Mussolini's Influence On the Romansh Language

Swiss mountain village Vals is a German linguistic enclave in Romansh Val Lumnezia - © Private Antilia Wyss

How Mussolini contributed to the recognition of Switzerland’s fourth national language and other tales from behind the mountains.

It might seem surprising that Romansh, spoken by only 0.5% of its population, has the status of a national language in Switzerland. Why is a language that is spoken by the 60,000 people who live in the valleys and mountain villages in the canton of Graubünden so important for the Swiss Confederation? And how is it even possible for ‘Romansh’ to be a national language, if it is, in fact, an umbrella term for several dialects? How then is one supposed to translate official documents into that ‘language’? More surprising even, is to think that Mussolini had a role to play in this story. But indeed, finding the answers to these questions leads us to the era of Italian fascism, the art of creating a language and the effort it costs to save one from extinction.

Born out of a mixture of Vulgar Latin, Rhaetic and Celtic languages, the Rhaeto-Romance dialects developed in central Europe during the early Middle Ages. Some of these dialects, grouped under the name Ladin, are still being spoken in South Tyrol today. Others, grouped under the title "Friulan" are used in the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia and still others, classified as "Romansh" are heard in the canton of Graubünden, in the eastern part of Switzerland.

Sign displaying all four official Swiss languages© Wikimedia Commons | Ramessos

Originally the speakers of the Romansh dialects, mostly rural people who lived and worked in the mountains and valleys, were not highly respected or integrated in Switzerland as a whole. In fact, many Swiss were not even aware of the existence of the linguistic minority and, the ones that were – the German-speaking population which formed the linguistic majority in the canton of Graubünden – often contemptuously called ‘Romansh’ a ‘farmer’s language’, ‘scree-latin’, and even ‘incomprehensible’ (kauderwelsh). At the end of the 19th century, however, those very mountain folk suddenly gained importance and became the subject of many a political speech. Not in their own territories, but in Italy, which had only just been formed. During and after the Risorgimento, some called for the Italian-speakers living in the south of Switzerland, in the canton of Ticino, and the speakers of a Romansh dialect to join the Italian State where they would be welcomed warmly and be able to enjoy a higher status than they did in Switzerland at that time. This movement gained strength under the fascist dictatorship, when the Romansh dialects ceased to be seen as what they were, namely dialects, but were instead considered a version of Lombardian and hence supposed to be culturally part of Italy. In a speech in 1921, Mussolini declared that the only possibility for ‘Romansh’ to be saved from extinction via ‘germanization’ would be the Italian annexation of all Swiss territories where it was spoken. He might have thought that given the linguistic divide, which existed in Switzerland, it would be an easy game to win the speakers of Roman languages over. However, this was not so. Certainly, there were irredentists in Switzerland, especially in the Italian-speaking south, where the members of the Partito Fascista Ticinese fought for the motto “Gottardo – confine naturale dell’Italia” (“Gotthard”, the pass which separates the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland from the rest of the country, “as natural border of Italy”). However, there is no documentation of such irridentist desires in the Romansh-speaking communities, which is perhaps also due to the fact that the Swiss government acted rapidly in order to stifle any such desires that might have been triggered by the fascists. Indeed, in 1938, the Federal Government made a proposal to the Federal Assembly to partially amend the Swiss Federal Constitution and add Romansh as a fourth national language (in addition to German, French, and Italian). The federal initiative responded to the request of the cantonal parliament of Graubünden. Both chambers of the Federal parliament reacted positively to this request as did the Swiss population and the cantons when the constitutional referendum was held: 91.6% of the population and all cantons agreed to offer the Romansh language a new national status. The gesture was mainly symbolic and served the purpose of celebrating multilingualism; an important factor in the country’s identity, which had been trilingual since its foundation. The following extract from the speech held by the Federal Council in regard to the vote, suggests that the referendum could also be seen as a part of the ‘Spiritual national defence’ strategy that Switzerland adopted to protect itself from totalitarian ideologies and strengthen its own social cohesion: “The Swiss Nation”, the Federal Councillors start, “is not the product of a community of language. Rather it is the community of the Spirit, kept up by the will of diverse peoples to live together as a Nation and to preserve and defend the freedom and togetherness acquired through a historical common destiny.”

