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Italy, Switzerland
Linguistic classificationIndo-European
Rhaeto-Romance languages.png

Rhaeto-Romance, Rheto-Romance, or Rhaetian, is a purported subfamily of the Romance languages that is spoken in south-eastern Switzerland and north-eastern Italy. The name "Rhaeto-Romance" refers to the former Roman province of Raetia. The question of whether these languages actually form a subfamily is called the Questione Ladina. The Italian linguist Graziadio Ascoli, writing in 1873, found them to share a number of intricacies and believed they formed a linguistic group.[1] What distinguishes the Rhaeto-Romance languages from Italian are their phonemic vowel length (long stressed vowels), consonant formation, and a central rounded vowel series.[2] If the subfamily is genuine, three languages would belong to it: Romansh in Switzerland, and Ladin and Friulian in Italy. Their combined number of speakers is about 660,000; the large majority of these (about 500,000) speak Friulian.[3]


Before the Roman conquest, the Alps were Celtic-speaking in the north and Rhaetian-speaking in the south. The area was incorporated into the Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus. The Rhaeto-Romance languages originated as a dialect of the provincial Latin of the central Alps.

By the end of the Roman Empire, there was an unbroken region of distinctive Romance speech here, which was gradually fragmented into secluded areas in the high valleys by the encroachment of German dialects from the north and of Gallo-Italic languages from the south.

Rhaeto-Romance was spoken over a much wider area during Charlemagne's rule, stretching north into the present-day cantons of Glarus and St. Gallen, to the Walensee in the northwest, and Rüthi and the Alpine Rhine Valley in the northeast. In the east, parts of modern-day Vorarlberg were Romance speaking, as were parts of Austrian Tyrol. The northern areas of what is currently Switzerland, called "Lower Raetia", became German-speaking by the 12th century;[4] and by the 15th century, the Rhine Valley of St. Gallen and the areas around the Walensee were entirely German-speaking.[5]

This language shift was a long, drawn-out process, with larger, central towns adopting German first, while the more peripheral areas around them remained Romansh-speaking longer. The shift to German was caused in particular by the influence of the local German-speaking elites and by German-speaking immigrants from the north, with the lower and rural classes retaining Romansh longer.

Related languages

The family is most closely related to its nearest neighbors: French, Franco-Provençal, Occitan, Venetian, Istriot and Lombard.[6]

A number of lexical items are shared with Ibero-Romance due to the similar date of Latinization for both regions, although it can also be explained by means of Bartoli's areal linguistics theory, Ibero-Romance being a lateral area, as are Balkano-Romance, Southern-Italian and Rhaeto-Romance, whereas Gallo-Romance and Italo-Romance are central area. The Rhaeto-Romance languages were linked to other romance languages, that existed in bordering areas but have later disappeared, like the Moselle Romance and the Austrian Romance.

History and classification

See also: Questione Ladina

While the areas that now speak Friulian were originally inhabited by speakers of Venetic (likely Italic) and Celtic languages, the areas of Northeastern Italy that now speak Ladin initially spoke a non-Indo-European language called Raetic. Ladin and Romansh originate from the Vulgar Latin spoken by Roman soldiers during the conquests of Raetia.


By the mid-9th century, Romansh was spoken over a far wider area. However, with the migration of many German elite land owners, Romansh dissipated across Northern Italy. The oldest literary text in the Romansh language is the Chianzun dalla guerra dagl Chiaste da Müs, which details the Musso War.

By 1803, the state of Grisons became a part of Switzerland, of whose population half spoke Romansh. The strength of the central government of Grisons began to impose on the Romansh-speaking people, as the official language was German which resulted in many Romansh speakers to adopt German. With the 20th century came a rise in tourism that took the focus away from the region's agricultural focus and German became the more practical language to learn. Many in the intellectual class found this to be beneficial to the local population, as Romansh appeared to hinder their intellectual development as noted by Heinrich Bansi, a notable priest in 1897: "The biggest obstacle to the moral and economical improvement of these regions is the language of the people". This viewpoint was countered with the belief that the Romansh language was a hybrid of both Italian and German, allowing the Romansh speakers to have a moderate understanding of the other two more widely used languages.

