Grammar Moses: Haben Sie Schokolade?

I’m gearing up for a train journey through the Swiss Alps, and while my wife has done all of the planning, it is not a worry-free trip for me.

First, the Alps are very tall. Second, trains hug the sides of mountains. Third, there are no guardrails.

But perhaps the most daunting thing about traveling in Switzerland ― something I haven’t done since I was 18 ― is the language(s).

Switzerland has four national languages: German (both Swiss German and standard German); French (both Swiss French and a few Franco-Provencal dialects); Italian (both Swiss Italian and Lombard); and Romansh, a language I had never heard of that is used by a tiny fraction of the population.

For a guy who is looked to during international trips to provide some basic translation, this is incredibly daunting. My foundation in German is strong, but my vocabulary is slipping precipitously. When I was a teenager, my mother knew enough French and Italian to get us through a bind. Since I stopped traveling with her, I’ve had to learn the basics.

I distinctly remember my dad asking for a deck of playing cards in a Swiss restaurant when what he really wanted was a menu. His second language is Russian, but I doubt I’ll be going there with him anytime soon.

Switzerland, owing to its being surrounded on all sides by other countries, is an olio of dialects. I know that much of the part of the country we’ll see is primarily German speaking, so that’s a relief. At least Schokolade, chocolat, cioccolato and tschigulatta all sound somewhat similar, and wherever I go in Switzerland, that’s the first thing I’ll be asking for.

But you already knew that.

Not every English word translated into Switzerland’s three primary languages is as similar as their versions of “chocolate,” however. “Train,” a word I’ve decided I should commit to memory, is “Zug” in German, “train” in French and “treno” in Italian.

You might wonder why I’ve capitalized “Schokolade” and “Zug” but none of the other words. That’s because Germans capitalize EVERY noun, proper or otherwise.

I imagine that if the United States didn’t have so much oceanfront property that we’d have a whole lot more than Spanish and Canadian influences to consider on a regular basis ― and that’s no swipe against the hundreds of languages already spoken in the States.

Here, much of what we are stymied by are regionalisms and accents, something I really enjoy being confronted with and deciphering. If my traveling partner had her way, people would walk around with a closed-captioning device hung from their necks.


Karen Simpson wrote recently that a wire story on a potential government shutdown that used “affect” when “effect” was correct in context. “The practical affect of a funding lapse” was the cited example.

Karen is correct.

It reminds me of a texting conversation I had recently with Melynda Findlay-Shamie, who edits this column (and should be blamed for any errors I’ve made.) She sent me a music video of singer Tobias Forge doing a low-key cover of a song.

I wasn’t feeling it until near the end when he took it up several notches. “I didn’t like the flat affect at the beginning,” I told her.

What? “Affect” also can be a noun?

Yes. While “affect” is generally used as a verb to describe how something changes or otherwise effects something else, it can be used as a noun to describe facial expressions, vocal intonations or other expressions of emotions.

And while “effect” generally is used as a noun (see above), it can be used as a verb meaning to create or bring about something, as in “World leaders wonder what it will take to effect a lasting peace in the Middle East.”

Seriously, if you know please tell me.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/executive editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim’s book, “Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and usage,” at Write him at and put “Grammar Moses” in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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