Rumantsch / Romansh / Rhaeto-Romance

Switzerland's Fourth National Language

Rumantsch (sometimes also transcribed as Romansh, Romantsch Rhaeto-Romance or Rheto-Romanic) is Switzerland's fourth national language. Its native region is the canton of Graubünden (Grischuns in Rumantsch, Grisons in English) in southeastern Switzerland.

Rumantsch: Origin and Dialects

The Rumantsch language has developed from Latin (like Italian, Spanish or French). There are five regions with different dialects of Rumantsch and they are separated from each other by regions with German speaking population that has immigrated in the late Middle Ages:

  • Vallader is spoken in Engiadina bassa (low Engadin region around Scuol)
  • Puter is spoken in Engiadina ota (high Engadin region around St. Moritz - Pontresina)
  • Surmerian is spoken in central Grisons around Tiefencastel - Savognin
  • Sutselvan is spoken in Rein posteriur (Rhine valley around Thusis), almost extinct
  • Surselvan is spoken in Rein anteriur (Rhine valley around Disentis/Mustér - Sedrun), the most numerous group

Everyday Use of Rumantsch

About half of the people that speak Rumantsch as their mother tongue do not live in these regions any longer but have emigrated towards the industrialised cities of German speaking northern Switzerland. In this sense, Zurich has become the biggest Rumantsch speaking town - but Rumantsch is in the same situation there as any other language of immigrants: There is hardly ever a group in public consisting of people that all understand and speak this language and so they have to communicate in the official regional language German.

Though Rumantsch has been an official language in canton Grisons for centuries, it has not been officially recognized as a national language of Switzerland until 1938. The sudden recognition was motivated by Switzerland's will to resist the ideology of incorporation of all ethnic Germans and Italians into Hitler's German Reich or Mussolini's fascist Italy. So the exotic fourth national language was very welcome to demonstrate that Switzerland is different from its neighbours ...

While a majority of the official federal documents is available in German, French and Italian, only a small portion is being translated into Rumantsch, however. As soon as Rumantsch speaking people leave their region (or make a phone call outside) they have to be able to communicate in another language. That's the reason why they are all bilingual and speak (Swiss) German perfectly, too.

Preservation of Rumantsch

Until towards the end of the 20th century, there was no such thing as a standard Rumantsch language. If at all, people wrote in one of the five local dialects - which made it definitely unrealistic that anybody would translate anything into Rumantsch for a few readers (considering that a total of only 60,000 people are speaking one of the five Rumansch dialects). When it became clear that Rumantsch risks to become extinct the Lia Rumantscha [league for the preservation of the Rumantsch language] defined a common standard language called Rumantsch Grischun in 1982.

Nevertheless this minority does fight now for the preservation of its idiom as a modern language usable in all everyday situations - in early 2005 a delegation of Lia Rumantscha experts went to Redmond, USA, to define a Rumansch version for standard software products of Microsoft Corp. and they also convinced google to present a Rumantsch search engine user interface:

If you like to read a few Rumantsch phrases, try this link to the official website of Switzerland's federal government and select «RM» - they provide the same information in English as well, and you may choose the Italian and French versions to compare similarities and differences between these three romanic languages that are all based on latin:

Switzerland from A to Z
Short quotations allowed but with precise declaration of origin (Link).
Reproduction of substantial parts and pictures in printed or electronic form only with explicit written consent by the editor.