By the mid 19th century, amidst a dwindling Romansh-speaking population a renaissance of sorts appeared. This culminated in the 1885 creation of an association of all Romansh regions known as Società Retorumantscha. Later, in 1919 the Lia Rumantscha was created to encompass all of the regional Romansh-speaking societies. Additionally, more schools began to teach Romansh by the mid 19th century, and by 1860 Romansh became a subject in a teachers' college and an officially recognized language by 1880.

Despite these efforts, with more and more of the surrounding area speaking German, the Lia Rumantscha created Romansh-speaking daycare schools in the 1940s. This effort failed to deliver, and the last school was closed by 1979.


Friulian traces its roots back to the Latin Aquileia. Prior to Roman contact in 181 BC the region of northeastern Italy was of Raetian, Italic and Celtic origins and used a form of either Raetian, Venetic or Celtic. The transition from Vulgar Latin to Friulian occurred in the 6th century CE[citation needed]. The first official use of Friulian can be traced back to the 13th century and by the 15th century a majority of the population spoke the language, while the noble classes continued to use Latin or German. In 1420 the area of Friuli transitioned under Venetian rule and Venetian dialect became the dominant language. Over the years with the influence of Venetian and Italian becoming more abundant the Friulian language stagnated.[7] In the mid 20th century an earthquake struck that devastated the local region and many found solace in sharing the local language of Friulian. While the teaching of Friulian in higher education is rapidly declining it still has its imprint on the local geography as many of the local towns and geographical landmarks (mountains, woods, animals, plants) were given Celtic names that survive to this day.


Ladin was initially a Vulgar Latin language from the Alps of northern Italy. Beginning in the 6th century the Ladin language began to shrink due to the encroachment of Bavarian and Gallo-Italic languages, surviving in only the isolated mountainous areas. In the early Middle Ages the Ladin region came under House of Habsburg and Republic of Venice rule. From these two influences the Ladin area underwent the process of Germanisation.

By the end of World War I Italy had annexed the region that encompassed the Ladin language. Along with the nationalism of the 20th century, Ladin was considered by many Italians to be an Italian dialect. Benito Mussolini would later push forward an Italianization of the region which further dwindled the Ladin language user base. Despite the small amount of Ladin speakers, by 1972 the Italian government afforded Ladin the status of a secondary language.

Geographic distribution


Spoken in the Swiss canton of Graubünden by 60,561 people – 0.83% of the Swiss population – but this number is rapidly dropping.


Bilingual road sign (Italian and Friulian) in Friuli-Venezia Giulia
Bilingual road sign (Italian and Friulian) in Friuli-Venezia Giulia

Spoken in Italy, most notably the provinces of Udine and Pordenone, by about 600,000 people.


Spoken in northeastern Italy, in Trentino-Alto Adige and the Province of Belluno in Veneto, by about 41,000 people.[8][9][10][11]

Official status


The first Swiss constitution of 1848 along with its revision of 1872 neglected to mention the Romansh language; however, it was translated into two Romansh dialects after the first revision. In 1938 Romansh became a national language, though a delineation was made between "national" and "official" languages. National languages were largely symbolic while official languages (French, German, and Italian) were used in an official capacity by the government. One notable disadvantage of being a national, rather than official language was that parents would have to register their children's names under one of the official languages.

By 1996 Romansh was recognized as an official language beside French, German and Italian, and Rhaeto-Romansh is now the official correspondence used when communicating with Romansh people.

At this time the Canton of Grison is the only place where Romansh is the official language. This allows for any citizen to request official documents from the local government in the Romansh language.


An official language of the autonomous region of Friuli, it has protected status, and is used in all forms of education in the region. Still used at popular levels for daily conversation.


Ladin is recognized by both provincial and national law in Italy. In the early 1990s Italy signed European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages which is meant to protect and promote minority languages such as Ladin.




Main article: Friulian language



Contraction of the area of the Rhaeto-Romance languages
Contraction of the area of the Rhaeto-Romance languages

The area where Rhaeto-Romance languages (also called Ladin languages in a wider sense, not to be confused with Ladino or Judaeo-Spanish) were spoken during the Middle Ages stretched from Switzerland to the Julian Alps (in modern-day western Slovenia).

