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Romansh: sparks vocal debate: despite being declared the official written version of Switzerland's fourth national language by both the Swiss Confederation and the canton of Graubunden, Rumantsch Grischun continues to be opposed by locals in some areas. Swiss News visits the Lower Engadine, to find out more about the controversy.

The Romansh language--spoken by a mere 60,000 inhabitants of Switzerland's only trilingual canton--could be considered an endangered tongue. To make the chances of its long-term survival even less certain, Romansh is not one single language but five separate language idioms, divided roughly by region: Vallader in the Lower Engadine; Puter in the Upper Engadine; Sutsilvan and Sursilvan in the Rhine valley; and Surmiran in the Savognin region of central Graubunden.

Roman heritage

The collective language, which is believed to have evolved from the Vulgar Latin spoken by Roman occupiers of the region, is under further pressure from the predominance of German in the canton--not to mention Italian on its southern flank, and the growing influence of English in areas like St. Moritz and Scuol, which are heavily reliant on tourism.


The solution proposed by the Lia Rumantscha (the Romansh Alliance)--an umbrella organisation founded in 1919 to consolidate efforts in halting the decline of Romansh--was to promote a standardised written language. That language is Rumantsch Grischun, developed by Prof. Heinrich Schmid of the University of Zurich, under contract to the Lia Rumantscha. He completed his Guidelines for the creation of a written language for the whole of Graubunden: Rumantsch Grischun in 1982. But that was only the beginning.

What followed was more than a decade of deliberation, analysis and heated debate, before the language was accepted by 76 per cent of voters in a 1996 referendum. This result finally instated Rumantsch Grischun as an official federal language. The following year saw the launch of La Quotidiana, a daily newspaper with international, national and cantonal news in Rumantsch Grischun and regional articles published in the local idiom.

Tradition dies hard

Integrating the language into local school systems, however, has taken more time and run into more resistance than might have been foreseen. While Rumantsch Grischun was a logical, and now official, solution to the linguistic conundrum, "People care deeply about the local idioms, which they continue to speak," says Barbla Etter, a linguist affiliated with the Lia Rumantscha, headquartered in Chur.


"They say they have their own language--the language of the heart--plus the language of the workplace, which is mostly German. They have no emotional attachment to Rumantsch Grischun, which they see as a threat to the local idiom.

"Another reason [for their opposition] is political," Etter continues. "When the Graubunden parliament decided in 2003 that Rumantsch Grischun would be used in all school materials as of 2005, a large part of the population felt they were not sufficiently integrated into the decision-making process. That only served to fan the flames of dissent."

Some regions were quite willing to adopt the new language. "Schools in the Val Mustair, whose residents speak a version of Vallader called Jauer, readily switched over to Rumantsch Grishun in 2007 with good results," Etter says. "The new language has also won out in some parts of the Surselva valley and in all villages of central Graubunden. The Engadine is still holding out, however, as is part of the Surselva," she adds.

Debate at all levels

Linard Martinelli, president of the Vallader-speaking village of Lavin in the Lower Engadine and head of the 190-member Conferenza generala Ladina (CHL), the regional teachers' association, is strongly committed to reinvigorating Romansh in the region; however, equally strongly, he is resisting the implantation of Rumantsch Grischun.

"Rumantsch Grishun is an effort by the canton and Lia Rumantscha to save the language," he admits, but questions its effectiveness and universal application. "It has its place in the Val Mustair, where 80-90 per cent of the people speak Romansh; if they write a different version, it's not a big step. If the spoken idiom is strong enough, people can cope."

However, in the Upper Engadine, where only 10 to 50 per cent speak Puter Romansh--"and you really can't count St. Moritz"--he feels that the major challenge is reviving the existing language, so introducing Rumantsch Grischun would be an impediment to this aim. Even in the Lower Engadine, where the percentage of Vallader-speakers ranges from about 50 per cent in Scuol, to 90 per cent in some other villages, his association stands firm in support of strengthening the local idiom.

We are trying to work with the canton to make available teaching materials in Vallader and Puter," he says, citing a recent example of his organisation's cooperative work. "We have just burned a CD-ROM with translations of about 170 pages of geography and history text, from Rumantsch Grischun to our local languages."

He summarises their efforts, telling Swiss News, "It's not a game to be won or lost, but a struggle: trying to achieve the best for our youngsters, our language and our cultural heritage."

A dilemma

What Linard Martinelli sees as a greater threat to Romansh is the necessity for local children to continue their education in German--both for practical and economic reasons. "Many parents actually see Romansh as a disadvantage," he adds.

One of those parents, Benno Meisser--owner of the Hotel Meisser in Guarda, a family business dating back over 100 years--sees Romansh's value as a cultural issue. "It is important for my daughter to learn the local language as a vital part of daily life, but at the same time, German and English are essential to her future development," he explains.

In Sent, a picturesque village further into the Lower Engadine, Maria Sedlacek, president of the local Romansh association, Uniun dals Grischs, shares her views on the language dilemma.

"Integrating Rurnantsch Grishun into schools in the Engadine is a big challenge. Hopefully, a satisfactory solution can be reached through working with the teachers and the education administration. Where bilingual programmes are strong, the local language has been kept at a constant level.

"Rumantsch Grischun is not a bad idea in itself," she admits, "but it is a synthetic language." Her primary interest is strengthening the existing Romansh within the school system and extending it to the upper grades. "It is important to sustain the maturite Rumantsch, in order to have enough teachers with the necessary language skills."

Despite the problems, and regardless of the outcome of the Rumantsch Grischun debate, Sedlacek remains optimistic about the future of her language, relating an anecdote to prove her point: "One hundred years ago, in 1910, a man made a bet of 100 francs that Romansh wouldn't still be around in 100 years. If he were still alive, he'd have to make good on that bet."


Views of a committed Rumantschun

Rumantschun--a term once used to describe a Romansh-language "militant"--has modified its meaning over the years to refer to someone with a passion for the language. When I asked Dr. Guiu Sobiela-Caanitz whether the term applied to him, he agreed with a grin. His consuming passion for Romansh--in all its varied forms--led him to settle, more than 20 years ago, in the picture-postcard town of Ardez in the Lower Engadine. There he works as a translator and journalist for the Romansh daily newspaper, La Quotidiana.

Dr. Sobiela, a Catalan who was born in the Perpignan region of France, has devoted his life to linguistics. With degrees in eight languages and professional fluency in all the Romansh idioms, he says: "I came here because of the language, which is not only very close to Catalan, but is a door to other languages due to its Latin roots."

What is his view on the controversy surrounding the adoption of Rumantsch Grischun?

"It is a good idea, this attempt to harmonise the various idioms. The problem is: are the people ready to accept it? This has always been a political issue: a cultural phenomenon with political implications.

"I think the urge to hold on to old idioms is an example of ill-placed conservatism" he says. "Rumantsch Grischun is the wave of the future: not a salvation, but a great help and a step in the right direction." He feels that Engadine residents who resist this movement will further isolate themselves.

When asked about the future of Romansh, Dr. Sobiela told Swiss News that a growing consciousness of language preservation, together with an encouraging resurgence in bilingualism, are reasons for optimism. "The future is in the hands of the Romansh people. There is no doubt that they must learn German, but that doesn't mean they must discard their own language."

To find out more about Romansh, visit:

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Title Annotation:news feature
Author:Krienke, Mary
Publication:Swiss News
Date:Feb 1, 2011
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