In 7th grade I almost failed Latin.

It was the declensions that got me—also, as a 12-year old, learning a dead language was as abstract as the idea of traveling the world.

That all changed the first time I came to Europe, visited a Roman ruin, and discovered that I could read the weathered inscriptions on a 2,000 year-old stone wall. For me to comprehend a message scrawled by a disappeared civilization was simply illuminating. Latin suddenly made sense and it became my key to other languages and therefore my key to traveling the world.

Latin is still a very dead language—however, its closest living relative is doing just fine in the mountains and valleys of southeast Switzerland. In fact, you can even watch it on television.

"Welcome" in Romansh on a shop sign in Samedan, Engadin, Switzerland (Photo by AE/NGT)

 

Romansh is the fourth official language of Switzerland (after Swiss German, French and Italian) and its proximity to Latin is astounding: Chesa is “house”, Chaun is “dog”, and paun is “bread”.

“It’s a Latin dialect, really,” explains Guido Ratti, a native-born Romansh speaker from the village of Samedan in the Swiss canton of Grischun. He spoke only Romansh until he was about eight years old, when he began studying his first foreign language at school: Swiss German.

“We always say—whoever knows Romansh, knows more,” says Guido, pointing out how the Romansh people of Switzerland tend to pick up other Romance languages quickly.

“Catalan is similar to Romansh and so are the dialects of Italy—so is Romanian,” he adds. “I remember in 1989 when Ceauşescu gave his final speech, I watched it on television and understood everything.

Native Romansh-speaker Niculin Bazzell speaks six different languages (Romansh, German, Italian, French, Spanish and English)—and he uses almost all of them “everyday” he says, mainly working with tourists.

“Our problem in Engadin is that we are so polite, we speak in whatever language our guest speaks,” explains Guido. People from all over the world come to Engadin for the mountains—in summer to hike and bike and in winter to ski. Guido is proud of the region’s hospitality, but feels it is crucial that they uphold Romansh in the area.

In Engadin, the first three years of school are taught entirely in Romansh, after which instruction gradually switches over to Swiss German. There is a full-time Romansh radio station and Romansh language television plays on Swiss TV, every night from 6:00 to 7:00 pm. (It’s like watching the news in Latin.)

According to Guido, there are “about 100,000 people who still speak [Romansh],” though the Swiss census counts only 60,000 speakers. In any case, Romansh is a minority language, spoken by less than 1% of the population. This group is broken down into four main dialects which together form a kind of linguistic tidal pool “leftover from the Roman soldiers who used to live in Engadin.”

Unlike Swiss German, Romansh is, in fact, a written language—a fact that plays a role in its survival. The Bible was first printed in Romansh in 1530, at the time of the reformation. And yet, oddly, Romansh was not made an official language of Switzerland until 1938, when the country voted by referendum to include it along with German, French and Italian.

“My language will survive!” proclaims Guido. Not only for its government protection but, “because so many people are conserving it.” Today, there is even a Romansh Wikipedia, however the long-term survival depends on parents passing it onto their children.

“I am completely Romansh and my sons speak Romansh but they both married girls from Zurich, so it’s much harder with my grandchildren,” explains Guido. “For example, I would love to teach my granddaughter Romansh but I only see her a few times a month.”

Aside from the school system, there is an intensive Romansh language workshop that takes place in Engadin for one week each summer, which attracts about 50 students per year. I’ve already added the course my Swiss wish list, but until that happens, Eau sun fich cuntaint dad imprender ün pô Rumauntsch (I’m very happy to learn a little Romansch) just by traveling in the area.

Of my favorite phrases is Piglia Pacific! (Pee-lya pa-chee-feek), or “take it easy!” as well as Eviva! (Ey-vee-va), or “Cheers!”, shouted to friends as a toast.

I often stress the importance of preserving rare and lesser-known languages, and while Romansh is not endangered as some, it is too often overlooked by visitors who travel to this part of Switzerland.

I don’t think Latin teachers will ever fully convince their young students that learning a dead language is worth the effort, but I am happy to argue the importance of learning a living (but less-known) language of Switzerland—if only grascha fich (thank you). It may not help you get directions or know how much this or that thing costs, but as a traveler, it will connect you to these valleys and the people who have lived here since the Romans.

