29 September 2020
From 1291 to 1798, the thirteen sovereign cantons of the Confederation were a German-speaking alliance. Fribourg, founded in the twelfth century, was the only French-German speaking canton. Multilingual Switzerland was a creation of the French occupier in 1798.
The hegemony of German disappeared. The Helvetic Republic (1798-1803) recognised the equality of the Italian, French and German languages. Laws and decrees were published in German, Italian and French.
Switzerland was thus the first trilingual nation-state in Europe.
The idea of a quadrilingual Switzerland, including the Romansh language, came up in the second half of the 19th century. The Romansh movement took shape, and Lia Rumantscha (the Romansh League) was founded in 1919.
Romansh became an official language on 20 February 1938, after approval by referendum (92% of citizens and all cantons voted in favour).
It was a message to the Italian and German dictators: no support for an Anschluss, Heim ins Reich or Irredentismo.
Multilingual Switzerland is an essential part of the national identity and a necessity for internal cohesion and inextricably linked to solidarity between the cantons and communities.
Nevertheless, voting behaviour differs per Italian, French, German or Romansh language group, although the differences have narrowed in recent years.
The main reason for concern nowadays is the lack of knowledge of the national languages. Communication is sometimes in English because citizens do not know each other’s languages.