The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #2 March / April 2013
Languages in Peril
The Rhaeto-Romance Trio
by Lucille Martin
March / April 2013 | 

Even languages of the popular Romance family are in danger of becoming extinct, so we are going to look at Ladin, Friulian and Romansh, which are three closely related ones.

Most people know of the popular Romance languages like Latin, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian. If you talk to people who are more interested in languages themselves and polyglots, you might hear them mention Catalan, Gallician and Sicilian. We are going to look at a few that are part of the Rhaeto-Romance branch that most have probably never heard about.

Rhaeto-Romance region
The Rhaeto-Romance region and languages.

Rhaeto-Romance refers to a large area of the Alps which was home to Celtic and Raetic tribes in ancient times. The Romans named it "Raetia Prima". Three languages evolved from this area, each developing in its own way while retaining the common features that unite them in a single group: Ladin, Friulian, and Romansh.


Ladin (not to be confused with the Spanish dialect, Ladino) has an estimated 30,000 speakers, but this is very difficult to verify because not all provinces in which it is spoken declare it as their native language. It is spoken in South Tyrol, Trentino and Belluno in the Dolomite mountains of northern Italy.

Fascists leaders like Ettore Tolomei and Benito Mussolini put pressure on the Ladin communities to give up their identities to Italian

The name "Ladin" is derived from "Latin" because it was originally a form of vulgar Latin in the Roman conquered Alps. It began in Aquileia, an ancient Roman military colony in Italy, which was founded 181 BC. The Celtic population of the area, which was greater than that of the Romans, used a distorted form of Latin, mixing their own Celtic languages with it. As it was spoken, influences from languages in the surrounding territories made modifications to its phonetics and vocabulary. It developed on its own path, as did its sister languages of Italian, Spanish and French. After the barbarian invasions of the 5th century and the fall of Ostrogothic Kingdom, which had taken over the region, the Dolomites became separated from the region known as Friuli, and the language was split, developing into Ladin and Friulian.

Ladin road sign
Trilingual road sign in Ladin-German-Italian in South Tyrol. "in case of snow or ice"

During the Middle Ages, when the area fell under Austrian Habsburg ruler, Ladin underwent a process of Germanization. At the end of World War I in 1918, Italy annexed the southern part of Tyrol, which included the Ladin areas, and the Italian nationalist movement viewed Ladin as an "Italian dialect", which greatly upset the Ladins. Fascists leaders like Ettore Tolomei and Benito Mussolini put pressure on the Ladin communities to give up their identities to Italian and forced many Ladin place names to use Italian pronunciation. When World War II ended, the Gruber-De Gasperi Agreement of 1946 between Austria and Italy gave autonomy for Trentino and South Tyrol while having them remain part of Italy, but this did not extend to the Ladins. It wasn't until a second autonomy statute for South Tyrol was made in 1972 were the rights of these communities recognized.

There is little Ladin literature, since it dates back only until the 1700s. Work is being done to revive this endangered language through consolidation of the Ladin economic structure, increased usage of the language in the mass media and teaching of Ladin in primary and high schools. But will it be enough?


The languages of that region at the time were Celtic and Raetic and they were mixed with the Latin.

Friulian currently has approximately 800,000 speakers. It is also called Friulan, Furlan and even Eastern Ladin because of its shared roots with Ladin. It is spoken mainly in the Firuli-Venezia Giulia region of northeastern Italy as well as in Udine, Pordenone, Trieste and Gorizia. Its major dialects are central, western and eastern Friulian, Gortan, Asino and Carnian, all of which were influenced by the surrounding languages of the area: Slovenian, Italian and German.

Friulian came from the same modified Latin as Ladin. When the Friuli region became isolated from Italian cultural life in the 6th century, the language mutated further from its Latin base. The first documents using Friulian go back to the 13th century, but they were mostly administrative in nature. Friulian literature and poetry has been found from the 14th century. By the early 15th century, most of the population of the region spoke Friulian while the nobility and educated classes spoke Latin or German. However, when Friuli came back under Italian rule after 1420, the Venetian dialect of Italian became the dominant language, and Friulian started to decline.

