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UNDERSTANDING THE SWISS

18 interesting facts about Romansh, Switzerland’s fourth official language

While the fact that Switzerland speaks German, French and Italian is well known, did you know about Romansh? To celebrate Romansh week, here's what you need to know about Switzerland's fourth official language.

18 interesting facts about Romansh, Switzerland’s fourth official language
Switzerland's only national park is located in a Romansh-speaking area. Photo: The Local
While it might sound like the late Sean Connery describing what he likes about Valentine’s Day, Romansh is one of four official national languages of Switzerland. 
 
Spoken by only a handful of people in the canton of Graubünden, Romansh is an important part of Swiss history and cultural life.
 
Starting in 2021, Switzerland launched ‘Emna Rumantscha’, otherwise known as Romansh National Week. The week-long celebration of Switzerland’s fourth national language is set to take place annually in February. 
 
 
The Local’s guide on Romansh gets you up to speed. 
 
1. Romansh is a Romance language of the Rhaetian people, who are thought to have arrived in the Alps around 500BC. When the Romans conquered that part of Europe, Romansh developed as a variant of Vulgar (or spoken, non-classical) Latin, as did French, Italian and Spanish. Consequently, it’s known as a Rhaeto-Romance language.
 
2. According to Romansh language body Lia Rumantscha, some 60,000 people speak Romansh in total, mostly in the canton of Graubünden, where it is an official language at cantonal level along with German and Italian. About 20 percent of the canton speak Romansh. 
 
3. Romansh is actually the umbrella name for five written regional variants of Romansh: Sursilvan, Sutsilvan, Surmiran, Puter and Vallader. These, and many other spoken dialects, developed over time because of the remoteness of many villages in Graubünden, making it hard for people from different areas to mingle.
 
4. In 1982 a standardized written version of the language, known as Romansh Grishun, was created by a Zurich linguist. It’s used for representing Romansh in official texts and on Swiss banknotes. But Romansh people don’t use it, they speak the variant for their area instead. “Romansh Grishun is not a living language, it’s artificial,” says Matthias Grünert, a Romansh specialist at the University of Fribourg. 
 
German, Italian and Romansh are the official languages of Graubünden. Photo: Philip Newton
 
5. The two most spoken variants are Sursilvan in the western part of the canton, and Vallader to the east, in the lower Engadine. Surmiran is spoken in central areas, and Puter in the upper Engadine. The least widely spoken is Sutsilvan.
 
6. The most similar Romance language to Romansh is Italian, particularly the dialects of Lombardy in northern Italy. “In the Middle Ages it would have been difficult to establish an exact border between where Italian finished and Romansh started,” Grünert told The Local.
 
7.There are two other languages in northern Italy that are attributed to the Rhaeto-Romance family of languages: Ladin, spoken in the Dolomites in southern Tyrol; and Friulian, spoken in north-eastern Italy near to Slovenia and Austria.
 
“People of the Graubünden and Dolomites don’t spontaneously understand each other, but linguists who have compared these languages have shown that Ladin and Romansh are very similar and they belong to the same type of language,” says Grünert.
 
A traditional house in a Romansh-speaking village. Photo: Graubünden Tourism
 
8. Unlike in Italian, in Romansh there is no vowel at the end of masculine nouns. Nevertheless, it’s easy to see the similarity in many words including ‘lake’, which is lago in Italian and lag in Romansh. ‘Bread’ is pane in Italian and paun in Romansh; ‘wall’ is muro in Italian and mir in Romansh. 
 
9. The Romansh variants of the Engadine region are heavily influenced by Italian. For centuries people from that area of Switzerland emigrated over the border to Italy to work, regularly coming back to Engadine in the summer months. Therefore Puter and Vallader developed with a strong influence of Italian.
 
10. However the other variants are now more influenced by German. These days the Romansh world is orientated towards German-speaking Switzerland and all Romansh speakers are bilingual, speaking and writing fluent German/Swiss German. 
 
11. Since the Middle Ages many German words have crept into Romansh, for example aber, which means ‘but’ in both German and Romansh, and schon, meaning ‘already’ in both languages. Swiss German influence is seen in the Romansh word buob, meaning ‘boy’, that derives from the Swiss German Bueb. For ‘girl’, the Romansh added an ‘a’ to create buoba
 
The five variants of Romansh developed because of the remoteness of where they were spoken. Photo: Graubünden Tourism
 
12. Romansh has been a national language of Switzerland since 1938 but only an official language at federal level since 1996, and with limited status compared to the other three. The government must communicate in Romansh with Romansh-speaking citizens and Romansh Grishun must be written on official documents such as passports and ID cards. 
 
