Lesser-Known Languages (LKL) — Romansh
A national Romance language split into different versions of itself, fighting for survival
I think I spent most of the past 15 years researching languages overlooking the Romansh language. In fact, I used to think Romansh (written as Romanche in French) was a typo of the Romance language family.
It turns out it is a real language with its own history and culture, stuck in the mountains of Switzerland and spoken by 40,000 people. It’s even one of the four national languages of Switzerland!
It also works as a great transition from this month’s Creole languages into a new month all about languages from Western Europe. Why? Because while Romansh doesn’t have any typical Creole features, it’s easy to feel the influence of the many languages it originated from.
Creation of Romansh
The Romans first conquered the Alps in 15 BC, and Latin became the dominant language in the region. As a result, the indigenous Celtic and Rhaetic languages spoken by the local population were gradually replaced by Vulgar Latin, a non-formal version of Latin spoken by its citizens. This process continued throughout the Roman Empire's rule in the region until the fall of the empire in the 5th century AD.
A few pre-Latin words can still be found in Romansh. Most indicate animals, plants, and a few geological features unique to the Alps, such as camutsch (chamois) and grava (scree).
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Ostrogoths took over Rhaetia, but eventually handed it over to the Frankish Empire in 537 AD. Local rulers still held power in the Duchy of Chur, but things changed when Charlemagne appointed a Germanic duke to rule the region after the death of the last local ruler, Bishop Tello, in 765 AD. The Roman Catholic Church also transferred the Diocese of Chur from the Archdiocese of Milan to the Diocese of Mainz in 843 AD.
All of these changes contributed to a shift toward German culture and language.
At one time, Romansh was spoken in a much wider area than it is now. It extended north into the present-day cantons of Glarus and St. Gallen, as well as Vorarlberg and Tyrol. However, by the 15th century, the Walensee and Rhine Valley areas were completely German-speaking.
This shift was partly caused by the influence of German-speaking elites and immigrants from the north, but it was a gradual process that took several centuries. The lower and rural classes tended to hold onto Romansh longer.
Romansh regional written varieties began to appear in the 16th century, with the first surviving work being the Chianzun dalla guerra dagl Chiaste da Müs by Gian Travers in the Putèr dialect. Travers also translated biblical plays into Romansh. Giachem Bifrun wrote the first printed book in Romansh, a catechism, in 1552 and later published a translation of the New Testament in 1560.
In the 17th century, the Sursilvan and Sutsilvan dialects saw their first writings, mainly focusing on religious themes. The Bibla da Cuera, the first complete translation of the Bible, was published between 1717 and 1719. The Surmiran region began developing its own variety in the early 18th century too.
The language border between Romansh and German remained almost unchanged from the 16th to the late 19th century, with only isolated areas becoming German-speaking.
The Grisons became a canton of Switzerland in 1803 after the Act of Mediation. At the time, about 36,000 of its 73,000 inhabitants spoke Romansh many of whom were monolingual.
This integration into Switzerland caused its population to interact with German speakers more often. This changed the perception of German from a language used to oppress people to a useful language for communication.
Some people welcomed the disappearance of Romansh, seeing it more as an obstacle to the area’s growth. Others saw it as an advantage to learn the surrounding languages of Italian and German, and French due to its structure.
The Rhaeto-Romansh renaissance
While this movement was crucial to the survival of Romansh, it is difficult to find much information about it online in English apart from Wikipedia. Looking through information in French and German, however, brought more information.
This movement started around the middle of the 19th century with the foundation of many associations trying to preserve the language. Some of the schools of the Grisons canton switched to textbooks written in Romansh around the 1840s and 1850s. By the end of the century, many schools used textbooks from Gion Antoni Bühler and Giachen Caspar Muoth.
Many newspapers were founded during this period:
14 between 1843 and 1938 in Engadine
20 between 1836 and 1951 in the Rhin valley
Most didn’t survive long but they were proof of the demand for written content in Romansh.
