International Perspective


Territorial Rights in Switzerland (Under the Cantonal-Sovereignty System)



Swiss Cantons

©Jacques Leclerc 2018











Reference website:

Switzerland and Canada have points in common, one being their status as decentralized states with more than one official language.

Known officially as the Swiss Confederation (and before April 18, 1999, as the Helvetic Confederation) Switzerland is a federal republic comprising 23 "cantons." Canada, on the other hand, is a constitutional monarchy composed of 10 provinces and three territories, and its official name is the Canadian Confederation. Switzerland's 23 cantons are the equivalent of Canada's provinces, but they are sovereign states given Switzerland's status as a confederation (Canada, in spite of its official name, is a federation). Still, as in Canada's provinces, Swiss cantons have their own parliament, legal system, civil service, etc.

In addition, each Swiss canton has one or more official languages. Officially unilingual cantons include 14 German-speaking (Basle-City and Basle-Country, Solothurn, Argovia, Lucern, Unterwald, Uri, Glarus, Zug, Schwyz, Zürich, Thurgau, Schaffhausen, Saint-Gall, Appenzell), four French-speaking (Geneva, Vaud, Neuchâtel and Jura), and one Italian-speaking (Ticino). And the following are bilingual German-French cantons: Berne/Bern, Fribourg/Freiburg, Valais/Wallis. Only the canton of Grisons is trilingual: German, Italian and Romansh. And with the addition of Romansh as an official language in Grisons, Switzerland has four official languages (see the next section) and four official names: Suisse (Fr.), Schweiz (Ger.), Svizzera (Ital.) et Svizra (Romansh).

Official Languages in Switzerland

By virtue of article 70 of the Swiss Federal Constitution, Switzerland has four official languages: German, French and Italian, along with Romansh when the Confederation deals with Romansh-language citizens. This makes Romansh an official regional language, in fact.

Switzerland's linguistic landscape breaks down as follows: 57.3% Germanophones, 20.7% Francophones, 3.5% Italophones, 0.4% Romansh and 18.1% allophones (Serbo-Croatian, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish, etc.). However, Swiss Germanophones do not speak German as a mother tongue, but rather as one of the many varieties of Schweizerdeutsch (or Schweizerdütsch), which translates as "Swiss-German" in English; yet, they always write in Standard (or HighGerman.

Francophones speak and write standard French, but almost 80% of Italophones speak a dialectal and very local variety of Italian (in fact different from one valley to the next, and almost incomprehensible for an Italian); others speak a regional Italian (from Tessin or Grisons), but they all write Standard Italian.

Switzerland's Romansh citizens represent 0.5% of the Swiss population, and they mostly live in the canton of Grisons, scattered in the mountains or in poor, sparsely populated communes. Their language, Romansh, is of Latin origin (like French and Italian), but it breaks down into five varieties, all intelligible to one another: Sursilvan (lower Rhine valley), Vallader (Lower Engadine), Surmiran (Sursee and Alvra valley), Sutsilvan (upper Rhine valley) and Puter (upper Engadine). Romansh's five varieties remain closely related. In 1982, the Lia Rumantscha (Romansh League) created a standard version of Romansh called Rumantsch Grischun.

In the end, one can say there is no actual "linguistic minority" in Switzerland because, at the local level, Germanophones, Francophones, Italophones and speakers of Romansh are all majorities. You have to look at the country as a whole to speak of "minorities" (French, Italian, Romansh) and of a majority (German).

Linguistic Territoriality in Switzerland

Swiss constitutional law revolves around four key principles: equality among languages; citizens' freedom in matters of language use; language territoriality; and the protection of minority languages.

The principle of equality gives the confederation's three main official languages the same legal status. Freedom of expression gives Swiss citizens the right to use the language they want, but in practice, rulings handed down by federal courts have always favoured territorial rights over freedom of expression. Language territoriality, the third principle, represents the cornerstone of Swiss language policy.

