Quista sted eau d’he passo duas eivnas en Engiadina per un cuors da Rumauntsch. Oh, no, s-chüsa, sorry: this summer I spent a couple of weeks in Engadin (Switzerland) for a course of the local idiom, Rumauntsch Puter. Rumauntsch is a romance language spoken in the Kanton Graubünden, in the most eastern part of Switzerland. Although it is spoken by less than 1% of the whole population of Switzerland, it has the status of national language, along with German, French and Italian.
I discovered Rumantsch during my holidays in the region in the past few years, and I started listening to the local radio, Radio Rumantsch (www.rtr.ch). With an intense radio-listening training, I gradually started to understand the mechanisms of the language and I got more and more passionate about it. Meanwhile, during my studies in Italy, I took a couple of modules on romance philology and this exacerbated my enthusiasm for this minority and neglected language.
I then decided that it was time to take a proper course and discover a bit more about this language, and perhaps start to speak it. So, I enrolled for the course organized in Samedan by the Fundaziun Chesa Planta (www.chesaplanta.ch/home/). I didn’t know what to expect and I feared that most of the students might be much older than me and that everybody spoke only German (or worse, Schwitzerdutsch!). Luckily, I was wrong. I found a very dynamic and familiar environment and I was assigned to a class with a lot of young people. We had fun learning together the grammar rules and beginning to form more and more complex sentences with our own words (pleds, in Rumauntsch). But we didn’t focus just on grammar, because there were also some interesting activities such as the chaunt comünavel (a 20 minute daily singing session) and, twice a week, a short talk given by someone working with the Rumauntsch language and culture (see below). Moreover, two afternoons a week we had a baderleda (an informal chat in a café) with the organizer, Martina Shuler-Fluor, and we discussed (in Rumauntsch, of course) different topics that were of common interest. Two excursions, to the Museum Engiadinais in San Murezzan (http://www.museum-engiadinais.ch/) and a spassegeda poetica (poetic walk) in Zuoz, completed the offer.
Alongside all these activities, I went trekking with üna gruppa d’amihs (a group of friends) I met at the course, and we spoke adüna (always) Rumauntsch, strengthening our speaking abilities day by day and having fun making and correcting our own mistakes or looking up the dictionary for a quick check.
But why learn Rumauntsch? First of all, I love useless, disregarded, dying or dead languages, and I firmly believe that it’s great to discover minor languages that still transmit a culture which is different from what we are used to. Moreover, Rumauntsch sounds beautiful and may also be funny for someone who already knows other widely-spoken romance languages such as French or Italian. Its sounds are one of the greatest things of this language: with a lot of palatal sounds such as tsch, ch, sch, dsch, it reaches peaks of sweetness (and complexity to pronounce!) that other romance languages simply don’t have. Also, its vocabulary is incredible, and very interesting for someone passionate about Latin and/or modern romance languages. Rumauntsch has preserved many Latin roots that in other languages have disappeared, changed sense or are confined to a formal or archaic discourse. This example might be enough: book is cudesch, which come from the Latin codex. Code, codice, código mean nowadays something else, while French, Italian and Spanish languages have continued liber with libro and livre. Again, ‘to choose’ is tschernere, and ‘choice’ tscherna, from the Latin cernere.
As it is clear from this brief description, this course didn’t have much to do with my current PhD project. However, I found a link between Rumauntsch, London and manuscripts while I was in Samedan. Thanks to the conference held by Michele Badilatti, I discovered that the first person to conduct research on Rumauntsch in a proto-scientific way was Joseph Planta, whose father was from Engadin. Joseph Planta studied in Utrecht and Göttingen, before moving to England following his father, who was assistant librarian at the British Museum. At the death of his father, in 1773, Joseph Planta he took up his father’s job, before being promoted to keeper of the manuscripts and, in 1799, principal librarian. He studied and restored important manuscripts such as the only one containing the text of Beowulf (Cotton MS Vitellius A XV) and produced a catalogue of the Cotton collection of manuscripts. In his research (perscrutaziun in Rumantsch, another word I love!), he tried to demonstrate that Rumantsch was not a barbaric language, a mixture of all the neighbour idioms, but the most ancient and thus best of all the romance languages. Of course, these conclusions and the exaltation of a language as “ancient” or “beautiful” don’t fit with a modern approach to comparative linguistics, but it is interesting that a man of Rhaetian origins (as his burial inscription underlines), connected with the most vibrant intellectual culture of the time, was the first to attempt a proto-scientific description of such a “barbaric” language.