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Romansh (also spelled Romansch, Rumantsch, or Romanche; Romansh: rumantsch, rumauntsch, romontsch, rumàntsch) is a Romance language spoken predominantly in the southeastern Swiss canton of Grisons(Graubünden), where it has official status alongside German and Italian and is used as the medium of instruction of schools in Romansh-speaking areas. Romansh has also been recognized as a national language of Switzerland since 1938 and as anofficial language along with German, French and Italian since 1996. It is sometimes grouped with Ladin and Friulian as aRhaeto-Romance language, though this is disputed.

Romansh is a descendant of the spoken Latin language of the Roman Empire, which replaced the Celtic and Raetic languages previously spoken in the area by the 5th century AD, though Romansh retains a small number of words from these languages. Romansh has also been heavily influenced by German in vocabulary and morphosyntax. The language gradually retreated to its current area over the centuries, being replaced by Alemannic and Bavarian dialects. The earliest writing identified as Romansh dates from the 10th or 11th century, though major works do not appear until the 16th century, when several regional written varieties began to develop. The 19th century saw a further shrinkage of the language area, but also a literary revival and the start of a language movement dedicated to halting the decline of the language.

In the 2000 Swiss census, 35,095 people (of whom 27,038 live in the canton of Grisons) indicated Romansh as the language of “best command”, and 61,815 as a “regularly spoken” language. Spoken by around 0.9% of Switzerland’s 7.7 million inhabitants, Romansh is Switzerland’s least-used national language in terms of number of speakers and the eleventh most spoken language in Switzerland overall. The language area and number of speakers of Romansh has been continually shrinking over the past, though language use remains vigorous in certain regions.

Romansh is divided into five different regional dialects (Sursilvan, Sutsilvan, Surmiran, Putèr, and Vallader), each with its own standardized written language. In addition, a pan-regional variety called Rumantsch Grischun has been introduced since 1982, which is controversial among Romansh speakers however.

Rumantsch, Romontsch, Rumauntsch, Rumàntsch
Romansh language composite

From top left to bottom right: Sutsilvan inscription on a house in Andeer, Sursilvan house inscription in Trun, Rumantsch Grischun sign in the Swiss National Park, Vallader Sgraffito in Guarda.
Pronunciation [rʊˈmantʃ], [ʁoˈmɔntʃ], [rʊˈmɛntʃ], [rʊˈmaʊ̯ntʃ], [rʊˈmœntʃ]
Native to Switzerland
Region Grisons (Graubünden)
Ethnicity Romansh Swiss
Native speakers
35,000 (language of best command) (2000)
60,000 (regular speakers)
Language family

  • Italic
    • Romance
      • Western
        • Gallo-Romance
          • Rhaeto-Romance
            • Romansh
Standard forms
Rumantsch Grischun
Writing system
Official status
Official language in
Language codes
ISO 639-1 rm
ISO 639-2 roh
ISO 639-3 roh
Glottolog roma1326
Linguasphere 51-AAA-k
The traditional Romansh-speaking parts of Switzerland (dark green)

The traditional Romansh-speaking parts of Switzerland (dark green)
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicodecharacters.

Linguistic classification

Romansh is a Romance language descending from Vulgar Latin, the spoken language of the Roman Empire. Within the Romance languages, Romansh stands out through its peripheral location, which manifests itself through several archaic features. Another distinguishing feature is the centuries-long language contact with German, which is most noticeable in the vocabulary and to a lesser extent the syntax of Romansh. Romansh belongs to the Gallo-Romance branch of the Romance languages, which includes languages such as French, Occitan, and Lombard alongside Romansh. The main feature placing Romansh within the Gallo-Romance languages is the fronting of Latin /u/ to [y] or [i] as seen in Latin muru(m) ’wall’, which is mür or mir in Romansh. The main features distinguishing Romansh from the Gallo-Italic languages to the south are:

  • Palatalization of Latin K and G in front of A, as in Latin canem ’dog’, which is tgaun in Sursilvan, tgang in Surmiran, and chaun in Putèr and Vallader (the difference between 〈tg〉 and 〈ch〉 being purely orthographic, as both represent /tɕ/). This sound change is partially absent in some varieties of Romansh however, especially in Sursilvan where it may have been reversed at some point: Sursilvan casa and Vallader chasa ’house’.
  • Retention of word-final -s as in buns chavals ’good horses’ as opposed to Italian buoni cavalli.
  • Retention of L following /p b k ɡ f/: Latin clavem ’key’ > clav as opposed to Italian chiave.
The three proposed Rhaeto-Romance languages Romansh, Ladin, and Friulan

The three proposed Rhaeto-Romance languages Romansh, Ladin, and Friulan

Whether or not Romansh, Friulan and Ladin should be considered a separate “Rhaeto-Romance” subgroup within Gallo-Romance is an unresolved issue, known as the Questione ladina. Some linguists posit that these languages are descended from a common language, which was then fractured geographically through the spread of German and Italian. This position goes back to the Italian linguist Graziadio Ascoli who first made the claim in 1873.

The other position is that any similarities between these three languages can be explained through their relative geographic isolation, which shielded them from linguistic changes, whereas the Gallo-Italic varieties of Northern Italy were more open to linguistic influences from the South. Linguists who take this position often point out that the similarities between the languages are comparatively few. This position was first introduced by the Italian dialectologist Carlo Battisti. This linguistic dispute became politically relevant for the Italian irredentist movement. Italian nationalists interpreted Battisti’s hypothesis as implying that Romansh, Friulan and Ladin were not separate languages but rather Italian dialects. They used this as an argument to claim the territories where these languages were spoken for Italy. From a sociolinguistic perspective, this question is largely irrelevant, since the speakers of Romansh have always identified as speaking a language distinct from both Italian and other Romance varieties.

Geographic distribution

Romansh as a household language in the census of 1860, largely corresponding to the traditional language area

Romansh as a household language in the census of 1860, largely corresponding to the traditional language area

Whereas Romansh was spoken as far north as Lake Constance in the early Middle Ages, the language area of Romansh is today limited to parts of the Swiss canton of Grisons; the last areas outside the canton to speak Romansh, the Vinschgau in South Tyrol, became German-speaking in the 17th century. Inside Grisons, the language borders largely stabilized in the 16th century and remained almost unchanged until the 19th century. This language area is often called the “Traditional Romansh-speaking territory”, a term introduced by the statistician Jean-Jacques Furer based on the results of the Swiss censuses. Furer defines this language area as those municipalities in which a majority declared Romansh as their mother tongue in any of the first four Swiss censuses between 1860 and 1888. In addition, he includes Fürstenau. This represented 121 municipalities at the time, corresponding to 116 present-day municipalities. The villages of Samnaun, Sils im Domleschg, Masein, and Urmein, which were still Romansh-speaking in the 17th century, had lost their Romansh majority by 1860, and are not included in this definition. This historical definition of the language area has been taken up in many subsequent publications, but the Swiss Federal Statistical Office for instance defines the language area of Romansh as those municipalities, where a majority declared to habitually use Romansh in the census of 2000.

The presence of Romansh within its traditional language area varies from region to region. In 2000, 66 municipalities still had a Romansh majority, an additional 32 had at least 20% who declared Romansh as their language of best command or as a habitually spoken language, while Romansh is either extinct or only spoken by a small minority in the remaining 18 municipalities within the traditional language area. In the Surselva region, it is the habitually spoken language of 78.5% and the language of best command of 66%. In the Sutselva region by contrast, Romansh is extinct or only spoken by a small number of older people, with the exception of Schams, where it is still transmitted to children and where some villages still have a Romansh majority, notably in the vicinity of the Schamserberg. In the Surmiran region, it is the main language in the Surses region, but no longer widely spoken in the Albula valley.

In the Upper Engadine-Valley, it is a habitually spoken language for 30.8% and the language of best command for 13%. However, most children still acquire Romansh through the school system, which has retained Romansh as the primary language of instruction, even though Swiss German is more widely spoken inside the home. In the Lower Engadine, Romansh speakers form the majority in virtually all municipalities, with 60.4% declaring Romansh as their language of best command in 2000, and 77.4% declaring it as a habitually spoken language.

Outside of the traditional Romansh language area, Romansh is spoken by the so-called “Romansh diaspora”, meaning people who have moved out of the Romansh-speaking valleys. A significant number is found in the capital of Grisons, Chur, as well as in Swiss cities outside of Grisons.


Historical distribution of the dialects of Romansh, German, and Italian in Grisons

Historical distribution of the dialects of Romansh, German, and Italian in Grisons:

Romansh comprises a group of closely related dialects, which are most commonly divided into five different varieties, all of which have developed a standardized form:

  • Sursilvan (rm. sursilvan; derived from the name of the Surselva-region, which itself is derived from sur ’above’ and selva‘forest’) – spoken in the Vorderrhein (Rain anteriur) valley, including the Val Lumnezia, Foppa, and Cadi. It is the most widely spoken variety, with 17,897 people within the Surselva region (54.8%) naming Romansh as a habitually spoken language in the Swiss census of 2000.
  • Sutsilvan (derived from sut ’below’ and selva ’forest’) – spoken in the Hinterrhein (Rain posteriur) valley, including Plaun, Heinzenberg,Domleschg, and Schams. It is the least widely spoken Romansh variety, with 1,111 people within its historical area (15.4%) naming Romansh as a habitually spoken language. It has become extinct across much of its historical area since the turn of the 20th century.
  • Surmiran (derived from sur ’above’ and meir ’wall’) – spoken in the Julia and Albula valleys, including Surses and Sutses
  • Putèr (rm. putèr; probably originally a nickname derived from put ’porridge’, meaning ‘porridge-eaters’.) – spoken in theUpper Engadine valley (Engiadin’ Ota) west of Zernez. Romansh was named by 5,497 people within the Upper Engadine valley (30%) as a habitually spoken language in the census of 2000.
  • Vallader (rm. vallader; derived from val ’valley’) – is spoken in the Lower Engadine valley (Engiadina Bassa) and the Val Müstair. It is the second most commonly spoken variety of Romansh, with 6,448 people in the Lower Engadine valley (79.2%) naming Romansh as a habitually spoken language in the census of 2000.

Aside from these five major dialects, two additional varieties are often distinguished. One is the dialect of the Val Müstair, which is closely related to Vallader but often separately referred to as Jauer (derived from the personal pronoun jau ’I’, i.e. ‘the jau-sayers’). Less commonly distinguished is the dialect of Tujetsch and the Val Medel, which is markedly different from Sursilvan and is referred to as Tuatschin. Additionally, the standardized variety Rumantsch Grischun intended for pan-regional use has been introduced since 1982. The dialect of the Val Bregaglia is usually considered a variety of Lombard and speakers use Italian as their written language, even though the dialect shares many features with the neighboring Putèr dialect of Romansh.

These dialects form a dialect continuum without clear-cut divisions. This continuum has now been ruptured by the spread of German, so that Romansh is now geographically divided into at least two non-adjacent parts. The Romansh language area can be described as consisting of two widely divergent varieties, Sursilvan in the west and the dialects of the Engadine in the east, with Sutsilvan and Surmiran forming a transition zone between them. The Engadinese varieties Putèr and Vallader are sometimes referred to as one specific variety known as Ladin (rm. ladin); it is not to be confused with the closely related language in Italy’s Dolomite mountains also known as Ladin.

Sutsilvan and Surmiran are sometimes referred to as Central Romansh (rm. Grischun central), which is then grouped together with Sursilvan as “Rhenish Romansh”. One feature that separates the Rhenish varieties from Ladin is the retention of the rounded front vowels /y/ and /ø/ (written ü and ö) in Ladin, which have been unrounded in the other dialects, as in Ladin mür, Sursilvan mir, Surmiran meir ‘wall’ or Ladin chaschöl to Rhenish caschiel ‘cheese’. Another is the development of Latin -CT-, which has developed into /tɕ/ in the Rhenish varieties as in détg ‘said’ or fatg ‘did’, while developing into /t/ in Ladin (dit and fat). A feature separating Sursilvan from Central Romansh however, involves the extent of palatalization of Latin K in front of A, which is rare in Sursilvan but common in the other varieties: Sursilvan casa, Sutsilvan tgea, Surmiran tgesa, Putèr chesa, and Vallader chasa ’house’. Overall however, the Central Romansh varieties do not share many unique features, but rather connect Sursilvan and Ladin through a succession of numerous small dialect differences from one village to the next.

