About the Romansh language

Switzerland is and will always be an amalgam of cultures. And, although many of us believe that Switzerland is just about mountains and cheese (and expensive things!), if you look closely at people’s way of life, you will notice the cultural differences that arise.

When I traveled to Switzerland, I bought a one-week pass on all trains (250 Swiss francs!). I traveled a lot by train in those 7 days, from Geneva to Zermatt, from Zurich to the Alps. Depending on the area of Switzerland I was in, the newspaper that was distributed on the train (20min.ch) was either in German, or in French, or in Italian. The news was the same, but in a different language.

In Switzerland the official languages are German (58.5% of the population speaks Swiss German and 4.1% speaks Hochdeutsch), French (22.9%), Italian (8.2%) and, of course, Romansh (0.5%). Many of you probably didn’t know that Romansh is also spoken in Switzerland. Most likely you did not know that the Romansh language existed. Well, it exists, and it is spoken by about 60,000 inhabitants.

Romansh is a Romance language (meaning it is related to Spanish, Italian, Romanian etc.), but it also has strong Germanic influences. Romansh also has influences from the Celtic and Raetian languages, languages that have been dead for centuries. Romansh is therefore a Romance language, but it is also part of the sub-family of Rhaeto-Romance languages, which also includes Friulian (spoken in northeastern Italy by about 600,000 people) and Ladin (also spoken in Italy, by about 20,000 people).

The first writings identified to be written in Romansh date back to the 11th century BC. The first printed literary text appeared in 1552, being a catechism (summary or exposition of a religious doctrine) written by Jacob Bifrun. A Romansh translation of the New Testament was first published in 1560. Since the 19th century, the Romansh language has experienced a decline in the number of native speakers. It seems that the Romansh language is slowly becoming a ‘dead’ language, like the ones mentioned above (Celtic and Raetian), but also Latin.

Romansh is especially spoken in the canton of Graubünden (Grisons), a canton on the Swiss border with Austria and Italy. 44,354 inhabitants of Switzerland speak Romansh as their mother tongue, ie 0.85% of the population of Switzerland or 14.7% of the population of the canton of Graubünden. 29% of Romansh’s native speakers speak another language fluently, especially German or Italian, both of which are the canton’s other two official languages.

Sample text in Romansh (via Wikipedia):

La vulp era puspè ina giada fomentada.
Qua ha ella vis sin in pign in corv che tegneva in toc chaschiel en ses pichel.
Quai ma gustass, ha ella pensà, ed ha clamà al corv: «Tge bel che ti es! Sche tes chant è uschè bel sco tia parita, lur es ti il pli bel utschè da tuts».
The fox was hungry yet again.
There, he saw a raven upon a fir holding a piece of cheese in its beak. This I would like, he thought, and shouted at the raven: “You are so beautiful! If your singing is as beautiful as your looks, then you are the most beautiful of all birds.”.


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