Spoken by only a handful of people in the canton of Graubünden, Romansh is nevertheless an important part of Swiss history and cultural life. The Local's guide 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. The top baby names in Romansh-speaking Switzerland in 2015 were Alessia and Laurin.
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.
co vai? how are you?
bun di good morning
buna saira good evening
buna notg good night
a pli tard see you later
a revair good bye
perstgisai! excuse me!
i ma displascha sorry
bun viadi have a good trip
Tge bel di! What a beautiful day!