The dialects of Romansh are not always mutually comprehensible. Speakers of Sursilvan and of the Ladin varieties Vallader and Putèr in particular, are usually unable to understand each other initially. Because speakers usually identify themselves primarily with their regional dialect, many do not take the effort to attempt to understand unfamiliar dialects, and prefer to speak Swiss German with speakers of other varieties. A common Romansh identity is not widespread outside of intellectual circles, even though this has been changing among the younger generation.

Official status in Switzerland and language politics

In Switzerland, official language use is governed by the “territorial principle”: Cantonal law determines which of the four national languages enjoys official status in which part of the territory. Only the federal administration is officially quadrilingual. Romansh is an official language at the federal level, one of the three official languages of the Canton of Grisons, and is a working language in various districts and numerous municipalities within the canton.

Official status at the federal level

The first Swiss constitution of 1848, as well as the subsequent revision of 1872, make no mention of Romansh, which at the time was not a working language of the Canton of Grisons either. The federal government did finance a translation of the constitution into the two Romansh varieties Sursilvan and Vallader in 1872, noting however that these did not carry the force of law. Romansh became a national language of Switzerland in 1938, following a referendum. However, a distinction was introduced between “national languages” and “official languages”. The status of a national language was largely symbolic, whereas only official languages were to be used in official documents, a status reserved for German, French, and Italian. The recognition of Romansh as the fourth national language is best seen within the context of the “Spiritual defence” preceding World War II, which aimed to underline the special status of Switzerland as a multinational country. Additionally, this was supposed to discredit the efforts of Italian nationalists to claim Romansh as a dialect of Italian and establish a claim to parts of Grisons. The Romansh language movement led by the Lia Rumantscha was mostly satisfied with the status as a national but not official language. Their aims at the time were to secure a symbolic “right of residence” for Romansh, and not actual use in official documents.

A 6th-series 10-Swiss Franc bill, the first to include Romansh.

A 6th-series 10-Swiss Franc bill, the first to include Romansh.

This status did have disadvantages however. For instance, official name registers and property titles had to be in either German, French, or Italian. This meant that Romansh-speaking parents were often forced to register their children under German or Italian versions of their Romansh names. As late as 1984, the Canton of Grisons was ordered not to make entries into its corporate registry in Romansh. TheSwiss National Bank first planned to include Romansh on its bills in 1956, when a new series was introduced. Due to disputes within the Lia Rumantscha over whether the bills were to feature the Sursilvan version “Banca nazionala svizra” or the Vallader version “Banca naziunala svizzra“, the bills eventually featured the Italian version twice, alongside French and German. When new bills were again introduced in 1976/77, a Romansh version was added by finding a compromise between the two largest varieties Sursilvan and Vallader, which read “Banca naziunala svizra“. The numbers on the bills were printed in Surmiran, a minor intermediate dialect.

Following a referendum on March 10, 1996, Romansh was recognized as a partial official language of Switzerland alongside German, French, and Italian in article 70 of the federal constitution. According to the article, German, French, Italian, and Rhaeto-Romansh are national languages of Switzerland. The official languages are declared to be German, French, and Italian, and Rhaeto-Romansh is an official language for correspondence with Romansh-speaking people. This means that in principle, it is possible to address the federal administration in Romansh and receive an answer in the same language. In what the Federal Culture Office itself admits is “more a placatory and symbolic use” of Romansh, the federal authorities occasionally translate some official texts into Romansh. In general, though, demand for Romansh-language services is low because, according to the Federal Culture Office, Romansh speakers may either dislike the official Rumantsch Grischun idiom or prefer to use German in the first place, as most are perfectly bilingual. Without a unified standard language, the status of an official language of the Swiss Confederation would not have been conferred to Romansh. It takes time and needs to be promoted to get implemented in this new function.

The Swiss Army attempted to introduce Romansh as an official language of command between 1988 and 1992. Attempts were made to form four entirely Romansh-speaking companies, but these efforts were abandoned in 1992 due to a lack of sufficient Romansh-speaking non-commissioned officers. Official use of Romansh as a language of command was discontinued in 1995 as part of a reform of the Swiss military.

Official status in the canton of Grisons

Grisons is the only canton of Switzerland where Romansh is recognized as an official language. The only working language of the Three Leagues was German until 1794, when the assembly of the leagues declared German, Italian, Sursilvan, and Ladin (Putèr and Vallader) to have equal official standing. No explicit mention of any official language was made in the cantonal constitutions of 1803, 1814, and 1854. The constitution of 1880 declared that “The three languages of the Canton are guaranteed as national languages,without specifying anywhere which three languages are meant. The new cantonal constitution of 2004 recognizes German, Italian, and Romansh as equal national and official languages of the canton. The canton used the Romansh varieties Sursilvan and Vallader up until 1997, when Rumantsch Grischun was added and use of Sursilvan and Vallader was discontinued in 2001.

A Romansh-language road sign in Waltensburg/Vuorz

A Romansh-language road sign in Waltensburg/Vuorz

This means that any citizen of the canton may request service and official documents such as ballots in their language of choice, that all three language may be used in court, and that a member of the cantonal parliament is free to use any of the three languages. Since 1991, all official texts of the cantonal parliament must be translated into Romansh and offices of the cantonal government must include signage in all three languages. In practice, the role of Romansh within the cantonal administration is limited and often symbolic and the working language is mainly German. This is usually justified by cantonal officials on the grounds that all Romansh speakers are perfectly bilingual and able to understand and speak German. Up until the 1980s it was usually seen as a provocation when a deputy in the cantonal parliament used Romansh during a speech.

Cantonal law leaves it to the districts and municipalities to specify their own language of administration and schooling. According to Article 3 of the cantonal constitution however, the municipalities are to “take into consideration the traditional linguistic composition and respect the autochthonous linguistic minorities”. This means that the language area of Romansh has never officially been defined, and that any municipality is free to change its official language. In 2003, Romansh was the sole official language in 56 municipalities of Grisons, and 19 were bilingual in their administrative business. In practice, even those municipalities which only recognize Romansh as an official working language, readily offer services in German as well. Additionally, since the working language of the canton is mainly German and many official publications of the canton are available only in German, it is virtually impossible for a municipal administration to operate only in Romansh.

Romansh in education

Languages of instruction in the traditionally Romansh-speaking areas of Grisons as of 2003

Languages of instruction in the traditionally Romansh-speaking areas of Grisons as of 2003

Languages of instruction in the traditionally Romansh-speaking areas of Grisons as of 2003

Within the Romansh-speaking areas, three different types of educational models can be found: Romansh schools, bilingual schools, and German schools with Romansh as a subject.

In the Romansh schools, Romansh is the primary language of instruction during the first 3–6 years of the nine years of compulsory schooling, and German during the last 3–9 years. Due to this, this school type is often called the “so-called Romansh school”. In practice, the amount of Romansh schooling varies between half and 4/5 of the compulsory school term, often depending on how many Romansh-speaking teachers are available. This “so-called Romansh school” is found in 82 municipalities of Grisons as of 2001. The bilingual school is found only in Samedan, Pontresina, and Ilanz/Schnaus. In 15 municipalities, German is the sole medium of instruction as of 2001, with Romansh being taught as a subject.

Outside of areas where Romansh is traditionally spoken, Romansh is not offered as a subject and as of 2001, 17 municipalities within the historical language area of Romansh do not teach Romansh as a subject. On the secondary level, the language of instruction is mainly German, with Romansh as a subject in Romansh-speaking regions.

Outside of the traditional Romansh-speaking areas, the capital of Grisons, Chur, runs a bilingual Romansh-German elementary school.

On the tertiary level, the University of Fribourg offers Bachelor- and Master programs for Romansh language and literature. The Romansh department there has been in existence since 1991. The University of Zurich also maintains a partial chair for Romansh language and literature together with the ETH Zurich since 1985.

Rumantsch Grischun

Early attempts to create a unified written language for Romansh include the Romonsch fusionau of Gion Antoni Bühler in 1867 and the Interrumantsch by Leza Uffer in 1958. Neither was able to gain much support, and their creators were largely the only ones actively using them. In the meantime, the Romansh movement sought to promote the different regional varieties, while promoting a gradual convergence of the five varieties, called the “avischinaziun“. In 1982 however, the then secretary of the Lia Rumantscha, a sociolinguist named Bernard Cathomas, launched a project for designing a pan-regional variety. The linguist Heinrich Schmid presented to the Lia Rumantscha the same year the rules and directives for this standard language under the name Rumantsch Grischun. Schmid’s approach consisted of creating a language which would be as equally acceptable as possible to speakers of the different dialects, by choosing those forms which were found in a majority of the three strongest varieties Sursilvan, Surmiran, and Vallader. The elaboration of the new standard was endorsed by the Swiss National Fund and carried out by a team of young Romansh linguists under the guidance of Georges Darms and Anna-Alice Dazzi-Gross.

The Lia Rumantscha then began introducing Rumantsch Grischun to the public, announcing that it would be chiefly introduced into domains where only German was being used, such as official forms and documents, billboards, and commercials. In 1984, the assembly of delegates of the head organization Lia Rumantscha decided to use the new standard language when addressing all Romansh speaking areas of the Grisons. From the very start Rumansh Grischun has only been implemented on the basis of a decision of the particular institutions. In 1986, the federal administration began to use Rumantsch Grischun for single texts. The same year however, several influential figures began to criticize the introduction of Rumantsch Grischun. Donat Cadruvi, at the time the president of the cantonal government, claimed that the Lia Rumantscha was trying to force the issue. Romansh writer Theo Candinas also called for a public debate on the issue, calling Rumantsch Grischun a “plague” and “death blow” to Romansh, and its introduction a “Romansh Kristallnacht”, thus launching a highly emotional and bitter debate which would continue for several years. The following year, Theo Candinas published another article titled Rubadurs Garmadis, in which he compared the proponents of Rumantsch Grischun to Nazi thugs raiding a Romansh village while desecrating, destroying, and burning the Romansh cultural heritage.

The proponents responded by labeling the opponents as a small group of arch-conservative and narrow-minded Sursilvans and CVP-politicians among other things. The debate was characterized by a heavy use of metaphors, with opponents describing Rumantsch Grischun as a “test-tube baby” or “castrated language”, arguing that it was an artificial and infertile creation which lacked a heart and soul, in contrast to the traditional dialects. On the other side, proponents called on the Romansh people to nurture the “new-born” to allow it to grow; with Romansh writer Ursicin Derungs calling Rumantsch Grischun a “lungatg virginal” ‘virgin language’, which now had to be seduced and turned into a blossoming woman.

The opposition to Rumantsch Grischun also became clear in the Swiss census of 1990, in which certain municipalities refused to distribute questionnaires in Rumantsch Grischun, requesting the German version instead. Following a survey on the opinion of the Romansh population on the issue, the government of Grisons decided in 1996 that Rumantsch Grischun would be used when addressing all Romansh speakers, whereas the regional varieties could continue to be used when addressing a single region or municipality. In schools, Rumantsch Grischun was not to replace the regional dialects, but only be taught passively. This compromise was largely accepted by both sides. A further recommendation in 1999 known as the “Haltinger concept”, also proposed that the regional varieties should remain the basis of the Romansh schools, with Rumantsch Grischun being introduced in middle- and secondary school.

The government of Grisons then took steps to strengthen the role of Rumantsch Grischun as an official language. Since the cantonal constitution explicitly named Sursilvan and Engadinese as the language of ballots, a referendum was launched to amend the relevant article. In the referendum, which took place on June 10, 2001, 65% voted in favor of naming Rumantsch Grischun the only official Romansh variety of the Canton. Opponents of Rumantsch Grischun such as Renata Coray and Matthias Grünert argue however, that when only those municipalities with at least 30% Romansh speakers are considered, the referendum would have been rejected by 51%, with an ever increasing margin when only those with at least 50% speakers are considered. They thus interpret the results as the Romansh minority having been overruled by the German-speaking majority of the Canton.

