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Romansh: The fourth language in Switzerland
There are four national languages in Switzerland: Swiss German, French, Italian - and Romansh. Because only 0.5% of the Swiss population speaks Romansh and the status of the language is only partially official, it is obvious which of the four languages is not like the others. May we introduce: Romansh, the fourth language in Switzerland.
What is Romansh?
Romansh has many other names: Romansch, Rumantsch, Romontsch, Rumauntsch and Rumàntsch, because there are five regional dialects. Romansh (or Grisons Romansh or Romansh) is one of the Romance languages and is the fourth national language of Switzerland. Today it is mainly spoken in the canton of Grisons or (in Swiss German) Graubünden.
As a Romance language, Romansh is derived from Latin, as it was spoken in the Roman Empire. Because of the remoteness of the region in which it is spoken, Romansh is an exception among the Romance languages. Due to the intensive contact with German, the similarity between the two languages in terms of vocabulary and sometimes also in terms of syntax is a striking feature of Romansh.
Within the Romance languages, Romance belongs to the Gallo-Roman branch, as does French, Lombard and Occitan. In linguistics, Romansh is assigned by some to the Romansh subgroup of the Gallo-Roman languages, which also includes Friulian and Ladin. This is based on the assumption that Romansh languages descend from a common language. On the other hand, another perspective assumes that Romansh languages are similar because of their geographical isolation. It is important here that Romansh, Friulian and Ladin are not dialects of Italian and that speakers of Romansh regard their own language as separate from Italian or other Romance languages.
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There are five dialects in Romansh, each of which has a standardized form called an "idiom" that is used to distinguish it from the local everyday language known as a dialect. The five Romance idioms are:
Surselvic: The name of the most widely spoken Romance variety comes from the Surselva region. The name itself means above ("sur") the forest ("selva"). Surselvian is spoken in the Vorderrhein Valley in Switzerland.
Lower Engadin: The idiom of the Lower Engadine and Val Müstair is the second most widely spoken Romance variety with around six and a half thousand speakers.
Upper Engadin: About five and a half thousand people speak this idiom in the Upper Engadin and in the village of Brail.
Surmeirian: Almost three thousand people speak this variety of Romansh in the valleys of the Gelgia (Julia) and Alvra (Albula) rivers.
Sutselvian: This Romanesque variety has largely died out in its historical region since the beginning of the 20th century and today only has a little more than a thousand speakers in the Hinterrheintal.
The artificial language Rumantsch Grischun was developed in 1982 by the Zurich linguist Heinrich Schmid. The goal was a common Romance standard language, especially for representation in official texts. Nevertheless, the decision as to whether Rumantsch Grischun is used lies with the individual institutions. Romansh speakers generally do not use the artificial language, but rather their dialect instead.
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History and origin of Romansh
About 15 BC The Romans invaded Raetia, today's Graubünden, and conquered it. The combination of the Latin spoken by the Roman soldiers and the Rhaetian resulted in Romansh. Romansh was the region's primary language until the 15th century. At that time, the Three Leagues formed the canton's first version.
German was the first language. Romansh then split into the five dialects of the remote mountain villages in the region. Because every dialect has its own written version, Romansh did not develop in the same way as German and French did in Switzerland. The canton also supports the use of German, which is the leading language in Graubünden today.
Where is Romansh spoken?
In the Middle Ages, the Romansh-speaking area extended to Lake Constance. Today Graubünden is the canton that is known for Romansh. Until the 17th century, i.e. until it became German-speaking, there were also Romansh speakers in the Vinschgau in South Tyrol. What is known as the traditional Romansh-speaking area lies entirely in Graubünden: 121 municipalities, in which the majority of the Swiss population census stated Romansh as their mother tongue between 1860 and 1888.
In 2000, 66 parishes in this traditional region still gave a Romansh majority. In 18 communities in this traditional Romansh-speaking area, the language has died out or is only spoken by a minority. In the Surselva region, almost 80% of the population still actively speak the language. In the Sutselva region, on the other hand, the language is almost extinct. About 30 percent of the population in the Upper Engadin speaks Romansh, while Romansh speakers in the Lower Engadin make up the majority with 60%. The majority of Romansh speakers outside the traditional area live in Chur, the capital of Graubünden, as well as in other larger cities in Switzerland.
What is the status of the fourth language in Switzerland?
There are four national languages in Switzerland, namely Swiss German, French, Italian and Romansh. But each canton can decide for itself which of these four languages should have official language status. All four languages are official at federal government level. The canton of Graubünden has made Romansh the official language.
A referendum in 1938 gave Romansh the status of the national language, with an overwhelming majority of 90 percent of the vote. But even more important is a referendum in 1996 that made Romansh partly the official language: today it is the “official language for correspondence with Romansh speakers”. Citizens who speak Romansh can contact the federal government in any Romansh dialect and receive an answer in Rumantsch Grischun.
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Interesting facts about Romansh
With these facts about the fourth language of Switzerland you will make a real impression on your Swiss friends, Romansh speakers or linguists:
- Around 60,000 people speak Romansh today. Most of them live in Graubünden, the only canton that recognizes Romansh, along with German and Italian, as an official language.
- Most Romansh speakers are bilingual or multilingual and speak at least Swiss German.
- The Lia Rumantscha is a non-profit umbrella organization for all Romansh speakers and was founded in 1919. The organization supports the Romance language and culture from its headquarters in Chur and oversees regional associations.
- The Swiss government spends CHF 7.6 million annually on supporting and maintaining the Romance language.
- Romance is most similar to the related Romance language Italian, especially in the dialects of Lombardy in northern Italy. In the Middle Ages, the two languages were even more similar.
- In schools in Romansh-speaking areas, the local variety is taught up to sixth grade. German is spreading more and more, but Romansh is still used for some lessons.
Would you like to learn more about the Swiss and their languages? We introduce you to the languages of Switzerland!
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