Slide 1  Swiss Romantsch                                                            

Study of a language under threat


Romantsh is a Romance language, a natural development from Latin.  It is spoken by about 70,000 people in Switzerland, mostly in the canton of Graubünden (the Grisons).  It belongs to the same family as French, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, and Romanian. Others are Sardinian, Provencal/Occitan and the extinct Dalmatian language.


Slide 2  Romantsch                                                                         

A language spoken by 70,000 people

Concentrated in south-east Switzerland

In the canton of Graubunden (Grisons)

Developed from Vulgar Latin

Related to French, Spanish, Catalan,

Portuguese, Romanian, Sardinian, Occitan and Dalmatian


The term Rhaeto-Romance is used to refer to three separate language groupings in different parts of the Alps. They include:


1.  Ladin, spoken by 30,000 Italian citizens in the Dolomite valleys in Alto Adige (formerly South Tirol).                                                                          


2. Friulian, spoken by 700,000 Italian citizens in the area further east around Udine and stetching down towards Trieste and Venice


3.  Swiss Romantsch, spoken by 70,000 Swiss citizens, mostly in the canton of Graubünden (Grisons).


Slide 3  3 Rhaeto-Romantsch areas

Ladin in Italy - in Alto Adige - 30,000

   in the Dolomites

Friulian in Italy - NE Italy - 700,000

   towards Udine & Trieste

Romantsch - in Switzerland - 70,000

   in the Grisons (Graubunden)


Slide 4  The languages of Switzerland                                



Switzerland has 4 national languages: 

French, spoken by about 20%,

German by over 60%,

Italian by 8%

and Romantsch by 1%.


How Romantsch developed


In 15 BC, the Romans conquered the Alpine region, which was known as Raetia.  Latin in its spoken form (Vulgar Latin) gradually displaced the languages spoken by the indiginous inhabitants, which were related to Celtic, Etruscan and Ligurian.  But in displacing them they blended with them, resulting in a form of Vulgar Latin with a particular Rhaetian imprint.  This finally evolved into today's Rhaeto-Romance language variants, including Swiss Romantsh. It occurred in much the same way as Vulgar Latin replaced the indiginous languages of Gaul and the Iberian peninsula, influencing their development into French, Provencal, Catalan, Spanish and Portuguese.


Slide 5  How Romantsch developed                                 

Romans conquered the Alpine region 15 BC

Local languages Etruscan/Celtic/Ligurian

Local languages were replaced by Latin

Latin was influenced by the local languages

Vulgar Latin with a strong Rhaetian imprint


The territory known as Rhaeto-Romania reached its maximum extent in the fifth century AD, and covered an area from the Danube to the Adriatic:  roughly from Munich in the north down to Venice in the south.                   


Slide 6  Rhaeto-Romania

At its height in 5th century AD

Area stretched from Danube to Adriatic

from Munich in the north

to Venice in the south

Two administrative centres:

raetia prima:  Chur (now Switzerland)

raetia secunda:  Augsburg (now Bavaria)


The area where the Rhaeto-Romance languages were spoken was gradually eroded following the collapse of the Roman empire and the mass-migration of  Alamanni and other Germanic-speaking peoples from the north between the 5th and10th centuries.


The area was divided into two regions, known as raetia prima in the south, with its centre in Chur, and raetia secunda in the north, with its centre in Augsburg.  In the northern part the language was gradually replaced by that of the Germanic-speaking invaders, leaving Chur the effective centre for what was left of the area.


The arrival of so-called Walsers from the Rhone Valley in the west, during the13th and 14th centuries, caused a futher erosion of the area where the language was spoken.


In 1464 there was a disastrous fire in Chur and the town was burned down.  It was rebuilt largely by German-speaking workmen who then stayed  and settled there.  The effect of this was to separate the Romantsch-speaking valleys from each other and leave the whole region without a Romantsch-speaking economic and cultural centre.                                                             

Slide 7  Disastrous fire                                            

In 1464 Chur was completely burnt down

Rebuilt by Germanic-speaking workmen

They stayed and settled in Chur

Romance language replaced by Germanic

Romance Valleys cut off from each other

Isolated valleys each developed own idiom


These valleys were mostly involved in agriculture.  For many months in winter deep snow made contact between the valleys difficult, further increasing their isolation. As a result they developed their own forms of the language and these more and more diverged from one another.


