The language of the people of Samnaun

Visitors are always surprised about the peculiar language spoken in Samnaun. And indeed, the Samnaun people are the smallest linguistic minority in Switzerland. Their Tyrolean dialect is something very exotic, certainly for most Swiss people. From a linguistic point of view it is south Bavarian, which has become the dialect of the Samnaun people, although with their own special local peculiarities. Sometimes the people of Samnaun are teased about not even being part of Switzerland.

If you look at the history of Samnaun, you'd think that the Samnaun people are Romansh-speaking Grisons people. And that's what they used to be. But how did this linguistic change come about?

The remoteness of Samnaun meant that even when the people first settled here they had to orient themselves away from the valley and towards Tyrol. They were not able to trade much with the Engadin because of the mountainous crossings, which were not even passable all year round. And so they used an ox-cart trail from Samnaun to the Tyrolean Oberland. This of course had consequences for Romansh language spoken by them. As can be seen from the archives of Ramosch, the Tyrolean dialect was already occasionally spoken in Samnaun in 1675. In the main features of the change, however, can be traced back to around 1800 and lasted until about the beginning of 1900. Romansh was still spoken at home and on the streets for a long time, and some families spoke it exclusively until after 1850. The last people of Samnaun still familiar to a degree with their old language died around the year 1935.

In addition to the trade relations with the Tyrol, recruiting clergymen and teachers from Tyrol probably also contributed to the old Samnaun vernacular (which was very similar to the Vallader variety spoken in the Lower Engadin) dying out. Unfortunately no documents written in the Romansh of Samnaun have survived. Old reports tell us that the Samnaun people cultivated their own peculiar intonation and their pronunciation was German and Austrian. Instead of baiver they said baiber, for barba - barva, instead of nöglia - nelja or neela, instead of vöglia - veela, for füm - fim, instead of gllüm - glim, instead of davò - tavo, instead of durmir - turmir etc.

Today the people of Samnaun are "German" speaking Engadiners. We keep being asked by we do not use our dialect in the company of "foreigners". There are two answers to this question.

First, it is a question of good manners to use the language that everyone understands. The people of Samnaun do not like it in the least when we go to nearby Engadin, for example to attend a meeting, and only hear Romansh, even though the people there also speak German.

Secondly, your language is something quite intimate. This is particularly the case for a linguistic minority like the Samnaun people. We are always asked to say something in our dialect, which for this reason we are reluctant to comply with. In other words: The people of Samnaun speak Samnaun German only with each other or with people who have been in the valley for a long time and fully understand the dialect.

You'd be wrong to assume that there is nothing left today in Samnaun of their Romansh past. A number of peculiar relics have survived. The everyday vernacular does contain a few Romansh words. The development of tourism also, of course, changed the language. But this is probably what every living language goes through. Until 30 years ago, the proportion of Romansh words in the vernacular was still significant. While these pretty expressions are disappearing fast, quite a few are still in use today.

Our linguistic past is most evident in the names of fields. With very few exceptions, they are all Romansh. It would be presumptuous to expect readers to be interested in a list of these field names. But to give some examples: A hill is still called Mot or Mutta, mountains are called Piz or Munt, a plain is still called Plan or Plaun, meadows are called Pra or Pezza, and a valley is called Val. While it was easy for the language to change over time, the difficulties lay in giving the field names German-sounding names. The Ladin language is much more precise than German. And that is why the Romansh names were retained.

The meadow ground with the sawmill by the Schergenbach stream is called "plan della resia". Southeast of Compatsch the fields are called "sot la gripp" (=under the rocks). The place where the mill stood many years ago, on the valley path, it is still called "mulins" today, even though you no longer hear the turning of a mill wheel. The Romansh field names tell you a lot. For example, about the appearance of a plot of land (Champ radond) or about its special features (Pra grond). They tell us where the place in question is located (Sot la via), what the soil is like (Urezzas düras) or the name of its owner (Pra da Men).

After hundreds of years, the local farmers of course no longer pronounce the field names of Samnaun as they used to be pronounced. But that's exactly what makes these expressions so appealing. With a lot of patience and imagination, however, you will figure out their original meaning.

The place names testify to the old Romansh culture in Samnaun. Compatsch, which used to be called Champatsch, refers to a large cultivated field. Laret is the village near a larch forest. Plan refers to its position in the plain: at the bottom of the valley. The name Ravaisch, or Ravais-ch (Rivais-ch) in Romansh, is derived from its location next to a stream.

Finally, surnames also refer to Samnaun's Romansh past. Old documents tell us how the old family names changed:

Carnot: 1400 (Karünczen), 1461 (Carnutsch), 1520 (Karnutschen, Karnutzer), 1785 (Carnot)

Jenal: 1495 (Jenal), 1520 (Genal), 1650 (Gianal)

Zegg: 1245

Denoth: 1650 (da Not)

However, a register of duties of the inhabitants of Samnaun, who in 1650 has to pay a tax to the church of Sent, shows that a number of families of foreign origin lived in each village in addition to the old local families: Clonstoni (today Kleinstein), Valsar (Walser), Jager (Jäger), Gotscha (Gotsch).

The other families with German names that live here, such as Platzer, Prinz and Heiss, probably came to the valley as free people and became citizens here.