Le Chic En Rose

Diaries of an independent traveller

Disentis/Mustér is the delightfully named town that we passed through on our way up to St Moritz on the Glacier Express!

The charming railway sign in the little Swiss town of Disentis Muster in the heart of the Romansh speaking area of south east Switzerland

The charming railway sign in the little Swiss town of Disentis Muster in the heart of the Romansh speaking area of south east Switzerland

The scenery is as delightful as the name and it nestles prettily, high up in the upper Rhine (Vorderrhein) Valley in the south eastern Swiss canton of Graubuenden. The Swiss have wonderful train announcements spoken in several languages in a clearly enunciated female voice but there was one language that we didn’t immediately recognise and it turned out that we were in its heartland in this picturesque corner of the world. Disentis/Mustér is a bastion of the ancient language of Romansh. The name itself is a combination of Disentis in German and Mustér in the Romansh language.

Now I knew about Schwyzerdeutsch, the variant on the German language, which is incomprehensible to outsiders, even to most Germans! It’s a spoken language only and has many regional variations so if you live in Bern for example you’ll speak one dialect but an hour away in Zurich you’ll hear a different dialect altogether. I also knew about the “Roestigraben”, which is the colloquial term for the division between the west (French speaking) and north and east (German speaking) Swiss linguistic and cultural divide. I even knew about the Italian speaking parts in the cantons of Ticino and parts of Graubuenden (the Poschiavo and Mesolcina Valleys). However the Romansh story was one I was very vague about and it got even more confusing when we made our way up into the Lower and Engadin Valleys towards St Moritz. Here too Romansh is spoken but with a different dialect to the Disentis area!

Typical house of the Upper Engadin Valley Switzerland

Typical house of the Upper Engadin Valley Switzerland

Romansh is actually a group of closely related languages which derive from Latin (the spoken form). Back in the days around 15 BC this part of Switzerland was called Raetia, a province of the Roman Empire. Originally these Romansh languages were spoken by people as far north as Lake Constance (on the modern German/Swiss border) but gradually German took over from Romansh in the north and Italian took over in the south. The ancient languages were preserved in the remote mountain areas and valleys with their lack of accessibility to the outside world, especially in the long dark months of alpine winters. Just to add to the confusion there remain to this day many different Romansh dialects including Sursilvan, Sutsilvan, Surmiran, Puter and Vallader. Hope you’re all following me! Whilst only 0.9% of Switzerland’s population of 7.7 million state in census records that they speak Romansh, in the Surselva region (of which Disentis/Mustér is the main town) the figure goes up to 78.5% of the population. Even in the better known tourist areas of the Upper Engadin just over 30% of the population list Romansh as their preferred language.

If you’re travelling in the region you’ll notice how all the place names are written in both German and Romansh; St Moritz/San Murezzan, Sils/Segl and Celerina/Schlarigna. Romansh is one of the 3 official languages of the Graubuenden Canton (the others being German and Italian) and it is also one of the 4 federal languages of the Swiss Confederation (French makes up the 4th but by no means the least!).

Another unique feature of the area are the wonderfully decorated buildings.

At first glance they look to be decorated with pretty paintings. In actual fact it is a form of plasterwork called sgraffito which has an Italian influence. The houses are made from thick stone or masonry and layers of plaster, tinted in contrasting colours are applied to the walls. Afterwards the upper layers are scratched away to reveal the layer underneath and a “drawing” is created – very clever!

Sgraffito around window at Hotel Steffani St Moritz

Sgraffito around window at Hotel Steffani St Moritz

Although the Swiss are excellent linguists, there are parts of the remote valleys where English isn’t always spoken or understood. Monsieur Le Chic was able to bluff our way onto the Glacier Express at Andermatt on one occasion by dusting off his schoolboy German (he actually speaks it quite well!). After that I joined a local German class back home in Perth as I’d forgotten most of what I’d been “taught” at school. It definitely pays off to know even a few words of French, German or Italian in these rugged parts of the world and is always appreciated by the locals. Here you can go into a tunnel where everything is written in one language and come out the other side where the signs are written in a completely different language, even though you are still in the same country.

Therefore in case anyone should be caught short in the middle of a remote Swiss mountain valley or pass, the following is a list of key phrases in Romansh taken from Omniglot, the online encyclopedia (www.omniglot.com):

Welcome Bainvegni

Hello Ciao/Tgau/Allegra

Good morning Bien di/Bun di

Good afternoon/evening Buna sera/Buna saira

My name is….. Jeu hai num……..

What’s your name?…. Co haveis vus num?

Pleased to meet you Fa plaschair

Do you understand? Chapeschas ti?

Do you speak English Discurra ti englais?

Where’s the toilet? Nua e tualette?

Please Per plaschair

Thank you Grazia/Grazia fitg/Engraziel

Of course I don’t know which particular dialect of Romansh the above refers to but hopefully they are similar in most respects! If all else fails hand gestures or pointing usually work and a smile goes a long way in any language!

“Goodbye” for now or in Romansh “Chau / Sin seveser / A revair / A pli tard” (shades of Italian and French with a unique twist!).

Copyright © 2014 Rosemary Thomas Le Chic En Rose. All rights reserved

8 thoughts on “Getting to Grips With the Lingua Franca Swiss Style!

  1. That was fascinating Rosemary – I studied German and spent a year in Munich as a student and always found the Swiss dialect impossible to understand. I had a fleeting knowledge of Romansh (very fleeting though I have to confess) but this was so interesting to read. The scenery is stunning too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Vielen Dank Joy! That would have been such a great experience to live and study in Germany! I didn’t enjoy German at school so gave it up but I love learning it now though I’ve a long way to go. Really living in a country would be the best way to improve – sink or swim! I spent a month in France as a 17 year old with a family who spoke no English (not a word, it was a last minute placement and my French certainly came along then though rusty now). We’re planning to go to Munich for a week or so next April following our trip to see the family in the UK – I’ll have to ask you for some info before we go (I’ve been to Garmisch and Mittenwald for a day trip but that’s all). I think the Bavarian dialect is very difficult to understand too?! It was fascinating in the Upper Rhine and Engadin areas as they seemed to speak several languages in the one sentence – it sounded like a mixture of everything. The latest photos were taken around the Oberalp Pass (between Andermatt and Disentis Muster) as well as St Moritz – it really is a stunning area to visit 🙂


  2. restlessjo says:

    Thanks for the lesson 🙂 The plasterwork is lovely.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re very welcome Jo 🙂 You never know when a few words may come in useful! Yes the plasterwork is beautiful I hadn’t come across it before and loved the effect! Enjoy your weekend 🙂


  3. colibrist says:

    Very interesting post! I always forget the name of the fourth language in Switzerland (in addition to French, German and Italian) and I had never seen it written. It looks slightly similar to Italian, are the phonetics similar as well?
    The scenery looks very beautiful!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Laia! Yes it is similar to Italian and also French – it would be classified as a Romance language (officially Rhaeto-Romance). It sounded to me a bit like Italian when it was spoken and it’s apparently pronounced as it’s written (unlike English!). Over the centuries bits of German (and even English) have got thrown into the mix – I thought it was a beautiful language and it’s good that the Swiss Federation is taking its preservation so seriously. It certainly makes for interesting travel trying to work out which language people are talking in (they tend to switch quite rapidly between languages in these parts and all the dialects are different too). The scenery is stunning – it is such a beautiful part of the world! Have a lovely weekend 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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