Switzerland has four regions that are, in principal, unilingual (see the map): German, French, Italian and Romansh; there are no bilingual districts or regions. Even in a town or city partitioned by linguistic borders (Fribourg and Bienne), the unilingual zones remain intact and observe the boundary that Swiss citizens lightheartedly refer to as the Röstigraben, or the "roesti gate" (roesties are a sort of pan-fried potato pancake).

As a result, federal and cantonal authorities must never alter the country's recognized linguistic borders. That said, Switzerland's linguistic borders have remained intact for a thousand years. The country places the supremacy of linguistic territorial separation above all else. What's more, linguistic borders aren't drawn by the federal government, but instead by the cantons, which can occasionally delegate that power to communes (as in Grisons). Finally, under Swiss law, the fourth principle means that the Constitution guarantees the survival of all four national languages and provides the measures needed to protect the Italian and Romansh languages in particular. This raises a similarity with the Canadian model: the federal government in Canada protects all official-language minorities, regardless of the province concerned.

Federal Authority

To summarize, again, the Swiss federal government is quadrilingual, the cantons are generally unilingual, but some are bilingual, and a single one is trilingual.

In principle, all official languages can be used at the federal parliament in Bern. Members of parliament speak in the official language of their choice. Because Germanophones form a majority in the house, German is used most often; Francophone members generally use French, while Italian members, for expediency's sake, usually rely on German or French. As for Romansh, it is rarely used, but certainly not banned.

The federal parliament has simultaneous translation services for French, German and Italian, but not for Romansh, meaning that members who use that language won't be understood by their non-Romansh colleagues. All laws are enacted and published simultaneously (with only a few exceptions) in the three major official languages (German, French and Italian). For many years now, legislation has been drafted in German, then translated into French, and finally into Italian; rarely are bills drafted in French or Italian. And though no bills are ever drafted in Romansh, some laws have been translated into that language since 1988. In Canada, laws are written at once in both English and in French; in only highly exceptional circumstances are they ever translated.

Though the Swiss federal government is nationally trilingual and regionally quadrilingual, language use differs radically from Canada's, where institutional bilingualism applies nation-wide. Switzerland instead distinguishes between the centralized federal administration in the capital of Bern, and the decentralized federal administration spread throughout the country's cantons.

The central administration is trilingual nationally (German, French, Italian): it responds in the language used by each citizen, whether written or oral. In addition, the central administration must use Romansh when addressing the entire Romansh citizenry. Here, the bilingualism (or trilingualism or quadrilingualism) policy resembles Canada's.

However, in their dealings with decentralized federal administration offices (outside the nation's capital), citizens are subject to the principle of territoriality—which differs tremendously from the administrative bilingualism practised by Canada's federal government. Switzerland's decentralized administrative offices operate solely in the language of the canton (and in both languages if the canton is bilingual). So, Francophones cannot demand French-language federal services in a Germanophone canton or city; similarly, Germanophones cannot demand German-language services in a city such as Geneva, which is French-speaking. Canada does not have this sort of decentralized federal administration.

As for the legal system in Switzerland, citizens can use their official first language in all federal courts, which are thus trilingual (and to an extent quadrilingual because they even accept documents written in Romansh and has them translated at the state's expense). But, even though cases can be tried in two languages, the federal court presents its ruling only in the language (German, French, Italian, Romansh) of the defendant, whether the case involves public law, civil law or criminal law, and regardless of the canton in which the trial takes place. Finally, education policy in Switzerland remains a cantonal jurisdiction and, as in Canada, does not come under federal jurisdiction.

In March of 2001, the federal parliament adopted a language law titled (unofficial title translation from French) Federal Act on National Languages and Harmony Among Linguistic Communities as part of its language-management policy.

Unilingual Cantons

In unilingual cantons, only one official language (German, Italian, French) is used in all areas of public life. Even the federal administration operates under this policy, because cantons have the power to choose their official language or languages (the Swiss federal constitution recognizes German, French and Italian as official languages of the Confederation, Romansh being an official regional language).

