I’ve often been asked if I was able to talk Swiss, as I’ve lived there for a long time. Even if this kind of comment seems funny to those who live in or close to Switzerland, it is quite a common assumption among people coming from other continents, that Swiss talk Swiss, like Swedish people speak Swedish, Italians speak Italian, Germans speak German etc.
(© wikipedia, Marco Zanoli)
Switzerland is a multilingual country with four national languages: German, French, Italian and Rumantsch (you can find it transcribed also as Romansh, Romansch, Rhaeto-Romanic or Rhaeto-Romance etc.). But only German, French and Italian maintain equal status as official languages at the national level within the Federal Administration of the Swiss Confederation.
According to the federal census of 2000, 63.7% of the Swiss population speaks German, 20.4% French, 6.5% Italian, 0.5% Rumantsch and 9.0% speaks other languages.
People talk German in the German Region (Deutschschweiz) that would be northern, central and eastern Switzerland. In the Romandie (French Region), in western Switzerland, people speak mainly French, whereas Italian is spoken in the Svizzera Italiana, the Italian Region in southern Switzerland. Rumantsch is the native language of the population in Graubünden (Grisons) in southeastern Switzerland.
The cantons of Fribourg, Bern and Valais are officially bilingual (French-German), whereas Graubünden is officially trilingual (Rumantsch-German-Italian).
Why is Switzerland multilingual?
The Swiss do not form a single ethnic group, they are a confederation (Confoederatio Helvetica: CH).
In the German speaking region (Deutschschweiz) we find the Alemannic German, historically amalgamated from the Gallo-Roman population and the Alemannii and Burgundii, including subgroups like the Walser. The term „Swiss“ from the 16th and 18th centuries referred to this group exclusively and only with the expansion of the Swiss confederation following the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) the term was applied to non-Alemannic territories. Closely related German speaking people are the inhabitants of Alsace, Vorarlberg and the Swabians.
In the French speaking region (Romandie) people speak Franco-Provençal dialects. Today these dialects are assimilated to the standard Swiss French and amalgamated from the Gallo-Roman population and Burgundians (the historical Upper Burgundy). These dialects are closely related to the French (especially those of Franche-Comté).
In the Svizzera Italiana, people speak a variety of the Lombard language,Ticinese, partly assimilated to the standard Swiss Italian language, amalgamated from Raetians and Lombards. They are closely related to the Italian regions of Lombardy and Piedmont.
The Rumantsch is a Rhaeto-Romance language, closely related to the French, Occitan and Lombard. It was spoken in a larger territory in the early Middle Ages, that reached from the Grisons (Canton Graubünden) to the Lake Constance, whereas today, it’s limited to some parts of Graubünden.