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).

A multilingual country

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 Romansh language

The only genuinely bilingual community is also the smallest, the Romansh people in Grisons. All Romansh speaking citizens, around 60 000 according to the latest figures, speak German as well and many have at least some understanding of Italian or French.

Bilingual school system.

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 in the nineteenth century when German became more relevant, due to the improved accessibility of the valleys and immigration of German-speaking citizens (and tourists).

Since 1880, the constitution of the canton recognised the three languages, Italian, German and Romansh. The communes determine the use of languages in schools.

The federal constitution (Art. 4, 8, 18, 31, 70 and 188) contains detailed language provisions and the use of languages (including the Federal Supreme Court (Bundesgericht) in Lausanne. The Swiss Supreme Court handed down ths first judgment in Romansh in 1996. Romansh was recognised as (fourth) national language in 1938.


Romansh is a language in its own right. The roots go back to Celtic tribes and the  Roman Province of Raetia (Prima) with Chur as the most important (later Episcopal) city. (Vulgar) Latin fused with the native (Celtic) language to become gradually Romansh.

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 the official language of the Three Leagues (Gotteshausbund, Zehngerichtebund, and Graue or Obere Bund) when they formally merged into the canton of Grisons (Graubünden) in 1803 (after a long history of alliances from the fourteenth century onwards and the unity of the Three Leagues (1524).

Every delegate in the parliament of the canton was entitled to use Romansh, German or Italian language. Documents were recorded and printed in these three languages. The reality was less rosy in practice and German became the dominant language in the administration.

The use of Romansh

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 Alps.

Some of the idioms are very different from one another, for example, Surselva/Sutselva/Surmiran Romansh (Rhein region) differs from Vallader Romansh (Lower Engadine) and Putèr Romansh (Upper Engadine).

A recent initiative, Rumantsch Grischun, aims at standardization of the Romansh language.

Romansh Renaissance

The so-called Romansh 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.

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 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).