The Swiss Confederation spans some 41,293 square km in west-central Europe. Bounding Switzerland are Germany to the north, France to the west, Italy to the south, and Liechtenstein and Austria to the east. Around 70% of Switzerland’s terrain is mountainous, much of its land rippling along the Bernese, Rhaetian, and Pennine Alps. The mighty Rhine River drains 68% of the land here, and some 60% is either pastureland or forest.
Switzerland is a federal republic made up of 26 cantons; its capital city is Bern. Its chief of state is the president, who also serves as the head of the government. However, states’ rights are of extreme importance here, and the federal administration allows great cantonal autonomy. Many political issues revolve around perceived threats to this autonomy; other ongoing issues include questions of immigration and asylum policy. Switzerland enjoys a high standard of living, with among the world’s lowest unemployment, highest income, and longest life expectancy rates. Recent unemployment rates rose to 3.8% – still not bad, given Europe’s 8% average.
Switzerland’s official name is Confoederatio Helvetica, a Latin term that translates as Swiss Confederation – and explains both the “CH” sticker s you’ll see on cars and the “CHF” abbreviation for the Swiss Franc currency.
The country has three widely spoken official languages, each practiced in the corner of Switzerland nearest its origin – and each with its own slang term for Switzerland: in German, Schweiz; in French, Suisse; in Italian, Svizzera. Sign postings and publications often include text in all three languages.
The fourth official language is Romansch, an ancient dialect practiced today by just one percent of the population. Further befuddling the situation is the common use of both regional dialects and Schweizerdeutsch, or Swiss German. However, even with four official languages and a babble of traditional dialects, Swiss communication works out better than you might expect. Public schools enforce rigorous language studies, and thus most Swiss are multilingual.
The Swiss population includes four main ethnic groups: German, French, Italian, and Romansch. Some 65% of the population is German, 18% French, 10% Italian, and 1% Romansch. Most of the population claims to be Christian – 48% Roman Catholic and 44% Protestant. Six in 10 live in urban settings, with the remaining 40% in smaller villages. Major cities include Zürich, Basel, and Geneva. Switzerland’s population density hovers at about 177 persons per square km.
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