Romansh is one of the descendant languages of the spoken Latin language of the Roman Empire, which by the 5th century AD replaced the Celtic and Raetic languages previously spoken in the area. Romansh retains a small number of words from these languages. Romansh has also been strongly influenced by German in vocabulary and morphosyntax. The language gradually retreated to its current area over the centuries, being replaced in other areas by Alemannic and Bavarian dialects. The earliest writing identified as Romansh dates from the 10th or 11th century, although major works did not appear until the 16th century, when several regional written varieties began to develop. During the 19th century the area where the language was spoken declined, but the Romansh speakers had a literary revival and started a language movement dedicated to halting the decline of the language.
In the 2000 Swiss census, 35,095 people (of whom 27,038 live in the canton of Grisons) indicated Romansh as the language of "best command", and 61,815 as a "regularly spoken" language. In 2010, Switzerland switched to a yearly system of assessment that uses a combination of municipal citizen records and a limited number of surveys. Based on this yearly system, the number of people aged 15 and above reporting Romansh as their main language was 36,622 in 2012. Spoken by around 0.9% of Switzerland's 7.7 million inhabitants, Romansh is Switzerland's least-used national language in terms of number of speakers and ranks eleventh in terms of most spoken languages in Switzerland overall. The language area and number of speakers of Romansh have been continually shrinking, though language use remains vigorous in certain areas.
Romansh is divided into five different regional dialects (Sursilvan, Sutsilvan, Surmiran, Putèr, and Vallader), each with its own standardized written language. In addition, a pan-regional variety called Rumantsch Grischun was introduced in 1982, which is controversial among Romansh speakers.
Romansh is a Romance language descending from Vulgar Latin, the spoken language of the Roman Empire. Within the Romance languages, Romansh stands out because of its peripheral location,[clarification needed] which has resulted in several archaic features. Another distinguishing feature is the centuries-long language contact with German, which is most noticeable in the vocabulary and to a lesser extent the syntax of Romansh. Romansh belongs to the Gallo-Romance branch of the Romance languages, which includes languages such as French, Occitan, and Lombard. The main feature placing Romansh within the Gallo-Romance languages is the fronting of Latin /u/ to [y] or [i], as seen in Latin muru(m) ("wall"), which is mür (help·info) or mir (help·info) in Romansh.
The main features distinguishing Romansh from the Gallo-Italic languages to the south, and placing it closer to French, are:
Palatalization of Latin K and G in front of A, as in Latin canem ("dog"), which is tgaun (help·info) in Sursilvan, tgang in Surmiran, and chaun (help·info) in Putèr and Vallader (the difference between ⟨tg⟩ and ⟨ch⟩ being purely orthographic, as both represent /tɕ/); Italian cane, French chien. This sound change is partially absent in some varieties of Romansh, however, especially in Sursilvan, where it may have been reversed at some point: Sursilvan casa (help·info) and Vallader chasa (help·info) 'house'.
Pluralisation with "-s" suffix, derived from the LatinAccusative case, as in buns chavals ("good horses") as opposed to Italian buoni cavalli; French bons chevaux.
Retention of L following /p b k ɡ f/: clav ("key") from Latin clavem, as opposed to Italian chiave; French clef.
Another defining feature of the Romansh language is the use of unstressed vowels. All unstressed vowels (except /a/) disappeared.
The three proposed Rhaeto-Romance languages Romansh, Ladin, and Friulan
Whether or not Romansh, Friulan and Ladin should compose a separate "Rhaeto-Romance" subgroup within Gallo-Romance is an unresolved issue, known as the Questione ladina. Some linguists posit that these languages are descended from a common language, which was fractured geographically through the spread of German and Italian. The Italian linguist Graziadio Ascoli first made the claim in 1873. The other position holds that any similarities between these three languages can be explained through their relative geographic isolation, which shielded them from certain linguistic changes. By contrast, the Gallo-Italic varieties of Northern Italy were more open to linguistic influences from the South. Linguists who take this position often point out that the similarities between the languages are comparatively few. This position was first introduced by the Italian dialectologist Carlo Battisti.
This linguistic dispute became politically relevant for the Italian irredentist movement. Italian nationalists interpreted Battisti's hypothesis as implying that Romansh, Friulan and Ladin were not separate languages but rather Italian dialects. They used this as an argument to claim the territories for Italy where these languages were spoken. From a sociolinguistic perspective, however, this question is largely irrelevant. The speakers of Romansh have always identified as speaking a language distinct from both Italian and other Romance varieties.