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New life for old language

Susanne von Schenck/ lbh
March 14, 2014

This year's guest at the Leipzig Book Fair is Switzerland, showcasing its literature and the Romansh language. This official language in the land of the Alps may be threatened, but its literary scene is buzzing.

Mountaintops peek through cloubds in the Graubünden region in Switzerland Photo: Andrea Badrutt
Image: Andrea Badrutt, Graubünden Ferien

"For sale: cheese and literature," says the sign on Leo Tuor's house. The writer lives with his family in Val, in a secluded village in the Swiss canton of Graubünden. He's one of eight residents but specifically chose the village because Sursilvan is still spoken there. Sursilvan is one of five dialects in the Romansh language. But this rough and melodic language is threatened.

"As long as there's unique literature produced in Graubünden, the language won't die out," says Leo Turo, who writes about its disappearance when he's not in the mountains to hunt or make cheese. "Cavrein," is the title of his new book, an essay about hunting, full of literary and philosophical allusions.

Romansh-speaking minority

About 50,000 to 60,000 people still speak Romansh, which, alongside German, French, and Italian, is an official language of Switzerland. The language traces its roots to the year 15 B.C. as the local languages began to mix with Latin. Romansh is a minority language. But that's not all - it's got five different dialects: Vallader, Puter, Sursilvan, Sutsilvan und Surmiran.

Portrait of writer, Leo Tuor Photo: Yvonne Böhler
Author Leo Tuor: Would you like cheese with your novel?Image: Yvonne Böhler

By the end of the 19th century, forward-thinking residents argued that Romansh was hindering Graubünden's connection to the modern world and fought to abolish it. There was much resistance, which resulted in a referendum in 1938, shortly before the outbreak of World War Two. At that time, women weren't allowed to vote, but 92 percent of the men voted to make Romansh an official national language.

Meanwhile, the language has become threatened by German, its existence likened to the endangered Sorbian or Corsican languages. Apart from the native locals, who know, for example that St. Mority in Oberengadin is actually named San Murezzan, and that Puter is spoken there? The death knell for Romansh is rung over and over again. But despite the doomsayers, the language is putting up a fight.

Back to the Alps

In Val Lumnezia, the Valley of Light, 95 percent of the residents speak Romansh. Author and herder Pia Soler lives there, in the 1,500-meter high village of Vrin. Her book, "Feeling the vastness," is a touching, simple account of her life in the mountains, without any major literary claim. The native Romansh-speaker wrote the book in German. "German isn't as dear to me as Romansh. I just have a larger vocabulary in German and I read it more."

The alps, or high mountains, as a topic, or the hunt, as with Leo Tuor, would've been unthinkable just a few years ago. The trend was to get out of the cowsheds and focus on urban life. But those days are a thing of the past, says Zurich-based literary scholar, Cla Riatsch.

"Leo Tuor and Arno Camenisch are extremely innovative in their style of writing, in their art forms, but thematically they go back to the roots - to Alpine sheep herding, or hunting for Leo Tuor, or perhaps peasants and the village community. village economies are the focus of Arno Camenisch, who has become the superstar of Romansh literature.

Portrait of writer Arno Camenisch Photo: Janosch Abel
Arno Camenisch weaves Romansh into his workImage: Janosch Abel

"It doesn't matter where - you carry the sound with you," says Arno Camenisch in a melodic singsong, as he sprinkles his German texts with phrases from Romansh. The 34-year-old Swiss best-selling author and performer lives in Biel, but comes from Tavanasa. This little mountain village with its unique structures found its literary fame through Arno Camenisch's "Sez Ner," the first volume of his Graubünden trilogy. In the trilogy he tells of boozing herdsmen and tough guys, from the last night in the village pub, from the massive avalanches and garland-wearing cows who return to the village after a summer in the mountains. Or even about broken chairlifts, like in his latest novel, "Fred and Franz."

Bilingual for best results

Switzerland is investing a lot of money to preserve its endanged languages. One of the attempts: Romansh Grischun, a unifying language for all novels stemming from Graübunden. At the canton level, it works as a successful administrative language. In schools, however, it's having a tough time. Writers also rarely use it. Instead, they tend to write in two languages, or immediately in German, not least in order to secure a larger audience.

For Leta Semadeni, it's the same story. Semadeni is the Grande Dame of Romansh poetry. She doesn't translate poems, but allows the languages to meld into one dialogue with each other.

However, Angelika Overath takes a different approach. The German is a cultural and linguistic mediator. Seven years ago she moved with her family to the place they had vacationed for years: Sent in Unterengadin. In her book, "All the Colors of Snow - Diary from Sent," she writes about her arrival and approach to a foreign language.

Portrait of writer Angelika Overath Photo: Philipp Ostrowicz
Angelika Overath moved to the region seven years ago and now writes poetry in RomanshImage: Philipp Ostrowicz

"I found the language so incredibly beautiful," Overath writes. "I always had to cry, it was so beautiful." Meanwhile, Angelika Overath writes small poems in Romansh.

Hello, world!

A German attempting to express herself in Valla, a shepherd like Pia Soler, who only writes in German, an author like Leo Tuor, who writes in Surselvin dialect, putting his translators to task, a poet who writes simultaneously in two languages, an imaginative performer who peppers his texts with Romansh phrases: the Romansh literary scene is not only rich with diverse forms of expression, but its content is also gripping. The diverse works pay homage to the language's roots yet acknowledge that it's transformed throughout time. Where the mountains once obstructed contact to the outer world, now they are now offering that outside world an intimate glimpse into their colorful confines.