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Rhaeto-Romance languages
Rhaeto-Romance languages

Rhaeto-Romance, or Rhaetian, is a traditional subfamily of the Romance languages that is spoken in north and north-eastern Italy and in Switzerland. The name "Rhaeto-Romance" refers to the former Roman province of Rhaetia. The linguistic basis of the subfamily is discussed in the so-called Questione Ladina. The Rhaeto-Romance languages form a group of Romance languages in the Alps region of northern Italy and Switzerland. Initially studied by Italian Linguist Graziadio Ascoli in 1873, Ascoli found these languages to share a number of intricacies and believed they belonged to a specific linguistic group.[1] What distinguishes Rhaeto-Romance languages from Italian and other Western languages are its phonemic vowel length (long stressed vowels), consonant formation, and a central rounded vowel series.[2] A few notable examples of these languages are Romansh, Friulian and Ladin, which are officially recognized alongside German, French and Italian, by the Swiss and Italian governments respectively. In total there are about 660,000 speakers of the Rhaeto-Romance languages combined, the vast majority of whom speak Friulian at approximately half a million.[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 actual 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 Wallensee 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.

Related languages

The family is most closely related to its nearest neighbors: French, Franco-Provençal, Occitan, Gallo-Italian (Piedmontese, Ligurian, Lombard, Emiliano-Romagnolo), Venetian and Istriot.

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, being Ibero-Romance a lateral area, as it is Balkano-Romance, Southern-Italian and Rhaeto-Romance, whereas Gallo-Romance and Italo-Romance are central area.

History and classification

While Friulian appears to trace their origins back to Celtic languages, areas of Northeastern Italy that now speak Ladin initially spoke a form of Vulgar Latin. Romansh originates from Latin spoken by Roman soldiers during the conquests of Raetia.

By the mid-9th century, Romansh was spoken over a far wider area.

By 1803, the state of Grison became a part of Switzerland of which half of the population spoke Romansh.

By the mid 19th century, amidst a dwindling Romansh speaking population a renaissance of sorts appeared.

Despite these efforts, with more and more of the surrounding area speaking German the Lia Rumantscha created Romansh speaking daycare schools in the 1940s.

Friulian traces its roots back to the Latin Aquileia.

Ladin was initially a Vulgar Latin language from the Alps of northern Italy.

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 60,561.83% of the Swiss population but this number is rapidly dropping.

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

Spoken in Italy by about 18,550 people.

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.

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.

An official language of the autonomous region of Friuli, it has protected status, and is used in all forms of education in the region.

Ladin is recognized by both provincial and national law in Italy.

  • Central Friulian, spoken in the Udine province.
  • Northern Friulian, spoken in Carnia.
  • Southeastern Friulian, spoken in areas along the Isonzo river.
  • Western Friulian, spoken in the Pordenone province.


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:[7]

A phylogenetic classification[8] using basic lexicon identifies a primary split between Romansh in Switzerland and Ladin in Italy.

In this study, the divergence of the Rhaeto-Romance languages from their reconstructed lexical ancestor is about 7% on average.


The Romansh language has up to 26 consonant phonemes.


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

In Romansh word order directs the grammar rather than the noun being inflected.

Similar to French, 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

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