In 1885, Gion Antoni Bühler created the Societad Retorumantscha (SRR) which has been compiling new literature and various articles about cultural traditions of the Romansh people. In 1919, the Lia Rumantscha was then founded to serve as an umbrella organization to centralize everything. More recently, the Lia Rumantscha and SRR have been in charge of the Dictionary Romansh Grischun (Dicziunari Rumantsch Grischun). We’ll get back to what this is soon.
From 1900, literary production skyrocketed with many poets and priests recording more texts.
Caspar Decurtins (1855 –1916) became a key figure in the Rhaeto-Romansh Renaissance. Containing literature from five centuries, his 13-volume Rätoromanische Chrestomathie included many legends and fairy tales.
This movement culminated in 1938 when Romansh was finally recognized as one of the four national languages of Switzerland.
This brings us to a topic I’ve avoided until now.
Romansh is not actually a single language.
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“Dialects” and Romansh Grischun
In 1938, when Romansh was recognized as one of the official languages of Switzerland, no standard or unified version of the language existed.
There were and still are five many dialects spoken throughout the mountains of the area and these are only partly mutually intelligible:
Sursilvan, the most widely spoken variety, spoken in the Vorderrhein valley by over 17,000 speakers.
Sutsilvan, the least widely spoken variety, spoken in the Hinterrhein valley by about 1,000 speakers.
Surmiran, spoken by about 3,000 people in the Gelgia and Albula/Alvra valleys.
Putèr, spoken in the Upper Engadine by about 5,500 people.
Vallader, spoken in the Lower Engadine by about 6,500 people.
Now, if you put everything mentioned above, this means that throughout their history, the Romansh people had to make survive not one, not two, but five different versions of their language. This proves once more that the Rhaeto-Romansh Renaissance was spread out and supported throughout the regions.
So, when Romansh was recognized as an official language, no specific dialect of Romansh was chosen as the official language. It was only in 1982 that a standardized version of Romansh, known as Rumantsch Grischun or Romansh Grischun, was created to serve as a written form of the language.
This new version was created by choosing forms found in a majority of the three strongest varieties: Sursilvan, Vallader, and Surmiran.
Rumantsch Grischun has since become the official written form of Romansh.
This artificial language created by the Zurich linguist Heinrich Schmid aimed to have a common standard Romansh language, especially for representation in official texts. It also has its own centralized dictionary known as the Dicziunari Rumantsch Grischun.
Did this succeed?
Yes and no.
This manufactured version of the language is still the one used today for official purposes (radio, tv, etc.) but most speakers don’t use it in their daily life. They even prefer to turn to German rather than to Romansh Grischun.
The main problem seems to be the simplification of each dialect into one. It causes the loss of some typical local expressions and respective sub-cultures.
In fact, Romansh speakers hated it so much the government of the Grisons decided in 1996 that all Romansh speakers may address the government in their respective dialects, although the response would be in Rumantsch Grischun.
Similarly, Romansh Grischun is not the version taught in schools. Instead, the local varieties are taught and the standardized language is learned passively.
Today, Rumantsch Grischun is the language used in the news on Radiotelevisiun Svizra Rumantscha and written in the daily newspaper La Quotidiana.
Rumantsch Grischun also has the largest dictionary in the language, the Pledari Grond, a German-Rumantsch Grischun dictionary with more than 215,000 entries. It also includes idioms from the other varieties and explains the phonetic shifts between them.
From an outsider’s perspective, this situation is a complicated one. Considering the endangered status of the 5 main dialects (and even more for the other even less spoken dialects), I am inclined to say it’d be best to slowly switch to Rumantsch Grischun.
This being said, as the situation is right now, it’d also mean losing part of their cultures and idioms.
The only solution I see from my research would be to make Romansh Grischun evolve and integrate as much from the other varieties to create a sort of melting pot of them all.
A thoughtfully-created Creole if you may.
To say Romansh is the toughest language to explain so far would be an understatement if I tried to explain all the varieties. This is why I’ll only be discussing the current Romansh Grischun grammar.
While some of the grammar can be found throughout all varieties, Rumantsch Grischun is still a created language and therefore has its own structure. Notably, words and pronunciations may vary in other dialects.