Praising multilingualism in a speech and making Romansh a national language is one thing; a ceremonial and symbolic act which formally recognises Romansh as culturally equal to the three other national languages. Protecting the language, legally, and promoting it, financially, is, however, quite another. How, for instance, is one supposed to translate an official document into a language which is not one single language, but an accumulation of numerous dialects which have been grouped into five different idioms, all of them distinct from one another and all of them with their own vocabularies and spellings?

Linguist Heinrich Schmid seemed to come up with a solution that simplified matters. In the early 1980s, he invented the “Rumantsch Grischun”: a common written language for all five idioms. By doing so, he made it possible to upgrade Romansh from a culturally recognised national language to an official language of the confederation – a step which was later made in 1996. Since 2001, this artificial language has been used for all official documents on cantonal as well as national level, while on a municipal level it is still the predominant idiom used for official documents and communication, unless municipalities choose (by popular vote) to switch to Rumantsch Grischun. Of course, having this language does indeed simplify matters, and, in theory, it also promotes and protects Romansh. Indeed, many proponents believe that having a common language in which newspapers and books are written, strengthens the fragmented community of Romansh speakers. Others though are not so favourable to this solution, as the standardised language does not do justice to the rich diversity of Romansh dialects and further threatens their existence. Children, on top of learning the idiom spoken in their respective municipality as well as German and English, will now have to learn yet another language still which is, according to the opponents of Rumantsch Grischun, simply too much to ask of any child. As such, the plan to introduce Rumantsch Grischun as the sole language of instruction by 2020 has been met with vehement opposition; primary school teachers collected thousands of signatures and other adversaries founded an association called ‘Pro Idioms’. Those that support the idea of Rumantsch Grischun as a language of instruction responded by announcing that they would take the issue to the Federal Court of Switzerland and launch a cantonal referendum to enshrine Rumantsch Grischun, once and for all, as the language used in schools. Eventually, neither the Court case nor the referendum took place. The current situation is that municipalities can decide by popular vote in which language, or idiom, children should be taught. The outcome is ironic: instead of simplifying matters by producing only one textbook instead of five, there now have to be six different versions!

Many also argue the artificial language lacked ‘heart and soul’, acting like a ‘plague’ which could eventually deal the ‘death blow’ to the organically developed traditional Romansh dialects.

Whether Rumantsch Grischun will indeed be the death blow to the Romansh dialects or whether it will save them is one question. Another would be, if it is even possible and not yet too late to prevent the eventual extinction of the Romansh dialects. The numbers seem to reflect a negative answer: only 60,000 people speak a Romansh dialect, and only slightly more than half of those people, use it as their main language in their private and public life. According to a study conducted by the European Commission, however, it takes 300,000 native speakers to guarantee the further existence of a language. No wonder then, has UNESCO classified the ‘Romansh’ dialects as definitely endangered, the same predicament as the Ladin and Friulian ones in neighbouring Italy.

Yet, numbers should not be seen as a death sentence! If multilingualism matters beyond its symbolic significance, it would certainly take some financial and cultural effort to sustain. However, it seems that many believe the preservation of Romansh to be worth the effort. In fact, the Federal Language Act guarantees financial support from the Federation for translations in the justice system and administration, as well as for radio and TV broadcasting in all five idioms of Romansh (and continues to do so despite the increased usage of Rumantsch Grischun for official documents and communication) to cantons with linguistic minorities. Furthermore, the Federal Court has ruled that the canton of Graubünden’s Language Act, which states that a municipality may count as monolingually ‘Romansh’ if a minimum of only 40% of its population speaks one of the five idioms, is valid, even though it might seem peculiar to constrain majorities in such a way.

Parallel to the further preservation of the diversity of Romansh dialects, Rumantsch Grischun is also being actively promoted and seems to be gaining ground; it is not only being taught in upper-secondary schools in Graubünden, but also at three universities in Switzerland (Chur, Zürich, and Fribourg). In 2006, Microsoft even launched a grammar spelling programme in Rumantsch Grischun which may also help to make Rumantsch Grischun more well known. Overall, it is crucial that the countries which are home to minority languages cooperate across borders, to learn from good practices and also to assist each other in their challenging tasks – luckily such cooperation does not require the shifting of borders as Mussolini suggested a century ago.

Antilia Wyss

Antilia Wyss is an undergraduate student for Sociology, Russian and Comparative Literature at the London School of Economics. Her special interests lay in the interstice of language and social sciences; sociolinguistics, the performative power of speech and the role of art and literature in social movements. When she is not reading a novel on a park bench or in a café, she likes to go running, cycling, swimming, and snowboarding.


  • linguistics

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