As of: September 2013

As of: September 2013

As of: September 2013

A major change in policy came in 2003, when the Cantonal government proposed a number of spending cuts, including a proposal according to which new Romansh teaching materials would only be published in Rumantsch Grischun from 2006 onwards, the logical result of which would be to abolish the regional varieties as languages of instruction. The Cantonal parliament passed the measure in August 2003, even advancing the deadline to 2005. This decision was met by strong opposition, in particular in the Engadine, where teachers collected over 4,300 signatures opposing the measure, followed by a second petition signed by around 180 Romansh writers and cultural figures, including many who were supportive of Rumantsch Grischun, but opposed its introduction as a language of instruction. Opponents argued that Romansh culture and identity was transmitted through the regional varieties and not through Rumantsch Grischun, and that Rumantsch Grischun would serve to weaken rather than strengthen Romansh, possibly leading to a switch to German-language schools and a swift Germanization of Romansh areas.

The Cantonal government refused to debate the issue again however, instead deciding on a three-step plan in December 2004 to introduce Rumantsch Grischun as the language of schooling, allowing the municipalities to choose when they would make the switch. The decision not to publish any new teaching materials in the regional varieties was not overturned however, raising the question of what would happen with those municipalities which would not want to introduce Rumantsch Grischun at all, as the language of schooling is decided by the municipalities themselves in Grisons. The teachers of the Engadine in particular were outraged over the decision, whereas those in the Surmeir were mostly satisfied. Few opinions were heard from the Surselva, which was interpreted either as support or resignation, depending in the viewpoint of the observer.

In the school year 2007/08, 23 so called “pioneer-municipalities” introduced Rumantsch Grischun as the language of instruction in 1st grade, followed by an additional 11 the following year, and another 6 in 2009/10. 41 other municipalities however, including the entire Engadine valley and most of the Surselva, continued to use their regional variety. The cantonal government aimed to introduce Rumantsch Grischun as the sole language of instruction in Romansh schools by 2020. In early 2011 however, a group of opponents in the Surselva and the Engadine founded the association Pro Idioms, demanding the overturning of the government decision of 2003 and launching numerous local initiatives to return to the regional varieties as the language of instruction. In April 2011, Riein became the first municipality to vote to return to teaching in Sursilvan, followed by an additional 4 in December, and a further 10 in early 2012, including Val Müstair, which had been the first to introduce Rumantsch Grischun. As of September 2013, all municipalities in the Surselva with the exception of Pitasch have decided to return to teaching in Sursilvan.

Supporters of Rumantsch Grischun then announced that they would take the issue to the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland, as well as announcing their intention to launch a Cantonal referendum to enshrine Rumantsch Grischun as the language of instruction. The Lia Rumantscha opposes these moves and now supports a model of coexistence, where Rumantsch Grischun will supplement but not replace the regional varieties in school, citing the need for keeping the language peace among Romansh speakers, as the decades-long debate over the issue has according to them torn friends and even families apart. The parliament of Grisons has also overturned its 2003 decision in December 2011, meaning that the Canton will again finance school books in the regional varieties.

Rumantsch Grischun is still a project in progress. At the start of 2014, it is in use as a school language in the central part of Grisons and in the bilingual classes in the region of Chur. It is taught in upper-secondary schools, in the university of teacher education in Chur and used at the universities of Zurich and Fribourg, along with the Romansh idioms. It remains an official and administrative language in the Swiss Confederation and the Canton of Grisons, as well as in public and private institutions, for all kinds of texts intended for the whole Romansh-speaking territory. Rumantsch Grischun is read in the news of Radiotelevisiun Svizra Rumantscha and written in the daily newspaper “La Quotidiana”, along with the Romansh idioms. Thanks to many new texts in a wide variety of political and social functions, the Romansh vocabulary has been decisively broadened. The “Pledari Grond” dictionary with more than 215 000 entries German ⇿ Rumantsch Grischun is the most comprehensive collection of Romansh words, which can also be used in the idioms with the necessary phonetic shifts. The signatories of “Pro Rumantsch” stress that Romansh needs both the idioms and Rumantsch Grischun, if it is to improve its chances in today’s communication society.


Origins and development until modern times

Romansh originates from the spoken Latin brought to the region by Roman soldiers, merchants, and officials following the conquest of the modern-day Grisons area by the Romans in 15 BC. Before that, the inhabitants spoke Celtic and Raetic languages, with Raetic apparently being spoken mainly in the Lower Engadine valley. Traces of these languages survive mainly in toponyms, such as the names of villages such as Tschlin, Scuol, Savognin, Glion, Breil/Brigels, Brienz/Brinzauls, Purtenza, or Trun. Additionally, a small number of pre-Latin words have survived in Romansh, mainly concerning animals, plants, or geological features unique to the alps such as camutsch ’chamois’ or grava‘scree’.

Romansh during the early Middle Ages

Romansh during the early Middle Ages

It is unknown how rapidly the Celtic and Raetic inhabitants were romanized following the conquest of Raetia. Some linguists assume that the area was rapidly romanized following the Roman conquest, whereas others think that this process did not end until the 4th or 5th century AD, when more-thoroughly romanized Celts from farther north fled south to avoid invasions by Germanic tribes. The process was certainly complete and the pre-Roman languages extinct by the 5th–6th century, when Raetia became part of the Ostrogothic Kingdom. Around the year 537 AD, the Ostrogoths handed over the province of Raetia Prima to the Frankish Empire, which continued to have local rulers administer the so-called Duchy of Chur. However, following the death of the last Victorid ruler, Bishop Tello, around 765,Charlemagne assigned a Germanic duke to administer the region. Additionally, the Diocese of Chur was transferred from theArchdiocese of Milan to the Diocese of Mainz in 843. The combined effect was a cultural reorientation towards the German-speaking north, especially as the ruling élite now comprised almost entirely speakers of German.

At the time, Romansh was spoken over a much wider area, stretching north into the present-day Cantons of Glarus and St. Gallen to theWalensee in the northwest and Rüthi and the Rhine Valley in the northeast. In the east, parts of modern-day Vorarlberg were Romansh-speaking, as were parts of Tyrol. The northern areas, called lower Raetia, became German-speaking by the 12th century and by the 15th century, the Rhine Valley of St. Gallen and the areas around the Wallensee were entirely German-speaking. This language shift was a long, drawn-out process, with larger, central towns adopting German first, while the more peripheral areas around them remained Romansh-speaking for longer. The shift to German was caused in particular by the influence of the local German-speaking élites and by German-speaking immigrants from the north, with the lower and rural classes retaining Romansh for longer.

In addition, beginning around 1270 the German-speaking Walser began settling in sparsely or non-populated areas within the Romansh-speaking heartland. The Walser sometimes expanded into Romansh-speaking areas from their original settlements, which then often became German-speaking, such as Davos, Schanfigg, the Prättigau, Schams, or Valendas which became German-speaking by the 14th century. In rare cases, these Walser settlements were eventually assimilated by their Romansh-speaking neighbors, for instance in the Oberhalbstein or Medel and Tujetsch in the Surselva region.

La mort da Benedetg Fontana

“La mort da Benedetg Fontana”, a Romansh passage in a Latin chronicle by Durich Chiampel

The Germanization of Chur had particular long-term consequences. Even though the city had long ceased to be a cultural center of Romansh, the spoken language of the capital of the Diocese of Chur continued to be Romansh until the 15th century. Following a fire in 1465 which virtually destroyed the city, many German-speaking artisans who had been called in to help repair the damage settled there, causing German to become the majority language. In a chronicle written in 1571/72, Durich Chiampell mentions that Romansh was still spoken in Chur roughly a hundred years before, but had since then rapidly given way to German and was now not much appreciated by the inhabitants of the city. Many linguists regard the loss of Chur to German as a crucial event. According to Sylvia Osswald for example, it occurred precisely at a time when the introduction of the printing-press could have led to the Romansh dialect of the capital becoming a common written language for all Romansh speakers. Other linguists such as Jachen Curdin Arquint remain skeptical of this view however, and assume that the various Romansh-speaking regions would still have developed their own regional written standards.

Instead, several regional written varieties of Romansh began appearing during the 16th century. Gian Travers wrote the first surviving work in Romansh, theChianzun dalla guerra dagl Chiaste da Müs in the Putèr dialect. This epic poem, written in 1527, describes the first Musso war which Travers himself had taken part in. Aside from the Chianzun da Müs, Travers also translated numerous biblical plays into Romansh, though only the titles are known for many of them. Another early writer, Giachem Bifrun, who also wrote in Putèr, penned the first printed book in Romansh, a catechism published in 1552. In 1560 he published a translation of the New Testament: L’g Nuof Sainc Testamaint da nos Signer Jesu Christ.

Two years later, in 1562, another writer from the Engadine, Durich Chiampel, published the Cudesch da Psalms, a collection of Romansh church songs in the Vallader dialect. These early works are generally well written and show that the authors had a large amount of Romansh vocabulary at their disposal, contrary to what one might expect of the first pieces of writing in a language. Because of this, the linguist Ricarda Liver assumes that these written works built on an earlier, pre-literature tradition of using Romansh in administrative and legal situations, of which no evidence survives. The authors themselves often mention the novelty of writing Romansh in their prefaces, and discuss an apparently common prejudice that Romansh was a language that could not be written.

Front page of Ilg Ver Sulaz da pievel giuvan

Front page of Ilg Vêr Sulaz da pievel giuvan

The first writing in the Sursilvan and Sutsilvan dialects appear in the 17th century. As in the Engadine, these early works usually have a religious theme, in particular the struggles between Protestants and Counter-Reformers. Daniel Bonifaci produced the first surviving work in this category, the catechism Curt mussameint dels principals punctgs della Christianevla Religiun, published in 1601 in the Sutsilvan dialect. A second edition published in 1615 is closer to Sursilvan however, and writings in Sutsilvan do not appear again until the 20th century. In 1611, Ilg Vêr Sulaz da pievel giuvan (“The true joys of young people”), a series of religious instructions for Protestant youths, was published by Steffan Gabriel. Four years later in 1615, a catholic catechism Curt Mussament was published in response, written by Gion Antoni Calvenzano. The first translation of the New Testament into Sursilvan was published in 1648 by the son of Steffan Gabriel, Luci Gabriel.

The first complete translation of the Bible, the Bibla da Cuera was published between 1717 and 1719. The Sursilvan dialect thus had two separate written varieties, one used by the Protestants with its cultural center around Ilanz, and a catholic variety with the Disentis Abbey as its center. The Engadine dialect was also written in two varieties: Putèr in the Upper Valley and Vallader in the Lower Valley. The Sutsilvan areas either used the Protestant variety of Sursilvan, or simply used German as their main written language. The Surmiran region began developing its own variety in the early 18th century, with a catechism being published in 1703, though either the catholic variety of Sursilvan or Putèr were more commonly used there until the 20th century.

In the 16th century, the language border between Romansh and German largely stabilized, and remained almost unchanged until the late 19th century. During this period, only isolated areas became German-speaking, mainly a few villages around Thusis and the village of Samnaun. In the case of Samnaun, the inhabitants adopted the Bavarian dialect of neighboring Tyrol, making Samnaun the only municipality of Switzerland where a Bavarian dialect is spoken. The Vinschgau in South Tyrol was still Romansh-speaking in the 17th century, after which it became entirely German-speaking due to the Counter-Reformation denouncing it as a “Protestant language”.

Romansh during the 19th and 20th century

When Grisons became part of Switzerland in 1803, it had a population of roughly 73.000, of which around 36.600 were Romansh speakers, living mostly within the Romansh-speaking valleys, and many of whom were monolingual speakers of Romansh. The language border to German, which had mostly been stable since the 16th century, now began moving again as more and more villages shifted to German. One factor was the admission of Grisons as a Swiss canton, which brought Romansh speakers into more frequent contact with German speakers. Another factor was the increased power of the central government of Grisons, which had always used German as its administrative language. This meant that German became more and more present in the daily lives of Romansh speakers. In addition, many Romansh speakers migrated to the larger cities, which were German-speaking, while at the same time speakers of German settled in Romansh villages. Finally, economical changes meant that the Romansh-speaking villages which had mostly been self-sufficient until then, engaged in more frequent commerce with German-speaking regions. Also, increased mobility through improvements in the infrastructure made travel and contact with other regions much easier than it had been.

