Is Romansh doomed to die out?

February 28, 2024
Is Romansh doomed to die out?

Romansh is one of Switzerland’s four national languages, alongside German, French and Italian. It is a blend of the Vulgar Latin spoken by Roman soldiers and colonists and the language of the native Rhaetian people when the Romans conquered Rhaetia in the early first century. This mixed language remained the primary language of the region for more than 1400 years, until the formation of the Free State of the Three Leagues in the 15th century.

However, due to the isolation of the towns and villages throughout the mountainous landscape of what is now Graubünden, Romansh became increasingly fragmented, eventually establishing itself as five major dialects, which today are collectively spoken by just 0.5% of Switzerland’s population. It was this lack of uniformity that prevented Romansh from developing in the area as quickly as French and German, allowing German to ultimately become the prominent language of the region. Consequently, the Romansh language began to die out. 

Endangered languages 

In an increasingly globalised world, smaller countries and cultures are constantly forced to adopt languages that wield more political and economic power. With fewer than 42,000 speakers, Romansh is an endangered language in Switzerland. UNESCO estimates that a language dies out every 14 days, and as many as half of the world’s 7,000 languages could be extinct by the end of this century.

The death of a language means the loss of a unique way of describing the world around us. With the loss of a language we lose generations of stories, knowledge and history. Far from a simple means of communication, language is a critically important aspect of cultural identity.

Read more: The world's most endangered languages

Preserving language

As an oral medium, a language dies with those who speak it unless efforts are made to document and record it. Such methods to preserve languages by linguists can take a number of forms. Recordings of the spoken language are made to document pronunciation, while written documents and videos record not only the literal spoken and written language, but also the cultural practices of its speakers.

In 1938, eager to hold on to its cultural history, Switzerland made Romansh an official national language, after 90% of Swiss voters motioned in favour of preserving this native language. Yet despite becoming one of the four official national languages of Switzerland, less than a half of a percent of the Swiss population can speak it.

In 1982, the Lia Rumantcha organisation (a non-profit with aims to preserve the Romansh language and culture) and linguists at the University of Zurich took matters into their own hands. They created ‘Rumantsch Grischun’ – a simplified version of Romansh that aimed to unify all five dialects. It became the operating language of Graubünden in 1996, though many speakers are still reluctant to sacrifice their own local dialects in favour of the simplified version.

This number is dwindling more every year. As such, it’s important that efforts are made to preserve the language and the history and cultural practices of its native speakers, lest they be lost to time like so many endangered languages around the world. To this end, the Swiss Council spends more than 7.5 million Swiss Francs every year in attempts to promote and preserve the Romansh language. 

Harnessing technology 

Modern technology provides a number of avenues for preserving and promoting the language. Developments in the last 80 years include a Romansh TV and radio station, a Romansh newspaper incorporating all five regional dialects, and in recent years even a hip-hop group with Romansh lyrics.

Additionally, in a somewhat ironic turn, the impending extinction of the Romansh language may hold the means of its resurrection – as people are increasingly drawn to Romansh due to the “trendiness” of its rarity. Maya Gartmann, a professional in public relations living in Graubünden, observes:

“[…] people are proud to speak Romansh because it’s different and rare, and anything that is rare and exclusive is interesting today.”

Attempts to preserve Romansh are already underway and have laid effective foundations for the survival of the language. Considering this, and the status of Romansh as an official national language, it seems that the language is in the best hands possible. With time and continued motivation, it should only be a matter of time until Romansh ceases to be endangered, in an example of what can be done for other endangered languages around the world. 

Final thoughts

Do you speak an endangered language? What is being done to try and preserve that particular tongue? Could more be done, based on the example of Romansh – video translations, audio recordings or enhanced funding programmes perhaps? Leave a comment below to share your views.

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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