Auto-Correcting German and Swiss German

In Mobile Phone Keyboards, John Gruber points out that auto-correcting French doesn’t work as well as auto-correcting English:

A big part of the iPhone keyboard’s success stems from its auto-correct feature. Anecdotal reports from DF readers suggest that it doesn’t work as well with languages like French, where there are more words that differ by just one character (or by mere accent marks).

English has astonishingly weird spelling rules. A lot of words sound alike, but are spelled entirely differently. French has more consistent rules, which means that a lot of words are spelled similarly. The same applies to German.

In English, the spelling differences between words like «aloud» and «allowed» are huge; in German, words sounding so similarly would be spelled almost identically, which often makes it hard for the iPhone to figure out which word the user is actually trying to type.

Furthermore, German has umlauts. Umlauts are cumbersome to enter because you have to hold down a letter and wait for the menu to appear. For some words, you can just enter the word without the umlaut and let the iPhone auto-correct the word for you. Unfortunately, a lot of words exist with and without the umlaut, with the umlaut changing the meaning of a word. For example, «Röte» means «redness», while «Rote» means «red ones». «Öder» means «more boring», while «oder» means «or». «Häuser» means «houses», while «Hauser» is a name. So you typically can’t assume that the iPhone will fix your spelling. You’re forced to enter the umlauts yourself.

Swiss German

Swiss German is the word used to denominate a number of heterogeneous dialects spoken in large parts of Switzerland and tiny parts of Italy. It’s different enough from German that native speakers of German don’t understand native speakers of Swiss German1. There are no official spelling rules for Swiss German2; children who speak Swiss German learn Swiss Standard German in school, which is not a standardized version of Swiss German, but a slightly changed version of German. Switzerland’s official written German language is a foreign language that children have to learn in school.

As a result of this, informal written communication in Switzerland is often written in Swiss German, with everyone making up their own rules, writing in their local dialect. Obviously, this means that the iPhone’s auto-correction is utterly useless in parts of Switzerland. In fact, the iPhone will try to replace most words with different words when I try to write in Swiss German using German auto-correction, and the iPhone keyboard’s attempt at helping me hit the correct letters will actually cheat me into hitting wrong letters.

All this is to explain why people in Switzerland often don’t use auto-correction: Instead of helping us type properly, it replaces correct words with incorrect words most of the time.

Auto-correction can be turned off, but as far as I can tell, it’s impossible to switch between German auto-correction and no auto-correction on the fly.3

While it’s possible that Apple will never create an iPhone with a physical keyboard, I’d sure love to see one, and I’m sure it would sell well in Switzerland. Of course, Switzerland is only a small market, but hopefully, we’re not the only ones with weird spelling requirements.4


  1. Although learning each other’s language is typically not too hard. Germans staying in Switzerland usually learn to understand Swiss German within months. back

  2. There are no official spelling rules, but there is a Swiss German Wikipediaback

  3. It is, however, possible to switch between, say, German, English and Italian on the fly, and the auto-correction will respect the current keyboard layout’s language. The fact that the iPhone’s virtual keyboard lets you switch between keyboard layouts has some advantages (as Neven Mrgan points out), although I’d prefer to enter English text using the Swiss keyboard layout, since that is what I’m used to. back

  4. Of course, right now I’m actually living in Graubünden, where people speak several different dialects of Romansh, a language that is just as inconsistent and even less widely used than Swiss German. back

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