The Rhaeto-Romance languages can be distinguished into the following varieties:[12]

A phylogenetic classification[13] using basic lexicon identifies a primary split between Romansh in Switzerland and Ladin in Italy. One secondary split distinguishes Engadinic from the other Romansh varieties in Switzerland. In Italy, another secondary split is evidently caused by the Dolomite mountain range that divides Ladin into a northern and a southern subbranch, with Friulian being grouped closest to the southern branch.

In this study, the divergence of the Rhaeto-Romance languages from their reconstructed lexical ancestor is about 7% on average. This would correspond to a time depth of about 500 years if the glottochronological replacement rate of 14% per millennium for Romance were trustworthy. However, the earliest available Romance text from the Alpine area is somewhat older and dates to AD 1200.[14]



Main article: Romansh language § Phonology

The Romansh language has up to 26 consonant phonemes. Word stress occurs either on the last or second to last syllable.


Main article: Friulian language § Phonology


Main article: Ladin language § Phonology


Rhaeto-Romance languages, unlike other Romance languages, have phonemic vowel length (long stressed vowels), consonant formation, and a central rounded vowel series.[2]



Main article: Romansh language § Morphology

In Romansh word order directs the grammar rather than the noun being inflected. Additionally, similar to most other Romance languages there are two genders in addition to s being used to indicate a plural word.


Main article: Friulian language § Morphology

Similar to Italian and Spanish, most Friulian nouns end in a vowel based on the gender, with feminine nouns ending in e while masculine nouns end in i.


The general word order is subject-verb-object, however this can change at times where the verb can come before the subject.



Many place names in Romansh date back before Roman contact stemming from Celtic origins.


Most words in Friulian are of the Romance variety due to its Latin roots; however, it still has many place names and flora that trace back to Celtic origins.

See also


  1. ^ Beninca, Paola; Haiman, John (2005). The Rhaeto-Romance Languages. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-134-96548-9.
  2. ^ a b Leonard, Clifford S. (1964). "Proto-Rhaeto-Romance and French". Language. 40 (1): 23–32. doi:10.2307/411921. JSTOR 411921.
  3. ^ "Ethnologue: Languages of the World". Ethnologue. Retrieved 2018-04-28.
  4. ^ Liver 1999. p. 76
  5. ^ Coray 2008. p. 78
  6. ^ Sanga, Glauco (1984). Dialettologia Lombarda Lingue e Cultura Popolari. Aurora Edizioni. p. 8.
  7. ^ "Euromosaic - Friulian in Italy". Retrieved 2018-04-28.
  9. ^ "15° Censimento della popolazione e delle abitazioni. Rilevazione sulla consistenza e la dislocazione territoriale degli appartenenti alle popolazioni di lingua ladina, mòchena e cimbra (dati provvisori)" (PDF). A (in Italian). Autonomous Province of Trento. 2012. Retrieved 2012-10-07.
  10. ^ Iannaccaro, Gabriele. "SURVEY LADINS. USI LINGUISTICI NELLE VALLI LADINE" (in Italian): 196. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  11. ^ "South Tyrol in Figures" (PDF). Declaration of language group affiliation – Population Census 2011. Retrieved 2012-10-07.
  12. ^ Videsott, Paul (2011). Rätoromanische Bibliographie / Bibliografia retoromanza 1729–2010 (PDF) (in German and Italian). Bozen-Bolzano University Press. ISBN 978-88-6046-045-5. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-08-16.
  13. ^ Forster, Peter; Toth, Alfred; Bandelt, Hans-Jürgen (1998). "Evolutionary Network Analysis of Word Lists: Visualising the Relationships Between Alpine Romance Languages". Journal of Quantitative Linguistics. 5 (3): 174–187. doi:10.1080/09296179808590125.
  14. ^ Gartner, Theodor (1910). Handbuch der rätoromanischen Sprache und Literatur (in German). Halle, Saxony-Anhalt: Max Niemeyer.