none of the above

Recently I learned why coins and stamps from Switzerland are labeled Helvetia and why its two-letter abbreviation is CH, which stands for Confoederatio Helvetica. It’s precisely because Helvetia is not the name of Switzerland in any of the country’s four official languages.

Rather than privileging Schweiz in German, Suisse in French, Svizzera in Italian, or Svizra in Romansh, the Swiss decided to adopt a name from Latin. I do find it curious that the linguistic roots of Helvetia are related to times when the land was part of the Roman Empire and, much later, when it was taken during the French Revolutionary War — that is, when the Swiss were not governing themselves. Furthermore, although most Swiss have German as their primary tongue, the Latin Helvetia is linguistically much closer to the country’s three Romance languages.

In any case, instead of including all four languages or favoring one of them on their coinage and postage, the Swiss use an entirely different word. There is a wondrous sensibility to this. This reminds me of how Ms. has become, just within my lifetime, a perfectly acceptable alternative to Miss and Mrs. This also reminds me of how my college friend Doug thirty-five years ago had invented a set of third-person pronouns that did not distinguish gender. Each of these illustrates a valid path through the tangle of linguistic diversity, which is to say cultural diversity in general: allow each individual (each canton) to express themselves as they prefer, but for the sake of unity (at the level of confederation), use a new, single, different term.

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