Finally, the rise of tourism made knowledge of German an economical necessity in many areas, while the agricultural sector, which had been a traditional domain of Romansh became less important. All this meant that knowledge of German became more and more of a necessity for Romansh speakers and that German became more and more a part of daily life. For the most part, German was not seen as a threat but rather as an important capacity for communicating outside one’s home region. The common people frequently even demanded better access to learning German. When public schools began to appear, many municipalities decided to adopt German as the medium of instruction, as in the case of Ilanz, where German became the language of schooling in 1833, when the town was still largely Romansh-speaking.

Some people even welcomed a disappearance of Romansh, in particular among progressives. In their eyes, Romansh was an obstacle to the economic and intellectual development of the Romansh people. For instance, the priest Heinrich Bansi from Ardez wrote in 1797: “The biggest obstacle to the moral and economical improvement of these regions is the language of the people, Ladin [...] The German language could certainly be introduced with ease into the Engadine, as soon as one could convince the people of the immense advantages of it”. Others however, saw Romansh as an economical asset, since it gave the Romansh an advantage when learning other Romance languages. In 1807 for example, the priest Mattli Conrad wrote an article listing the advantages and disadvantages of Romansh. His main rationale for fostering Romansh was:

The Romansh language is an immense advantage in learning so much more rapidly the languages derived from Latin of France, Italy, Spain etc, as can be seen with the Romansh youth, which travels to these countries and learns their language with ease. [...] We live in between an Italian and a German people. How practical is it, when one can learn the languages of both without effort?

—Mattli Conrad – 1807

In response however, the editor of the newspaper added that:

According to the testimony of experienced and vigilant language teachers, while the one who is born Romansh can easily learn to understand these languages and make himself understood in them, he has great difficulties in learning them properly, since precisely because of the similarity, he mixes them so easily with his own bastardized language. [...] in any case, the conveniences named hold no weight against all the disadvantages that come from such an isolated and uneducated language.

According to Mathias Kundert, this quote is a good example of the attitude of many German-speakers towards Romansh at the time. According to Mathias Kundert, while there was never a plan to Germanize the Romansh areas of Grisons, many German-speaking groups wished that the entire canton would become German-speaking. They were careful however, to avoid any drastic measures to that extent, in order not to antagonize the influential Romansh minority.

The decline of Romansh over the 20th century can be seen through the results of the Swiss censuses. The decline in percentages is only partially due to the germanization of Romansh areas, since the Romansh-speaking valleys always had a lower overall population growth than other parts of the canton.

Speaker numbers for Romansh in Grisons 1803–1980
year Romansh (absolute number) Romansh % German % Italian %
1803 36,700 ca. 50% ca. 36% ca. 14%
1850 42,439 47.2% 39.5% 13.3%
1880 37,794 39.8% 46.0% 13.7%
1900 36,472 34.9% 46.7% 16.8%
1920 39,127 32.7% 51.2% 14.8%
1941 40,187 31.3% 54.9% 12.8%
1960 38,414 26.1% 56.7% 16.1%
1980 36,017 21.9% 59.9% 13.5%

Starting in the mid-19th century however, a revival movement began, often called the “Rhaeto-romansh renaissance”. This movement involved an increased cultural activity, as well as the foundation of several organizations dedicated to protecting the Romansh language. In 1863, the first of several attempts was made to found an association for all Romansh regions, which eventually led to the foundation of the Società Retorumantscha in 1885. In 1919, the Lia Rumantscha was founded to serve as an umbrella organization for the various regional language societies. Additionally, the role of Romansh in schooling was strengthened, with the first Romansh school books being published in the 1830s and 1840s. Initially, these were merely translations of the German editions, but by the end of the 19th century teaching materials were introduced which took the local Romansh culture into consideration. Additionally, Romansh was introduced as a subject in teacher’s college in 1860 and was recognized as an official language by the canton in 1880.

Cover page of Ortografia et ortoepia del idiom romauntsch d’Engiadin’ota

Cover page of Ortografia et ortoëpia del idiom romauntsch d’Engiadin’ota

Around the same time, grammar and spelling guidelines began to be developed for the regional written dialects. One of the earliest was the Ortografia et ortoëpia del idiom romauntsch d’Engiadin’ota by Zaccaria Pallioppi, published in 1857. For Sursilvan, a first attempt to standardize the written language was the Ortografia gienerala, speculativa ramontscha by Baseli Carigiet, published in 1858, followed by a Sursilvan-German dictionary in 1882, and the Normas ortografias by Giachen Caspar Muoth in 1888. Neither of these guidelines managed to gather much support however. At the same time, the Canton published school books in its own variety. Sursilvan was then definitely standardized through the works of Gion Cahannes, who published Grammatica Romontscha per Surselva e Sutselva in 1924, followed by Entruidament devart nossa ortografia in 1927. The Surmiran dialect had its own norms established in 1903, when the Canton agreed to finance the school book Codesch da lectura per las scolas primaras de Surmeir, though a definite guideline, the Normas ortograficas per igl rumantsch da Surmeir was not published until 1939. In the meantime, the norms of Pallioppi had come under criticism in the Engadine due to the strong influence of Italian in them. This led to an orthographic reform which was concluded by 1928, when the Pitschna introducziun a la nouva ortografia ladina ufficiala by Cristoffel Bardola was published. A separate written variety for Sutsilvan was developed in 1944 by Giuseppe Gangale.

Loss of the Romansh-speaking majority in modern times according to the Swiss censuses

Loss of the Romansh-speaking majority in modern times according to the Swiss censuses

before 1860
Romansh majority in 2000

Around 1880, the entire Romansh-speaking area still formed a continuous geographical unit. But by the end of the century, the so-called “Central-Grisons language bridge” began to disappear. From Thusis, which had become German-speaking in the 16th/17th century, the Heinzenberg and Domleschg valleys were gradually Germanized over the next decades. Around the turn of the century, the inner Heinzenberg and Cazis became German-speaking, followed by Rothenbrunnen, Rodels, Almens, and Pratval, splitting the Romansh area into two geographically non-connected parts. In the 1920s and 1930s the rest of the villages in the valley became mainly German-speaking, sealing the split.

In order to halt the decline of Romansh, the Lia Rumantscha began establishing Romansh day care schools, called Scoletas, beginning in the 1940s with the aim of reintroducing Romansh to children. Although the Scoletas had some success – of the ten villages where Scoletas were established, the children began speaking Romansh amongst themselves in four, with the children in four others acquiring at least some knowledge of Romansh – the program ultimately failed to preserve the language in the valley.

A key factor was the disinterest of the parents, whose main motivation for sending their children to the Scoletas appears to have been that they were looked after for a few hours and given a meal every day, rather than an interest in preserving Romansh. The other factor was that after entering primary school, the children received a few hours a week of Romansh instruction at best. As a result, the last Scoletas were closed in the 1960s with the exception of Präz, where the Scoleta remained open until 1979.

In other areas, such as the Engadine and the Surselva, where the pressure of German was equally strong, Romansh was maintained much better and remained a commonly spoken language. According the linguist Mathias Kundert, one important factor was the different social prestige of Romansh. In the Heinzenberg and Domleschg valleys, the elite had been German-speaking for centuries, so that German was associated with power and education, even though most people did not speak it, whereas Romansh was associated with peasant life. In the Engadine and the Surselva by contrast, the elite was itself Romansh-speaking, so that Romansh there was “not only the language spoken to children and cows, but also that of the village notable, the priest, and the teacher.” Additionally, Romansh schools had been common for several years before German had become a necessity, so that Romansh was firmly established as a medium of education.

In Central Grisons by contrast, German had been a central part of schooling since the beginning, and virtually all schools switched entirely to German as the language of instruction by 1900, with children in many schools being punished for speaking Romansh well into the 1930s. In the Upper Engadine by contrast, where factors such as increased mobility and immigration by German speakers were even stronger, Romansh was more firmly established as a language of education and administration, so that the language was maintained to a much greater extent.

Current distribution

The current situation of Romansh is quite well researched. The number of speakers is known through the Swiss censuses, with the most recent having taken place in 2000, in addition to surveys done by the Radio e Televisiun Rumantscha. This data has been summed up in detail by statistician Jean-Jacques Furer in 2005. In addition, linguist Regula Cathomas performed a detailed survey of every-day language use, published in 2008.

Virtually all Romansh-speakers today are bilingual in Romansh and German. Whereas monolingual Romansh were still common a hundred years ago, they are now only found among pre-school children. As Romansh linguist Ricarda Liver writes:

Whereas the cliché of the bearded, sock-knitting Alpine shepherd who speaks and understands only Romansh, may still have been a reality here and there fifty years ago, there are nowadays no adult Romansh who do not possess a bilingual competence

—Ricarda Liver

The language situation today consists of a complex relationship between several Diglossia, since there is a functional distribution within Romansh itself between the local dialect, the regional standard variety, and nowadays the pan-regional variety Rumantsch Grischun as well, and German is also acquired in two varieties: Swiss German and Standard German. Additionally, in Val Müstair many people also speak Bavarian German as a second language. Aside from German, many Romansh also speak additional languages such as French, Italian, or English, learned at school or acquired through direct contact.

The Swiss census of 1990 and 2000 asked for the “language of best command” as well as for the languages habitually used in the family, on the job, and in school. Previous censuses had only asked for the “mother tongue”. In 1990, Romansh was named as the “language of best command” by 39,632 people, with a decrease down to 35,095 in 2000. As a family language, Romansh is more widespread, with 55,707 having named it in 1990, and 49,134 in 2000. As a language used on the job, Romansh was more widely used in 2000 with 20,327 responses than in 1990 with 17,753, as it was as a language used at school, with 6,411 naming it in 2000 as compared to 5,331 in 1990. Overall, a total of 60,561 people reported to be using Romansh in some sort on a habitual basis, representing 0.83% of the Swiss population. As the language of best command, Romansh comes in 11th in Switzerland with 0.74%, with the non-national languages Serbian, Croatian, Albanian, Portuguese, Spanish, English, and Turkish all having more speakers than Romansh.

In the entire Canton of Grisons, where about two-thirds of all speakers live, roughly a sixth report it as the language of best command (29,679 in 1990 and 27,038 in 2000). As a family language it was used by 19.5% in 2000 (33,707), as a language used on the job by 17.3% (15,715), and as a school language by 23.3% (5,940). Overall, 21.5% (40,168) of the population of Grisons reported to be speaking Romansh habitually in 2000. Within the traditional Romansh-speaking areas, where 56.1% (33,991) of all speakers lived in 2000, it is the majority language in 66 municipalities.

Romansh within the Romansh-speaking area as defined by Jean-Jacques Furer
1990 % 2000 %
Total 34,274 51.32% 33,991 46.44%
Language of best command 25,894 38.78% 24,016 32.81%
Family language 30,985 47.68% 28,712 42.50%
Language used in employment 11,655 37.92% 13,734 38.14%
Language used in school 4,479 54.44% 5,645 54.91%

Vrin, the municipality with the highest percentage of people naming Romansh as their language of best command in 2000 (95.6%)

Vrin, the municipality with the highest percentage of people naming Romansh as their language of best command in 2000 (95.6%)

The status of Romansh differs widely within this traditional area however. Whereas in some areas Romansh is used by virtually the entire population, in others the only speakers are people who have moved there from else where. Overall, Romansh dominates in most of theSurselva and the Lower Engadine as well as parts of the Surses, whereas German is the dominant daily language in most other areas, though Romansh is often still used and transmitted in a limited manner regardless.