For example, the word for “boy” is as follows:
Rumantsch Grischun: uffant
Sursilvan → affon
Sutsilvan → unfànt (ufànt)
Surmiran → unfant
Putèr → iffaunt
Vallader → uffant
In this example, they are all rather similar but add the rest of a sentence filled with “look-alike” words and you’ve got something completely impossible to understand in the middle of a conversation.
This even happens for extremely common terms like the pronoun “I” that is, in the same order as the above list, jau, jeu, jou, ja, eau, or eu depending on the dialect.
Then, imagine if you speak one of the smaller and more different dialects like the Tuatschin dialect of Sursilvan for which the word for “boy” is buéb and you got yourself a whole new challenge.
Anyway, I hope you get my point for choosing to stick to one variant and making it the official version of the Romansh language.
Let’s dive in.
Interestingly enough, while Romansh is a Romance language that follows the typical Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) word order of this language family, German’s influence on it has made it that the word order become VSO when the sentence starts with an adverb:
Oz pon els vegnir. = Oz poni vegnir → Today, they can come. [Today - can - they - come]
As you can also see in the above example, the pronoun can be connected to the verb it refers to. This can happen in all sorts of situations in Romansh.
Articles, and Plural
Romansh, like most romance languages, distinguishes gender (masculine and feminine, no neutral gender) and singular vs plural. This being said, the singular version of articles may change depending on the first vowel of the next term:
There is no plural indefinite article so a noun put in the plural form and without an article is automatically a plural indefinite.
The plural of nouns usually requires an extra -s at the end regardless of gender. If they already have one in the singular, however, they stay unchanged in the plural form: il nas (the nose) → ils nas (the noses).
This being said, nouns ending with an accented vowel change their endings as follow:
à → ads, as in
è → els, as in tscharvè (brain) → tscharvels (brains)
ì → ids, as in vestgì (clothe) → vestgids (clothes)
Only one term doesn’t follow this rule: um, meaning “man,” becomes umens in the plural.
Something particular to Romansh is the existence of a “collective plural.” This can happen to some masculine nouns that act as singular feminine nouns. For example, “the apple” is il mail but:
ils mails → the apples (countable)
la maila → the apples (in general, non-countable)
I find this a particularly interesting way to make a distinction most other languages can’t make without asking for precisions.
Tenses and negation
When it comes to verbs, Romansh Grishchun follows a similar pattern to other Romance languages like French and Italian but it also seems to have a slightly simpler way to conjugate as each verb class follows a mostly similar pattern.
There are four infinite verb endings separating the classes: -ar, -air, -er, and -ir but as you can see in the table below for the present tense of these, the only difference seems to be in the absence of an a for the first and second person plural:
Other tenses have their own verb endings to add after the verb stem (ie. the part before the -ar, -air, -er,-ir). Listing them all would be quite long so if you’d like to see them, check the French Wikipedia page which is filled with tables for each tense.
Like any good Romance language, Rumantsch Grischun also has its fair share of irregular verbs. These are quite common verbs like: to be (esser), to have (avair), to come/become (vegnir), to must (duair), to be able to (pudair), to know (savair), to want (vulair), to go (ir), and many more.
As for negation, the verb is surrounded by na … betg, following a similar structure to the French negation (ne … pas):
Ti na partas betg. → You don’t leave.
Els na vendevan betg mails. → They didn’t sell apples.
Similarly to French too, the na particle preceding the verb can be omitted:
Ti partas betg. → You don’t leave.
And similarly to French too, the na changes to n’ in case the verb starts with a vowel:
Quai n'è betg in chaun. → This is not a dog.
Allegra! → Hello!
Fa plaschair. → Pleased to meet you.
Jau hai num ... / Mes num è … → My name is [I - have - name … / ]
Chapeschas ti? → Do you understand?
Gea / Na → Yes / No
Discurras ti englais? → Do you speak English?
Stgisa. / Perstgisa. → Sorry.
Grazia! → Thank you!
Ils quants èsi oz? → What is the date today?
