|Romansh is experiencing a tenuous rebirth in Chur. |
By JOHN TAGLIABUE
Published: September 28, 2010
CHUR, Switzerland — The people of this corner of Switzerland are arguing whether language is a matter of the heart or the pocketbook.
Depending on whom you talk to in the steep, alpine enclaves of Graubünden, otherwise known as Grisons, the easternmost wedge of the country, there is either strong support or bitter resistance to Romansh, the local language. “When people talk about the death of Romansh,” said Elisabeth Maranta, who for the last 18 years has run a Romansh bookshop, Il Palantin, which sells books in Romansh and in German, “then I say that there are days when I only sell books in Romansh.”
Yet Ms. Maranta herself illustrates the fragility of Romansh. A native of Germany, she came to Chur 38 years ago with her husband, but does not speak Romansh herself, which is hardly a liability since virtually all Romansh speakers also speak German. While she is an ardent champion of Romansh, she can be bleak about its future. Asked why most of the books in Romansh she sells are poetry, she muses: “When a patient is dying, he writes only poetry.”
Romansh is the direct descendant of the Latin that was spoken in these mountain valleys at the height of the Roman empire, and shares the same Latin roots as French, Italian or Spanish. So isolated were the people who spoke it in their deep valleys that not one, but five, dialects grew up, though the differences are not substantial.
In the 19th century, monks in the region developed a written language. The valleys produced their own writers in Romansh, mostly poets, yet it was not until the mid-16th century that portions of the Bible were published in the language. In 1997, the first daily newspaper in Romansh, La Quotidiana, appeared.
It was always a regional tongue, with the number of Romansh speakers probably peaking around 2.2 percent of the total Swiss population in the early 19th century; but then, of course, the population of Switzerland was only about 1.6 million people, a fraction of what it is today, when less than one percent of the population — about 60,000 people — speaks Romansh.
Only a few decades ago, Romansh was looked upon as the patois of the poor country yokel; today it is experiencing a tenuous rebirth thanks to grass-roots revival programs and government support. Switzerland declared it an official language in 1996, though with limited status compared with the country’s other official languages — German, French and Italian — and now spends about $4 million a year to promote it.
Out in the village of Trun, up the Rhine Valley, Fritz Wyss is a fan of Romansh. “I see it as an advantage,” said Mr. Wyss, 51, who runs the little butcher shop on the main street of Trun, where almost 90 percent of the people speak Romansh and all his products are marked in German and Romansh.
“But some of my colleagues say to me, ‘What are you doing with the signs in two languages?’ ” saying that Romansh next to German made his shop look provincial. “But I’ve only had good results.”
“Our kids who learn Romansh have advantages when learning languages like Italian and French,” he said.
His neighbor, Ursulina Berther-Nay, 65, agreed. “People are proud of their language, and everyone makes an effort to preserve it,” she said, speaking German in her comfortable living room. She and her husband speak only Romansh at home. “It wasn’t always that way,” she said. “People used to be ashamed of it.”
Yet when asked whether she believed Romansh was endangered, she replied, “Yes, for sure.”
“We are too few, and the outside influences are so many,” she said. In church, hymns and prayers are still in Romansh, she said. But now there are too few Romansh priests, so the village pastor is from Poland and though he speaks Romansh passably, he prefers to preach in German.
Business leaders say that clinging to Romansh comes at a cost, as the region gradually evolves from farming and forestry to tourism and light industry.
In his offices as chief executive of Hamilton Bonaduz, the Swiss affiliate of an American company specializing in medical and research equipment, Andreas Wieland sometimes wishes he could bid Romansh a revair, or au revoir, altogether. About one-third of his 700 employees have advanced degrees in science or engineering, he explains, so he favors English and German over Romansh and Italian, the two smallest languages in Switzerland.
As his views became known he was invited in August to a conference on language but declined to go, writing instead to the organizers:
“Romansh and Italian may have great value culturally and politically, but for our export economy they have no relevance and belong rather in the category of folklore.”
“Our employees communicate far more often with Beijing or New York in English,” he went on, “than with Vicosoprano in Italian or Tujetsch in Romansh,” referring to two villages in the region.
Mr. Wieland, 55, insists, “I am not against Romansh.” At company receptions, he said, “we never serve salmon and Champagne,” but local beverages and the thinly sliced air-dried raw beef for which Graubünden is famous. The company has 50 trainee positions and likes to hire locally, he boasts, but “for these people, Romansh cannot be a boost to their careers.”
South of Hamilton’s offices, across the craggy Julier Pass, the village of Samedan, for centuries Romansh speaking, is trying to prove Mr. Wieland wrong. Where schooling was once only in Romansh, inroads by German prompted the local leaders to introduce changes. Now, for the first two years, classes are taught in both Romansh and German, and in one or the other in the following years.
Asked about Mr. Wieland’s criticism, Thomas Nievergelt, a lawyer who is Samedan’s part-time mayor, replied: “I have to contradict that. Our results clearly show that the pupils’ performance is no better or worse regardless of language.”
Language, he added, is not just about getting a job. “Language is a question of the heart, not just of understanding.”
Correction: October 6, 2010
The Chur Journal article last Wednesday, about efforts in the eastern Swiss city of Chur and surrounding region of Graubünden to preserve Romansh, the local language, misstated the method used to cure a thinly sliced raw beef for which the region is famous. The beef is air-dried, not smoked. The article also misstated the timeframe during which the first Romansh translation of the Bible was published. It was in the mid-16th century, not 1973. And because of an editing error, the article misstated the percentage of the Swiss population that the 60,000 speakers of Romansh represent. It is less than 1 percent, not 1 percent.