Swiss minority face lonely fight to keep their language alive

Swiss minority face lonely fight to keep their language alive

17th February 2009, Comments 0 comments

In a country dominated by German and French, policy makers and other Romansh speakers are grappling with how to preserve their beloved language despite strong criticisms from outsiders and, sometimes, within their own ranks.

Schoolteacher Andrea Urech admits that he sometimes feels very lonely in his fight to keep the Romansh language alive. It is spoken by less than one percent of people in Switzerland.

"I have written letters to all the hotels here offering my services to translate documents into Romansh, but I didn't get one single answer," he said.

Depending on who you talk to in eastern Switzerland's Graubuenden canton, where most Romansh speakers are found, there is either fervent support or strong resistance to the language spoken by only 60,000 people across the country.

For every Urech who says "gea" to Romansh, there is someone else who says "na" or has an anecdote about how Romansh was being saved at an economic cost to the region.

The head of Graubuenden canton's tourism and economic bureau, Eugen Arpagaus, has one such example of an employee who quit his job because the town where he lives switched from teaching German to Romansh in schools.

Romansh Phrasebook

"He did not want his children to be taught in Romansh, so he left and I had to find someone else to replace him,” he said. “We are losing talent because of this. Theirs (Romansh proponents') is a romantic view. In reality, the language is a real handicap.”

A board member of Engadin St. Moritz region's mountain rail, Dieter Bogner, pointed to an example of a Romansh-speaking employee who never fails to make mistakes when writing German -- even though the latter is the official language at work.

"Romansh speakers may tell you it is not a problem, but it is a problem,” Bogner said. “I receive CVs sometimes from Romansh speakers who just cannot write in German."

Many of Switzerland's industrial powerhouses are concentrated in the German-speaking regions Zurich and Basel.

Indeed Romansh, a Romance language that shares the same Latin roots as French, Italian or Portuguese, sparks very different responses here.

First developed from a fusion of vulgar Latin spoken by Roman conquerors and local languages in 15 BC, Romansh developed into a written language in the 16th and 17th centuries.

It became an official language in Switzerland only in 1996, but with limited status compared to German, French and Italian.
An advertisement of the local bank written in Romansh language is seen in the tiny village of Zuoz in the Canton of Graubuenden, on December 18, 2008.

An emotional issue

The government now spends about 4 million Swiss francs (2.5 million euros, 3.3 million dollars) a year to promote the language, which is printed on bank notes and passports. However, regulations do not require official documents to be translated into the language.

More often than not, Romansh is invisible in a country dominated by German and French speakers.

Even in Samedan, a town that was traditionally Romansh, inhabitants now speak German in the streets, said the town's Vice-Mayor Otto Morell over lunch at a restaurant where the menu was printed in German.

"In this room, I speak Romansh only to them," he said, pointing to Urech and the headmaster of the local school Robert Cantieni.

The encroachment of the German language in Samedan meant that by 2000, those who cited Romansh as their 'best known language' had tumbled to 17 percent from some 33 percent in 1960.

Alarmed by the trend, Urech and other teachers at the local school reacted.

Their efforts led to Samedan adopting a local constitution in 2004 that recognizes both Romansh and German as official languages in the community.

The same article also recognized Romansh and German as teaching languages in the classroom.

As a result, classes are now taught in both Romansh and German for the first two years, and in one or the other language in the following years.

Despite the small victory for the language, Romansh speakers are, among themselves, locked in bitter discord over which of the five main so-called idioms of Romansh should be taught in school.
A signpost written in in Romansh language is seen in the tiny village of Zuoz in the Canton of Graubuenden

Urs Cadruvi, Secretary General of Lia Rumantscha, an organization charged with promoting the language, is pushing for a "standard" version of written Romansh, known as Rumantsch Grischun, to be rolled out across primary schools in the canton by 2010.

But Samedan's school is among those that insist on teaching their own local type of Romansh known as Puter.

Lia Rumantscha argues that the language stands a better chance of survival if speakers rally behind one version rather than insisting on five different strains.

"It's a very, very emotional issue," said Cadruvi.

Meanwhile, as the organization fights to get official Romansh accepted within the community, Cadruvi also has to convince the general population that learning Romansh poses no threat to one's German language skill.

Urech agreed, saying that Romansh speakers realize that there is no way around German being the dominant language for practical life.

Both could co-exist, added Urech.

"We would like to give our children both wings and roots," Cadruvi said. "German language would help them to fly, but it is Romansh that is their roots."

Hui Min Neo/AFP/Expatica

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