Exploring a disappearing Swiss language

While Romansh is one of Switzerland’s four national languages, only about 60,000 people still speak it. Indigenous to the canton of Graubünden, it is primarily an oral tradition and has fragmented into five somewhat unique dialects, making it difficult to consider as a single entity. The question of whether Romansh can survive is deeply personal to Marie-Cécile Reber, a Swiss found-sound artist who speaks the language. Through The Witness, Reber’s group works with local people in areas where the increasing presence of other languages and developments is threatening Romansh. They interview participants about their connection to the language, e.g. what language they think in (Romansh, German, or Italian, the other common languages of the area), how important it is to them, how meaning changes across these various languages, and what’s disappearing or emerging. They also collect sound, video, and diary-like texts of the alpine environment and agriculture. For Reber, Romansh is both sparse and sensual, its sounds, gestures, pitches, and pauses as alive as the content of the words themselves. The Witness gives Reber the opportunity to examine the origins of Romansh, the surrounding nature that shaped it, and the culture and knowledge that it carries forth.