 
13. Schools in Romansh-speaking areas teach completely in the Romansh variant of their area up until sixth grade. Children learn to write in Romansh from the first grade. From grade 7-9 German takes over as the written language in schools, since children must speak and write fluent German in order to obtain jobs later on. However Romansh is kept for some subjects.
 
14. Consequently, the canton of Graubünden publishes schoolbooks in the five variants of Romansh. For a time the canton tried to overcome this by publishing only in Romansh Grishun, but the people didn’t accept this, seeing it as a threat to their own variant of Romansh.  
 
15. Lia Rumantscha was founded in 1919 to help save the language, after a wave of immigration from German speakers into Romansh-speaking areas threatened its future.
 
16. Names in Romansh-speaking Switzerland also differ significantly from the rest of the country. 
 
In 2020, the most popular girls’ name was a five-way tie between Daria, Laura, Lea, Lorena and Yuna.

For the boys, Nic and Levin top the charts.

 
17. Well-known Romansh-speakers include skier Dario Cologna, writer Arno Camenisch, singer Mario Pacchioli and rap crew Snook
 
 
18. Want to get by in Romansh? Try getting your mouth round these words and phrases in Romansh Grishun — and note how many have similarities to other languages, not only Italian but French and even Portuguese.
 
Romansh words with English translations
allegra hello
co vai? how are you?
bain fine
bun di good morning
buna saira good evening
buna notg good night
a pli tard see you later
a revair good bye
grazia thanks
perstgisai! excuse me!
i ma displascha sorry
bun viadi have a good trip
Tge bel di! What a beautiful day!
 
 

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UNDERSTANDING THE SWISS

Reader question: What is Switzerland’s ‘Bünzli’ and how do I spot one?

In Switzerland, you might hear the term 'Bünzli' to describe someone. What does it mean?

A person wearing socks with sandals
Socks with sandals are a part of the Bünzli uniform. Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

One of many cultural curiosities, a Bünzli is someone who is simultaneously very Swiss – but whom the Swiss make significant fun of. 

The term has no direct English translation, which can make it a little confusing at first to understand. 

At least in part because it is relatively difficult to translate into English, the word Bünzli itself is often used among English speakers who live in Switzerland. 

Here’s what you need to know about Bünzli, a truly Swiss phenomenon. 

What is a Bünzli? 

The term Bünzli is a Swiss German insult to describe a particular type of person who is set in their ways, has narrow mind and view of things and tries desperately hard to hang onto tradition. It is almost always used as a criticism or in a negative context. 

While the internet gives up the translation ‘philistine’ in English, there are other elements which make a Bünzli a Bünzli. 

This insult – based on a real Swiss surname – applies to those boring people who follow all the rules and make sure everyone else does too.

Other English words like fussy, fastidious, stodgy and exact also describe a Bünzli. 

A Bünzli is the sort of person who would never cross the street when the light is red, who never stays out too late and never gets too drunk.

A Bünzli will have a perfectly manicured garden and will never want to split a bill evenly, instead demanding to pay exactly what he or she had – and nothing more. 

He is also the person most likely to complain to the building president when you dare to do your washing on Sunday, or to ring the police when he sees someone parked in front of a fire hydrant.

Some say Bünzli are particularly Swiss, like a distilled, concentrated form of pure Swiss-ness, although the fact that Bünzli are usually the target of ridicule from Swiss people indicates that foreigners are not the only ones who find the behaviour weird or out of line. 

The best English translation is probably a ‘goody two-shoes’, although in this case the more likely attire is socks paired with Adiletten. Yep, you get the idea.


Wearing Adiletten with socks doesn’t make you a Buenzli…but it helps. Photo: Christian H. Flickr

Still not sure what a Bünzli is? 

If you still don’t know what a Bünzli is, it might be helpful to see a few further examples. 

The following YouTube video goes through some specifics of the Bünzli is in Swiss German (although if you already speak Swiss German, you’ll likely know what a Bünzli is). 

Switzerland’s English forum often holds debates where expats look to discover the exact meaning of the term

Swiss news site Watson lists several reader examples of their Bünzli experiences, from having the police called for a noise complaint at 10:01pm, to telling tourists who asked for directions while holding a train door open to let go of the door so the train can leave. 

How do I spot one? 

For those who still don’t exactly know what a Bünzli is, don’t fret.

It’ll often happen the other way around, i.e. the Bünzli will discover you, when you haven’t done your recycling or when your doormat is the wrong way around in front of your apartment or when you cycle across the pedestrian crossing with no cars around. 

Keep the above in mind and trust us, you’ll know one when you see one. 

Have you had any Bünzli experiences? Please let us know in the comments below. 

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