Romansh is a Romance language spoken in the Graubünden canton of eastern Switzerland, and is one of the official languages of the country. It is the native language of about 40,000 Swiss people and, of the major Romance languages, is most closely related to French. However, the accent and writing system of its speakers appear to the casual observer to more closely resemble Italian and German – a significant fact in historical conflicts over the region. Romansh is actually an umbrella term for several dialects, with each speech community in the region using different names for them. The term ‘Romansh’ is itself an anglicisation of the various local language names, including Romansch in German, and Rumantsch in Romansh itself. It is most closely related to Ladin and Friulian, varieties spoken in northern Italy, and together these form the Rhaeto-Romance sub-family of Gallo-Romance, a larger group that includes French and various varieties of northern Italy. These are only distantly related to standard Italian. 'Rhaeto-Romance' is sometimes considered a single language, and its three varieties dialects, and on occasions, 'Ladin' has been used to mean any or all of these.
'Rhaeto-Romance' is the term sometimes applied to the Romansh language, but more usually it is used to describe a distinct sub-family of Gallo-Romance, comprising Romansh, Ladin and Friulian. These came about through contact with the Rhaetian people, who spoke an Etruscan or Indo-European tongue and the conquering Romans, who introduced their subjects to Vulgar Latin. The Rhaetians developed some bilingualism and this is a trend which continues in the Romansh areas even today, although many speakers are effectively monolingual.
To the west of the Rhaetian area lived the Helevetians, a Celtic people, and later the Germanic Alemanni tribes conquered the area. This led to Romansh being forged in a melting pot of different language families, as multilingual speakers lived alongside each other. Germanic influence continues on Romansh today as the language is characterised by heavy borrowing from Swiss German;; its own influence on German is minimal and this is very indicative of the one-way process of germanisation in the region.
The use of Romansh was restricted in the past, as only Latin and German were used in religious documents until the seventeenth century. Though this restricted Romansh, it also allowed a high degree of local autonomy for Romansh communities, as knowledge of other languages was only required if Romansh speakers intended to leave their birthplace or travel elsewhere.
The evidence of Romansh, Ladin and Friulian as separate languages has not stopped some scholars labelling them as part of larger languages such as Italian and French, or classifying them as 'dialects' of Rhaeto-Romance. However, despite some comprehensibility with Ladin and Friulian, Romansh is not actually intelligible with either of them. In addition, Romansh is a language in social and political terms as it is recognised as such by the Swiss nation. Claims that speakers of these languages can often understand each other are inconsistent and this seems to be no more a case of mutual comprehensibility than the similarities between for example, modern French and Spanish.
There are at least five distinct spoken dialects of Romansh - Surselvan, Sutselvan, Surmeiran, Putèr and Vallader, each of which have several names and their own writing conventions (distinct orthographies). Scholars have not considered Romansh to be a language in its own right due to this autonomy. However, despite sometimes considerable differences, they are mostly mutually intelligible, so Romansh speakers of different backgrounds can still understand each other.
The dialects are grouped together as a distinct language more on cultural and historical rather than linguistic grounds, as it is difficult to point to many shared features of these varieties; they differ in both phonology and syntax, with differences becoming more prominent with geographical distance.
Romansh has the usual collection of grammars, dictionaries and the Bible, often created by language enthusiasts, and even an invented Romansh writing system, Rumantsch Grischun, which, it is hoped, will become the written standard. This is optimistic, as every previous attempt to create a standard has failed, due to the large differences between dialects. Rumantsch Grischun is not a spoken dialect, and previous systems already exist to write the different dialects.
Native speakers of Romansh have to learn another of Switzerland’s languages, as is the case for Swiss citizens of other backgrounds. However, as they comprise a small minority in Switzerland, they may face what has been called an “enforced bilingualism”; most visitors to the region cannot communicate in Romansh, and many occupations entail learning another language, when speakers of the more widely-spoke tongues benefit from services in their own language. To compound matters, Swiss German is widely spoken in Graubünden, so Romansh-speaking children must also learn this language before moving to standard German. Later, another Swiss language is mandatory. Education begins in Romansh but soon switches to standard German only in most subjects. In higher education, no Swiss university has Romansh as a working language, meaning that speakers must learn another language to seek graduate careers. The Romansh are the most mobile of all the Swiss peoples and over half settle outside Graubünden, whereas 96% of German Swiss occupy German-speaking areas. Even Chur, Graubünden’s main city, has been germanised since the 15th century when a fire destroyed much of it and the German-speaking workers sent to rebuild it never left (Rash 1998: 190). To further restrict Romansh, geographical boundaries limit the integration of Romansh areas.
Recent studies have consistently dismissed the idea of the existence of Romansh monolinguals, but this is at odds with the 1990 Swiss census, which recorded several hundred of them (Rash 1998: 44-45). Undeniably however, most Romansh speakers have varying degrees of bilingualism with Swiss German.
Romansh was awarded the status of a national language in 1938 - recognised and supported but not used in government or bureaucracy. This was granted not out of a desire to maintain the language, but to frustrate the Italian dictator Mussolini.
Throughout the 1930s, Italian fascists claimed that Romansh was no more than an Italian dialect and therefore the Romansh-speaking Swiss territories should become part of Italy, along with the Italian-speaking areas. The Swiss rejected Mussolini's designs by recognising Romansh for the first time.
In March 1996, a plebiscite accepted Romansh as an ‘official’ language, allowing its use in government. This victory was rather less important in practice, as ministries only had to use Romansh to deal with its speakers, and none of Switzerland’s senior ministers were required to know the language.
In broadcasting and the media, Romansh has stronger support, though only at a regional level. In practice, coverage of national and international affairs has appeared most often in German-language publications - another example of Romansh speakers needing a thorough knowledge of a second language. There are some radio and television broadcasts in Romansh, but channels using other languages predominate.