In general, Romansh is the dominant language in most of the Surselva. In the western areas, the Cadi and the Val Lumnezia, it is the language of a vast majority, with around 80% naming it as their language of best command, and it often being a daily language for virtually the entire population. In the eastern areas of the Gruob around Ilanz, German is significantly more dominant in daily life, though most people still use Romansh regularly. Romansh is still acquired by most children in the Cadi and Gruob even in villages where Romansh speakers are in the minority, since it is usually the language of instruction in primary education there. Even in villages where Romansh dominates, newcomers rarely learn Romansh however, as Sursilvan speakers quickly accommodate by switching to German, so that there is often little opportunity to practice Romansh even when people are willing to learn it. Some pressure is often exerted by children, who will sometimes speak Romansh even with their non-Romansh speaking parents.

In the Imboden district by contrast, it is only used habitually by 22%, and is the language of best command for only 9.9%. Even within this district however, the presence of Romansh varies, with 41.3% in Trin reporting to speak it habitually. In the Sutselva, the local Romansh dialects are extinct in most villages, with a few elder speakers remaining in places such as Präz, Scharans, Feldis/Veulden, and Scheid, though passive knowledge is slightly more common. Some municipalities still offer Romansh as a foreign language subject in school, though it is often under pressure of being replaced by Italian. The notably exception is Schams, where it is still regularly transmitted to children and where the language of instruction is Romansh. In the Surmeir region, it is still the dominant every day language in the Surses, but has mostly disappeared from the Albula valley. The highest proportion of habitual speakers is found in Salouf with 86.3%, the lowest in Obervaz with 18.9%. In these areas, many Romansh speakers only speak German with their spouses as an accommodation or because of a habit, though they sometimes speak Romansh to their children. In most cases, this is not because of a will to preserve the language, but because of other reasons such as Romansh having been their own childhood language or a belief that their children will later find it easier to learn additional languages.

In the Upper Engadine, it is used habitually by 30.8% and the language of best command for 13%, with only S-chanf having a Romansh majority. Even though the main every-day and family language is German, Romansh is not in imminent danger of disappearing in the Upper Engadine, due to the strong emotional attachment to the language and in particular the Romansh-language school, which means that a Romansh-speaking core always exists in some form. Romansh is often a sign of being one of the locals, and used to distinguish oneself from tourists or temporary residents, so that outsiders will sometimes acquire Romansh in order to fit in. In the Lower Engadine by contrast, Romansh is the majority language virtually everywhere, with over 80% reporting it as a habitually spoken language in most villages. The status of Romansh is even stronger in the Val Müstair, where 86.4% report to speak it habitually, and 74.1% as their language of best command. In the Lower Engadine, outsiders are generally expected to learn Romansh if they wish to be integrated into the local community and take part in social life. In addition, there is often pressure from inside the family to learn Romansh.

Romansh as a habitually spoken language within the traditional language area in 2000

Romansh as a habitually spoken language within the traditional language area in 2000

Romansh as the language of best command within the traditional language area in 2000

Romansh as the language of best command within the traditional language area in 2000

Romansh as the language of best command in the entire canton

Romansh as the language of best command in the entire canton

Percentage of people reporting to understand Romansh in 2003

Percentage of people reporting to understand Romansh in 2003

Overall, Jean-Jacques Furer concludes that the shrinkage of the Romansh-speaking areas is continuing, though at different rates depending on the region. At the same time, he notes that Romansh is still very much alive, a fact that is obvious in those areas where it retains a strong presence, such as most parts of the Surselva and the Lower Engadine. It is also assured that Romansh will continue to be transmitted for several more generations, even though each succeeding generation will be more and more rooted in German as well as Romansh. As a result, if the overall linguistic situation does not change, speakers will slowly become fewer and fewer with each generation. He also concludes however, that there are still enough speakers to ensure that Romansh will survive in the long term at least in certain regions. He considers the Romansh-language school system to be the single most crucial factor in this.

Language Structure


Romansh has up to 26 consonant phonemes, of which two are only found in some varieties and one only in loanwords borrowed from German.

Labial Labio-
Dental and
Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ɲ 1ŋ
Plosive p b t d k ɡ
Affricate ts 2tɕ dʑ
Fricative f v s z ʃ ʒ 3ç 4h
Approximant j
Lateral l ʎ
Trill 5r


^1 only in some dialects, notably Surmiran, and only word-finally as in paung ’bread’.
^2 often transcribed as the palatal stops [c] and [ɟ] in broad transcriptions.
^3 only in some dialects, notably Putèr, and only word-finally as in amih, ‘friend’.
^4 only occurs in German loanwords such as halunc ’crook’.
^5 also pronounced [ʁ] in some dialects of Sursilvan.

The voiced obstruents are fully voiced in Romansh and voiceless ones are non-aspirated, in contrast to Swiss German with which Romansh is in extensive contact. Voiced obstruents are devoiced word-finally however as in buob ’boy’ > [buɔp], chöd ’warm’ > [tɕøt], saung ’blood’ > [sɛntɕ], or clav ’key’ > [klaf].

Monophthongs Front Central Back
Close i y u
Close-mid e ø o
Mid ɛ ɔ
Open a

The vowel inventory varies somewhat between dialects, as the front rounded vowels /y/ and /ø/ and are only found in Putèr and Vallader. They have historically been unrounded in the other varieties and are only found in recent loans from German there. They are not found in the pan-regional variety Rumantsch Grischun either. The now nearly extinctSutsilvan dialects of the Heinzenberg have /œ/ as in plànta ’plant,tree’, but this is etymologically unrelated to the [ø] found in Putèr and Vallader. The exact realization of the phoneme /o/ varies from [ʊ] to [o] depending on the dialect: cudesch / cudisch ’book’. It is regarded as either a marginal phoneme or not a separate phoneme from /u/ at all by some linguists.

Word stress generally falls either on the last or the penult syllable of a word. Unstressed vowels are generally reduced to a Schwa, whose exact pronunciation varies between [ə]or [ɐ] as in canzun ’song’. Vowel length is predictable:

  • Unstressed vowels are short.
  • Stressed vowels in closed syllables (those with a coda) are:
    long before /r/
    short elsewhere
  • Stressed vowels in open syllables are:
    short before voiceless consonants
    long elsewhere

The amount of diphthongs varies significantly between dialects. The Sursilvan dialects contains eleven diphthongs and four triphthongs ([ɪau], [ɪɛu], [uau], and [uɛi]).

Diphthongs Falling Rising
Closing [aɪ] [au] [ɛɪ] [ɛu] [uɪ]
Centering [iə]
Opening [ɪu] [uɔ] [uɛ] [ɪa] [ua]

Other dialects have different inventories; Putèr for instance lacks [au], [ɛu], and [uɛ] as well as the triphthongs, but has [yə], which is missing in Sursilvan. A phenomenon known as “hardened diphthongs”, in which the second vowel of a falling Diphthong is pronounced as [k], was once common in Putèr as well, but is nowadays limited to Surmiran: strousch‘barely > [ʃtrokʃ].


Romansh is written in the Latin alphabet, and mostly follows a Phonemic orthography, with a high correspondence between letters and sounds. The orthography varies slightly depending on the variety.

a b c d e f g h i j l m n o p q r s t u v x z
a be tse de e ef ghe ha i jot/i lung el em en o pe ku er es te u ve iks tset
Orthography IPA Example Notes
〈b〉 [b] surs. baselgia, put. bügl ’water well’
〈c〉 [k] surs. canaster ’basket’, put. corda ’cord’ Before 〈a〉, 〈o〉, 〈u〉 and consonants
[ts] surs. december, vall. celebrar ’to celebrate’ Before 〈e〉 and 〈i〉
〈ch〉 [tɕ] put. chapütscha ’hat’, zücher‘sugar’ In Putèr and Vallader
[k] surs. zucher ’sugar’ In Sursilvan, Sutsilvan, and Surmiran
〈d〉 [d] surs. dir ’hard’, put. rouda ’wheel’
〈f〉 [f] surs. fil ’string’, put. fö ’fire’
〈g〉 [ɡ] surs. gat ’cat’, put. god ’forest’ Before 〈a〉, 〈o〉, 〈u〉 and voiced consonants
[dʑ] surs. tegia ’hut’, put. gö ’game’, saung ’blood’ Before 〈e〉, 〈ö〉, 〈i〉, and 〈ü〉; the 〈i〉 is silent when followed by another vowel; word-finally in Putèr and Vallader (usually devoiced)
〈gh〉 [ɡ] surs. ghirlanda ’festoon’, put. ghigna ’grimace’ Before 〈e〉 and 〈i〉 (appears nowhere else)
〈gl〉 [ɡl] surs. Glaruna ’Glarus’, vall. glatsch ’ice’ Before 〈a〉, 〈e〉, 〈o〉, 〈u〉, and 〈ö〉
[ʎ] surs. egl ’eye’, panaglia ’butter churn’, put. glüsch ’light’ Before 〈i〉, 〈ü〉, and word-final; the 〈i〉 is silent when another vowel follows
〈gn〉 [ɲ] surs. signun ’chief herder on a seasonal pasture’, put. chavagna ’basket’
〈h〉 (silent) surs. habitaziun ’habitation’, vall. hoz ’today’ In most cases; see also 〈ch〉, 〈gh〉, and 〈sch〉
[h] surs. haluncs ’crooks’, vall. hobi‘hobby’ In some interjections and loanwords
[ç] put. amih ’friend’ In older Putèr
〈j〉 [j] surs. jamna ’week’, put. muja ’two year old cow’
〈k〉 [k] kilo ’kilogram’, vall. tockin ’little piece’ Occurs only in loanwords except in Putèr and Vallader, where it also occurs before 〈i〉 and 〈e〉
〈l〉 [l] surs. lev ’light’, put. miel ’honey’
〈m〉 [m] surs. mellen ’yellow’, put. mül‘mole’
〈n〉 [n] surs. paun ’bread’, put. punt‘bridge’ Except as below
〈ng〉 [ŋ] pang ‘bread’ only in Surmiran
〈p〉 [p] surs. pur ’farmer’, put. pom‘apple’
〈qu〉 [ku̯] surs. qual ’which’, put. quint ’bill’
〈r〉 [r] or [ʁ] put. trais ’three’, sur. treis ’three’ can be either alveolar or uvular, depending on the dialect and speaker
〈s〉 [s] surs. grusaida ’Rhododendron’, put. qualchosa ’something’ Usually at the beginnings of words and after consonants; always in 〈ss〉 and always at the end of a word
[z] surs. casa ’house’, put. maisa‘table’ Usually between vowels; sometimes after 〈l〉, 〈n〉, or 〈r〉; sometimes at the beginning of a word
[ʃ] surs. scaffa ’cupboard’, put. spler‘butterfly’ Before voiceless consonants; at the beginning of a word before 〈m〉, 〈n〉, or〈r〉
[ʒ] surs. sbagl ’mistake’, put. sdun‘spoon’ Before a voiced obstruent
〈sch〉 [ʃ] surs. schazegiar ’to estimate’, put. schmancher ’to forget’ In all positions, not distinguished in writing from [ʒ]
[ʒ] surs. pischada ’butter’, put. travascher ’to work’ In all positions except word-finally, not distinguished in writing from [ʃ]
〈s-ch〉 [ʃtɕ] put. pas-chüra ’pasture’ only occurs in Putèr and Vallader, corresponds to 〈stg〉 in other dialects
〈t〉 [t] surs. tut ’all’, put. tuot ’all’
〈tg〉 [tɕ] surs. vitg ’village’ corresponds to 〈ch〉 in Putèr and Vallader
〈tsch〉 [tʃ] surs. tschigrun ’whey cheese’, put. tschöver ’labor strike’
〈v〉 [v] surs. grava ’scree’, put. verdüra‘vegetables’
〈w〉 [v] pista da bowling ‘bowling alley’ Occurs only in foreign words
〈x〉 [ks] exact ’exactly’ mainly occurs in learned words and proper names
〈y〉 (Depends on pronunciation in original language) vall. hockey ’hockey’ Occurs only in foreign words
〈z〉 [ts] surs. canzun ’song’, put. zop‘hideout’

The vowel inventories of the five regional written varieties differ widely (in particular in regards to diphthongs), and the pronunciation often differs depending on the dialect even within them. The orthography of Sutsilvan is particularly complex, allowing for different pronunciations of the vowels depending on the regional dialect, and is not treated in this table.

