Romansh, a Rhaeto-Romance language of Latin origins, is Switzerland’s fourth national language. About 44,000 people (Federal Statistical Office, 2015) speak it as their main language. The majority of Romansh-speakers live in the trilingual canton of Graubünden/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 along the Adriatic coast north of Venice). The term ‘Ladin’ is also applied to the Puter, Vallader and Jauer Swiss dialects.
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, Celti 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 Graubünden 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. In 2010 the new Law on Languages came into effect in Switzerland. This law encourages the promotion of minority languages such as Romansh in everyday use and publications.
In recent years, however, there has been concern that Romansh requires more support in education and media to prevent further decline. Romansh has come under pressure in part due to its fragmentation in isolated rural areas as well as an ongoing trend whereby the local economy is moving from farming and forestry to tourism and business in which other main languages are more widely spoken.
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 established a school at Cuira in 1954 and now also has libraries, runs courses, provides a translation service and publishes books in the three main dialects of Romansh.
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. 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.
Although in recent years there has been official recognition and promotion of Romansh as a national language, there are still concerns over its further decline. The sustainability of Romansh has been under threat due to the continued emigration of many young people for education and employment away from rural areas where it is more widely spoken. Those who emigrate may move to areas where Swiss-German is the dominant language thereby reducing their everyday use of Romansh.
There are some concerns over the use of the official version of the Romansh language by government and written publications. Rumantsch Grischun has been taught in some schools rather than regional dialects of Romansh. However, many Romansh oppose the use of Rumantsch Grischun, instead promoting traditional regional varieties of Romansh with language provision in schools. Despite this, Rumantsch Grischun is still used by government and cantons for official communications. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has recommended that positive measures be taken to promote the use of Romansh in the Graubünden/Grischun/Grigioni canton to prevent further decline.