Swiss, Italian - Orientation



Identification. The canton of Ticino was named by Napoleon in 1803 after the main river of the region. The name "Grigioni" is derived from the "grey league" founded in the fourteenth century.

Location. Italian-speaking people in Switzerland reside in two cantons: Ticino and Grigioni (Graubunden in German) (Mesolcina, Calanca, Bregaglia, and Poschiavo valleys). Except for one village (Bivio, in Grigioni), they are all situated south of the Alps (Svizzera Meridionale). All the rivers lead to the Italian Lombardic plain of the Po River. The region is located at 46° N and between 8° and 11° E. To the north are the cantons of Valais, Uri, and Grigioni. Ceneri Mountain divides Ticino in two parts. To describe the climate, we have to distinguish among the plains, the hills/mountains, and the Alps: the differences in temperature, hours of sunshine, and altitude are considerable. The landscape is characterized by many steep and wooded valleys (such as the Centovalli). On the plains the lakes influence the climate so that even exotic plants grow in the open air. In general, the climate south of the Alps is characterized by dry, sunny winters, with little fog and sometimes heavy snowfall; rainy springs; sunny summers with frequent thundershowers; and autumns with dry periods, alternating with strong rainfalls. In recent years, air pollution has adversely affected the climate and its reputation.

Demography. Before the nineteenth century, emigration from the valleys was seasonal or yearly and then mainly to cities in Switzerland and Italy, but there was also emigration to France, England, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and Russia. In the nineteenth century, permanent emigration took place to North and South America and to Australia. (In 1830, 12,000 passports were issued.)

Italian workers began coming to Switzerland to construct the San Gottardo railway at the end of the nineteenth and Beginning of the twentieth century. During the twentieth Century, the population of the Ticino (but not Grigioni Italiano and the Centovalli, Maggia, Verzasca, Leventina, Bienio areas) has doubled. There has been constant population growth in the cities so that today over 70 percent of the Population lives there. In 1990 the population in the Svizzera Meridionale was about 6 percent of the Swiss population (i.e., 300,000 people). About 20 percent of the population in the Ticino is Italian by nationality.

If we define Swiss Italians on the basis of language, we must also count the 400,000 or so Italian migrants (beyond those who are naturalized citizens and their children) living in all parts of Switzerland. In most of the Swiss cantons, one will find Italian immigration centers, Italian consulates, private Italian schools, or other services to support Italian culture.

Linguistic Affiliation. The identity of the Swiss Italians reflects the history of minorities within minorities. In Europe, Switzerland consists of German, French, Italian, and Romansch minority groups. Within Switzerland, French, Italian, and Romansch people are minority groups. The Grigioni Italiano live in a canton that has the smallest linguistic Minority in Switzerland—the Romansch—besides the German-speaking majority.

Written Italian in Switzerland is the same as in Italy, with some dialectal differences. It has a Latin grammar, with Celtic, Gallic, and Lombardic elements. The dialects spoken by native Swiss Italians are an important element of their Ethnic identity. To speak the Swiss Italian dialect affords a social distinction in most Swiss Italian regions, though the elite of Lugano emphasize standard Italian and the Locarnese prefer to use their own dialect. The Italian language is disappearing in two of the four valleys of the Grigioni Italiano (Bregaglia, Poschiavo), which are economically and politically dependent on the German-speaking capital of their canton. The valleys of Calanca and Mesolcina are geographically attached to Ticino, where their language is used in the press and in education.


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