Romansh Language in Switzerland

It is one of Switzerland’s four official languages – Romansh. But it is actually spoken by just a minority of the Swiss population and mostly centered around the mountains of Grisons (Graubünden). Still, it is definitely an interesting language not only to learn about but also to hear. Its use is declining and with much hope and effort, hopefully, it will still live on even in the next generations to come.

The language Romansh was officially recognized by the Swiss federation in 1996, meaning that official documents will need to be translated to this language. If you travel to the Romansh regions of Switzerland, you will see the names in places, in street names, and in general daily life.

Romansh as a Romance Language

The name itself is already an indication that it is a romance language. And indeed, it is. Like Italian, French, and Catalan, Romansh is a romance language.

It was back in the early days when the Romans conquered Rhaetia – a province of the Roman Empire consisting of eastern and central Switzerland, southern Germany, Vorarlberg in Austria, northern Lombardy in Italy, and the greater part of Tyrol in Austria. Its capital was Augusta Vindelicorum, present-day Augsburg, Germany. One of the important cities of Rhaetia was called Curia.

The Roman City of Curia

The Roman City of Curia – present-day Chur. Image by JimboChan from Pixabay.

One of the two chief cities of Rhaetia was Curia, also known as present-day Chur. Indeed, Chur has developed into one of the most important cities in Switzerland and the current capital of Graubünden.

In time, though, Chur has been largely Germanized due to the German-speaking workmen who rebuilt the city after it was burnt in 1464.

Nonetheless, the influence of the Roman language lives on in the mountains of canton Graubünden. We can see it in select places within the Rhine and Engadine Valleys in Graubünden.

Five Dialects of Romansh

Image of Val Surses by TouringSwitzerland.com

The pan-regional Romansh called Rumantsch Grischun was introduced in 1982. It is an attempt to unify the written Romansh language spearheaded by the Linguist Bernard Cathomas. Currently, the Rumantsch Grischun is taught in the schools passively.

The language called Rumantsch Grischun is a standardized form of the different dialects. Romansh itself has five dialects.

Romansh language or Grischun is the Romance language of the Rhaetian group spoken primarily in the Rhine and Engadine Valleys of Graubünden. The dialect in the Rhine Valley is more German-influenced, whereas the dialect in the Engadine Valley is more Italian-influenced.

In some places, like Surselva, they speak both Romansh and German. With the exception of Flond and Surcuolm, Obersaxen Mundaun speaks Obersàxar Titsch. 

The five Romansh dialects are:

  • Sursilvan – the most common of the dialects found in the Surselva area of the Vorderrhein Valley.
  • Sutsilvan – only a small percentage speak this in the Hinterrhein/Rein Posteriur Valley.
  • Surmiran – spoken in Val Surses, Albula Valley, and Vaz/Obervaz area.
  • Putèr – spoken in the Upper Engadine where St. Moritz is
  • Vallader – second most popular dialect spoken in the Lower Engadine Valley.

Romansh Diversity

Bergün where Putèr is spoken. Image from flickr.

The diversity of the Romansh language comes from the fact that the mountains were always geographically apart from each other. So each population became fairly isolated in their own region for a long time. Romansh is said to be similar to classical Latin. Puter and Vallader have been heavily influenced by the Italian language.

This language is taught to children in primary schools. The local children who grow up in a Romansh-speaking area do learn it as a primary language even before German is introduced. However, German is introduced as a second language and all the Romansh speakers that I have met have an excellent command of Swiss German as well.

Certain villages in Grisons speak Romansh in everyday life and with their families. In contrast, German is spoken at work and with tourists. 

The organization Lia Rumantscha has been working hard to preserve and protect this local language. The institution helps you learn more about the Romansh culture and the Romansh language. As an example, they have set up an online dictionary called Pledari Grond.

Pledari Grond – Romansh Online Dictionary

If you would like to learn more about the Romansh language, Lia Rumantscha has set up an online dictionary available for free at http://www.pledarigrond.ch/rumantschgrischun/. Lia Rumantscha is an organization that promotes Romansh language use and study. It was established in 1919 in Chur, Switzerland.

I highly recommend looking up a couple of words so that you can familiarize yourself with them.

A Couple of Romansh Words

I have listed a couple of Romansh words that I found useful. These are words that you can easily encounter in the Engadine valley and might be of interest to you. As mentioned above, there is a good resource for Romansh word lookup in the Romansh Online Dictionary provided by Lia Rumantscha.

Notwithstanding, it might be interesting to learn about a couple of Romansh words below:

EnglishVallader (Lower Engadine)Putèr (Upper Engadine)
helloallegrachau
byearevaira bun ans vair
waterauaova
good daybun dibun di
good nightbuna sairabuna saira
housechasachesa
mountainmuntognamuntagna
plainplanplaun
hillmotmuot
castlechastèchastè
stonecrapcrap
villagecumünvschinauncha
fountainfuntanafuntauna
lunchgiantargianter

Resources

  • M. Perego, Giuseppe. Ausflugsparadies Engadin. Wanderführer von Giuseppe M. Perego. Montabella Verlag AG, St. Moritz, 2000.
  • Pledari Grond – http://www.pledarigrond.ch/rumantschgrischun/
  • Sprachen in der Surselva. Surselva: pura. cultura. alpina. Kultur. Surselva Tourismus AG, Ilanz, 2022.

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