Back in the 1980s I was the only student of Romance comparative linguistics at my university. My main focus was Spanish, and in addition French, Italian and Romanian were obligatory, as well as Latin. I should then choose one more language freely from the remaining ones, and I was hesitating between Catalan and Portuguese. One day however, my distinguished Italian/Romanian professor asked me: “Why don’t you pick Romansh? I can create a course for you.” Why not, I answered. I knew very little about the language and the people speaking it, but I was curious. So my professor set aside an extra two hours per week during six months to introduce me to Romansh. So I learnt the basics, I took a small exam, and then left it behind.
Fast forward twenty-odd years. I had taken up learning languages again, and I was going through some boxes with old books and found my old Romansh material, including a short novel I had bought at the time and never read. I flickered through it and was pleasantly surprised that I could still understand a fair bit, so I decided to read it intensively, looking up all the words I did not understand. The beauty of the language came back to me, and since that moment Romansh has been a daily companion.
What is Romansh
Romansh here means the fourth national language of Switzerland, referred to as Rätoromanisch in German, Romanche in French and Romancio in Italian. In Romansh it is called Rumantsch or Romontsch. (The term Rheto-Romance is sometimes used to include Friuli and Ladin, two languages spoken in Italy closely related to Romansh, but they will not be dealt with in this article.) Today there are around 60.000 people in Switzerland who claim Romansh as their native language, but the number speaking it on a daily basis is probably smaller. It is spoken in the Eastern valleys of Switzerland, in the canton of Grison (Graubünden), where it has official status. Even with this small number of speakers, Romansh is not a unified language. There are five distinct “idioms”: Sursilvan, Sutsilvan, Surmiran, Putér and Vallader, each with their own written standard. In addition, there is a sixth unified standard, called Rumantsch Grischun (RG), which today is used in official texts and is spoken on Romansh TV and radio. RG was created in 1982, but has only been an official standard in Grison since 2001.
This diversity can seem confusing, and as a beginner you may ask whether you should pick one of the five idioms or start learning Rumantsch Grischun. With my professor we focused on Sursilvan, which is the idiom with most native speakers and which offers a wide choice of resources. Personally I would recommend anyone interested to start learning one of the idioms, and it seems logical to pick either Sursilvan or Vallader, the two varieties with the biggest number of speakers. Once you learn an idiom, it is very easy to understand RG, which is simply constructed with features which exist in two or more of the five idioms. You can, with a little bit of effort, also understand pretty well the other idioms.
Why learn Romansh
I am not going to tell you why you should learn Romansh. Instead I will write about why I decided to relearn the language and why it is meaningful to me.
I studied comparative linguistics, and Romansh has enough fascinating features to be interesting in itself. Its geographical isolation in the Alps and the contact with surrounding Germanic languages has produced a unique set of idioms with their particularities.
Romansh is spoken by a small minority in a wealthy, stable and democratic country which values its plurilingualism. Thanks to this, Romansh has been able, not only to survive, but to maintain a living and varied culture. It has a dedicated public radio and TV station with daily emissions, there is a daily newspaper, and the literary tradition of Romansh goes back to the 17th century. Nowadays novels, short stories, theatre plays and poetry are published regularly even in the smaller idioms, Surmiran and Sutsilvan. Knowing the language gives me access to this culture and enables me to read the works of fascinating authors who are almost never translated into a major language. There is an old tradition of folk songs, but there are also a growing number of young Romansh speakers who make rock, pop and rap in Romansh.
Romansh is an example of how a minority language can resist the decline in numbers of speakers and ensure that this unique part of European culture continues to exist. The language policy of the Swiss Confederation has contributed greatly to this, but unless enough native speakers are determined to keep the language alive and produce literature and other cultural expressions in their language, it cannot survive no matter how much a government subsidises it. Romansh fascinates me also for this reason.
How to learn Romansh
I should start with a little warning: If you do not know German, you may have a hard time learning the language to a high level. Almost all learning material is in German, and the best and most complete dictionaries are to and from German, although there are some basic online dictionaries to other languages as well. You can find a few novels or short stories published in bilingual versions, but again that mostly means German and Romansh. This being said, it does not mean that it is impossible to learn Romansh without German. Knowing a couple of Romance languages is of great help, in particular Italian and French, but even Spanish or Portuguese. You can probably reach a good level of understanding on the basis of knowledge of other Romance languages.
