used conversationally (as opposed to ‘proper’ German, which is both written and spoken, and taught at school).
Among all this linguistic complexity, the city of Fribourg/Freiburg (as it’s known in French/German) has the added challenge of lying on the language borders between French- and German-speaking cantons – Vaud and Bern – which is perhaps why it’s home to a people who decided to develop their own language.
As I walked along Fribourg’s main thoroughfare, the first indicator that I was nearing Basse-Ville glided past. From the upper-town terrace that overlooks the Sarine, a historical funicular connects the city centre to Basse-Ville on the riverbank down below. Opened in 1899, the pastel-green ‘Funi’, which is powered by 3,000 litres of water, is the only funicular to run on waste water in Europe. The two-minute ride, which still operates today, is both a symbol of industrial Fribourg and a gateway into the history of the lower town where Bolze was created.
While the exact origins of the language are unknown, many believe that Bolze was created during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th Century, when people began to migrate from the countryside into cities as jobs became available during the industrial boom. As a city bordering both French- and Swiss German-speaking countryside villages, Fribourg grew and expanded into a bilingual, cultural and industrial hub for the poor seeking work.
“Many farmers from the Sense, the region next to Fribourg, came to find a job, and they found cheap living conditions in the Basse-Ville neighbourhood. They thought life would be easier in town,” explained Fribourg tour guide and Bolze expert Michel Sulger.
These workers needed a way to understand one another and work together. So they merged their mother tongues to create a new language.
Audio translation: “It's Saturday morning at 10:00. The housewives from the Au quarter have done the housework and are going shopping. On this day there are always a lot of people at the butcher's. Mostly women who want their Sunday ‘bratwurst’. Everyone wants to be first in line: ‘It's my turn now, I'd like a kilo of pork sausage and two beef’.” (Audio and translation courtesy of Elise Morard of Fribourg Tourism)
Bolze is a conversational melding of Swiss German and French, using the two languages to create a completely new version. Passed from generation to generation orally, and only found in the Basse-Ville of Fribourg, the few remaining Bolze speakers only speak it to one another in order to continue their cultural heritage along the shore of the river and within the stone walls that border their neighbourhood.
What’s especially interesting about the language, however, is that you must have a full command of both French and Swiss German before you can begin to combine them into Bolze. Yet even those who speak both languages would not be able to follow a conversation in Bolze unless they’d actually learned the third language, which has its own unique linguistic balance and rhythm, as if precariously walking a tightrope between French and Swiss German.
“This is a part of the history of Fribourg,” Sulger explained. “The Bolze culture is made of people who are perfectly bilingual. This is really rare in Fribourg, because usually we speak one language or the other better. Those who speak Bolze can really speak both, and can do this mixture.”
“It makes Bolze speakers special because it is spoken only by so few people,” he added.
While Bolze remains something of a mystery to outsiders – and is now only spoken by a handful of locals – it continues to hold meaning to the citizens of Basse-Ville. To them, it’s more than a language; it is a fusion of language, politics and culture that came about through a uniquely shared history during the Industrial Revolution. From art and events organised by Hubert Audriaz (an artist known as a symbol of both Basse-Ville and Bolze) to a Bolze spin on Carnaval, a celebration that ends on Fat Tuesday, Bolze culture is still evident.
This is a part of the history of Fribourg
Today, thanks to an influx of immigrants, at least 160 nationalities live in the canton of Fribourg, and more people in Switzerland speak Serbo-Croatian, Albanian and Portuguese in Switzerland than Bolze. Though older generations may still speak Bolze in their homes and to one another on the street, the younger generations can only learn it at home – just as Swiss German is learned within the family – or by listening to and learning from those who are fluent. It is not taught in schools, nor are there any official language classes.
However, Bolze lingers on as a sign of ingenuity born out of necessity during the Industrial Revolution, while continuing to exist as a living history of its people. The people and cultures that make up Fribourg might have changed since the 19th Century, but the intercultural camaraderie that built the city is still present today.
As I descended into the Basse-Ville on the ‘Funi’, locals were going about their day, walking among the medieval stone walls and towers that face meadows and monasteries across the Sarine River. I listened carefully for Bolze. Though it is difficult for a foreign ear to trace the sounds of this unique language, knowing that a history of cultures and languages fused to form something new lends an air of intrigue to this part of town.
Bolze is an example of what can be accomplished when the citizens of Fribourg, who fit together like pieces of a vibrant puzzle, work together to create their own contribution to their city’s history.
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