This also means, of course, that matters under cantonal jurisdiction take place in the canton's official language only (German: 14 cantons; French: four cantons; Italian: one canton); examples of cantonal jurisdiction are the cantonal parliament and legislation; cantonal courts; cantonal administration, schooling; the same principal applies to private-sector affairs such as commerce, employment and signage. Ultimately, then, citizens have no language choices under the unilingualism model, not even for schooling.

Bilingual Cantons
Bilingual Cantons

©Jacques Leclerc 2018

The Swiss Confederation's three officially bilingual cantons are Bern, Fribourg and Valais, and all three have German and French as their official languages. Still, the principal of territorial rights prevails in that the languages in question do not mix inside the canton. No bilingual canton recognizes German or French right across its territory, and not even across a district.

Members of parliament in bilingual cantons use the official language of their choice (German, Swiss German or French). Generally, bills are debated in Swiss-German (Bern) or in French (Valais and Fribourg), drafted in German or French, but then enacted simultaneously in both languages. In all other areas (justice, education, administration, etc.), the district language takes precedence. Nonetheless, the cantonal administration based in the three capital cities (Berne/Bern, Fribourg/Freiburg, Sion/Sitten) responds in principle in the language used by the citizen concerned.

Trilingualism in Grisons

©Jacques Leclerc 2018

German, Italian and Romansh are Grison's three official languages. Grisons sets itself apart from other cantons in that its leaders have delegated their language-management powers to the communes (municipalities). That means language use in Grisons is governed by communal administrations (Gemeinden), which in turn means the principal of territorial language rights isn't applied in full. That's because neither Grison's constitution, nor its laws have ever provided for the immutability of the Romansh area or territory. Grisons is the only Swiss canton to have taken this route. In short, the choice of official languages in Grisons (for schooling and administration) lies solely with the communes.

Grisons has 212 communes, 138 of which are officially German (65%), 49 officially Romansh (23.1%) and 25 Italian (11.7%). German unilingualism works well in German communes, but Italian unilingualism has had more mitigated success in both Italian and Romansh communes. As for Romansh unilingualism, it has given way to Romansh-German bilingualism.

The cantonal parliament allows all three official languages, but with fully 80% of the speakers, German clearly dominates. German and especially Swiss-German are the languages of parliamentary debate—questions and comments in either Romansh or Italian coming only now and then. Minutes of deliberations are in German only. As for laws, they are written in German, then translated into Italian and occasionally into Romansh (when they carry great importance).

In general, the cantonal administration operates in German, as do the courts. However, the administration responds in the official canton language used by the citizen in question. The canton has German, Italian and Romansh schools, and instruction in a second language is compulsory (Italian or French in German schools, and German in both Italian and Romansh schools). Communes decide on the language of instruction. Thus, Germans living in Romansh communes go to school in German but have full Romansh immersion, whereas Romansh speakers immerse progressively into German. Thus, Germans living in Romansh communes go to school in German but have to study Romansh as a second language, whereas Romansh speakers have to learn German progressively as a second language.

Through the territorial separation of languages, the Swiss Confederation has managed to protect its linguistic communities and avoid language-related conflicts. Switzerland is in fact one of the only countries in which territorial unilingualism can be applied, because the country's national languages are not imposed nation-wide. Clearly, this approach would prove harder to use in Canada, because its official languages are indeed in effect throughout the country, at least in principle.

The Canadian model provides a measure of protection for official-language minorities, whereas the Swiss model overlooks them. Again, Romansh in Switzerland doesn't quite have the same status as other official languages, hence the federal government's remedial action in its case, which is indeed a truly rare occurrence in Switzerland: as a rule, the federal government simply doesn't intervene in official-language matters. Romansh called for special measures because it was being neglected by those who should have been most concerned by its fate: the cantonal authorities in Grisons.

Its unavoidable pitfalls aside, Switzerland's language-management model has instilled peaceful co-existence among several linguistic groups in a single state, certainly a success for the country. And this type of success is rare. But this pax helvetica comes at a price: that of being governed by a German-speaking majority, and by politicians, bureaucrats and business moguls who think and decree in Swiss-German and who are driven by economic prosperity.

Back to top