The advantage today compared to when I started learning back in the 1980s is the opportunities internet offers the learner of a minority language. From everywhere in the world you can access Romansh TV, radio, music, news articles etc. any time of the day. You may not easily find anyone to speak Romansh with, but at least you can easily spend a couple of hours a day doing varied activities in Romansh.
Lia Rumantscha is the name of the official organisation for the promotion of the Romansh language. If you have the time and money, they offer intensive courses in Switzerland for the idioms Sursilvan and Vallader every summer. If you do not have the opportunity to travel to Grison, you can still learn Romansh studying yourself at home. I would recommend you to get the course “En lingia directa”. It exists for all five idioms and RG, and you can buy them from Lia Rumantshca on their website.
You can also find other learning material on their site, such as grammars and dictionaries, but if you do not want to spend a lot of money you may prefer the free online dictionaries Pledari Grond, which has RG and the five idioms to and from German:
If you do not know German, a simpler online dictionary exists for
Apart from the German-based material, I can recommend a grammar written in French by Ricarda Liver, called Manuel pratique de romanche: sursilvan – vallader. Although from 1991, it is still the best introduction I know to the grammar of the two main idioms.
Once you have passed the beginner stage, it is time to engage with real native sources. I have already mentioned the public broadcaster Radiotelevisiun Svizra Rumantscha (RTR). Here you can read articles in RG, watch TV programmes and listen to radio podcasts. They also have an app, PlayRTR, which is great for a tablet.
A part of RTR called Battaporta is aimed at a young audience, and offers short programmes about music, cinema and current affairs.
When watching TV programmes or listening to the radio it can be a challenge that many times there will be a mix of idioms. The interviewer may speak Vallader, and the interviewee Surmiran or Sursilvan. The news is often read in RG, but then there is suddenly a short slot when someone speaks an idiom. You may even get to hear other languages, German, Swiss German, Italian or French. This can be fun, but also confusing. If you want to make sure you hear just one idiom, you need to look for programmes where one presenter speaks the whole time, like the radio programme Il Forum. Unfortunately you cannot listen to them on their website for copyright reasons, but you can subscribe to the programmes through iTunes.
On the web, there is a Romansh Wikipedia. Most articles are written in RG, but some are in one of the idioms, and it is normally indicated if that is the case. Chattà.ch is a database which gives access to texts, audio and video in Romansh sorted by thematic.
The daily newspaper La Quotidiana can be bought in electronic version on the website of Südostschweiz. It has articles in RG and all five idioms.
Romansh has a rich literary tradition, taking into account the number of speakers, and several contemporary authors publish regularly. Books can be bought through the website of Lia Rumantscha or from Chasa Editura Rumantscha. A few books have been published as e-books and can be found through this page.
I have mostly read books in Sursilvan, and amongst authors writing in this idiom I particularly appreciate are Ursicin G.G. Derungs, Theo Candinas, Hubert Giger, Gion Deplazes and Leontina Lergier-Caviezel. For Vallader I can mention in particular Oscar Peer, Jon Semadeni and Cla Biert. There are writers in the other idioms too, which I have yet to explore.
Regarding modern music, I can recommend artists like Corin Curschellas (traditional folk with a touch of jazz singing in all Romansh idioms), Giganto (Sursilvan rap), Astrid Alexandre (Sursilvan chanson) Cha da Fö (Vallader jazz/blues), Gino Carigiett (Sursilvan pop) or Conradin Klaiss (Sursilvan romantic pop). You can search for them on Youtube or other music-sharing websites. A good place to start exploring Romansh music is to get the collection called “Top pop rumantsch”, two albums presenting a lot of artists. They can be found on any of the big online companies selling music.
The Romansh language opens the door to a fascinating culture in the heart of Europe. I really encourage the reader to explore this culture a little bit, even if you do not plan to learn Romansh.
This guest post written by senior forum member Ogrim. In addition to his native Norwegian, Ogrim speaks English, French, German, Romansh and Spanish. He also dabbles in Catalan, Italian and Latin. His current project is to learn Russian to an advanced level, and he has a long-term goal of learning Arabic.
You can read Ogrim’s own forum language log.