The Romansh language: Switzerland’s fourth language

by Jakob Straub
April 14, 2021
two friends talking together in romansh

Switzerland has four national languages: Swiss German, French, Italian – and Romansh. Since less than 0.5% of the Swiss population speak Romansh and its status is official only in part, it’s evident which of the four languages is not like the others. Let us introduce you to Romansh, Switzerland’s fourth language.

What is the Romansh language?

Romansh goes by many other names: Romansch, Rumantsch, Romontsch, Rumantsch, Rumauntsch and Rumàntsch, because five different regional dialects exist. Romansh is a Romance language and the fourth national language of Switzerland, where today it is spoken mainly in the canton Grisons or Graubünden in Swiss German.

A Romance language, Romansh descends from Latin as it was spoken in the Roman empire. Among other Romance languages, Romansh is exceptional because of the remoteness of the regions where it is spoken. Through extended contact with German, similarity in vocabulary and sometimes in syntax between the two languages is a noticeable feature of Romansh

Within the Romance languages, Romansh belongs to the Gallo-Romance branch, as do French, Lombard and Occitan. Some linguists place Romansh in the Rhaeto-Romance subgroup of the Gallo Romance languages, together with Friulan and Ladin. This is based on the assumption that the Rhaeto-Romance languages descended from a common language. The opposing view is that Rhaeto-Romance languages are similar because of their geographic isolation. What is relevant is that Romansh, Friulan and Ladin are not dialects of Italian and Romansh speakers identify their language as distinct from Italian and other Romance languages.

German from Germany, Austria and Switzerland: Key vocabulary differences

Romansh dialects

Romansh has five dialects, each of which has a standardised form called ‘idiom’ to distinguish them from local vernacular, also known as dialect. The five Romansh idioms are:

  • Sursilvan: The name of the most widely spoken Romansh variety derives from the Surselva region. The name itself means above (‘sur’) the forest (‘selva’). Sursilvan is spoken in the Vorderrhein valley of Switzerland.
  • Vallader: The idiom of the Lower Engadine and the Val Müstair is the second most commonly spoken Romansh variety with roughly six and a half thousand speakers.
  • Putèr: Around five and a half thousand people speak this idiom in the Upper Engadine and the Brail village.
  • Surmiran: Roughly three thousand people speak this variety of ROmansh in the valleys of Gelgia, Albula and Alvra.
  • Sutsilvan: This Romansh variety has largely become extinct in its historical area since the turn of the 20th century with just above one thousand speakers in the Hinterrhein valley today.

Romansh Grishun or Rumantsch Grischun is an artificial language which the Zurich linguist Heinrich Schmid created in 1982. Its aim was to have a common standard Romansh language, especially for representation in official texts. However, it is up to individual institutions to decide their use of Romansh Grishun. Romansh speakers generally don’t use the artificial language but use their dialect instead.

History and origins of Romansh

Around 15 BC, the Romans invaded and conquered Rhaetia, the area that is Grisons today. The combination of the Latin spoken by Roman soldiers and the native Rhaetian language formed Romansh. Until the 15th century, Romansh formed the primary language of the area. At that time, the Free State of the Three Leagues formed the first version of the canton.

German was their primary language. Romansh then fragmented into the five dialects of the remote mountain villages of the area. Because each dialect had its own written version, Romansh didn’t evolve the way German or French did in Switzerland. The canton also encouraged the use of German, which is the prominent language in Grisons today.

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Where do people speak Romansh?

In the Middle Ages, the area of Romansh speakers spread as far north as Lake Constance. Today, Grisons is the canton known for Romansh speakers. The Vinschgau in South Tyrol had Romansh speakers up to the 17th century, when it became German-Speaking. What is called the traditional Romansh-speaking territory is entirely contained within Grisons: 121 municipalities in which a majority declared Romansh as their mother tongue in the Swiss censuses between 1860 and 1888.

In this traditional area, 66 municipalities still reported a Romansh majority in the year 2000. In 18 municipalities of the traditional Romansh-speaking territory, the language has become extinct or is spoken only by a minority. The Surselva region, a little less than 80 percent of the population remain active speakers. In the Sutselva region, the language is close to extinction. Roughly 30 percent of the population in the Upper Engadine valley are Romansh speakers, while in the Lower Engadine, they form the majority with 60 percent. The largest number of Romansh speakers outside of the traditional area lives in Chur, the capital of Grisons, and other larger cities in Switzerland.

Swiss French vs Belgian French

What is the status of Switzerland’s fourth language?

Switzerland has the four national languages Swiss German, French, Italian and Romansh. But each canton can decide on its own which of these four should enjoy the status of an official language. On the level of the federal administration, all four languages are official. The canton of Grisons has made Romansh an official language.

A 1938 referendum gave Romansh the status of national language with an overwhelming majority of 90 percent of the votes. More importantly still, a referendum in 1996 made Romansh an official language in part: today, it’s the “official language for correspondence with Romansh-speaking people”. Citizens speaking Romansh can address the federal government in any Romansh dialect and receive a response in Romansh Grishun.

How many people speak German? 

Interesting facts about the Romansh language

Impress your Swiss friends, Romansh speakers or linguists with these interesting facts about the fourth language of Switzerland:

  • Around 60,000 people speak Romansh in total today. Most of them live in Grisons, the only canton to recognise Romansh as an official language along with German and Italian.
  • Most speakers of Romansh are bilingual or multi-lingual and speak at least Swiss German as well.
  • The Lia Rumantscha is a non-profit umbrella organisation for all Romansh-speakers founded in 1919. It supports the Romansh language and culture from its headquarters in Chur, overseeing regional associations.
  • The Swiss government spends about 7.6 million francs per year annually to promote and preserve the Romansh language.
  • Romansh is most similar to its sister Romance language Italian, especially the dialects of Lombardy in the north of Italy. In the Middle Ages, the two languages were even closer.
  • The schools in Romansh speaking areas teach the local variant until the sixth grade. German then takes over, but Romansh is still used for some classes.

Do you want to learn more about the Swiss and their languages? We’ll introduce you to the languages spoken in Switzerland!

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