Friulian road sign
Road sign in Italian and Friulian. "Paderno town of Udine"

Friulian came under unexpected scrutiny during the Nazi Occupation of Italy during the Second World War. Pro-Nazi German scholars theorized that the German language and culture had been a "profound influence" on the Friulians, including loan words and medieval place-names. Evidence was found that the Friuli people had been involved in the early German empire as well, and it was decided that the Friulians, by being part of the "German cultural field", were therefore historically part of the German empire. These Nazis probably intended to attempt a "Germanization" of the Friulian speakers, but their defeat in the war prevented that.

While the language is endangered, after the war a revival of interest in it began. In the 1950s, two new grammar books, a description of the dialects and a history of the Friulian language were published. It is taught in a few schools and has limited use in the media. However, it is still fighting for its survival against the more popular languages of the region.


Romansh is the third in the Rhaeto-Romance trio. It has about 95,000 speakers in Switzerland where it is an official language, but that makes it very small, relative to the population, with just over one percent speaking it. Those speakers are mainly in the Rhaeto-Romania area.

Title page of book in Romansh
Title page of "Dotrina christiana Breciana" of 1734

The origins of Romansh are similar to that of Ladin and Friulian, coming from a modified form of Latin when the Romans conquered the area known as Raetia. The languages of that region at the time were Celtic and Raetic and they were mixed with the Latin. This form was used until the 5th century, when Germanic tribes from the north moved in and Raetia became part of the Ostrogothic Kingdom until it fell. When the Ostrogoths surrendered the province of Raetia to the Frankish Empire around 547 AD, a process of Germanization also began on the language which lasted for many centuries.

Romansh did not have a standardized writing system, having been mainly used by common people and not administrators. Several regional written varieties of Romansh are found from the 16th century. The first real literary work that has survived was an epic poem written in 1527. Other writers and poets began to write in Romansh variants as well as translate other works into the language. A standardised written form, known as Rumantsch Grischun, was finally created in 1982 by the Zurich linguist Heinrich Schmid, although it hasn't been widely adopted by Romansh speakers, who prefer their own dialects.

Romansh struggled to survive against the more popular German and Swedish while the Romansh speakers saw their language as an economic and social block. Schools and churches replaced Romansh with German, weakening it even more. The "Rhaeto-Romance Renaissance" movement began at the end of the 19th century to revive the language, and in 1938, Romansh became recognized as a national language of Switzerland, along with German, French and Italian. Today it is used to an extent in schools and the media, but its survival is still in doubt.

Spread the Word

Mural with the text "Friûl libar" (Free Friuli) in Aiello del Friuli, Italy.

All of these languages are described as "definitely endangered" which means the children of native speakers no longer learn the language as a mother tongue in their homes. We hope that this article will inspire you to learn more about them and to tell others what you have learned. The next time someone mentions the Romance languages, you can add these three to the list know you have taken a step to help them survive.

Languages in Peril - The Rhaeto-Romance Trio
Writer: Lucille Martin
Aconcagua: Dolomites Mountain range <>
Sajoch: Rhaeto-Romance languages map <>
Gérard Janot: Ladin sign <>
alesmini: Friulian sign <>
Robert Bellarmin: Romansh text <>
• "Ladin" Omniglot <>
• "Ladin language" Wikipedia <>
• "The Ladin language" Alta Badia <>
• "Friulian language" Wikipedia <>
• "Friulian in Italy" Euromosaic <>
• "Friulian (furlan/marilenghe)" Omniglot <>
• "Romansh language" Wikipeida <>
• "Romansh (rumantsch)" Omniglot <>
• "The Romansh Language" Roger Kreuz <>

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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