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Romansh identity remains hard to grasp


Romansh is a tiny minority language that is divided into five local idioms – not the ideal basis for forming a common identity.

But behind this apparent parochialism is, paradoxically, a certain openness to the world which comes from the fact that many Romansh speakers are multilingual.

Threatened by Switzerland's dominant language - German - and not really recognised by the country's French and Italian speakers as a Latin-based language, Romansh remains very marginal. It is spoken by just 0.5 per cent of the Swiss population.

This situation has not been helped by the fact that within the southeastern canton of Graubünden, where Romansh is spoken, there are five different idioms, each firmly rooted in a small linguistic area.

"[Romansh's diversity] is an asset because it allows for direct regional identification, [but] a drawback because Romansh is not unified, or only in theory," explained Romansh expert Chasper Pult.

"In recent years, in these globalised times, it is being gradually understood that minorities need to have common identities."


Andrea Rassel from Lia Rumantscha, the Romansh promotion organisation, agrees that Romansh identity is very regional.

"However because we are defined as a national language, we also feel part of an ethnic group within Switzerland," Rassel told swissinfo.

"We hope the development of Rumantsch Grischun (RG), the standardised version of the different Romansh idioms, might help the Romansh identity as a whole to grow."

But RG, which was introduced in 1982, remains controversial and its uptake has been slow.

Some therefore remain sceptical about the future.

"If I meet a Romansh speaker from another valley in Zurich or in the United States, we would consider ourselves brothers and sisters," says Ursin Lutz, editor of the Romansh youth magazine, Punts.

"But if you meet each other in [the German-speaking cantonal capital] Chur nothing happens... Romansh identity is a utopia."


But some still say a Romansh identity exists, albeit as one which encompasses two almost opposing points: an attachment to roots and a certain openness essential to minority languages.

For Romansh speakers, this translates into an aptitude for languages, an asset in trilingual Graubünden.

"We're all German speaking, we're all bilingual and most of us speak Italian as well, so it's very difficult to say what it typical Romansh, even if we have all our traditions," explained Rassel.

Bernard Cathomas, the head of Radio and Television Romansh, goes further. "Romansh is a language of identity and of roots, but also of communication," he told swissinfo.

"If you have Romansh you have the key to all the other Latin-based languages. I can read Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and French. Furthermore, you learn very early on two linguistic bases – Latin and German."

It is probably not by chance that Lia Rumantscha's symbol is a key...

World view

Living as a minority has an impact on an individual's concept of the world, adds Pult. Being a Romansh speaker allows you to find your bearings in this age of globalisation, he explains.

"Previously, the Romansh people saw themselves in terms of contrasts - the minority versus the German-speaking majority," he told swissinfo.

"Today we, and especially the younger generation, have understood that there isn't any antagonism [in this situation], that you can be part of a minority and live in an international global perspective."

Although this may not necessarily be a point of view shared by the man or woman on the street, it is backed up by Clau Solèr, professor of Romansh at Geneva University.

"In the 19th century, one wanted to copy German, and have everything in German. Today this tendency is still partially there, but the population identifies more with their home town, with the spoken language - everything which is local and identifiable."

swissinfo, Bernard Léchot

Key facts

Romansh is made up of five idioms linked to an area of Graubünden: Sursilvan (anterior Rhine), Sutsilvan (posterior Rhine), Sumiran (central Graubünden), Puter (Upper Engadine) and Vallader (Lower Engadine and Val Müstair).

A standard version, Rumantsch Grischun, has existed since 1982.

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The Graubünden flag

Graubünden, where Romansh is spoken, has its own flag. It is divided into three parts, representing the canton's three founding leagues.

The leagues were created in the 14th and 15th centuries to resist the rising power of the bishop of Chur.

The leagues joined forces and allied themselves to the Swiss confederation, finally becoming the canton of Graubünden (named after the Grey League) in 1803.

The Grey League is represented by the black and white halves, the League of the Ten Jurisdictions with the blue and yellow divided by a cross, and the League of God's House with a black ibex on a white background.

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