Switzerland: Romansh revels in language status

Why is Romansh – spoken by 0.5 per cent of the Swiss population – considered a language, whereas Swiss German, spoken by almost 64 per cent, is classed as a dialect?
The answer lies not only in linguistics, but also in issues of culture, identity and politics.

Swiss German is a German dialect used on an everyday basis by the majority of people in Switzerland.

High, or standard, German is learned in schools and used as a written language. But it is so different to Swiss dialect that many pupils find it almost like learning a foreign language.

It therefore seems strange that Romansh, which is only spoken in the southeastern canton of Graubünden, is classified a national and official language, while Swiss German is not.

Romansh has a long history and has been considered a language by linguists since the mid 19th century.

“Romansh kept the use of ‘s’ in the plural, which is not the case in any Italian dialect,” Romansh expert Chasper Pult told swissinfo.

“This also applied in France and Spain, but Romansh was not in contact with these regions. So the linguistic criterion is pretty convincing here.”


Swiss German

Could not these criteria also be applied to Swiss German, especially as the differences between Germany and Switzerland are not only linguistic but also cultural?

“In the German-speaking area, the standardisation process started during the Reformation. Luther and Zwingli were the driving forces behind this, so that everyone could read the Bible,” Lüdi told swissinfo.

“There was therefore a movement towards a homogenisation of written German. German-speaking Switzerland participated in this and a consensus was established from north to south.

“In the 17th century, the Germans started speaking this variant but Switzerland did not. This effectively means the Germans started to speak as they wrote, while the Swiss started to speak and write differently.”

Dutch is essentially a German dialect which has become the national language of the Netherlands. Could a similar thing happen with the Swiss German dialects?

Read more on Swissinfo:

Key facts
According to the 2000 census:
Switzerland has around 7.3 million inhabitants.
63.7% speak German, 20.4% French, 6.5% Italian and 0.5% (or 35,095 people) Romansh.
Several non-national languages have more speakers than Romansh, including Serbian and Croatian (1.5%), Albanian (1.3%), Portuguese (1.2%), Spanish (1.1%,) English (1%) and Turkish (0.6%).

Categories: Europe, Switzerland

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