Period IV newsletter

La Sarine à Fribourg marque le Röstigraben. Photo: Wikipedia


The expression Röstigraben refers to the differences between French-speaking Switzerland, German-speaking Switzerland and Switzerland as a conglomerate of languages, cultures and mentalities.

Are the wars between Burgundians (French/Gallo-Roman) and Franks and Germanic Alemannians and their expansion from the fifth century onwards at the origin of the linguistic and cultural border or rather the intensive Romanisation in Western Switzerland during the Roman rule? What was the influence of the immigration of the Walser from the thirteenth century onwards?

The issue is complex, and one must start with the origin of the Swiss Confederation. Switzerland is a Germanophone creation. From 1291 to 1798, the thirteen sovereign cantons formed a German-speaking confederal state. Multilingual Switzerland was a creation of the French occupier in 1798.

The hegemony of German disappeared, and 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 and interpreters were even hired for parliamentary debates.

The representatives of the Parliament in Tessino also demanded the translation of official texts and debates into Italian and thus the publication of laws and the drafting of minutes of parliamentary debates in three languages was introduced. Switzerland officially became multilingual and was the first trilingual unitary state in Europe.

The idea of a quadrilingual Switzerland, including the Romansh language, came to the fore after demands from Romansh militants in the second half of the 19th century. The Romansh movement took shape in 1919 with the establishment of Lia Rumantscha (the Romansh League).

Romansh became an official language on 20 February 1938, after approval by referendum (92% of citizens and all cantons voted in favour). That was also a message to the Italian and German dictators: in Switzerland no support for an Anschluss, Hein ins Reich or Irredentismo.

Multilingual Switzerland is seen by a vast majority of citizens as an essential part of national/cantonal identity and necessary for internal cohesion and inextricably linked to solidarity between communities. Nevertheless, voting behaviour in elections differs per Italian, French, German or Romansh language group, although the differences have narrowed in recent years.

Röstigraben is first and foremost a legacy of the First World War when sympathy ran parallel to language. The polarisation is gone, although there are still differences. Nowadays, the main reason for concern is the lack of language skills. Communication among Swiss citizens is sometimes in English (Source: J. Ribeaud, La Suisse plurilingue se délingue. La Suisse plurilingue se délingue. Plaidoyer pour les quatres langues suisses, Neuchâtel 2010).