Official Languages of Switzerland

The picture for the photo observation game this time could have been taken at just about any one of the 400 railway stations in Switzerland. The warning against crossing the track is given in four languages: three of the national languages of Switzerland, and English, which is often used to bridge the language divide, especially in tourist areas. The official languages of the Swiss federal state are, in the order they are printed on the sign in this picture, : German, Italian, French and the one that does not appear here at all, Romansh (also known as ‘Rhaeto-Romanian‘ or ‘Rumantsch‘). These four languages were traditionally spoken in different areas of the country, Romansh now being confined to the canton of Graubünden in eastern Switzerland. German is spoken by approximately 64% of the Swiss population, French by 23%, and Italian by about 8%; since Romansh speakers make up less than 1% of the total, that leaves 4% to be accounted-for by minority languages from other countries now spoken in the cities.

However in historical terms, the least widespread language of the four, Romansh, is the most interesting, being a surviving descendant of the spoken Latin of the Roman Empire. ‘Classical Latin‘ was the medium of writing during the time of the late Roman Republic and the Empire, and is therefore the one known to classical scholars today; colloquial Latin diverged, as spoken languages do, into dialects that became Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Romanian and, yes, Romansh (the so-called ‘Romance languages‘).

First language speakers of English should take note, because this is what may well happen to their language over time: the written language will remain largely the same and become the language of scholarship and official documents, while spoken versions of English diverge into American, Australian, African, Indian Englishes etc., and eventually become separate languages, each unitelligible to native speakers of the others. Time will tell...