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The year 2010 is the “Year of Hiking”—according to the Swiss Tourism office. It says Switzerland’s natural diversity reveals itself best when discovered on foot. To see if this was true, WRS’s Vincent Landon strapped on his walking boots. The Tour of Monte Rosa beckoned—a classic long-distance hike in the Swiss and Italian Alps. In part one of a series we’ll be running all week, Vincent visits the Italian village of Macugnaga—a former Walser settlement where the old dialect can still be heard. The Walser dialect faces un uncertain future in Italy, Liechtenstein, Austria and Switzerland:
ANNA PIRAZZI: “Ich heisse…my name is Anna Pirazzi. I am 83 years old. I have four brothers. Our father died when we were young so our mother had to bring up five children on her own.
VINCENT: Anna Pirazzi is speaking Macanyera Tiisch, the German dialect of her Walser ancestors. Six hundred people live in the village but only a handful still speak this language—a far cry from Anna’s schooldays.
ANNA: “Everyone spoke it then but in Mussolini’s time if we spoke German in school, we had to pay a fine.”
VINCENT: It wasn’t just fascist Italianization that did for the dialect, says Anna’s daughter Rosangela, president of the local Walser association.
ROSANGELA: From the beginning of the 18th century, she says, outsiders came to work in the gold mines here and that started to dilute the language and traditions. Above all tourism has brought in lots of workers. And wherever you have mixed marriages and German isn’t the woman’s mother tongue, it reduces the likelihood of children learning the language.
VINCENT: Rosangela understands but doesn’t speak dialect herself. She tries to keep the traditions alive in a class once a week with local school children.
“We hope,” she says, “but you have to be realistic. The world moves on and it’s getting more and more difficult to preserve our culture. We try to plant a seed of interest in the young children so that they remember something of this linguistic and cultural lost world.”
VINCENT: Macugnaga lies 1,300 metres above sea level at the foot of the eastern face of Monte Rosa. Italian is the language of the village. The Walser past is preserved in archictecture, place names and a local museum.
Curator Lia Morandi explains how the Walser came from the Saas Valley in Switzerland over the Monte Moro pass. They really started to colonise properly in the second half of the 13th century.
Ask Anna Pirazzi about the biggest change she has seen in her life and she doesn’t mention television, refrigerator or computers. She doesn’t even talk about the hordes of tourists who descend on the village in both summer and winter.
ANNA: In the old days, we worked hard but people cooperated a lot more. If I needed something, someone came to help me and if he needed something, I would help him. People showed more compassion then. You helped other people as a matter of course. Nowadays if you want anything done, you have to pay for it.
VINCENT: When Anna’s generation passes away, there will be no more Walser speakers in Macugnaga.
Vincent Landon, World Radio Switzerland, in Macugnaga.
CONOR LENNON: Well, as we’ve just heard the Walser dialect in the Italian resort of Macugnaga faces an uncertain future.
And many of the other Walser communties in Italy, Liechtenstein, Austria and Switzerland face similar challenges.
Vincent Landon looks at the history of Walser migration and where Walser traditions are heading today.
VINCENT: Hikers heading for the Monte Moro pass between Switzerland and Italy are following a well-worn trail. This is the migration route that brought Walser settlers from the Saas Valley to Macugnaga 700 years ago. Walser expert Max Waibel says colonisation began in dribs and drabs.
“They were small family groups with a handful of goats and sheep,” he says. They had to clear the forests. That was their task. It explains why there so welcome and were given land like this so that they could cultivate it.
The Walser people are thought to have come from southwest Germany. They moved into the Bernese Oberland and later—about 1000 years ago—settled the Upper part of the Valais. From here they began to spread south, west and east between the 12th and 13th centuries–typically settling at high altitude in remote valleys. It’s hard to say exactly why they left the Valais, says Waibel. There are plenty of theories – catastrophe, climate change, conflicts with feudal lords - but the most probable explanation is overpopulation.
Just how many Walser speakers exist today is also hard to say. In Canton Valais or Wallis as it its known in German, about a quarter of the population—that’s 80,000 people—speak Walliserdeutsch. The majority language in the canton is French.
In Italy, there are probably less than 100 effective mother-tongue speakers and a further 2,000 passive speakers. The dialects there are heading for extinction.
You can’t roll back the wheel of history, says Volmar Schmid. He’s on the board of the International Walser Association. It’s based in Brig in canton Valais.
“Of course, we speak dialect here,” he says, “but even in the Valais, many of the words we use on a daily basis are borrowed from High German like fernsehen for television. The dialect is the language of agriculture. B ut we don’t us e these tools any more and we don’t farm this way any more. We still have grammatical peculiarities like a genitive form and old declensions but the words are effectively High German.”
Every three years, the different Walser communities meet up to celebrate their common heritage. Activities include lectures and guided walks, as well as costumed processions and rock groups performing in dialect. People with Walser ancestry are more curious than ever about their roots and are trying to save what remains.
—Vincent Landon, World Radio Switzerland on the trail of the Walser