And that, in my opinion, is much, much better than passing 7th grade Latin.

An old Romansh book for sale at a market in Pontresina (Photo by AE/NGT)

 

Comments

  1. Francesca
    Chicago
    July 16, 2012, 6:19 am

    How fascinating! The language geek in me truly loves this.

  2. Riet Tramèr
    Zürich
    July 16, 2012, 10:12 am

    Andrew, as a native Romansh speaker, I was delighted to read about you in The “Migros-Magazin” today. May I, however, add a little correction: actually there are five dialects, two of them in Engadin (Vallader and Puter), two on the other (north) side of the Canton (Sursilvan and Sutsilvan), and one just behind the Engadin (Surmiran). But the average Engadin person does not understand much when the other ones speak (except Surmiran which is similar) and vice versa.

    Oh yeah, another funny thing: thank you very much is “Grazcha fich” and not “Grascha fich”. The word grascha is what you would call dung (actually cow shit), Very funny!

    Best regards from Zürich!

  3. Kim Dios
    Kingman, Arizona
    July 16, 2012, 2:12 pm

    Growing up in Switzerland (Zurich) I did not speak or learn Romantsch (or: Romanisch, that’s how I’ve seen it spelled) , but my mother had learned it while attending boarding school in Ftan. She suscribed to the “Fogl Ladin” for many years = the only newpaper written in this unique language. You can cobble together some understanding
    by blending your comprehension skills of Swiss German and Italian. There are classes you can take, as well – both in the big cities, as well as in the valleys where they speak Romantsch. Thanks for bnringing this little-known gem of linguistic interest to our attention!

  4. Engadin Nut Tart – Digital Nomad
    July 17, 2012, 4:55 am

    [...] Nusstorte (Tuorta da nusch Engiadinaisa in Romansh) is something you’ll only find in Graubünden and it’s delicious: soft, sweet pastry [...]

  5. Waegook Tom
    Daejeon, South Korea
    July 18, 2012, 7:02 am

    Ooh I love reading about things like this! Hopefully the younger generations will preserve Romansch and not let their language die out. Every time a language leaves the world, it’s just a bit more of our joint cultural heritage disappearing.

  6. [...] of them less than a mile apart but each so individual. In Samedan, I captured the exotic sounds of Romansch, in St. Moritz I heard mostly Swiss German, and in Celerina, I was greeted in [...]

  7. Sarah
    Mauritius
    July 26, 2012, 2:11 pm

    I grew up learning English and French. We have a local language called Creole that has variations in different countries where Creole is spoken. It is spoken by everyone on the island. Now, I am learning German and Spanish. I’ve also tried to look up Occitan as I had an old friend from the south of France who once talked to me about the dialect. I am just curious about languages. I guess dialects, be it Romansh or Occitan, can be better learnt and understood when in an environment where they are spoken.

  8. Tim
    Melbourne, Australia
    November 21, 2012, 9:35 am

    In your second last paragraph you mention the importance of learning & preserving rare and lesser known languages and i couldnt agree with you more. I have always had a deep interest in different languages and i think romansch is the most unique language in the world.
    I am in the process of learning romansch at the moment. Even though i have only started i have bought numerous DVD’s and books and listen and practice every chance i get.

  9. Richard Wenek
    Phoenix, Arizona
    January 6, 2013, 9:09 pm

    Bravo! Fellow philoglots! You’ve ascended to the high plateau of the love of Romansh–let’s launch a linguistic crusade for the preservation, protection and promotion of Lusatian!

  10. Roman Springske
    Zermat, Switzerland
    February 20, 2013, 12:59 am

    I myself know 7 languages ( Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Norweigan, Bahassa, English, and Polish) and I am learning Romansh. Romansh has got to be my favorite language often Swedish. It seems so authentic and real, I moved to Switzerland one month ago and hav e already learnt Swiss Italian , I can’t wait to learn Romansh

  11. Ansgard
    Bern, Switzerland
    October 5, 2013, 11:14 pm

    I know the basics of the Swiss languages, (Swiss-German, Romansh, Italian, French, and German) and I’m glad that my native tongue is still here, but might die out. If people could learn the importance of Romansh to the native Swiss….

  12. Mark DeGeorge
    December 12, 2013, 2:14 pm

    Can someone provide more details about the summer workshop?