Five distinct forms of the language gradually emerged and these became  the idioms used today. 


The written language


Apart from fragments from the Middle Ages, the earliest records of written Romantsh are from the sixteenth century, when the Reformation and Counter-Reformation movements published works in it.


In the course of time, each of the regional variants developed its own written form and each its own literature.  For many years now each of the five variants has had its own newspaper. 


The areas where the five idioms are spoken are divided between the valleys of the Inn and the Rhine and have the following names:


Slide 8  Romantsch - 5 variants                                           

Upper Engadine:   Puter

Lower Engadine:  Vallader

Upper Rhine:         Surselva

Lower Rhine:         Sutselva

in between:            Surmeiran


In  the Inn Valley (the Engadine):   Puter and Vallader (plus Val  Müster)

In the Rhine Valley:                         Surselva and Sutselva

in between:                      Surmeiran (called Oberhalbstein in German).


As in most of Switzerland, virtually every village has its own distinct dialect.


Numbers of Romantsch speakers


Romantsh is one of Switzerland's four national languages, along with French, German and Italian. It is one of the three official languages of the canton of Graubünden (Grisons), along with German and Italian.


In 1990 Romantsh speakers represented 1% of the Swiss population and 23% of the Graubünden population.


The five regional idioms have the following percentages:


Slide 9  Percentages                                                

Upper Engadine        Puter       13%

Lower Engadine       Vallader   15%

Upper Rhine              Surselva  43%

Lower Rhine              Sutselva    3%

In between                  Surmieran 8%


Are the five idioms mutually intelligible?  If two people from different areas really want to make themselves understood, and are patient, they often can - though probably with some difficulty. The main problem with reading is that the  written forms of the five idioms look very different since the spelling varies greatly.


An accurate estimate of the number of Romantsch-speakers is problematc.  Many Swiss people are bi-lingual or trilingual.  They may use one language in the home and another at school or at work.  They may not speak their so-called mother-tongue as well as the language that they use every day.  The figures quoted are the result of different surveys.  Some have asked for "mother-tongue".  Others have asked for "best language".  The two figures can be quite different.


The language used in education


The Romantsh language is taught in schools, in the idiom appropriate to the area.  In Romantsch-speaking communes, all teaching in kindergartens, and in primary schools during the first 4 years, is done entirely through the medium of the local idiom.  This means that up to age 11 the children do everything in Romantsch.   After that, German is gradually introduced.  From age 13, when they go to secondary school, the instruction is in German.  Romantsch is then taught as a separate subject.


A language under threat


Over the centuries Romantsh has continued to lose ground. This has been at an ever-increasing rate since the mountain regions were opened up to tourism through the building of roads and railways.  Greater prosperity has brought a major new threat to the Romanstch language.


With the opening-up of the Alpine region, Romantsch-speakers began to see their language as an economic impediment, especially when dealing with new-comers and visitors  - mainly German-speakers from other parts of Switzerland, but also people speaking Italian and other languages.  As a result many communes changed the language of instruction in their schools to German.

Slide 10  Constant decline                                             

Roads & railways opened up the valleys

Increasing economic prosperity

Business contacts with German speakers

Influx of German-speaking visitors

Romantsch seen as an impediment

Many schools switched to German


The advent of radio and television has tended to re-inforce the use of German at the expense of Romantsch, even though there are now regular programs transmitted in the various idioms.


Another problem for Rumantsch


Switzerland has its own distinctive form of democracy with a referendum taking place at frequent intervals on a whole range of issues.  By Swiss law, when fifty percent of a commune becomes German-speaking, the kindergarten and primary school can, and usually do, change from using Romantsch to German as the medium of instruction.  This has further eroded the language. 


Anyone wanting to learn Romantsch has to decide which of the five varieties to choose.  Whilst they have a lot in common, they do vary markedly one from the other.  Indeed local people can have great difficulty in communicating with those from other regions.

