Saturday, December 3, 2011

Switzerland’s Romansh, Struggling to Survive

Apart from German, French and Italian, Switzerland has another national language that many people across the globe have never heard of. This language, which originated from Latin, is called Romansh. Romansh is also known by these names: Romansch, Rumantsch, Romanche and Rhaeto-Romansch. In Switzerland, speakers of this unfamiliar language account for about less than 1% of the whole population of the country.

Accounts on how many actually speak Romansh vary. Some statistics indicate there are around 50,000 – 70,000 speakers while others peg the number of speakers to 30,000 plus. Another source says that in Switzerland, the language is understood by more than 100,000 people and that 75,000 speak it regularly while 40,000 refer to it as their main language. Majority of Romansh speakers live in eastern Switzerland, specifically in the canton of Graubünden/Grisons. Graubünden is a trilingual canton. German and Italian are the two other languages in use in the canton.

Historical Background

The oral form of Romansh is believed to be based on what is known as Vulgar Latin. Vulgar Latin is often referred to as “People’s Latin.” The Romansh language, which dates back to roughly 1,5000 years, was influenced by Celtic, Etruscan and other languages that were spoken in the area of Grisons by early settlers.

If you are under the impression that Romansh is one language, it is not. It is actually an umbrella term that lumps into one group several similar or related dialects or idioms spoken in the southern region of Switzerland. These related dialects, which include the five idioms of Surmiran, Sutsilvan, Sursilvan, Vallader and Putur, all come from the Rhaeto-Romance language family.

There are articles that state that in print, this largely unfamiliar language first appeared in the 1552 catechism called Christiauna fuorma, which was written by Jacob Bifrun. By 1560, a Romansh translation of the New Testament was printed. However, it is not stated which of the dialects under the Romansh umbrella were used in these written works.

In 1938, Switzerland formally recognized Romansh as a national language. However, Romansh is not one of Switzerland’s official languages. Only German, French and Italian are considered official languages of the country.

By 1996, a referendum paved the way for the Constitution’s amendment giving Romansh official language status for issues and affairs concerning Romansh-speakers. The promotion and safeguarding of Romansh as well as Italian was included in the amendment. Cultural exchange between German, French, Italian and Romansh was provided for.

In 1982, Heinrich Schmid, a Zurich-based linguist, was credited with nationally standardizing Romansh. Rumantsch Grischun or ‘Romansh of Grisons’ or RG was the name given to the standardized language that was being promoted by the umbrella organization Lia Rumantscha. Under Lia Rumantscha are different Romansh associations. Unfortunately, the standardized Romansh was, and still is, not widely accepted (see Controversy).

In the 2004 Federal Law on National Languages, the use and promotion of Romansh was further encouraged. Its use in education, culture, science and technology was supported.

Romansh in Media

The Swiss Broadcasting Company has shown support to Switzerland’s fourth language by establishing a Romansh unit called Radio e Televisiun Rumantscha (RTR). The TV unit produces a news programme, a children’s show and a cultural programme in Romansh. The shows can be seen on the German language television channel as well as on the French and Italian channels. Subtitles are provided accordingly. On radio, Radio Rumantsch broadcasts programs in Romansh around the clock.
The Agentura da Novitads Rumantscha publishes La Quotidiana, a daily newspaper in Romansh. Punts is a magazine in Romansh for the younger generation.


Unfortunately, there is an ever-growing dissent among speakers of the five idioms against standardized Romansh. Since there are five main idioms spoken in the canton, the government saw it fit to create one Romansh language so that people of different dialects can better understand each other. The standardization was supposed to make things easier for the government and the people. Having a standardized form rather than five idioms will save money for the canton, as this will make translations costs lower. Just imagine how much money would be needed if the government had to print official forms, announcements, correspondence, schoolbooks, and other materials in five different idioms of Romansh.

Sad to say, the plan is backfiring. Romansh speakers are divided rather than united under what is perceived as a “bastard language.” The government has shelled out roughly $2,450 for each child enrolled in village schools just so these schools do away with teaching dialects and instead convert to the standard form of Romansh. This has been going on since 2003. Aside from having schoolbooks written in RG, the government went as far as publishing Romansh cartoons in order to entice the younger generation to speak and embrace the standardized Romansh language. By 2020, the government expects the dialects to be phased out

At present, administrators, teachers and parents are having a hard time adopting RG because the local dialect is still in use. There is continued opposition to RG to this day. Pro-Idioms was founded in February by a former official from Zernez, a tiny town in Graubünden. Domenic Toutsch, the founder, wants to push the powers-that-be to get rid of RG. The group is lobbying for the return of schoolbooks not written in RG but rather in the traditional dialects. Aside from Pro-Idioms, there are other groups that are doing their share in bringing back the local dialects into the school system and elsewhere. Of course Graubünden officials are working towards a compromise, or even several, to say the least.

Romansh at the Liet International Song Contest

In this year’s Liet International Song Contest, 22-year old Rezia Ladina, a singer and songwriter from Lower Engadine, sang ‘Id es capital’ or ‘It Happened’ in Romansh. This vocal tilt is a Eurovision-like song contest where all songs entries should be in one of the many minority or endangered languages in Europe. Some examples of these languages are Udmurt, Sami, Vespian, Ladin, Asturian, Burgenland-Croatian and Frisian.

Early this year, Ladina won the first national Romansh regional singing competition making her Switzerland’s representative to the Europe-wide singing tilt. Ladina placed seventh overall. The contest was held in Udine, Italy where Friulan is the minority language. Friulan and Romansh belong to the same romance language family. Although Ladina did not win, she said that she will continue to sing in Romansh and hopes that lovers of Swiss music will begin to “seek out Romansh music.”

Only time will tell whether Romansh Grischun survives. The problem in the region of Graubünden is a very emotional one since what is in the middle of the maelstrom is language. Language is in the hearts and minds of its native speakers. The mother tongue forms part of a people’s identity. Attempting to suppress the mother tongue and replacing it with something unacceptable to the people is a recipe for disaster. Change is always scary but inevitable. If change is necessary, then there is a need to work together as a community to come up with acceptable ways to make this change happen.


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