Switzerland’s fourth language under pressure

Romansh comes first in this dual-language notice in the village of Stierva telling people where to put their rubbish. Two thirds of the population have the Surmiran idiom as their mother tongue. Keystone

“Stand up, and defend your ancient language, Romansh!” says a 19th century slogan. The language is still around, but as the number of speakers is diluted by incomers to the region where it is spoken, it is an ongoing struggle to preserve it.

This content was published on August 5, 2013 - 11:00
Julia Slater,

“The Romansh-speaking area is not strong enough to integrate speakers of other languages sufficiently – a finding that is unfortunately not new, and which continues,” the most recent government report lamented.

In its analysis of the state of the languages of Switzerland drawn up after the 2000 census, the Federal Statistics Office points to a striking contrast: while the proportion of German, French and Italian speakers increased within their heartlands thanks to the integration of new arrivals who have learned the local language, the proportion of Romansh speakers shrank, even in the parts of the south-eastern canton of Graubünden where it is widely spoken.   

Primary school teacher Andreas Urech, who is responsible for bilingualism in the village of Samedan in the Upper Engadine, 18 per cent of whose population comes from 33 foreign countries, is aware the situation hasn’t improved since the 2000 report.

Since German is spoken at work, it’s normally the language of integration for those outsiders who don’t have it as their mother tongue, he told

But language acquisition is surprisingly pragmatic. Construction at building sites in Urech’s area tends to be in the hands of Italian speakers.

“The Portuguese speak it, and of course the Spaniards too. But at one time we had a lot of people from former Yugoslavia, and those working in construction spoke Italian too. I don’t know how good this Italian is, but it works very well.”

The Romansh language

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

The most widely spoken are Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian. Smaller Romance languages include Catalan, Galician, Lombard, Piedmontese, Napolitan, Sardinian. Occitan and Corsican.

Romansh is spoken in a number of different areas in the southeastern canton of Graubünden. Its nearest relatives outside Switzerland are Friulian and Ladin (spoken in northeastern Italy).

Romansh is divided into five written dialects or "idioms", each with its own subdialects. The first written documents were produced in the Engadine in the 16th century.

Since 1996 the official administrative form of Romansh has been an artificially created version, Rumantsch Grischun, which has been in existence since 1980.

The idiom with the greatest number of speakers is Sursilvan, spoken in the area along the Anterior Rhine (Vorderrhein) from its source near the Oberalp pass.

In the 2000 census, 55% of the population of the Surselva area said Romansh was the language they knew best or spoke most at home, school or work.

In Graubünden as a whole, the figure was 21.5%, while in Switzerland it was 0.8% - just over 60,000 people. Only 35,000 said it was the language they spoke best.

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Jostling for position

The phenomenon of one language pushing out another in the area is hardly new. Romansh is descended from the Latin brought by the Romans – replacing the ancient Raetic language, about which practically nothing is known - but German speakers started taking up positions of influence in the area more than a thousand years ago, and over the centuries the Romansh-speaking areas have shrunk.

Graubünden is a canton of mountains and valleys with small scattered villages. As typically happens with languages in isolated areas, Romansh is splintered into a myriad of dialects, each belonging to one of the five written variants, or idioms.

But mountains also mean passes, and passes mean transit traffic.

Barbara Riedhauser works for the Lia Rumantscha - the umbrella organisation for the language as a whole - promoting Sutsilvan, the idiom spoken along the route that leads to the Splügen pass and into Italy. In some parts of its original heartland it is barely spoken at all any longer; in the valley where it is strongest it is spoken by perhaps 20 per cent of the population.

“People had to understand the languages of their neighbours in order to earn money. Perhaps that’s why Romansh has declined here,” she told

“I would say that now the overwhelming majority of Romansh speakers speak German better than they do Romansh. In the old days Romansh was the language people used every day, but today they are so connected with the outside world, what with internet and the media, that they get much more input in German about more complex issues.”