A unique solution:  Rumantsch Grischun


There is an important and influential umbrella organization whose task it is to promote  the Romantsch language and culture.  It is called the The Lia Rumantscha and is based in Chur.


Following a study set up by the government, the Lia Rumantscha appointed Prof. Müller from Zürich University to carry our a 5-year research project with the aim of creating an artificial unified written language, based on the dominant characteristics of the five dialects.  This was completed in 1982.   It was decided to call it Rumantsch Grischun, (meaning Grisons Romantsch).


Significantly, the first book to be published in the new language was Tick-Tack for Business. 1000 copies were ordered from us in 1983 to celebrate the first anniversary of the new language. Since then the book has been converted into software, and other Tick-Tack programs in Rumantsch Grischun have been added.


Slide 11  Rumantsch Grischun                                       

5-year study of all the variants

Created a combined artifical language

Commonest characteristics of all 5 idioms

The result:  a unified written langauge

Called Rumantsch Grischun

First book to be produced in it:

Tick-Tack for Business


In the past eighteen years there has been a rapid development in the use of the unified written language in the form of books, videos, dictionaries, and web-sites, as well as in advertising and  packaging.


Initially the only items in the new language were Tick-Tack for Business and a slim dictionary. When the Swiss cantons write to the government in Bern they write in their own idiom, so the Romantsch-speakers in Graubunden began to write in Rumantsch Grischun.  The government, obliged to write to the canton in the canton's language, did the same.  But in order to make sure that they wrote it correctly, both sides for a time relied on Tick-Tack.


There has been much resistance from local people to this new language, which many dismissed as an artificial construct which would undermine their own mother-tongue, i.e  the local idiom that they use for speaking, reading and writing.   This has been as true in the schools as in the general community.


Over the years many of these fears have diminished, though not everywhere. In June this year there was a referendum on whether to accept Rumantsch Grischun as the one and only written form to be used for official purposes.  Two thirds of the population accepted it.  But it still meant that one third were not in favour, including a significant proportion of people in the largest region:  Surselva in the Upper Rhine.

The future of Rumantsch Grischun


It is uncertain whether Rumantsch Grischun  will ever become a spoken language.  German-speaking Swiss read and write in high German (Hochdeutsch) but they do not speak it, except to foreigners.  They all speak the dialect of their own region, or village.  It is usually referred to as Schwiezerdutsch.  So Rumanstch Grischun may well become the sole written language but people will no doubt continue to speak their own idiom.


Slide 12  Spoken versus written language                 

German-Swiss read & write in Hochdeutsch

But they speak "Schwiezerdutsch"

Each village has its own dialect

They are fiercely proud of their dialect

Romantsch-speakers may do the same

Read & write in Rumantsch Grischun

But speak in their own native idiom


The only time that High German (Hochdeutsch) is spoken in Switzerland is to German-speaking visitors, apart from the radio and television news, which is delivered in High German, but with a strong Swiss accent.


Speakers of Ladin and Friulian, the related Rhaeto-Romance languages in Italy, are unlikely ever to adopt the new unified written language.  Their idioms are even further removed - in spelling, vocabulary and grammar.  The Lia Rumantscha and others maintain contact with similar organizations in the Italian areas, but are forced to communicate in German with the Ladin-speakers and in Italian with the Friulian-speakers.


Tick-Tack plans


To help promote the use of the new unified written language we are planning to produce Tick-Tack programs with the sentences in both Romantsch Grischun and the local idioms so that, in school, pupils will be able to read and select sentences in their mother-tongue, and create their texts in the new unified language.


It is very difficult to learn a language without knowing how it is pronounced.  Latin is a good example of this.  Until recently Latin was in steep decline in English schools, but since the introduction of the very popular Cambridge Latin Course, which is accompanied by voice-recordings of all the narratives, Latin has enjoyed a renaissance.


In order to encourage people to learn Romantsch, we want to help create a standard pronunciation for Rumantsch Grischun by recording the sentences.  This will then mean that anyone wishing to learn Romantsch will not have to decide which of the five variants to learn.  They will be able to learn the unified language, Rumantsch Grischun, not only to read and write it but also to speak it.