The Romansch, or Rhaetians, are speakers of the Romansch language who live in the canton of Graubunden (Grisons), in Switzerland. They number approximately 65,000 today, a figure that reflects a reversal of a demographic trend toward depopulation that reached its nadir in the early 1940s. Romansch is a member of the Rhaeto-Romansch Language Family, derived from the vernacular Latin. It is related to Ladin and Friuli, but all three are separate languages. The Romansch, as fully integrated members of the larger Swiss polity, are perhaps more accurately thought of as a linguistically and historically defined group, rather than as a unique ethnic or cultural unit.
The territory of the Romansch was known prior to 1814 as Upper Rhaetia and Churraetien, among other names, and as the Grisons or Graubunden in the fifteenth century. The origins of the Romansch people are unclear. Archaeological evidence shows the influence of Illyrian, Celtic, and Etruscan cultures. Although Roman occupation, begun in 15 B.C. , brought vernacular Latin to a wide territory, the geographical isolation of the Romansch territory permitted it to develop into a separate dialect—and later a distinct language in its own right—rather rapidly.
The ancient territory of the Romansch was called Raetia, which consisted of the modern canton of Graubunden, as well as eastern Switzerland south of Lake Constance, a large portion of the Tirol, and part of northern Lombardy. Its Capital was at Chur. The Raetians were cattle breeders and timber cutters for the most part, though they practiced agriculture as well. In the fifth and sixth centuries A.D. , Roman authority declined and the government of the region passed to the duchy of Alemannia. The Frankish kings spent the period of the sixth to ninth centuries attempting to secure control over this territory, as well as the lands of Swabia. Raetia's importance to the Franks lay in the fact that its capital commanded the eastern access routes to Italy, and thus it was of strategic as well as economic concern. In the tenth century, German kings began to try to take control of the region. By the 1300s, Raetia belonged entirely to German rule and was split up into territories. Some came under the rule of feudal lords, others under the authority of ecclesiastics (e.g., the bishopric of Chur). During this time, a number of autonomous peasant communities in the region grouped together to form the Gray League (Grau Bund or Grisons), the League of God's House (Gotteshausbund), and the League of the Ten Jurisdictions, all three of which formed a confederated republic that allied itself with the Swiss Confederacy. These three groups became known as the "Gray Leagues" (French "Grisons" or German "Graubunden"), from which the name of the modern Romansch territory is derived.
The period of German control over the region caused a serious setback for the Romansch language, for the language of the rulers supplanted the local tongue in literature and official business. However, the provincial autonomy maintained in the area of the "Gray Leagues" served to preserve large pockets of Romansch speakers and militated against successful government suppression of the language. Romansch is now listed as one of the four national languages of Switzerland (along with German, French, and Italian), although it does not have official language status. Its written form dates from the sixteenth century. The first printed books in the Language appeared during the Reformation and display the religious concerns of that era. Thus the earliest printed works in Romansch were Bible translations, hymnals, religious tracts, and prayer books. However, it was not until the later nineteenth century that the Romansch language established a strong secular literary tradition, a movement largely inspired by concerns that German and Italian were beginning to supplant Romansch through the incursion of their idioms. It became an important enterprise among historians and linguists to develop dictionaries and grammars for Romansch in order to preserve its linguistic integrity. By the early 1900s, a great effort was made to preserve the oral traditions, folk customs, music, and other cultural elements of the Romansch past, which has since been followed by a revival of the use of Romansch in the development of contemporary literature, particularly in the realm of poetry.
Because the Romansch do not live in a linguistically and culturally homogeneous territory, there is little today to distinguish them economically, socially, and culturally from their German- and Italian-speaking fellow canton inhabitants. Even the remote agricultural villages, long a stronghold for isolated, homogeneous Romansch communities, are in decline as they lose their young people to the attractions of employment in the cities and in the tourist industry. Romansch is taught in primary schools, but the only language of instruction at the secondary level is German. Biweekly newspapers are published in Romansch and its linguistic relative, Ladin, and there is a church-produced weekly ( La Casa Paterna ) , but there are no daily newspapers published in the language. The efforts of scholars to preserve the folk culture and oral traditions of the Romansch have been largely replaced by efforts to establish and develop a lively contemporary literature. It has become more important to the Romansch to preserve their autonomy and to develop in today's world than to preserve some idealized version of past cultural practice, and the Swiss federal government has shown a willingness to respect these goals.
Bezzola, Reto R., ed. (1971). The Curly Horned Cow. London.
Lansel, Peider (1937). The Raeto-Romans. Chur, Switzerland: Uniun dals Grischs.
Luck, James Murray (1985). A History of Switzerland. The First 100,000 Years: Before the Beginnings to the Days of the Present. Palo Alto, Calif.: Society for the Promotion of Science and Scholarship.
NANCY E. GRATTON