I dat blers uffants. → There are many children. [There-is/are - many - children]
Quai è in cudesch. → This is a book. [This - is - a - book]
Jau vom a chasa. → I’m going home. [I - go - to - house].
Vegns era a kino? → Have you gone to the cinema? [Come - have been - to - cinema]
Jau dun el ad ella. → I give it to her. [I - give - it - to - her]
Pertgè na ballais vus betg? → Why don’t you dance? [Why - neg. - dance (you.pl) - you.pl - neg.]
Els duain gidar! → They must help!
Where to learn Rumantsch Grischun
While there’s a lot of information about the state of Rumantsch Grichun, I found there weren’t that many resources to actually learn it. From English at least.
While it is possible to find online teachers, tutors, or even classes, there isn’t much to use as a self-learner.
As mentioned earlier, the French and German grammar Wikipedia pages are quite useful for tenses but they don’t offer many examples so that’s still limited.
Some pages online teach a few words but the only place I kept being redirected to was the Lia Rumantscha page which loads but appears mostly empty. I’m not sure if this is temporary so I’m leaving the link in case this gets fixed in the near future.
This Google Translate-like website is also of rather good quality, according to the Reddit Romansh page.
According to this very well-presented blog post about a learner’s experience with learning Romansh, there isn’t much for intermediate learners apart from real sources of the language, like Battaporta or simply the news on the official RTR website.
Finally, I did enjoy this quadrilingual PDF about Alpine legends. It is a treasure trove of content to practice reading comprehension.
Discovering Romansh was an interesting journey for me. As a French speaker, noticing the many similarities due to both being Romance languages is rather easy. Also, as I’ve been learning German for some time, I can recognize some of its influence on Rumantsch.
This being said, while its official status may make anybody believe it’s a language safe from perdition, its many dialects and little-used created version of Rumantsch Grischun show a different picture.
While the “easy” way out would be for everybody to turn to the “official” version, it’d also mean losing many features of the different dialects and the history that goes with each.
There’s no short-term solution.
Instead, we’ll have to see how its speakers fight for their own versions’ rights and how all of them evolve through contact with each other.
My opinion, however, is also that they should also try to extend their presence online and make learning their language more accessible. Switzerland is a country with people from all around the world, many of whom don’t speak French, German, or Italian so having more English-available teaching material would probably help more communities learn it.
In the end, if nobody outside of the current speakers can learn the language, its use is bound to decrease as the new generations turn to German or other languages instead.
Rumantsch is a beautiful mix of Latin and surrounding languages.
It’s worth protecting.
I hope they succeed.
As they say in the Grisons canton, a pli tard! (See you later!)
And apparently other Rhaeto-Romance languages of the areas such as Frulian and Ladin but I can’t find proof of this.
While Putèr had more speakers than Surmiran, it was spoken by a lower percentage of the population in its area.
Those of you who, like me, speak one or more Romance language(s) may recognize most of these. In fact, all the ones I have mentioned here are also irregular verbs in French. If you’re curious why these keep on getting irregular, it’s likely because of how widely they are used in daily life, therefore raising the probability they’d be modified throughout the centuries as people use them. In short, the less a word is used, the more likely it is to not change!
“I dat” is quite similar to the German “Es gibt” which is an expression to say “there is” or “there are” even though the third person singular is used.
Finally getting to this post is wonderful, especially today as I find myself traveling on a boat from Lucerne to Flüelen. Romansch is intriguing in so many ways, one being the beauty of hearing it spoken. I so appreciate the in-depth discussion here and thoughts on the future of Romasch. Time will tell, and meanwhile, we get to continue to observe and learn from the fascinating process of how we humans communicate.
I love the topic of languages in general in Switzerland, with four official and so many dialects. People swear they can tell where in Basel someone grew up because of the dialect. It speaks to me of how the Swiss respect each other as well as every region and the cultural aspects of it. It may also point a bit to their stubbornness? シ It’s such an interesting recipe, also showing up in their way of governing, a combination of consensus and direct democracy, fierce individualism mixed with compromise. I love it; am happy and privileged to live here.