Published on SwissInfo.ch, by Julia Slater, Oct. 20, 2010.
French is today Switzerland’s second language, but until about 200 years ago most people in western Switzerland spoke something quite different.
They used dialects of the language group now known as Franco-Provençal, which today have all but disappeared. Scholars are working against the clock to gather information about them, while enthusiasts are doing their best to keep the flame alive.
Traditionally there has been something of the idea that these dialects, commonly referred to as patois, are “bad French” – a notion which Andres Kristol, director of the dialectology centre at Neuchâtel University, describes as “evidently absurd”.
“Our old language is as interesting and as well formed as Romansh in Graubünden, for example,” he told swissinfo.ch – adding that it is also as different from French as Romansh is … //
Gottraux is unusual in that he learned his dialect as an adult out of interest – but at least there was still a dialect for him to learn.
Joël Rilliot is more unusual still: the last dialect speaker in his canton of Neuchâtel died in 1920. But, in a search for his roots, he decided to try to resurrect it. His family has always known he is “a bit crazy”, he admitted.
“I speak only patois to my children. Never French.”
Learning patois has opened his eyes to the history of ordinary people in the canton and helped him understand his cultural heritage, he told swissinfo.ch.
As academic linguists working on dialects, Kristol and his team can only use the information of people who learned the language naturally as children.
“Amateurs who are trying to revive the language have little to teach us, unfortunately.”
“It’s very praiseworthy that people should try to preserve their heritage – through plays and songs, for example – but when I speak to them, I find all these people have stopped speaking the language to their own children.”
“So it’s no longer being transmitted. And that is the end of a language’s life.” (full text).