Why does Switzerland have four official languages?
Like many other countries in Europe, Switzerland as a nation is the amalgamation of many different disparate regions and peoples. This has resulted in the country having four official languages, and many other unofficial ones. Many countries have utilised language as a way to unify their populations, yet Switzerland is an exception. Instead, Switzerland is a Willensnation (nation of will), where the 26 Swiss cantons agree to work with one another.
Why does Switzerland have four official languages?
The question of why there are four languages recognised as the official languages in Switzerland goes back to the country's history. The first peoples to be named in written historical records were the Helvetians, who spoke Celtic, and the Rhaetians, who spoke Latin - the Latin-Celtic combination evolved into modern-day Romansh.
Then, with the development of the Roman Empire, a Gallo-Roman culture began to flourish all throughout Western Europe, with the Rhine River separating the Romans and Celts from the Germanic tribes. In 400 AD, the migration of the Franks, Lombards and Burgundians across the Rhine River and through the alpine passes of western and southern Switzerland cultivated the French and Italian that are spoken there today.
Lastly, the Germanic tribe called the Alemanni migrated from southwestern Germany and settled into small villages in modern-day central and northern Switzerland while keeping their language. The Germanic dialect that was spoken by these tribes eventually evolved into Swabian and then into the Swiss German we know and love today.
The cantons of Switzerland and their languages
The cantons of Switzerland used to be fully independent states, each with its own language, dialect, culture, army, borders and customs. For the majority of its history, Switzerland has never had a strong centralised government, so each canton maintained self-control over their affairs. Thus, they were able to continue speaking their respective languages. The languages spoken in these specific cantons are representative of the cultural and geographical boundaries closest to them.
German / Swiss German
Over 60 percent of the Swiss population speaks German as their main language, but this is not the standard German that is spoken throughout Germany, but rather a series of Alemannic and Swabian dialects that are collectively referred to as Swiss German.
There are 17 cantons that have Swiss German as an official cantonal language: Aargau, Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Appenzell Innerrhoden, Basel-Stadt, Basel-Land, Glarus, Lucerne, Nidwalden, Obwalden, Schaffhausen, Schwyz, Solothurn, St. Gallen, Thurgau, Uri, Zug, and Zurich. Throughout these cantons, a plethora of German dialects are spoken, each changing depending on whether the area has more German, Austrian, or Walser influence.
The second most commonly spoken language in Switzerland is French, especially in the western part of Switzerland which is referred to as Romandy or the Romande. The cantons in this area are Geneva, Vaud, Neuchâtel, and Jura, as well as the French-speaking parts of Bern, Fribourg, and Valais.
There are about 2 million people who speak French in Switzerland. Historically, the French spoken in Romandy used to be Franco-Provençal, also known as Arpitan - this is still spoken by older generations in the canton of Jura - but now most use standard French with the addition of a few Swiss German words. The cantons of Bern, Fribourg, and Valais are officially bilingual, with French and Swiss German being the two official languages.
Italian is spoken by over 8 percent of the population, especially in the southern regions of Switzerland and throughout the Alps. The Italian spoken in Switzerland is also not the standard Italian that is spoken in Italy but a mixture of Italian and Swiss words.
There are over 720.000 people who speak Swiss Italian in the canton of Ticino, the southern part of Graubünden, and the Gondo valley in Valais. The percentage of people speaking Swiss Italian has decreased over the years due to the declining number of Italian immigrants to Switzerland.
Romansh is a language that has its roots in the Latin that was spoken in the Roman Empire, but modern-day spoken Romansh has been heavily influenced by German. There are dialect differences among regions, with some having more Alemannic and Bavarian influences.
Romansh is one of the official languages of the trilingual region of the canton of Graubünden. The Swiss Federal Constitution declared Romansh as one of the four national languages in 1996, so it can be used for correspondence with the federal government, although federal legislative business does not have to be translated into Romansh. The Romansh spoken in Switzerland includes many dialects, but only the standard version is used by the federal and cantonal authorities.
Other languages spoken in Switzerland
Besides these four official languages and their numerous dialects, there are a multitude of additional languages that are gaining importance throughout the country. Namely, English and Portuguese are recognised to be the most widely spoken unofficial languages in the country, followed by Albanian, Croatian, Spanish, Turkish, and Arabic.
The significance of the abundance of languages spoken throughout Switzerland is due to the number of various immigrants and expats that have brought their own languages from overseas and further diversified the linguistic makeup of the country.