[lg policy] Switzerland: The policy and politics of Romansh

Damien Hall djh514 at YORK.AC.UK
Wed Sep 29 09:43:37 UTC 2010

With thanks to Ken Ehrensal (Kutztown U.,, from LINGANTH) and my wife, both 
of whom sent me this (Ken on the LINGANTH list). My interests must be 




The New York Times
Chur Journal
In Multilingual Switzerland, One Tongue Struggles

Published: September 28, 2010

CHUR, Switzerland - The people of this corner of Switzerland are arguing 
whether language is a matter of the heart or the pocketbook.

Depending on whom you talk to in the steep, alpine enclaves of Graub√ľnden, 
otherwise known as Grisons, the easternmost wedge of the country, there is 
either strong support or bitter resistance to Romansh, the local language. 
"When people talk about the death of Romansh," said Elisabeth Maranta, who 
for the last 18 years has run a Romansh bookshop, Il Palantin, which sells 
books in Romansh and in German, "then I say that there are days when I only 
sell books in Romansh."

Yet Ms. Maranta herself illustrates the fragility of Romansh. A native of 
Germany, she came to Chur 38 years ago with her husband, but does not speak 
Romansh herself, which is hardly a liability since virtually all Romansh 
speakers also speak German. While she is an ardent champion of Romansh, she 
can be bleak about its future. Asked why most of the books in Romansh she 
sells are poetry, she muses: "When a patient is dying, he writes only 

Romansh is the direct descendant of the Latin that was spoken in these 
mountain valleys at the height of the Roman empire, and shares the same 
Latin roots as French, Italian or Spanish. So isolated were the people who 
spoke it in their deep valleys that not one, but five, dialects grew up, 
though the differences are not substantial.

In the 19th century, monks in the region developed a written language. The 
valleys produced their own writers in Romansh, mostly poets, yet it was not 
until 1973 that portions of the Bible were published in the language. In 
1997, the first daily newspaper in Romansh, La Quotidiana, appeared.

It was always a regional tongue, with the number of Romansh speakers 
probably peaking around 2.2 percent of the total Swiss population in the 
early 19th century; but then, of course, the population of Switzerland was 
only about 1.6 million people, a fraction of what it is today, when about 
one percent of the population - about 60,000 people - speaks Romansh.

Only a few decades ago, Romansh was looked upon as the patois of the poor 
country yokel; today it is experiencing a tenuous rebirth thanks to 
grass-roots revival programs and government support. Switzerland declared 
it an official language in 1996, though with limited status compared with 
the country's other official languages - German, French and Italian - and 
now spends about $4 million a year to promote it.

Out in the village of Trun, up the Rhine Valley, Fritz Wyss is a fan of 
Romansh. "I see it as an advantage," said Mr. Wyss, 51, who runs the little 
butcher shop on the main street of Trun, where almost 90 percent of the 
people speak Romansh and all his products are marked in German and Romansh.

"But some of my colleagues say to me, 'What are you doing with the signs in 
two languages?' " saying that Romansh next to German made his shop look 
provincial. "But I've only had good results."

"Our kids who learn Romansh have advantages when learning languages like 
Italian and French," he said.

His neighbor, Ursulina Berther-Nay, 65, agreed. "People are proud of their 
language, and everyone makes an effort to preserve it," she said, speaking 
German in her comfortable living room. She and her husband speak only 
Romansh at home. "It wasn't always that way," she said. "People used to be 
ashamed of it."

Yet when asked whether she believed Romansh was endangered, she replied, 
"Yes, for sure."

"We are too few, and the outside influences are so many," she said. In 
church, hymns and prayers are still in Romansh, she said. But now there are 
too few Romansh priests, so the village pastor is from Poland and though he 
speaks Romansh passably, he prefers to preach in German.

Business leaders say that clinging to Romansh comes at a cost, as the 
region gradually evolves from farming and forestry to tourism and light 

In his offices as chief executive of Hamilton Bonaduz, the Swiss affiliate 
of an American company specializing in medical and research equipment, 
Andreas Wieland sometimes wishes he could bid Romansh a revair, or au 
revoir, altogether. About one-third of his 700 employees have advanced 
degrees in science or engineering, he explains, so he favors English and 
German over Romansh and Italian, the two smallest languages in Switzerland.

As his views became known he was invited in August to a conference on 
language but declined to go, writing instead to the organizers:

"Romansh and Italian may have great value culturally and politically, but 
for our export economy they have no relevance and belong rather in the 
category of folklore."

"Our employees communicate far more often with Beijing or New York in 
English," he went on, "than with Vicosoprano in Italian or Tujetsch in 
Romansh," referring to two villages in the region.

Mr. Wieland, 55, insists, "I am not against Romansh." At company 
receptions, he said, "we never serve salmon and Champagne," but local 
beverages and the thinly sliced smoke-dried raw beef for which Graub√ľnden 
is famous. The company has 50 trainee positions and likes to hire locally, 
he boasts, but "for these people, Romansh cannot be a boost to their 

South of Hamilton's offices, across the craggy Julier Pass, the village of 
Samedan, for centuries Romansh speaking, is trying to prove Mr. Wieland 
wrong. Where schooling was once only in Romansh, inroads by German prompted 
the local leaders to introduce changes. Now, for the first two years, 
classes are taught in both Romansh and German, and in one or the other in 
the following years.

Asked about Mr. Wieland's criticism, Thomas Nievergelt, a lawyer who is 
Samedan's part-time mayor, replied: "I have to contradict that. Our results 
clearly show that the pupils' performance is no better or worse regardless 
of language."

Language, he added, is not just about getting a job. "Language is a 
question of the heart, not just of understanding."

Damien Hall

University of York
Department of Language and Linguistic Science
YO10 5DD

Tel. (office) +44 (0)1904 432665
     (mobile) +44 (0)771 853 5634
Fax  +44 (0)1904 432673



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