Orthography IPA Example Notes
〈a〉 [a] surs. clav ’key’, put. bagn ’bath’ In stressed syllables
[ɐ] or [ə] surs. casa ’house’, canzun ’song’, put. chanzun ’song’, mellan ’yellow’ In unstressed syllables
〈ai〉 [ai̯] surs. grusaida ’Rhododendron’, put. naiv ’snow’
〈au〉 [au̯] surs. aur ’gold’, vall. paur ’farmer’ in most dialects
[ɛ] put. maun ’hand’ in Putèr
〈e〉 [ɛ] sur. lev ’light’, put. fnestra ’window’ In stressed syllables
[e] sur. tegia ’hut’, put. allegra ’greeting’ In stressed syllables
[ə] or [ɐ] sur. mellen ’yellow’, vall. cudesch ’book’ In unstressed syllables
〈é〉 [e] surs. pér ’pear’ usually only words where [e] contrasts with [ɛ] are written with accents
〈è〉 [ɛ] surs. pèr ’pair’ usually only words where [ɛ] contrasts with [e] are written with accents
〈ê〉 [e] put. pêr ’pair’ usually only words where [e] contrasts with [ɛ] are written with accents
〈ei〉 [ɛi̯], [ai̯], or[ɔi̯] surs. meisa ’table’, put. meidi ’doctor’ the exact pronunciation depends on the dialect
〈eu〉 [ɛu̯] surs. jeu ’I’, vall. glieud ’people’
〈i〉 [i] surs. ti ’you’, put. tizcher ’to start a fire’ But see above for 〈gi〉 and 〈gli〉
〈ï〉 [i] put. gïun ’double bass’ marks that the vowel does not form a diphthong with the following vowel
〈ia〉 [i̯a] surs. fiasta ’feast’
〈ie〉 [ie̯] surs. tschiel ’sky’, put. miel ’honey’
〈iu〉 [iu̯] surs. vendiu ’sold’
〈iau〉 [i̯au̯] surs. cumiau ’parting’
〈ieu〉 [i̯ɛu̯] surs. jeu ’I’ also written 〈jeu〉
〈o〉 [ɔ] sur. comba ’leg’, put. pom ’apple’,
〈ou〉 [ɔ] put. vouta ’time’ in Putèr
[o] vall. rouda ’wheel’ in Vallader
nous ’we’ in Surmiran
〈ö〉 [ø] put. chaschöl ’cheese’ only in Putèr and Vallader
〈u〉 [u] sur. luvrar ’to work’, put. tudas-ch ’German’ depending on the word and dialect
[o], [ʊ] sur. cudisch ’book’, put. cudesch ’book’ depending on the word and dialect
〈ua〉 [u̯a] surs. qual ’which’, put. aguagliöl ’nail’
〈ue〉 [u̯ɛ] surs. quen ’bill’
〈ui〉 [u̯i] put. quint ’bill’
〈uo〉 [uɔ̯] surs. buob ’boy’, put. chamuotsch ’chamois’
〈uai〉 [u̯ai̯] quai ’this’, put. frequaint ’frequently’
〈uei〉 [u̯ɛi̯] surs. quei ’this’
〈uau〉 [u̯au̯] surs. uaul ’forest’
〈ü〉 [y] put. tü ’you’ only in Putèr and Vallader
〈üe〉 [yɛ̯] put. spüerta ’offer’ only in Putèr and Vallader


The following description deals mainly with the Sursilvan dialect, which is the most well-studied so far. The dialects Putèr and Vallader of the Engadine valley in particular diverge considerably from Sursilvan in many points. When possible, such differences are described.

Nouns are not inflected for case in Romansh; the grammatical category is expressed through word order instead. As in most other Romance languages, Romansh nouns belong to two grammatical genders: masculine and feminine. A definite article (masc. il or igl before a vowel; fem. la) is distinguished from an indefinite article (masc. in, egn, en or ündepending on the dialect; fem. ina, egna, ena or üna). The plural is usually formed by adding the suffix -s. In Sursilvan, masculine nouns are sometimes irregular, with the stem vowel alternating:

  • il mir ’the wall’ – ils mirs ’the walls’.
  • la casa ’the house’ – las casas ’the houses’.
  • irregular: igl iev ’the egg’ – ils ovs ’the eggs’.

A particularity of Romansh is the so-called “collective plural”, to refer to a mass of things as a whole:

  • il crap ’the stone’ – ils craps ’the stones’.
  • collective: la crappa ’rock’.

Adjectives are declined according to gender and number. Feminine forms are always regular, whereas the stem vowel sometimes alternates in the masculine forms:

  • fem. bial (sg.) – biala (pl.) ‘good’
  • masc. bien (sg.) – buns (pl.) ‘good’.

Sursilvan also distinguishes an attributive and predicative form of adjectives in the singular. This is not found in some of the other dialects however:

  • Attributive: in bien carstgaun ’a good human (person)’
  • Predicative : il carstgaun ei buns ’the human (person) is good’

There are three singular pronouns and three plural in Romansh (Sursilvan forms shown below):

sg. pl.
1st person jeu nus
2nd person ti vus
3rd person el/ella/ei(igl) els/ellas/ei

There is a T–V distinction between familiar ti and polite vus. Putèr and Vallader distinguish between familiar and vus and polite El/Ella and Els/Ellas. Pronouns for the polite forms in Putèr and Vallader are always capitalized to distinguish them from third person pronouns, e.g. Eau cugnuosch a Sia sour ”I know your sister” and Eau cugnuosch a sia sour ”I know his/her sister”.

The 1st and 2nd person pronouns for a direct object have two distinct forms, with one occurring following the prepostion a: dai a mi tiu codisch ’give me your book’.

A particularity of Sursilvan is that reflexive verbs are all formed with the reflexive pronoun se-, which was originally only the third person pronoun:

  • jeu selavel ’I am washing myself’.
  • ti selaves ’you are washing yourself’.
  • el/ella selava ’he/she is washing her/himself’.
  • nus selavein ’we are washing ourselves’.
  • els/ellas selavan ’they are washing themselves’.

The other Romansh dialects distinguish different reflexive pronouns however.

Possessive pronouns occur in a pronominal and a predicative form. These only differ in the masculine form however:

  • miu tgaun ’my dog’ – il tgaun ei mes ’the dog is mine’.
  • vies problem ’your problem’ – quei problem ei vos ’that problem is yours’.

but in the feminine: sia casa ’her/his house’ – quella casa ei sia ’this house is hers/his’

Three different demonstrative pronouns quel, tschel, and lez are distinguished: A quel fidel jeu, a tschel buc ’I trust that one, but not that other one’ or Ed il bab, tgei vegn lez a dir? ’and the father, what is he going to say?’.

Verb tenses are divided into synthetic forms (present, imperfect) and analytic forms (perfect, pluperfect, future, passive) distinguished by the grammatical moods indicative,subjunctive, conditional, and imperative. The most common forms in Sursilvan are:

tense example translation
Indicative present jeu sun da Trun ‘I am from Trun’
Indicative perfect jeu sun staus en vacanzas ‘I have been on vacation’
Imperfect da quei savevel jeu nuot ‘I didn’t know anything about that’
Future els vegnan a dir ‘they will say’
Imperative cantei! ‘sing!’
Conditional jeu durmess ‘I would sleep’


The Syntax of Romansh has not been thoroughly investigated so far. Regular word order is subject–verb–object, but subject-auxiliary inversion occurs in several cases, placing the verb at the beginning of a sentence:

  • In order to form a question: Eis el aunc cheu? – “Is he still there?”.
  • In Declarative sentences: Damaun mein nus en vacanzas – “Tomorrow, we go on vacation”.
  • When an Independent clause is placed after the Dependent clause: Cura ch’el ei entraus, ein tuts stai sin peis – “When he entered, everyone stood up”.
  • As well as in other, stylistic variations.

This feature might be a result of contact with German, or it might be an archaic feature no longer found in other Romance languages.

A sentence is negated by adding a negative particle. In Sursilvan, this is buc, placed after the verb, while in other dialects such as Putèr and Vallader, it is nu, placed before the verb:

  • Sursilvan: Jeu hai buc fatg quei – “I didn’t do that”.
  • Putèr: La vschinauncha nu vegn isoleda da la naiv – “The village does not get cut off by snow”.

A feature only found in Putèr and Vallader is the preposition of a direct object, when that direct object is a person or an animal, with a, as in hest vis a Peider? ”did you see Peter?”, eau d’he mno a spass al chaun ”I took the dog out for a walk”, but hest vis la baselgia? ”did you see the church?”.


No systematic synchronic description of Romansh vocabulary has been carried out so far. Existing studies usually approach the subject from a historical perspective, taking particular interest in pre-Roman substratum, archaic words preserved only in Romansh, or in loan words from German. A project to compile together all known historic and modern Romansh vocabulary is the Dicziunari Rumantsch Grischun, first published in 1904, with the 13th edition currently in preparation.

Raetic and Celtic

The influence of the languages spoken in Grisons before the arrival of the Romans (Raetic and Celtic) is most obvious in placenames, which are often pre-Roman. Since very little is known about the Celtic language once spoken in Grisons, and almost nothing about Raetic, words or placenames thought to come from them are usually simply referred to as “pre-Roman”. Apart from placenames, such words are found in landscape features, plant and animal names unique to the Alps, and tools and methods related to alpinetranshumance. Such words include,

  • Raetic: agnieu ’mountain pine’, amp(u)a, omgia ’raspberry’, anzola ’bilberry’, chamutsch ’chamois’, crap ’rock’, gonda ’scree slope’, grip ’cliff’, grusaida ’snow rose’,panaglia ’butter churn’, (d)schember ’Swiss pine’, signun, sain ’chief herder on a seasonal pasture’, tschéss ’eagle’, urlaun ’ptarmigan’;
  • Celtic: carmun ’weasel’, dischöl, döschel ’goblin’, draig ’sieve’, glitta ’silt, mud’, grava ’scree’, mat ’boy’ ~ matta ’girl’, mellen ’yellow’, tegia ’alpine hut’, trutg ’footpath, drove way’, tschigrun ’whey cheese’.

Latin stock

Like all languages, Romansh has its own archaisms, that is, words derived from Latin which have fallen out of use in most other Romance languages. Examples include baselgia‘church’ (Vegl bašalka, Rom biserică), urar ’to pray’ (Pg orar, Rom a ura - to wish), aura ’weather’ (OFr ore, Arom avrî), scheiver ’carnival’, cudesch ’book’, the last two of which are only found in Romansh. The non-Engadinese dialects retain anceiver ~ entschaiver ’to begin’, from Latin incipere, otherwise only found in Romanian începere, whereas Surmiran and Engadinese (Putèr, Vallader) and all other Romance languages retain a reflex of Latin *cuminitiāre, e.g. Engadinese (s)cumanzar, Italian cominciare, Frenchcommencer. Other examples are memia (adv.) ‘too much’, derived from Latin nimia (adj., fem.), only found in Old Occitan, and Engadinese encleger ’to understand’ (vs. non-Engadinese capir), found also in Romanian înţelege and Albanian (n)dëgjoj, from Latin intellegere.

German loanwords

Another distinguishing characteristic of Romansh vocabulary are its numerous Germanic loanwords.

Some Germanic loan words already entered the language in Late Antiquity or the Early Middle Ages, and are often found in other Romance languages as well. Words more particular to Romansh include surs./suts. tschadun, surm. sdom/sdong, engad. sdun ’spoon’, which is also found in Ladin as sciadon and Friaulian as sedòn and is thought to go back to Ostrogothic *skeitho, and was once probably common throughout Northern Italy. Another such early loan is bletsch ’wet’, which probably goes back to Old Frankishblettjan ’to squeeze’, from where French blesser ’to wound’ is also derived. The change in meaning probably occurred by the way of ‘bruised fruit’, as is still found in Frenchblet. Early Germanic loans found more commonly in the other Romance languages includes surs./vall. blau, suts. blo/blova, surm. blo/blava, put. blov ’blue’, which is derived from Germanic blao and also found for instance in French as bleu and Italian as blu.

