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Romansh, the third official language of Graubünden, is the fourth language of Switzerland and the principal everyday tongue of some seventy thousand people. If you stick to the main tourist centres of Chur, Davos and St Moritz, you’ll see and hear only Swiss-German, but if you venture into the countryside, you’ll find signs to the staziun pointing along Via Principala, and hear people greeting each other with “Allegra!” or “Bun di!” in what sounds like Italian with a Swiss-German accent.

Romansh can trace its roots directly back to Latin, fountainhead for all the Romance languages of Europe. After the Roman conquests, so-called Vulgar Latin, spoken by soldiers, merchants and officials, slowly merged over the centuries with the pre-existing langagues of conquered areas, giving rise to four main linguistic groups: Ibero-Romance, including Spanish, Catalan and Portuguese; Gallo-Romance, mainly French; Italian; and Rhaeto-Romance, comprising Friulian and Ladin, two languages spoken by around 750,000 people in the extreme north of Italy, and Romansh, spoken only in Graubünden. The first significant inroads made by outsiders into the isolated Romansh-speaking mountain communities was in the thirteenth century, when German-speaking Walsers from Canton Valais settled in some of the high valleys; their legacy survives to this day, with Davos (once called Tavau, the Romansh word for “alp”) still majority Swiss-German, and German-speaking communities clustered together in otherwise Romansh Surselva. In 1464, a huge fire destroyed Chur, and crafts people arrived from the north to rebuild the town, in the process erasing virtually all its Romansh culture and language.

In the middle of the nineteenth century Romansh was still counted as the native tongue of over half the population of Graubünden, but the development of roads and railways penetrating otherwise remote valleys led to greater and greater erosion, as the Romansh people themselves realized that their language was an impediment to getting well-paid work outside their traditional communities. With schools, churches and communes slowly switching over to German, a conscious effort began with the turn of the century to nurture Romansh: cultural pressure groups and writers’ organizations began to promote the language both in Graubünden and nationwide. In 1938, an amendment to the Swiss Constitution confirmed the status of Romansh as a national language, a halfway-house proposal which still required Romansh-speakers to use German, French or Italian. In 1996 a second constitutional amendment elevated Romansh to the status of a semi-official language of the Confederation, thereby preserving its status amongst Romansh communities, guaranteeing its appearance on official documents such as passports and in legislation affecting Romansh areas, and eliminating the requirement for Romansh-speakers to use any other language.

Romansh itself, however, is not a unified whole: there is a welter of different dialects, each of which can vary dramatically from the others. The word for “cup”, for example, in German is Tasse, in Italian tazza, but in the Sursilvan dialect of Romansh, spoken west of Chur, it is scadiola; in the Sutsilvan of the Hinterrhein valley, scariola; in the Surmeiran of the Julier and Albula valleys, cuppegn; and in Putèr and Vallader, spoken in the Upper and Lower Engadine respectively, cupina. In 1980, the Lia Rumantscha, a leading Romansh cultural organization, put forward a proposal to regularize this mishmash. The result was the creation of Rumantsch Grischun (Graubünden Romansh), a composite written language formed by averaging out words across all five dialects; under this new system, “cup” became cuppina. Nonetheless, despite the lack of a Romansh capital city able to provide a cultural and linguistic focus for the language, and the consequent reliance of Romansh-speakers on German-language companies and media for work and information respectively, there was still some resistance to forming a hybrid in this way; today, local communities still stick to their own dialect in everyday life, and presenters on Radio Grischa and Radio Piz Corvatsch, the two Graubünden stations, speak their own local idiom. Rumantsch Grischun has become a unifying tool in those situations where Romansh speakers are currently forced to default into German for ease of communication, and yet many proposals such as a Romansh daily newspaper haven’t got off the drawing board.

The Lia Rumantscha, with federal funding, has already published a German–Romansh dictionary, and has an English–Romansh one currently in production. For booklets and more information, you can either drop into their offices at Obere Plessurstrasse 47 in Chur, consult their excellent Web site (www.liarumantscha.ch), or contact them at Chascha Postala 1, Via da la Plessur 47, CH-7001 Cuira (081/252 44 22, fax 252 84 26, liarum@spin.ch).

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