World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Switzerland : Rhaetians/Romansh-speakers


Romansh, a Rhaeto-Romance language of Latin origins, is Switzerland's fourth national language. About 50,000 people speak it, including 35,000 for whom it is their first language. The majority of Romansh-speakers live in the trilingual canton of Graubunden/Grisons (Grischun in Romansh) in eastern Switzerland. Other Romansh-speakers live elsewhere in Switzerland. There are three main variations of Romansh, which have their own grammars, dictionaries and literature: Sursilvan, Vallader and Puter. Attempts to promote a standardized form, Grischun, have not proved popular.

There are three other dialects spoken in Switzerland: Jauer, Surmiran and Sutsilvaun, and two others spoken in Italy: Ladin (around Bolzano and Cortina) and Friulaner (used by some 500,000 people along the Adriatic coast north of Venice). The term 'Ladin' is also applied to the Puter, Vallader and Jauer Swiss dialects.

Historical context

Romansh probably dates back 1,500 years or more. The oral language is based on the so-called vulgar Latin, or 'people's Latin', with influences from Etruscan, Celtic, and other languages spoken by early settlers in the mountain valleys of what are now the Grisons and Italy's South Tirol. It was recognized as Switzerland's fourth national language in the 1938 Constitution. However, it was not an official language. It was formalized as the written language of Rumauntsch in 1982.

In June 1983 the Federal Law Concerning Contributions to Cantons Graubunden and Ticino for the Promotion of their Cultures and Languages provided funding for the promotion of the Rhaeto-Romance language and culture. It gave the Lia Rumanscha, the official representative of Romansh culture, the task of reporting on the use of these funds through the cantonal government to the federal Department of the Interior. In 1987 the canton was obliged to support the two minority languages, Romansh and Italian.

In 1996 the Constitution was amended, following a referendum, to make Romansh an official language for matters concerning Romansh-speakers. The amendment also obliges the local authorities of the region to promote and safeguard Romansh and Italian. It further provides for cultural exchange between the four languages. The 2004 Federal Law on National Languages sets out the use of Romansh and the means of its promotion, which includes increasing its use in science and technology as well as culture and education.

Current issues

Many Romansh have emigrated from the high valleys of the upper Rhine, where they were traditionally small-scale farmers, to work in the lowland regions. The tourism industry has also brought large numbers of Swiss-German-speaking workers to the Romansh heartland. Now less than 50 per cent of the population in the canton speaks the language. German and Italian are the two other official languages of the canton. The influence of English as a business, internet and pop music language has detracted from Romansh among the younger generation especially.

The use of Romansh is on the decline. Measures of cantonal support, in particular the enactment of laws, have been slow to materialize. However, the formal framework for support is now in place and considerable efforts are being made to keep the language alive. It is compulsory in many local primary and secondary schools and in teacher training, but the situation is complicated by the fact that Romansh has several dialects which are distinct enough from each other almost to constitute separate languages. Romansh is taught in three universities, Friburg, Zurich and Geneva.

The Lia Rumanscha has had a school at Cuira since 1954. It also has libraries, runs courses, provides a translation service and publishes books in the three main dialects of Romansh. It has operated two regional centres for promotion of the language and culture for the past 20 years, and has set up a third in 2007.

The Swiss public broadcasting company SSR-SRG broadcasts in all four official languages, including Romansh, and has a dedicated Romansh unit at Chur. Radio e Televisiun Rumantscha (RTR) is mainly a radio station. However, the TV production unit produces one news bulletin a day, and a weekly children's programme and weekly cultural programme, which are broadcast on Sundays. These are put out on the German language TV channel and repeated on the French and Italian channels with subtitles.

There is a daily newspaper published in Romansh, La Quotidiana, and a youth magazine, Punts. There is a Romansh news agency, the Agentura da Novitads Rumantscha.

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