Others were borrowed into Romansh during the Old High German period, such as glieud ’people’ from OHG liut or surs. uaul, suts. gòld, surm. gôt, eng. god ’forest’ from OHGwald. Surs. baul, suts. bòld, engad. bod ’soon, early, nearly’ is likely derived from Middle High German bald, balde ’keen, fast’ as are surs. nez, engad. nüz ’use’ from Middle High German nu(t)z, or losch ’proud’ likely from Middle High German lôs. Other examples include surs. schuber ’clean’ from Swiss German suuber, surs. schumber ’drum’ from Swiss German or Middle High German sumber, and surs. schufar ’to drink greedily’ from Swiss German suufe.

Some words were adapted into Romansh through different dialects of German, such as the word for ‘farmer’, borrowed as paur from Bavarian in Vallader and Putèr, but fromAlemannic as pur in the other dialects.

In addition, many German words entered Romansh beginning in the 19th century, when numerous new objects and ideas were introduced. Romansh speakers often simply adopted the German words, such as il zug ’the train’ or il banhof ’the train station’. Language purists attempted to coin new Romansh words instead, which were occasionally successful in entering popular usage. Whereas il tren and la staziun managed to replace il zug and il banhof, other German words have become established in Romansh usage, such as il schalter ’the switch’, il hebel ’the lever’, la schlagbohrmaschina ’the hammer drill’, or in schluc ’a sip’. Especially noticeable are interjections such as schon, aber orhalt, which have become established in everyday language.

Language contact

Romansh speakers have been in close contact with speakers of Alemannic and Bavarian dialects for centuries, which have influenced Romansh. This influence is strongest in the vocabulary, whereas the German influence on morphology and syntax is much more limited. This means that Romansh has remained a Romance language in its core structure. Romansh linguist Ricarda Liver also notes that an influence of Swiss German on intonation is obvious, in particular in the Sursilvan dialect, even though this has so far not been linguistically studied.

The influence of German is generally strongest in the Rhenish varieties Sursilvan and Sutsilvan, and weaker in the dialects of the Engadine, where by contrast the influence of Italian is stronger.


German loan words entered Romansh as early as the Old High German period in the Early Middle Ages, and German has remained an important source of vocabulary since. Many of these words have been in use in Romansh for long enough that German speakers no longer recognize them as German, and for morphological derivations of them to appear, in particular through the suffix -egiar ~ iar, as in surs. baghegiar, sut. biagear, surm. biagier, put. biager, vall. bear ’to build’, derived from Middle High German bûwen. Other examples include malegiar ’to paint’ (← malen), schenghegiar ’to give (a present)’ (← schenken), schazegiar ’to estimate’ (← schätzen), or surs. betlegiar (sut.batlagear, surm./put. batlager, vall. petliar) ‘to beg’, derived from Swiss German bettle with the same meaning. Nouns derived from these verbs include maletg ’painting’,schenghetg ’gift’, schazetg ’estimation’, or bagetg ’building’. The adjective flissi ’hard-working’ has given rise to the noun flissiadad ’industriousness’. The word pur has given rise to derived words such as pura ’farmwife, female farmer’ or puranchel ’small-time farmer’, as has buob ‘boy’ from Swiss German bueb ‘boy’, with the derivations buoba ‘girl’ andbuobanaglia ‘crowd of children’.

Aside from outright loan words, the German influence on Romansh often takes the form of calques, where Romanic vocabulary has taken on the meaning of German words, summed up by Italian dialectologist Graziadio Isaia Ascoli in 1880 as “materia romana e spirito tedesco” (“Roman body and German soul). The earliest examples go back toCarolingian times and show the influence of Germanic law. Such words include tschentament ’statute’, a derivation of the verb tschentar (from Latin *sedentare ’to sit’) as an analogy to Middle High German satzunge or surs./sut./surm. lètg, put. alach, vall. lai ’marriage’, derived from Latin legem (accusative singular of lēx ’law’), with the meaning of Middle High German ê, ewe. A more recent example of a loan translation is the verb tradir ’to betray’, which has taken on the additional meaning of German verraten of ‘to give away’ as in tradir in secret ’to give away a secret’, originally covered by the verb revelar.

Particularly common are combinations of verbs with Locative adverbs, such as vegnir cun ’to accompany’ (literally ‘to come with’), vegnir anavos ’to come back’, far cun ’to participate’ (literally ‘to do with’), far giu ’to agree on’ (literally ‘to do down’), or grodar tras ’to fail’ (literally ‘to fall through’). Whereas such verbs also occur sporadically in other Romance languages as in French prendre avec ’to take along’ or Italian andare via ’to go away’, the large number in Romansh suggests an influence of German, where this pattern is common. The verbs far cun ’to participate’ or grodar tras ’to fail’ for example, are direct equivalents of German mitmachen (from mit ’with’ and machen ’to do) anddurchfallen (from durch ’through’ and fallen ’to fall’).

Less integrated into the Romansh verbal system are constructions following the pattern of far il (‘doing the’) + a German infinitive. Examples include far il löten ’to solder’, far il würzen ’to season’, or far il vermissen ’to miss, to feel the absence of’.

German also often serves as a model for the creation of new words. An example is surs. tschetapuorla ’vacuum cleaner’, a compound of tschitschar ’to suck’ and puorla ’dust’, following the model of German Staubsauger. The Engadinese dialects on the other hand have adopted aspiradur from Italian aspiratore. A skyscraper, which is a direct loan translation from English in many Romance languages (as in French gratte-en-ciel, Italian grattacielo), is a loan translation of German Wolkenkratzer (literally ‘cloud-scraper’) in Sursilvan: il sgrattaneblas (from sgrattar ’to scratch’ and neblas ’clouds’). The Engadinese varieties again follow the Italian pattern of sgrattatschêl (from tschêl ’sky’). A more recent word is la natelnumra ’the cell phone number’, which follows the word order of Swiss German Natelnummer, and is found alongside la numra da natel.

Examples of idiomatic expressions include surs. dar in canaster, engad. dar ün dschierl, a direct translation of German ‘einen Korb geben’, literally meaning ‘to hand a basket’, but used in the sense of ‘turning down a marriage proposal’ or esser ligiongia ad enzatgi, a loan translation of the German expression jemandem Wurst sein, literally meaning ‘to be sausage to someone’ but meaning ‘not cared about, to be unimportant’.


Apart from vocabulary, the influence of German is noticeable in grammatical constructions, which are sometimes closer to German than to other Romance languages.

For instance, Romansh is the only Romance language in which Indirect speech is formed using the Subjunctive mood, as in Sursilvan El di ch’el seigi malsauns, Putèr El disch ch’el saja amalo, ‘He says that he is sick’, as compared to Italian Dice che è malato or French Il dit qu’il est malade. Ricarda Liver attributes this to the influence of German.Limited to Sursilvan is the insertion of entire phrases between auxiliary verbs and participles as in Cun Mariano Tschuor ha Augustin Beeli discurriu ’Mariano Tschuor has spoken with Augustin Beeli’ as compared to Engadinese Cun Rudolf Gasser ha discurrü Gion Peider Mischol ’Rudolf Gasser has spoken with Gion Peider Mischol’.

In contemporary spoken language, adjective forms are often not distinguished from adverbs, as in Sursilvan Jeu mon direct ’I am going directly’, rather than Jeu mon directamein. This usage is rare in other Romance languages with a few sporadic exceptions as in French parler haut ’speak aloud’, and the common usage in colloquial Romansh is likely an influence from German.

Especially noticeable and often criticized by language purists are particles such as aber, schon, halt, grad, eba, or zuar, which have become an integral part of every-day Romansh speech, especially in Sursilvan.

Romansh influences on German

The influence of Romansh on German has not been studied as thoroughly as vice versa. Apart from place names throughout the former speech area of Romansh, only a handful of Romansh words have become part of wider German usage. Such words include “Gletscher” ‘glacier’ or “Murmeltier” ‘marmot’ (derived from Romansh murmunt), as well as culinary items such as Maluns or Capuns. The Romansh influence is much stronger in the German dialects of Grisons. It is sometimes suspected that the pronunciation /k/ or /h/ in words such as Khind and bahe as opposed to /x/ in other Swiss German dialects (Chind and bache) is an influence of Romansh, though this is disputed.

In morphosyntax, the use of the auxiliary verb kho ’to come’ as opposed to wird ’will’ in phrases such as leg di warm a, sunscht khunscht krank (‘put on warm clothes, otherwise you will get sick’) in Grisons-German is sometimes attributed to Romansh, as is the lack of a distinction between the accusative and dative case in some Grisons-German dialects, or the word order in phrases such as i tet froge jemand wu waiss (‘I would ask someone who knows’). In addition, some words which usually have the neuter gender in German, are male in Grisons-German. Examples include der Brot ’the bread’ or der Gäld ’the money’. Concerning vocabulary, common words of Romansh origin in Grisons-German includeSchaffa (derived from Romansh scaffa ’cupboard’), Spus/Spüslig ’bridegroom’ and Spus ’bride’, Banitsch ’cart used for moving dung’, and Pon ’container made of wood’. In areas where Romansh is still spoken or has disappeared in more recent times, Romansh words are even more common in the local dialects of German.

Attitudes towards language contact

The influence of German has been seen in different ways by linguists and language activists. The Italian dialectologist Ascoli for instance described Romansh as “a body that has lost its soul and taken on an entirely foreign one in its place” in the 1880s. This opinion was shared by many, who saw the influence of German as a threat to and corruption of Romansh, often referring to it as a disease infecting Romansh. This view was prevalent until after World War II, with many contemporary linguists and activists by contrast seeing these loan elements as completely natural and as an integral part of Romansh, which should be seen as an enrichment of the language. This position is currently held among others by the language activists Bernard Cathomas, Iso Camartin, or Alexi Decurtins, who argue for a relaxed attitude towards loan elements, which they point out are often among the most down-to-earth elements of the language, and that the dual nature of Romansh can also be seen as an advantage in being open to cultural elements from both sides. This position is also shared by several contemporary authors in particular from the Surselva, such as Arno Camenisch, who makes heavy use of Germanisms in his works.

Romansh literature and music

Synopsis on Romansh authors, by birth and idiom (including Rumantsch Grischun).

Synopsis on Romansh authors, by birth and idiom (including Rumantsch Grischun).

Romansh had a rich oral tradition before the appearance of Romansh writing, but apart from songs such as the Canzun da Sontga Margriata, virtually none of it survives. Prior to the 16th century, Romansh writings are only known from a few fragments. The oldest writing identified as Romansh is the so-called Würzburg manuscript, which is dated to the 10th or 11th century and was probably written in theAbbey of Saint Gall. It consists of only the sentence: Diderros ne habe diege muscha, which is considered an early form of Romansh. Two translations are proposed, either “Diderros does not even have ten flies” or “Diderros has ten flies from this”, probably meaning that the scribe named Diderros was poorly paid for his work. A longer piece of writing is found in the Einsiedeln Homily dated to the 11th century which is a 14-line long incomplete translation of a Latin homily. In addition, a Romansh court testimony about grazing rights in theVal Müstair is attested from 1389 in an otherwise Latin document: Introekk in sum la vall de Favergatscha et introekk eintt la vall da Vafergatscha; la e vcinn faitt una puntt chun dis punt alta e chun dis eintt feder Vinayr – “As far up as the Favergatscha valley and into the Vafergatscha valley. There where they are building a bridge which they call punt alta and what they call eintt feder Vinayr“.

The first surviving work in Romansh is the Chianzun dalla guerra dagl Chiaste da Müs written by Gian Travers in the Putèr dialect. This work, written in 1527, is an epic poem describing the 1st Musso war which Travers himself had taken part in. Subsequent works usually have a religious themes, including Bible translations, manuals for religious instructions, and biblical plays. In 1560, the first Romansh translation of the New Testament: L’g Nuof Sainc Testamaint da nos Signer Jesu Christ by Giachem Bifrun, was published. Two years later, in 1562, another writer from the Engadine, Durich Chiampel, published the Cudesch da Psalms, a collection of Romansh church songs in the Vallader dialect.

