As Switzerland’s fourth national language continues to decline, defenders of Romansh have won support from an unexpected quarter.
Microsoft is developing a language interface to allow PC users to run Romansh versions of its popular Windows and Office software as part of a project to use information technology to support minority languages.
Through its Local Language Program, the software giant plans to extend its range of desktop languages from 40 to 80 and to enable people from around the world to work on their computer in their mother tongue.
The Romansh linguistic and cultural organisation, Lia Rumantscha, is working alongside Microsoft to develop the language software, which is expected to be ready by the autumn.
Lia Rumantscha and Microsoft Switzerland have welcomed the development, which comes as studies show that fewer and fewer people are speaking Romansh – a generic name for the five dialects spoken in the eastern Swiss canton of Graubünden.
According to the 2000 census, just 35,000 Swiss named Romansh as their first language.
A follow-up study published on Tuesday showed that the fourth national language was retreating into its heartlands in the lower Engadine and Surselva valleys.
"[The project] shows that Romansh can be used, as any major language, in all areas, even those demanding more sophisticated or technical vocabulary," Daniel Telli of the Lia Rumantscha told swissinfo.
Telli recently visited Microsoft headquarters in Seattle to collaborate on developing Romansh-language applications, including a spell-checker.
He said that bringing Romansh into the IT domain would help efforts to create a standard written language – Romansh Grischun.
"The project helps us to increase our database and expand our vocabulary, and it forces us at the Lia Rumantscha to further standardise the unified written language."
Alexander Stüger, the general manager of Microsoft Switzerland, was also positive about the inclusion of Romansh in the Local Language Program.
"We at Microsoft are happy that in the framework of our social commitment to Switzerland we can help to establish Romansh Grischun as the common written language of Romansh-speaking Switzerland," Stüger commented in a Microsoft news release.
"The aim of our partnership with canton Graubünden is to make an active contribution through IT to the cultural and linguistic diversity of Switzerland – or in other words, to use the most up-to-date technology to preserve long-standing traditions."
Telli of the Lia Rumantscha told swissinfo that the software could complement other measures planned in the canton to help foster the language. These include increasing teaching Romansh in schools, and encouraging churches and offices to use Romansh.
The Graubünden authorities have pointed out that even in areas where Romansh is traditionally spoken, German has been encroaching over recent decades. While Romansh is still commonly understood, German has replaced it as the main language.
But the authorities see encouraging signs in the lower Engadine and Surselva regions, where schools have stepped up their teaching in the romance language.
"Hopefully, the project will help to enhance the linguistic conscience of the Romansh-speaking people, and to highlight the fact that there are four national languages in Switzerland," said Telli.
swissinfo, Morven McLean
Romansh is the mother tongue of 35,100 Swiss – 0.5% of the population.
In 1990 Romansh speakers made up 0.6% of the population.
60,561 people list Romansh as one of their languages – down 8.4% from 1990.
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