Sep 29 2010

Switzerland’s fourth language (not English)

by at 8:49 pm

Old City, Chur

There’s a piece in today’s New York Times about Switzerland’s fourth official-ish language, Romansh. It is worth a read, if only to sigh at the fact of Switzerland’s unexceptionality in this case when it comes to the promotion of minority culture. No one expects Switzerland, especially after the minaret ban, to be a paragon of multiculturalism, but Switzerland really is exceptional in its multilingualism and notable absence of a nationalism rooted in language. Compared with the lingual situation in, for example, Belgium (where the language divide threatens to split the country in two) or Canada (secessionist Quebec), Switzerland is something of a remarkable case. Visitors sometimes assume that French-speaking Switzerland is like France and German-speaking Switzerland is like Germany. But Switzerland is its own country, with its own culture, despite (because of?) its various languages.

By law, German, French, and Italian have official, equal status in the Swiss Confederation. Romansh, though officially recognized, is not quite up there in status. For business, at least on a national level, Romansh is non-existent. Swisscom technicalsupport offers four options, in order: German, French, Italian, and English.

A direct descendant of Latin, Romansh has been preserved for centuries from outside forces by the isolation of remote Alpine mountaintops and valleys—not unlike Switzerland itself. But now, as the article details, the language is dying, and the pressures are unremarkable: capitalism and homogenization. We saw Romansh street signs when we visited Vals, in Graubunden. The strange thing, though, is that the tongue displacing Romansh is itself a dialect: Swiss-German. And the people who speak Romansh are seen as provincial, according to the article. But as cosmopolitan as Zurich is, and as international Geneva is, Switzerland is provincial—it’s isolationism (and neutrality, for good or for evil) are what make it Switzerland.

All of this is to say that I hope Switzerland realizes what it has before it is too late. French and Italian are not going anywhere as minority languages, but national votes in recent years to make unemployment insurance less generous and to not join the European Union have split down language lines. A country with a a working model of multilingualism and language diversity gives hope—but not if one of the languages disappears even while the government attempts to promote it.

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