(From Wikimedia Commons. Click here for a larger image and further details).
This linguistic complexity, however, can be simplified if we bear in mind that these languages belong to two different and clearly-defined groups: on the one hand, we have a Germanic dialect: Swiss German (Schwyzertütsch), spoken in the Centre and north of the country, and, on the other hand, a group of Romance dialects (Franco-Provençal, Gallo-Italic and Ladin), located in the west and south.
The traditional explanation for this language diversity derives from two historical facts: the Roman Conquest, which brought about Latin as the base of modern Romance dialects, and the Germanic migrations at the end of the Roman Empire, which are the origin of Swiss German. It is also supposed that, before these historical events, the people who lived in this area were basically speakers of Celtic dialects.
The Continuity Theory (CT), however, sees it quite differently. Switzerland is actually a good place to test this theory. During the last glaciation, this area was completely uninhabited. It was only at around 8000 BC, when the ice-cap started to recede, that human populations started to settle in this area again, which means that there is no continuity between these human groups and the ones that lived here before the glacial period. A similar situation can be seen, in general, in the northern territories of Europe and Asia. For example in the Scandinavian Peninsula (see this post for more details).
Mario Alinei (2000, pp. 334-353) analyzed the prehistoric cultures of Switzerland from the Mesolithic (i.e. from the end of the last Glacial Age) onwards and found out that there is a consistent and significant correspondence between the distribution of these cultures and the distribution of present-day dialects. For example, analyzing the cultures of the Early Neolithic Period, Alinei realized that the Liniendandkeramik (LBK) culture was present in the areas were Germanic languages are spoken today, whereas the Chassey, Lagozza and Cortaillaud cultures correspond, respectively, to the areas where French (oil), Gallo-Italic and Franco-Provençal dialects are spoken, all of them belonging to the Italic group. This correlation of prehistoric cultures and modern dialects continues in the Late Neolithic and Calcolithic periods, and also in the Bronze and Iron Ages. An important factor in the formation of these speech communities is the presence of Celtic elements, connected mainly with the Iron Age cultures of Hallstatt (750-450 BC) and La Tène (450-58 BC), but also to be found in some older cultures, already in the Neolithic. In any case, these Celtic elements cannot be seen as the result of a massive migration or invasion. In the words of the archaeologist Marc Sautier (1976, 153):
“The arrival of the Celts did not deeply alter the indigenous way of life, except probably in the social field, as the impression is given that the relatively few newcomers constituted a ruling class”.
The expansion of Celtic cultures (and also, in the east, of Balkan elements) is connected with technological developments, especially in metallurgy. In many cases, especially in the later periods, the Celts can be interpreted as an intruding elite that ruled over the original population.
As we have seen, the CT explains the linguistic situation of Switzerland in a completely new way. Germanic and Italic dialects were already spoken here in the Mesolithic, i.e. from around 8,000 BC, with a geographical distribution which is quite similar to the one we have today, 10,000 years later. An important factor in the formation of these dialects is the influence of external groups, especially the Celts.
What about the Romans then? It is obvious that their language, and also the dialects brought by the Germanic tribes that migrated from the north, are of great importance in the formation of modern Swiss dialects. However, their role in the geographic distribution of these dialects is basically irrelevant.
- ALINEI, Mario. (2000). Origini delle Lingue d’Europa. II. Continuità dal Mesolitico all’Età del Ferro nelle Principali Aree Etnolinguistiche. Bologna, Il Mulino.
- SAUTER, Marc R. (1976). Switzerland from Earliest Times to the Roman Conquest. London, Thames and Hudson.