Period IV newsletter

Scuol (Schuls), Unterengadin, Vallader Romansh. Photo/foto: TES.

The Swiss Esperanto Rumantsch Grischun

Seventeen of the twenty-six Swiss cantons are German-speaking, four French-speaking (Vaud, Geneva, Neuchâtel, and Jura), one is Italian speaking (Ticino), three are bilingual French and German (Fribourg, Berne, and Valais) and one is trilingual Romansh, Italian and German (Grisons). Although Switzerland or its territory has been a multilingual country for a long time, many if not most Swiss citizens are not bilingual, let alone trilingual. There is even a growing (and worrying) tendency of communication in English between German-, French- or Italian speaking citizens. The only genuinely bilingual community is also the smallest, the Romansh in Grisons. All Romansh speaking citizens, around 60 000 according to the latest figures (2000), speak German as well and many have at least some understanding of Italian or French.

One neglected accomplishment of this multilingual situation is the world’s oldest and most successful bilingual school system. The use of two languages in schools in Romansh areas came about more or less incidentally in the nineteenth century when German became more relevant, due to the improved accessibility of the valleys and immigration of German-speaking citizens (and English tourists). Since 1880, the constitution of the canton recognised the three languages, Italian, German and Romansh, and it was left to the communes to determine the language used in schools. The adopted federal constitution of 1999 (Art. 4, 8, 18, 31, 70 and 188) contains detailed language provisions and use at government institutions (including the Federal Supreme Court (Bundesgericht) in Lausanne, which handed down its first judgment in Romansh in 1996). Romansh was recognised as (fourth) language at the federal level as well.

Romansh is a language in its own right, and its roots go back to the Roman Empire and the Roman Province of Raetia (Prima) with Chur as the most important (Episcopal) city. (Vulgar) Latin fused with the native languages to become gradually Romansh as it still exists today. The (slow) process of Germanisation from the North (starting in the second half of the fifth century and from the West (by German-speakers from the Upper-Valais, also known as Walser, in the 13th and 14th centuries) gradually isolated the Romansh speaking peoples and their valleys. German became even the official language of the Three Leagues (Gotthausesbund, Zehngerichtebund, and Graue or Obere Bund) when they merged into the canton of Grisons (Graubünden) in 1803. Every delegate in the parliament of the canton was entitled to use Romansh, German or Italian language and official documents were recorded and printed in these three languages. The reality was less rosy in practice, however, and German was the preferred language in the administration.

The use of Romansh was also complicated by the lack of Romansh identity and the evolvement of five Romansh idioms over the centuries, due to the isolation of the valleys by the mighty Alps. Some of the idioms are very different from one another, for example, Surselva Romansh (Vorderrhein region) and Vallader Romansh (Lower Engadine) of Puter Romansh (Upper Engadine). A recent initiative, Rumantsch Grischun, aims at standardisation of the Romansh language. The so-called Rhaeto-Romance Renaissance in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the setting up of private and governmental bodies to promote, educate and use the Romansh language and culture are efforts to stop the decline of this historic and unique language, being very close to (vulgar) Latin. Newspapers, radio, television, schools, a chair at the ETH and Zurich University, language courses outside Grisons (Basel, Berne, Zurich), the legal (constitutional) framework, literature and use in cultural-historical publications, theatre, music and other cultural events give hope for the future, although demographic, economic and technological developments and globalisation are challenging developments. The present discussions about one foreign language in the (primary) schools in the canton (and other cantons) is another indication of the ongoing globalisation and (growing) linguistic division in the country. Could Romansh become the Esperanto for Switzerland? The Rumantsch Grischun is ready for the sake of Swiss linguistic unity. (Source, M. Gross, Rätoromanisch, Facts & Figures, Lia Rumantscha, Chur, 2005).