- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 1, 2005

SCUOL, Switzerland - Heading home in the afternoon shadows cast by the surrounding snow-covered peaks, schoolchildren throng the streets of this remote Alpine town, chattering in what sounds like Italian spoken with a Swiss-German accent.

They’re actually speaking Romansch, a direct descendant of Latin. But specialists fear it faces the same fate as the Roman legions that once occupied this corner of the Alps.

“It’s declining even more rapidly than I thought, and that’s the problem,” said Jonathan Steinberg, a specialist on Swiss history and culture at the University of Pennsylvania. “I think it’s a terminal position, because [Romansch speakers] don’t agree on pronunciation, they don’t agree on vocabulary.”

According to the 2000 census, the number of people speaking Romansch dropped 13 percent in 10 years — to 35,000 who said they spoke it as their first language.

Underscoring the decline, four young mothers standing in the street chat in German, and it seems unlikely their children will grow up speaking Romansch.

Scuol’s children are taught in Romansch at school — or “scola” — and later learn German as a foreign language, but that may not be enough to save the local tongue, said Valentin Duri, a native Romansch speaker, as he closed the pizzeria where he works after the lunchtime rush.

“It probably won’t die out soon, but it’s a question of time,” Mr. Duri said. “In 100 years, maybe 200 …,” he continued, his voice fading away.

Romansch has links to Latin and may have been spoken by Roman officials, soldiers and merchants who came during the days of the empire. Many words in the two languages are similar: A wheel is “rota” in Latin; “roda” in Romansch. A shape is “forma” and “furma.”

Romansch was spoken throughout the eastern Alps in the Middle Ages. But it since has retreated into isolated and densely forested glacial valleys.

“Perhaps the biggest threat is encroachment of German speakers in traditionally Romansch- speaking places,” said Matthias Gruenert, a Romansch teacher at the University of Zurich. “German- and Romansch-speaking people predominantly communicate in German as Romansch speakers are bilingual.”

Leaning on a bar counter, Mr. Duri, 23, said he speaks Romansch at home with his family, but has to speak German in everyday life with colleagues and visitors — including this interview.

“German for me is a foreign language, but with Romansch you don’t get so far,” he said.

Romansch is not alone in its plight. Other European minority languages — such as Scottish Gaelic and Breton in northwestern France — also are under pressure, said Davyth Hicks at the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages in Brussels.

Gaelic is in a situation similar to Romansch’s, because its speakers are divided across distant mountain valleys in the highlands of Scotland, Mr. Hicks noted.

More people speak Breton, but “they have a completely hostile government that refuses to change any of its policies to allow any kind of public funding for [teaching] Breton,” he said. “Their numbers are just falling and falling, and most of the speakers are over 60.”

Regional autonomy or a supportive national government are vital for such languages to survive, Mr. Hicks said.

The Basque language was brutally suppressed under Spain’s decades-long dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco. But it has been taught in more schools since the Basque region first won some autonomy in 1978, and the number of speakers has increased from about 500,000 to 650,000.

“You can — by law, by education, by having it in the media — you can turn the corner,” Mr. Hicks said.

The number of Welsh speakers also increased in Britain’s most recent census, in 2001, indicating that Celtic language also may be enjoying a revival.

“What was more interesting was the amount of young speakers, so you’ve got a whole generation coming up where bilingualism is normal,” Mr. Hicks said. “They’re overcoming the stigma that was attached to the language.”

Romansch speakers need to achieve something similar if they want to keep their language alive, he said.

The Swiss government has passed laws to protect Romansch, such as requiring its use in schools and on bank notes, but the main problem is that speakers are divided geographically into isolated pockets, separated by German linguistic communities, Mr. Steinberg said.

Each Romansch area speaks its own dialect, making it harder for speakers from two regions to communicate with each other and to agree on a common written form of the language.

The linguistic organization Lia Rumantscha has created an official umbrella language — known as Romansch Grischun — taken from the Romansch word for the Swiss state of Graubuenden, the heartland of their culture, even though a majority of its people speak German.

But many Romansch speakers stick to their local dialect.

“Romansch Grischun nobody likes, but if you don’t have Romansch Grischun, you can’t put labels on a Coke bottle,” said Mr. Steinberg, noting that a term in one Romansch dialect can differ completely from that used in another dialect.

The Swiss government has made Romansch one of the country’s four official languages, with German, French and Italian, but that is not enough to guarantee survival, Mr. Hicks said.

“You’d have to persuade young families, young people who are going to have families, to transmit this language down to their children,” he said. “That’s the sort of key thing, even though you can’t really legislate for that, you can’t enforce that.”

Mr. Duri doesn’t see it happening.

“More people are coming in from the lowlands, so you have mixed families where one parent is German-speaking,” the pizzeria worker said. “There’s so many languages that the young people say, ‘I don’t want to learn Romansch.’ They prefer to learn German, or even English.”

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