8 January 2020
One of the fascinating aspects of Switzerland is that a history of fifteen hundred years has established so many contemporary (linguistic) borders, identities and cultures.
The six centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 still determine the French-German language border.
The Alemanni introduced the German language in large parts of eastern, northern and central Switzerland after the departure of the Roman legions around 410 AD.
The French-speaking Burgundian kingdoms in Western Switzerland (443-534 and 888-1032) were decisive for the French language.
French remained the common language in this area after the occupation of Vaud by German-speaking cantons (Bern and Freiburg) after 1536.
Some cities became and still are bilingual, however. The French language was highly valued by the German-speaking rulers and the language was never forbidden.
Freiburg even became more and more Fribourg. The elite of Bern also spoke and communicated in French.
The bilingual status of Valais dates back to the expansion of the German-speaking cities and the age-old immigration of Walser and other German-speaking people from 1200 onwards.
The outcome of the struggles between the French-speaking house of Savoy and the (German-speaking) bishops of the bishopric of Sitten (Sion) after 1400 were also relevant.
The advance of the German-speaking Alemanni and Walser (400-1400) in southern and eastern Switzerland reduced the use of Romansh in Graubünden. This language has Celtic roots but was almost completely Romanised in the Roman period (15 BC-410 AD).
Many German speakers immigrated to this (new) canton after 1815 because of railway- and other infrastructure works, tourism, industrialisation and trade. Today, Romansh is a (beautiful and interesting) minority language of 60,000 inhabitants of Graubünden.
The Italian language in Tessin originated from Latin, as in the whole of Italy. Italian remained the language of this region after the conquest by Swiss cantons in the fifteenth century.
The formal assimilation of Italian, French and German followed under French pressure at the time of the Helvetic Republic (1798-1803) and the (French) Mediation Act of 1803. This assimilation was confirmed in the constitution of 1848.
The constitutional recognition of Romansh in 1938 was a clear political signal by Switzerland and the Swiss people (almost 90% voted in favour in the referendum). The rejected the Italian ( Irredentisimo) and German ideology (Heim ins Reich). The 2007 constitutional review confirmed the status of the four languages of the country.
What the Constitution did not foresee, however, was the proliferation of local German dialects, Schwyzertütsch or Schwyzerdütsch.
These dialects are often difficult to understand for other Swiss citizens, even for German-speaking citizens from other cantons or cities.
Moreover, knowledge of each other’s languages has decreased drastically in recent decades. English is increasingly becoming the language of conversation between (young) Swiss people.
The language is the (social) lubricant of every society. The decline in knowledge of the language(s) is, therefore, a source of concern for the cohesion of this multilingual country.