What to know about Romansh — Switzerland’s fourth language

Romansh: flowers in a windowbox

If you asked 100 people to list Switzerland’s official languages, most of them would rattle off German, French, and Italian without a second thought. But then they would pause. If they’ve heard of Romansh, it’s not a name that they’ve retained.

Wondering how much you should know about this language before heading to Switzerland? We’ve got you covered. Read on!

Romansh: waterfall flows through Canton Graubünden
Most travelers expect to find gorgeous mountain scenery in Canton Graubünden, but not everyone realizes that it’s the only trilingual canton in Switzerland.

 Romansh-speaking Switzerland

Switzerland is a country divided. 64 percent of the population speaks German as a first language, with another 23 percent speaking French. Roughly 8 percent speaks Italian, and less than one percent speaks Romansh. (Note: these numbers do not add up to 100 percent, simply because immigrants often speak other native languages.)

Most Romansh speakers live in Canton Graubünden, located in eastern Switzerland, with major attractions like the Swiss National Park. Graubünden is the only trilingual canton in the entire country, with German and Italian speakers living there too.

Interestingly, Romansh has five different dialects (Sursilvan, Sutsilvan, Surmiran, Puter, and Vallader). All five dialects are present in Canton Graubünden.

Romansh: flowers in front of a window in Canton Graubünden
In Scuol, Switzerland, Romansh is the most common language. But with an influx of German speakers moving to Scuol, the language isn’t quite as dominant as it used to be.

Language development

This language owes its origins to the Rhaetian people and the Romans. The Rhaetians were a group that arrived in the Alps around 500 B.C. When the Romans arrived a few centuries later, Romansh developed as a form of vulgar Latin.

According to linguists, modern Romansh is most closely related to Italian, especially dialects based in Lombardy, Italy. The two languages have highly similar lexicons, even if their morphology sometimes differs.

That said, German also exerts a significant influence on Switzerland’s least familiar language. Native Romansh speakers learn German in school, and German words have eked their way into Romansh in recent years.

Romansh-speaking town of Pontresina
Pontresina is another charming town in Canton Graubünden.

Vocabulary lesson

While you shouldn’t have a problem communicating in Switzerland, it’s always fun to learn a few words in a foreign language. We highly recommend learning some simple phrases in German before visiting Switzerland (and, depending on where you go in the country, in French and Italian too). You might also enjoy picking up a little bit of Romansh. If that’s the case, here are a few words to get you started.

  •  Hello: tgau; allegra
  • Good-bye: sin seveser
  • Thank you: engraziel
  • Passport: il passaport
  • Mountain: la muntogna
  • Switzerland: la Svizra

If you’d like to see more of Canton Graubünden, check out our Engadine/St. Moritz Inn to Inn or Scenic Alps by Rail tour. We’d love to see you there — just remember to bring your passaport to la Svizra!

Cover photo by Tom Dempsey




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