Eighty years ago, anyone who addressed letters or packets using Romansh place names did so in vain: the postal services simply would not deliver them. This only changed in 1938 when Romansh (or “Rumantsch”, as its speakers call it) was recognised as Switzerland’s fourth national language, alongside German, French and Italian. With great success: today, “our” language belongs to the Swiss cultural scene as much as skiing belongs to the Engadin winter.
The Engadin has been in a linguistic tight spot for more than 2,000 years: a fact that seems inevitable, even from a purely geographical point of view. After the ancient Romans conquered the province of Raetia in 15 BC, the language of the soldiers and settlers mixed with the local dialects. With the arrival of Germanic tribes in the 8th and 9th Centuries, however, this “Rumantsch” lost ground in large areas of eastern Switzerland to retreat to the valleys of the Engadin, where over the course of the centuries it has also had to resist encroachment by Italian.
The Romansh-speaking community has never been large – the number of native speakers continues to fluctuate between 45,000 and 60,000 – and the topography of Graubünden, with its “1,000 peaks and 150 valleys”, hindered the development of a cultural centre for the region and a unified grammar and vocabulary. Today, linguists identify five official dialects: “Sursilvan”, “Sutsilvan”, “Surmiran”, “Vallader” and “Putèr”, with the latter spoken in the Upper Engadin.
As the mid-19th Century economic boom in Graubünden brought a flourishing tourism scene, the Romansh-speaking population gained mobility, and many native speakers emigrated from their home region. The German language rapidly gained ground, and in the 80 years alone between 1850 and 1930, the number of Romansh-speakers fell by nearly half.
Eventually Graubünden started to promote this Germanisation process officially – but the canton had not reckoned with determined resistance by locals. In 1919, activists founded the “Lia Rumantscha” (Romansh League) in order to protect their language from the threat of exclusion – not only by German but by Italian, too. Many Italian linguists and politicians regarded Romansh as no more than a Lombard dialect, and Mussolini even played with the idea of “liberating” the canton and annexing it to Italy! The passionate call by the Romansh poet Peider Lansel struck a chord with native speakers: “Ni Italians, ni Tudaischs! Rumantschs vulains restar!” (“Neither Italians nor Germans! We want to stay Romansh!”)
On 20 February 1938, church bells in Graubünden rang for an exceptionally long time: the results of a historic poll prompted celebration throughout the region. An overwhelming majority of Swiss citizens – more than 91% – chose to recognise Romansh as the fourth national language. Mind you, a national language is not the same as an official language: while the first “just” recognises a language at national level, it is only the latter that guarantees that cantonal and federal authorities can also communicate in this language. Only in 1996 did Romansh achieve the status of “partial official language”; for native speakers, it has been recognised as a full official language since 1999.
With this official acceptance, the authorities faced a tricky problem: as their staff could not possibly master every one of the many Romansh dialects, a standardised written language had to be created. The Lia Rumantscha did not wait to be asked twice, and in 1982 presented “Rumantsch Grischun” as a new standard language, based on the five official variants. Today, the federal authorities and the Romansh news media publish in Rumantsch Grischun, which is also used as language of instruction in the canton’s bilingual schools. In the world of IT, too, the standard language is gaining acceptance: Wikipedia, Google and Microsoft Office all “speak” Rumantsch Grischun.