[lg policy] In Multilingual Switzerland, One Tongue Struggles

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Wed Sep 29 13:11:24 UTC 2010

September 28, 2010
In Multilingual Switzerland, One Tongue Struggles

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 poetry.” 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

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

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 careers.”

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.”



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


This message came to you by way of the lgpolicy-list mailing list
lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu
To manage your subscription unsubscribe, or arrange digest format: https://groups.sas.upenn.edu/mailman/listinfo/lgpolicy-list

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list