[lg policy] Switzerland: The policy and politics of Romansh
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
In Multilingual Switzerland, One Tongue Struggles
By JOHN TAGLIABUE
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 Graubünden,
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 Graubünden
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
Language, he added, is not just about getting a job. "Language is a
question of the heart, not just of understanding."
University of York
Department of Language and Linguistic Science
Tel. (office) +44 (0)1904 432665
(mobile) +44 (0)771 853 5634
Fax +44 (0)1904 432673
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