As you both no doubt know, part of my job as an editor at Your Favourite Weekly Etcetera is to travel round the place doing my
stand up routine talk about how we editors handle papers, demystifying the editorial life to any scientists present, whether they want me to or not. The idea is to show that editors are actually human beings (I was the best Your Favourite Etcetera could come up with at short notice.)
Notwithstanding inasmuch as which I am on the way home from the 8th Annual Retreat for PhD Students in Molecular Life Sciences at ETH and the University of Zurich, in Switzerland – and I’d like to thank the fine group of young men and women from the Retreat for organizing the event so beautifully and for welcoming me. I wish I could have stayed longer.
The retreat was held some three hours and three train rides east of Zurich, in the canton of Graubunden (Home of Heidi, it says here) in the mountain resort of Bergün. The train from Chur, like Norwich City, just goes up, up, up into the mountains. The scenery is quite impossibly spectacular. It’s no surprise that the Rhaetic Railway (for it is she) is one of only three railways in the world to be awarded UNESCO World Heritage status.
Bergün is just totally choclate-box. No locale more archetypically Swiss can possibly be imagined. This is the view from the back door of the lecture room, this morning:
My hotel was traditionally and architecturally Swiss, in Swiss surroundings. When I left it the first time to walk the 800m of wiggly-windy-cobbly street to the conference hotel, there was an ensemble of alpen-horn players tootling their stuff outside (I swear I’m not making this up.) And, being Switzerland, the hotel, for all its olde-worlde appurtenances, had FREE WIFI. Oh joy! This meant that I could read manuscripts as the sun set over the alps.
One of the things you discover when you go to out-of-the-way corners of the world, especially mountainous ones, is that the modern world hasn’t entirely managed to extinguish traces of an older world, especially linguistically. As every schoolboy knows, Switzerland has four official languages – German, French, Italian and something called ‘Romansch’. The latter is only spoken in Graubunden, and even then only in particular places in Graubunden, which is the only officially trilingual of the Swiss Cantons (German, Italian and Romansch.) You know something is odd when you see signs like this -
‘Scoula’ is not German, or even Italian, but Romansch, a member of the Rhaetian subgroup of the Romance languages, a relic of the language like what she was spoke round here in the Middle Ages, when modern national languages existed only in embryo, most people speaking the dialect of their home village and the fields adjacent.
Being a journalist at heart and naturally nosy I like to look at village noticeboards wherever I go, to get a flavor of the locality. I was mildly amused to see this advert for a property to let.
Not sure, mesself, whether I’d like to live in Segl Crap street. But what’s the ‘Chesa’ – Italian? Or Romansch, which is sort of a bit like Italian, maybe, though not really?
Imagine my surprise, therefore, to learn that Romansch isn’t the only linguistic relic spoken in these parts. There is another Rhaetian language, which is even more possibly sort of like Italian but not quite, and that’s called Lombard. Unlike Romansch, Lombard has no official status, so you won’t see it in signage… except that I am sure it appears here, on a small diagram showing the routes of the Rhaetic railway.
Sorry if this is a bit blurred. We we going across a rather vertiginous viaduct at the time.
Let’s take it from the top. You’ll see, in order, German, Italian and Romansch (being the official languages of Graubunden), and then French, and English … but what’s that one at the bottom? It can’t be Italian, or Romansch, but Lombardic, the last remnant of a language spoken by a mighty nation in the Middle Ages, but of whose continued existence I had been completely unaware until yesterday.
Let us treasure these lost remnants, these living fossils of language, lest they become extinct, and a wealth of expression, life and literature disappears with them, leaving the world all the poorer.
Now, must go, they’re about to call the flight to Norwich, or, as we say in Norfolk Dialect, Narch. Toodle, and, moreover, pip.
Location:Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam