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The Cantons of Switzerland

Americans and Brits are familiar with the division of a country into smaller parts such as states and counties. In the US, the different states may differ in their legislation, the accent of its inhabitants, the climate and the landscapes. Mississippi and New Jersey for example are very different places on many levels.

The segmentation of a country for administrative purposes makes sense especially in one as big as the USA. However, in a small country like Switzerland its benefits are somewhat obscure. Do we really need to split the country into smaller parts to be able to manage it?

Today, Switzerland consists of 26 cantons which are more or less the equivalent of states in the US. The reason for this division is mainly historical. The Swiss Federation or Helvetic Federation started with just four cantons that united in 1291 against their common enemy, the Lords of the House of Habsburg. They were the cantons of Uri, Schwyz, Obwalden and Nidwalden. Over the next 500 years another 21 cantons joined the federation as allies (e.g. the canton of Berne in 1353) or were given the opportunity to join the Swiss after major wars (e.g. the canton of Ticino in 1803 after Napoleon conquered Switzerland). The last canton, namely the canton of Jura, joined Switzerland in 1979.

26 Cantons of Switzerland

Let us have a look at how Switzerland is divided into regions and parts. There are 26 cantons in total. Six out of these 26 cantons are not considered full cantons but "half-cantons" because historically they once were a single canton but have now split up.

The Half-Cantons of Switzerland are:
Basel-Stadt (Basel City)
Baselland (Basel Country)
Appenzell Innerrhoden
Appenzell Ausserrhoden

The full Cantons of Switzerland are:
St. Gallen
Tessin / Ticino
Waadt / Vaud
Wallis / Valais
Genf / Genève
Map of Swiss Cantons

Most cantons have their own tax and civil laws, education systems and policies. Of course, none of these should contradict the common federal constitution. Each canton has one or more official languages, depending mainly on it's geographical location inside Switzerland. Each canton in the German part of Switzerland also has its distinct dialect. A Swiss person can recognize from which canton somebody is only by the dialect someone is speaking!

Each canton has its own typical foods and traditions. There are also certain character traits and funny customs that we Swiss associate with the different cantons. People from the canton of Berne, for example, are said to be slow in thinking and doing pretty much everything, especially driving! People from Zurich on the other hand, are fast drivers but considered rude by many Swiss.

In Swiss German there is a word for this tendency of each canton to trying to make its own little kingdom: "Kantönli-Geischt" (= spirit of cantons). At times, it looks like every canton likes to do things its own way and different from the rest. Yet, somehow this seems to be working fine in Switzerland!



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