The Romansh Language
12 October 2020
The Romansh language (Romontsch or Rumantsch in Graubünden, Romanisch in German-speaking Switzerland, le Romanche in French-speaking Switzerland) is only spoken in canton Graubünden. The expression Bündnerromanisch is often used.
The language orginates from the (Celtic) Rhaetian language (as spoken before and at the time of Roman rule until the fifth century) and (vulgar) Latin.
The language developed in a process of centuries after the departure of the Romans in the fifth century.
Lombard dialects, the Aleman (German) language, immigration of (German-speaking) Walser and French influences from Frank and Carolingian rulers shaped the language.
The opening up of Graubünden by tourism, railways, motorways, and the media in the nineteenth century made German the first language of communication in most regions and cities.
Romansh was recognised as the official fourth language of Switzerland by referendum in 1938. A large majority of citizens (80%) was in favour.
The threats and intimidation by the German-speaking and Italian dictators had the opposite effect. The Swiss government and citizens made it clear that Switzerland was one and indivisible, regardless of language, religion or canton.
There was no sympathy for the German ‘Heim ins Reich‘ or the Italian ‘irredentismo Italiano’ ideologies.
Al pievel romontsch
Romansh is the first language of around 60,000 inhabitants nowadays. They also speak German and/or Italian, the other two official languages of the (trilingual) canton.
Romansh has a long oral tradition, dating back to the early Middle Ages. The first written (religious) sources, fragments, date from the 10th or 11th century. The first known poetry was written in 1527.
The language became a source of scholarly and intellectual interest in the (romantic) nineteenth century. Literature, newspapers and writers used the language in a systematic way.
One of the most famous poems is the Al pievel romontsch (to the Romansh people) by Giachen Caspar Muoth (1844-1906):
Stai si, defenda Romontsch, tiu vegl lungatg, Risguard pretenda, Per tiu patratg!
Stand up, Romansh people, defend your old language, demand respect for your heritage.
Five main dialects
The language has five main dialects. Sursilvan is spoken in the Upper Rhine Valley (Vorderrheintal), Sutsilvan in the area of the Lower Rhine (Hinterrhein), Surmiran is spoken in the Albula Valley (Albulatal), Vaz/Obervaz and Val Ferrera, Putèr in Upper Engadin (Oberengadin) and Bergün, and Vallader in Lower Engadin (Unterengadin) and (with differences) in the Münstertal. In addition, related dialects exist in Lombardy and Austria (Ladinisch and Friaulisch).
One unifying initiative is the so-called Rumantsch grischun, the unitarian Romansh language for the administration and education. Although fewer and fewer people speak the language, the language also has a global reputation.
The word glacier, for example, is derived from glatsch (ice). Recent years show a growing interest in the language.
And rightly so. Romansh is a unique and beautiful language and a direct linguistic heritage of the Celtic and Roman past.
Several organisations, initiatives and media are committed to preserving the Romansh language and culture and making it accessible to other Swiss citizens and others interested (for example, www.romontsch.ch and www.liarumantscha.ch).