“You can in fact say everything you want to in Romansh – although if you compare it with Italian, for example, it has certainly been influenced by German.”

Outside pressure

Indeed, Romansh is liberally sprinkled with recognisably German words – but that is nothing new. There’s a fine dividing line between the natural linguistic process of word formation, which enriches the language, and the steady impoverishment which happens when speakers with an imperfect knowledge of their mother tongue seize the first word that comes to mind and end up speaking a mixture of Romansh and German.

Urech admitted that Germanisms are entering the spoken language all the time, and English words are also creeping in – but pointed out that literary Ladin (his local Romansh dialect) endeavours to retain “genuine” Romansh.

Interestingly, there was a time when the Ladin literary language, traditionally oriented towards its southern neighbour, was full of Italianisms. They were largely purged in a conscious move about 100 years ago.

Sursilvan, the idiom with the most speakers, has always had a lot of contact with German. The result goes deeper than vocabulary.

“They use structures that hurt my ears, because I know they’ve been taken over from German,” Ladin-speaker Urech explained. “But by now they are completely normal, and even grammatically correct.”

Decline of Romansh

Until about 1850, Romansh was the most spoken langauge in Graubünden. Since 1880 census figures have shown a steady increase in the number and proportion of German speakers.

By 2000, only 14.5% of the canton’s population said it was the language they spoke best. German was the best language of just over 68%, and Italian of 10%.

With the decline of traditional occupations in farming and rural trades, many speakers migrated.

Tourism has become the main economic activity, bringing in outsiders, whether permanently or temporarily, and opening the region up to the modern world.

German-speaking media are widely available; because they have more users, their unit costs are lower. As a result, people get much of their entertainment and information first and foremost in German.

The fragmentation of the dialects and lack of a unified written language until 1980 has also contributed to its decline.

Romansh has been recognised as a national language since 1938.

Under the Swiss language law the Swiss Confederation is bound to support measures adopted by cantons Graubünden and Ticino to promote Romansh and Italian.

Among other things, the Lia Rumantscha, the language‘s umbrella organisation, promotes the publication of teaching materials and literature, in particular literature for children.

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Schools have a major role to play in keeping the language alive – but in an area where Romansh is spoken by a small minority, as in Samedan (about 16 per cent) this can be quite arbitrary, as Urech’s experience has shown.

“When a class has lots of children from German-speaking families, it’s quite different from when there is a large proportion of Romansh speakers. The composition of the class has an impact on the language they use to communicate in. That’s not something you can do anything about. And the children of the new arrivals follow the trend.”

This applies even to those whose home language – Italian, Spanish and “more and more” Portuguese - is Latin-based, for whom Romansh is in principle easier than German.

While children follow the flow, some adults take a conscious decision to learn Romansh, even if they don’t need it to survive. But in the Sutsilvan area, Riedhauser struggles to get a class together. There are rarely more than six in a beginners’ group, and – for whatever reason - many give up after a year. Those who want to continue may have to wait until there are enough pupils to form a class.

Nevertheless, she thinks they are still making a contribution to keeping the language alive.

“When someone decides to take a course, and tells everyone so, it makes Romansh speakers feel: ‘Ah, our language and culture are special, other people are interested. We have something they don’t have.’ And that’s really good.”

Sursilvan, being more widely spoken, has far less difficulty in attracting learners – mainly people who have settled in the area, have a Romansh-speaking partner, or have Romansh roots.

Tessa Meuter, a professor of English in Winterthur, bought a house in a largely Romansh-speaking village eight years ago and has been attending a Sursilvan summer course for four years.

She knows she will never speak like a native, but it has transformed her relationship with her neighbours. They are interested to hear what she has learned each day – sometimes things they don’t even know themselves. And they appreciate her effort. One woman brought along old parish minutes to share with her, giving her an insight into village problems and how they were solved. Another, whom she consulted about the names of fruit and vegetables, then put together a collection of recipes for her to try out.

“It’s so positive. Before, it was a holiday place. Since I started learning, I really feel it’s become a home,” she told

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