In the Sursilvan dialect, the first surviving works are also religious works such as catechism by Daniel Bonifaci and in 1611, Ilg Vêr Sulaz da pievel giuvan (“The true joys of young people”), a series of religious instructions for Protestant youths was published by Steffan Gabriel. Four years later in 1615, a catholic catechism Curt Mussament was published in response, written by Gion Antoni Calvenzano. The first translation of the new testament into Sursilvan was published in 1648 by the son of Steffan Gabriel, Luci Gabriel. The first complete translation of the Bible, the Bibla da Cuera was published between 1717 and 1719.

Non-religious writings in Romansh began appearing in the second half of the 19th century in substantial numbers. The literary output of this period often deals with the language itself and is seen as part of the Romansh revival known as the “Romansh Renaissance”. Most literature of the period consists of poetry and short stories praising the Romansh language and usually dealing with topics related to the rural background of the Romansh valleys. Another common theme is the emigration of the so-called “Randulins”, who would spend much of their lives working abroad. In addition, many works were translated into Romansh, generally German writers that were popular at the time. Well-known Sursilvan poets of the time include Théodore de Castelberg (1748–1818), Placidus a Spescha (1752–1833) or Gion Antoni Huonder (1824–1867). The most well-known Sursilvan poet isGiachen Caspar Muoth (1844–1906) however, who is often considered the most well-versed Romansh poet of all. His poets and ballads often deal with Romansh itself, such as his most famous work Al pievel romontsch (“To the Romansh people”):

Manuscript of Al pievel romontsch

Manuscript of Al pievel romontsch

Stai si, defenda,
Romontsch, tiu vegl lungatg,
Risguard pretenda
Per tiu patratg!

Stand up, defend,
Romansh, your old language,
demand respect
for your thought!

—Giachen Caspar Muoth, Al pievel romontsch

Other Sursilvan writers of the Romansh Renaissance include Caspar Decurtins (1855–1916), who collected among other things popular legends, ballads, and songs, as well as Giachen Michel Nay (1860–1920), who described rural life in several novels, Alfons Tuor (1871–1904), and Gian Fontana (1897–1935), who are also known for their novels. In addition, the priest Maurus Carnot (1865–1935) who had grown up in Samnaun but did not speak the Romansh dialect of his hometown, learned Sursilvan in Disentis and later wrote plays, lyric, and short stories dealing with rural life. Finally, Flurin Camathias is the author of several Sursilvan plays, poems, and epics, in addition to having translated numerous works into Romansh.

Literary works in Surmiran are comparatively rare, with Alexander Lozza from Murmarera being the most notable one.

In the Engadine, the first modern poets include Gian Battista Tschander and Conradin de Flug (1787–1874). Writers of the Romanticism era include Siméon Caratsch (1826–1891) and Gian Fadri Caderas (1830–1891), who co-authored some works such as the comedy Ils duos poets. Other well-known poets and song-writers of the period includeAndrea Bezzola (1840–1897), author of the song Ma bella Val, mi’ Engiadina, or Gudench Barblan (1860–1916), author of the song A la lingua materna

Chara lingua da la mamma,
tü sonor rumantsch ladin,
tü favella dutscha, lamma,
oh, co t’am eu sainza fin!
In teis suns, cur eir’in chüna
M’ha la mamma charezzà,
E chanzuns da l’Engiadina
In l’uraglia m’ha chantà.

Dear language of the mother,
you Romansh sound of the Engadine,
you sweet, soft speech,
oh, how I love you endlessly!
In your sounds, when I was in the cradle
did my mother love me,
and songs of the Engadine
sang into the ear.

—Gudench Barblan, A la lingua materna

Another important Engadine figure of the period is Zaccaria Pallioppi (1820–1873). While he also wrote poems of his own, his main work is the first Ladin dictionary, published by his son in 1895. One of the first female writers is Clementina Gilli (1858–1942), who translated several major works of European literature and published a few original works as well, using the pseudonym Clio. Other Engadine writers of the Romansh-Renaissance include Schimun Vonmoos (1868–1940), who wrote poets and short tales in addition to translating, Gian Gianett Cloetta (1874–1965) or Eduard Bezzola (1875–1948), who wrote dramas, comedies, and songs or translated them. The most well-known Engadine poet is Peider Lansel (1863–1943) however, who retired at an early age in 1906 and dedicated himself to poetry, becoming one of the first Romansh writers to gain fame outside of his region. His work includes over 200 poems, which were published in several collections in 1907 (Primulas), 1912 (La cullana d’ambras) and 1929 in his principal work Il vegl chalamêr. In addition, his work includes several anthologies of Romansh poets, such as La musa ladina (1910) and La musa rumantscha (posthumous 1950). Shortly before his death, he became the first Romansh writer to receive the Grosser Schillerpreis.

From the 1940s onwards, Romansh writers began to reflect on the widespread economical and social changes of traditional Romansh society and the word of modernity. Andri Peer (1921–1985) from the Lower Engadine is considered one of the first modern Romansh writers, whose works introduced modern literary trends into Romansh. His modern writing style was initially met with opposition, and he was not fully recognized and appreciated until much later. Another Engadine writer of this literary movement is Cla Biert (1920–1981), who became known for his humorous short stories. Notably Sursilvan writers include Flurin Darms (1918–) for his lyrics, and Gion Battesta Sialm (1897–1977) and Guglielm Gadola (1902–1961) for their short stories. One of the more famous contemporary novelists is Toni Halter (1914–1986), who treated historic or rural themes in his works. Also known for his novels and short stories is the Sursilvan writer Gion Deplazes (1918–). The Engadine writer Jon Semadeni (1910–1981) is the author of several theater plays and sketches, in addition to writing some prose as well. Also known for their plays are Men Gaudenz and Tista Murk (1915–1992) from the Val Müstair and Carli Fry (1897–1956) from Surselva. More recently, the Sursilvan writer Arno Camenisch (1978–) gained attention outside the Romansh community for his novels and short stories, including the bilingual Romansh-German book Sez Ner.

Concerning children and young-adult books, some original works have been written in Romansh alongside a large number of translations. The most famous of these are the books of Selina Chönz, whose book Uorsin has became famous well outside of Switzerland in its German version Schellenursli. Other authors include Clo Duri Bezzola (Kindels dal malom), Göri Klainguti (Linard Lum), Linard Bardill (Il guaffen gelg), G. Netzer (Martin steiler, Annina, La princessa loscha), Theo Candinas (La fuigia dil Stoffel) or Claudia Cadruvi (Capuns ed il stgazi dals Franzos).

The Romansh writers are organized in the writer’s union Uniun per la Litteratura Rumantscha established in 1946, which organizes the yearly event Dis da Litteratura since 1990. Most writers today write in their regional dialect, while the pan-regional variety Rumantsch Grischun is seeing increased use in works done by the Lia Rumantscha such as translations of children’s books.

In regards to music, choirs have a long tradition in the Romansh-speaking areas. Apart from traditional music and song, Romansh is also used in contemporary pop or hip-hop music, some of which has become known outside the Romansh-speaking regions. In the Eurovision Song Contest 1989 for instance, Switzerland was represented by a Romansh song, Viver senza tei. Since 2004, the hip-hop group Liricas Analas has become known even outside of Grisons through their Romansh songs. Other contemporary groups include the rock-band Passiunai with its lead singer Pascal Gamboni, or the rock/pop band The Capoonz. Composer Gion Antoni Derungs has written three operas with Romansh librettos: Il cerchel magic(1986), Il semiader (1998) and Tredeschin (2000).

Romansh in the media

Front page of the Engadiner Post/Posta Ladina in February 2010

Front page of the Engadiner Post/Posta Ladina in February 2010

Romansh is used to varying extents in newspapers, the radio, and television. Radio and television broadcasts in Romansh are produced by the Radiotelevisiun Svizra Rumantscha, which is part of the Swiss public broadcasting company SRG SSR. The radio Radio Rumantsch broadcasts a 24-hour program including informational and music broadcasts. The broadcasters generally speak their own regional dialect on the air, which is considered a key factor in familiarizing Romansh speakers with the dialects outside their home region. News broadcasts are generally in the pan-regional variety Rumantsch Grischun. The two local radio stations Radio Grischa and Radio Engiadinaoccasionally broadcast in Romansh, but primarily use German. The Televisiun Rumantscha airs regular broadcasts on SF 1, which are subtitled in German. Programs include the informational broadcast Telesguard, which is broadcast daily from Monday to Friday. The children show Minisguard and the informational broadcast Cuntrasts are aired on weekends. Additionally, the shows Controvers, Pled sin via, and others are broadcast during irregular intervals.

The Romansh newspapers used to be heavily fragmented by regions and dialects. The more long-lived newspapers included the Gasetta Romontscha in the Surselva, the Fögl Ladin in the Engadine, Casa Paterna/La Punt in the Sutselva, and La Pagina da Surmeir in the Surmeir. Due to financial difficulties, most of these merged into a pan-regional daily newspaper called La Quotidiana in 1997. This newspaper includes articles in all five dialects and in Rumantsch Grischun. Apart from La Quotidiana, La Pagina da Surmeircontinues to be published to a regional audience, and the Engadiner Post includes two pages in Romansh. A Romansh news agency, the Agentura da Novitads Rumantscha, has been in existence since 1997.

Several Romansh-language magazines are also published regularly, including the youth magazine Punts and the yearly publications Calender Romontsch and Chalender Ladin.

Sample text

The fable The Fox and the Crow by Aesop, translated into all six dialects of Romansh and Rumantsch Grischun.

L’uolp era puspei inagada fomentada. Cheu ha ella viu sin in pegn in tgaper che teneva in toc caschiel en siu bec. Quei gustass a mi, ha ella tertgau, ed ha clamau al tgaper: «Tgei bi che ti eis! Sche tiu cant ei aschi bials sco tia cumparsa, lu eis ti il pli bi utschi da tuts».

La gualp eara puspe egn’eada fumantada. Qua â ella vieu sen egn pegn egn corv ca taneva egn toc caschiel ainten sieus pecel. Quegl gustass a mei, â ella tartgieu, ed ha clamo agli corv: «Tge beal ca tei es! Scha tieus tgànt e aschi beal sco tia pareta, alura es tei igl ple beal utschi da tuts».

La golp era puspe eneda famantada. Co ò ella via sen en pegn en corv tgi tigniva en toc caschiel an sies pecal. Chegl am gustess, ò ella panso, ed ò clamo agl corv: «Tge bel tgi te ist! Schi ties cant è schi bel scu tia parentscha, alloura ist te igl pi bel utschel da tots».

La vuolp d’eira darcho üna vouta famanteda. Co ho’la vis sün ün pin ün corv chi tgnaiva ün töch chaschöl in sieu pical. Que am gustess, ho’la penso, ed ho clamo al corv: «Che bel cha tü est! Scha tieu chaunt es uschè bel scu tia apparentscha, alura est tü il pü bel utschè da tuots».

La vuolp d’eira darcheu üna jada fomantada. Qua ha’la vis sün ün pin ün corv chi tgnaiva ün toc chaschöl in seis pical. Quai am gustess, ha’la pensà, ed ha clomà al corv: «Che bel cha tü est! Scha teis chant es uschè bel sco tia apparentscha, lura est tü il plü bel utschè da tuots».

La uolp d’era darchiau üna jada fomantada. Qua ha’la vis sün ün pin ün corv chi tegnea ün toc chaschöl in ses pical. Quai ma gustess, ha’la s’impissà, ed ha clomà al corv: «Cha bel cha tü esch! Scha tes chaunt es ischè bel sco tia apparentscha, lura esch tü il pü bel utschè da tots».

Rumantsch Grischun
La vulp era puspè ina giada fomentada. Qua ha ella vis sin in pign in corv che tegneva in toc chaschiel en ses pichel. Quai ma gustass, ha ella pensà, ed ha clamà al corv: «Tge bel che ti es! Sche tes chant è uschè bel sco tia parita, lur es ti il pli bel utschè da tuts».

The fox was hungry yet again. Then he saw a crow sitting on top of a tree, who was a holding a piece of cheese in his beak. This I would like, he thought, and said to the crow: “how pretty you are! If your song is as beautiful as your plumage, then you are the most beautiful of all the birds”.

Published - August 2014

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