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The linguistic enigma of Switzerland


Italian language and culture flourish in cantons of Ticino and Grissons

By Jeanne Outlaw-Cannavo

Switzerland, where four linguistic regions and multiple cultures flourish, is a unique melting pot. The country is small, about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, with a population of approximately 8,724,000. Switzerland is known worldwide for its stunning mountain ranges (the Alps to the south and Jura to the north), as an international banking headquarters, the Swiss Guard, cheese and chocolate and the Red Cross. It is also famous for the manufacturing of Swiss knives and watches. Germany, Austria, France, and Italy surround this small area of landlocked beauty.

In this multitude of identities that characterize the territory, Italian-speaking Switzerland is often little known, even by the Swiss themselves. There are 26 cantons in Switzerland where German, French, Italian and Romansh are all spoken. The Italian language is prominent in the region that includes the Canton of Ticino and four valleys of the Canton of Grisons, the only trilingual area in Switzerland. The Mesolcina, the Calanca, the Bregaglia and the Valposchiavo form the so-called Grigionitaliano. It is often a surprise to travelers from other countries to find themselves in these areas and wonder if they may still be in Italy.

Years ago, our family traveled through this area while heading to visit the Furka Pass in the Canton of Valais. During our stay in Lugano, we were pleasantly surprised to find the owner of our motor inn was from Italy.

Our cousin’s daughter commented several times on crowds cheering for Italy during a soccer game on TV while we were dining in town. When we visited a carved-out ice cave at the Rhone Glacier we spoke to a guide (dressed as a polar bear) in Italian even though he was originally from Poland. It turned out that he spoke several languages, as did other people we encountered in the region.

In the Italian-speaking cantons the official language is Italian, flanked by a dialectal reality so rich it could fill an encyclopedia. The third national language is spoken by about 8.1 percent of the population in this area, or 590,000 people. Italian also resonates in the cities of German and French Switzerland: more than half of Italian speakers live outside of the Italian regions of Switzerland, a presence also due to immigration from Italy, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, the third largest community of Italians abroad is in Switzerland. The language is vibrant throughout the territory.

A unified language does not exist in Switzerland, and this gives rise to challenges but also great opportunities. Speaking another lingua franca, such as English or an elusive “Swiss,” would at first seem to facilitate understanding each other between linguistic regions, but multilingualism has always been a fundamental part of the country’s identity and represents an important value. It officially became a distinctive feature of Switzerland in 1848, when the Federal Constitution defined German, French and Italian as three national languages placed at the same rank, to which Romansh was added in 1938. There is a great benefit from the meeting of several languages and cultures which are linked by a political system based on federalism and direct democracy.

The strength of this multilingual and cultural aspect has allowed Switzerland to excel in diplomacy precisely for its commitment to bringing together diverse cultures. However, it is not always easy for linguistic minorities to make their voices heard. The Federal Law on National Languages and Understanding Between Linguistic Communities (LLing) has been in force since 2007 with the related Implementing Ordinance of 2010. The law forms the basis for support for projects that promote mutual understanding in multilingual Switzerland.

For more than 100 years, the Pro Grigioni Italiano has been the guarantor of the Italian-speaking minority of the Grisons, promoting the Grisons-Italian culture and defending the language, thanks to the collaboration of the Canton and Confederation.

The coexistence of several languages in the same territory has given Italian in Switzerland its specific characteristics, bringing into use words born from the influence of French and German and which differ from the Italian spoken in Italy: from products “in action” (from the Swiss German “Aktion”), which for an Italian are rather “in promotion,” unless the products want to run away from the supermarket. Italians in Switzerland will “order a coffee” (the verb order taken from the French for commander) as if to force the cup to move. These specificities have also been studied by the Linguistic Observatory of Italian Switzerland which is currently developing the “Lìdatè.” This is an app (active from November 2020) aimed at Italian speakers in Switzerland, Italy and ideally the world to investigate the geographical varieties of the language.

Then we add the richness brought by the dialects. Spoken by about a third of the population, although decreasing in usage, the dialects of Italian-speaking Switzerland derive from the Lombard ones. Italian speakers
do not address just anyone in dialect, they are in fact used in the informal and family context. From the best known “sa vedum” (see you) and “bondì” (good morning), the wide variety of Ticino dialects and the Italian-speaking valleys of the Grisons are abundant in the vocabulary of the dialects of Italian Switzerland. Linguists are documenting these dialectical usages in encyclopedic works.

For the Swiss-Germans, Italian-speaking Switzerland, in particular Ticino, is the “Sonnenstube” due to its favorable climate and Mediterranean air. But the area has much more to offer than a few rays of sunshine. From art to architecture there are many accomplished Italians in Swiss history. Bregaglia, in the canton of Grisons, is a cradle of artists known all over the world such as Giovanni Segantini or Alberto Giacometti. Architect Mario Botta, born in the canton of Ticino, has works commissioned from the United States to China. His “Il Fiore di Pietra” (Stone Flower) is a modern restaurant with stunning views on Monte Generoso in Canton Tessin which opened to great fanfare in March 2017. Looking at the great works of the past, we come across Francesco Borromini, also from Ticino, was one of the leading exponents of Baroque architecture. In 1634, Borromini received his first major independent commission to design the church, cloister and monastic buildings of San Carlo alle Quattre Fontane. Located on the Quirinal Hill in Rome. Another talented artist, Domenico Trezzini, designed St. Petersburg on behalf of Tsar Pietro I. In addition, there are the “magistri Moesani,” great builders active in Bavaria, Poland, and Austria between 1500 and 1700.

The Italian regions of Switzerland also hold numerous World Heritage Sites: The Valposchiavo is traversed by the Rhaetian Railway, an engineering masterpiece; the three Castles of Bellinzona still represent an important crossroads between north and south in Swiss history and Monte San Giorgio has fossils that date to more than 245 million years ago.

Italian Switzerland also plays a significant role in the scientific world: Lugano is home to the Swiss Center for Scientific Computing and the University of Italian Switzerland, the only Italian-speaking university outside of Italy. In Bellinzona there are research institutes in biomedicine and cancer research which contribute to scientific progress on an international level.

It would take more than just a short visit to genuinely appreciate the richness of the language and culture of Italian-speaking Switzerland. The ties between the two countries and the influences of Italy to the south have become a vital component of Switzerland’s identity.

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