Switzerland’s smallest national language struggles for survival

Romansh, spoken in the south-eastern canton of Graubünden, is descended from Latin, the common parent of all the Romance languages Keystone

The Swiss voted overwhelmingly to recognise Romansh as the country’s fourth national language in 1938, but today the language spoken in one of Switzerland’s most mountainous cantons is under threat.

This content was published on June 9, 2017 - 11:00

In the 1920s, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini believed Romansh to be an Italian dialect and declared that the south-eastern Swiss canton of Graubünden therefore rightly belonged to Italy. 

The Romansh people themselves did not think much of their ostensible Italian heritage: "Ni Italians, ni Tudaischs! Rumantschs vulains restar!" as the poet Peider Lansel put it. (“We’re not Italians, we’re not Germans! We’ll always be Romansh!). 

Like other Romance languages, Romansh actually comes from a mixture of Vulgar Latin and local languages – in this case Celtic and Rhaetian languages. The relationship among Swiss Romansh, Friulian and the Ladin language of the Italian Dolomites remains a disputed issue among linguists.

Today, Romansh is considered an endangered language. While the majority of people in Grisons still spoke it in the first half of the 19th century, it is now only spoken by about one-fifth of the population. In total, Romansh is still spoken by around 60,000 people throughout Switzerland, 35,000 of whom call it their first language. This corresponds to 0.5 per cent of the Swiss population. Overall, around 100,000 people in Switzerland can understand the language. 

The Rumantsch Grischun question

Conflicts over which Romansh idiom should be used in the public sphere or taught in schools have raged for many years, especially over the question of whether to introduce the artificial language “Rumantsch Grischun”.

The government and canton use Rumantsch Grischun in correspondence. Even the Romansh umbrella organisation Lia Rimantscha supports the artificial language, standing behind the canton when it passed a resolution in 2003 to publish teaching material exclusively in Rumantsch Grischun in order to cut costs.

But the Romansh-speaking people are fairly unimpressed with Rumantsch Grischun and have retaliated with initiatives and legal proceedings. The “Pro Idioms” association was set up to lead a countermovement, while some schools are now teaching an idiom again.

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Why the threat?

Romansh is partially endangered because of its fragmentation. Graubünden’s remote valleys have given rise to numerous Romansh dialects and five different written languages (idioms), making it difficult to preserve a single version. That is why a common written language known as “Rumantsch Grischun” was artificially developed in 1982 with the aim of ensuring the survival of Romansh. But it sparked enormous controversy at the same time. 

Romansh faces other geographical challenges because it is especially widely spoken in Alpine regions where job opportunities are scarce. As a result, young people emigrate to German-speaking or western Switzerland, where they become assimilated and rarely use Romansh. 

And German-speaking Swiss do not need to learn Romansh in order to integrate into Romansh-speaking villages because “every Romansh person is also a German-speaking Swiss”, as native Romansh speaker and democracy researcher Corsin Bisaz explains. Most Romansh people are fully bilingual, including Bisaz and the well-known author Arno Camenisch who writes in both German and his native tongue. 

To rescue the language, Bisaz believes it would help if newcomers to the region learned Romansh. 

“Portuguese seasonal workers in the hotel and catering industry are some of the key players in preserving Romansh, for example,” he says. The Portuguese prefer to learn and speak Romansh over German because they are such similar languages. 

From farmers’ dialect to hip-hop

Can Romansh really survive under these circumstances, or will the language die out? Bisaz won’t venture any guesses but points out that “people said it would die out a hundred years ago, but it’s still going strong!” 

The language’s image has also improved. Romansh was long considered the language of farmers, and “people were embarrassed to speak it 20 years ago,” as Bisaz explains. Today, he says, things are different – there are musicians like Bibi VaplanExternal link who perform only in Romansh, and there’s even a Romansh hip hop band. External link

External Content

Learning Romansh

Numerous language schools in Switzerland offer courses in Romansh as a foreign language. 

There is an electronic dictionary of the language’s five idioms and Rumantsch Grischun and the website romontsch.chExternal link offers a range of study programmes, apps and listening exercises. 

Students can study Romansh at the universities of Fribourg, Geneva and Zurich.

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SWI is dedicating a mini-series to Romansh. We’re wondering: is direct democracy a help or a hindrance when it comes to saving the language, and who should be allowed to make decisions about Romansh?

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