View Full Version : Who are the Walsers of the Alps?

Thursday, August 4th, 2005, 01:52 PM
The Walsers are part of a distinctive and self-willed being in the Alpine region and even today they marked by their strong will for survival which ultimately allowed them to live in the highest parts of our mountainous world. The Walsers, however, are not an old and native relic of times long gone by. These people live in and with the mountains and they are willing to do so for the near future, too. Thus, here and there, an alpine farmer has turned into a restaurant owner or a carpenter and female alpine farmer might have become a hotel secretary or a school mistress in a small village.

These are more or less positive results. Nevertheless, we do know that the Walser culture is being threatened here and there, menaced even and about to disappear. We deeply regret this fact but we are far from resigning or protesting aloud, even though we know how to take measures against certain developments in the alpine regions. One point that seems very important: Those who know more about the Walsers who are scattered in approximately 150 settlements within an area of over 300 km will certainly understand them better.

Around the year 1000 a little group of Alemannic people reached the high platform of Goms coming from the north. The Goms of those days was the highest alpine settlement. We do not know why this small group of shepherds, cattle breeders and alpine farmers left the upper part of the Valais soon after their arrival going into different directions.

They slowly became "Walsers" instead of remaining "Wallisers". One of the reasons for their departure could have been the high number of children causing over-population, another reason could have been natural catastrophes and huge changes of climate. Was it the pestilence or simply the urge to move on? The feudal lords played an important part in the Alps with their family and friendly relations which allowed them to settle their subjects in inhospitable areas in order to achieve a consolidation of their power, an increase in the population and cultivable land as well as to realize the maintenance and the control of the alpine passes.

In exchange for this colonizational activity under very difficult circumstances the Walsers achieved certain rights and privileges which could, in those days, not be taken for granted: total personal freedom, the right to form their own jurisdiction communities and the right of free heritage lending, which states that upon the death of the settler his possession goes to his heirs who have to pay the same interest as before.

The migration of the Walsers in the 12th and 13th centuries were favoured by the relatively mild climate in the Alps and led them to the north to Bernese Oberland, to the west to the French part of Chablais and above all to the south to the highest Italian alpine valleys to the Pomatt and south of the Monte Rosa to Gressonay, Alagna, Rimella and Macugnaga, Rima and Ornavasso.

In three different groups the German-speaking settlers soon moved on to Raetia, to the Grisons Oberland (where Obersaxen has remained as a Walser settlement) to Rheinwald and Landwasser near Davos. From the first three original colonies spread to the nearby valleys. From Hinterrhein to Vals, Safien and probably also to Avers and Mutten , from Davos to Klosters through the Prättigau as far as Schiers with the alpine settlements of St. Antönien, Furna, Valzeina on the sides of the valley as well to the neighbouring Schanfigg and on to Churwalden. We know very little about the footpath into the St.Galler Oberland to Liechtenstein, Tirol and Vorarlberg where one could reach the Kleinwalsertal and thus the end of the "later inner-alpine migration" at the beginning of the 14th century.

Source: http://www.wir-walser.ch/english/wersind.html

A Walser cannot be identified by his looks even if there are some obscure theories about tall people with blue eyes, red- or fair-haired, walking at a slow pace, of a restrained and reserved character. Even Goethe realized that blood is a precious liquid. The theory that Walser blood, where the blood group O is predominant, is even more special, cannot be put aside.

The Walsers have been active as farmers for centuries. This led to the fact that in the Walser regions the same or identical ways of working and tools were developed. Here we talk about the bent scythe, the special method of drying hay in wintertime and the many different wooden tools in the processing of milk. The private alpine dairy, which today has yielded to the more profitable dairy cooperations, can be called one of the characteristic features of the Walsers, which could be found in the Valais original homeland and in the eastern settlements of the Vorarlberg. We also know about the corresponding Saga motives and characters such as the "Wild man", the "Toggi"or the funeral processions. Furthermore, the Walsers had in common the veneration of St. Theodul, one of the first bishops of the Valais.


Regarding the Walsers, there are many clichés, such as "The Walsers as Alemannic people only build wooden houses, the Romance people (Latins) only build stone houses. The Walsers as individualists live in scattered settlements, Romans, however, in closed villages" What is correct is the fact that the Walsers had the habit of building scattered settlements and wooden houses.

Let us go back to the Middle Ages. As the Walsers arrived in their new homeland in the 13th and 14th centuries, the cultivable land was already occupied by the Romance people. Therefore only the inhospitable land was left for them, which lay at an altitude of 15oo and in Avers even at an altitude of 2000 meters above sea level. Here they found only little plain land which they needed to build a village. Since you needed a lot more land in this part of the country, in order to gather the necessary fodder, the Walsers who almost exclusively worked as farmers and cattle breeders, were forced to live in widely scattered settlements.

Where, due to the topography, this kind of settlement was not possible, e.g. in Rima and Bosco Gurin and Rheinwald, closed village settlements were founded. While we find the single-house in its perfection south of the Monte Rosa, in Gressonay or Alagna, we find a different type in the Grisons and Vorarlberg: here the house, the stable and the barn form separate buildings. The living quarters was situated towards the slope; at the back a stone kitchen was added, mostly a wooden tract with a living-room and bedrooms.

The language - an old Walser heritage

There is a simple version that the culture of the Walsers, a simple alpine community sharing the same destiny, is ultimately a language culture. With the Walser people the language has always been and is still more than a means of communication. It represents a 700-year old link between all the Walser settlements in the central alpine area and in the original homeland on the banks of the Rhone river. In the face of the general desolation of our environment the language becomes the medium where homeland is still to be felt. Paul Zinsli has a good reason to write: "What still unites these people scattered around in various valleys and areas is not only the consciousness of deriving from the same origin, a consciousness recently revived, is simply the fact of speaking the sam language…"

As a matter of fact it is precisely this language that is being threatened and which is about to disappear unfortunately. As there are people who notice this problem, efforts are being made to save a little bit of the old alpine way of life - and thus an important element of the Walser culture - for the future. Some of the most specific features of the Walser language , a "highly Alemannic dialect" is among others the richness in vowels, the shift of the "s" into "sch" (sie=schii etc.); the clearing of of sounds (Hüüs=Hiischi); the shift from "nk" to the much softer "ch" (trinken=triichä); the "ei" with verbs (sie geht=shii geit); the pecularity of diminutives (Häuschen=Hüüschi). In addition to that there is a big number of locally marked expressions.

Thursday, August 4th, 2005, 02:42 PM
Some of the most specific features of the Walser language , a "highly Alemannic dialect" is among others the richness in vowels, the shift of the "s" into "sch" (sie=schii etc.); the clearing of of sounds (Hüüs=Hiischi); the shift from "nk" to the much softer "ch" (trinken=triichä); the "ei" with verbs (sie geht=shii geit); the pecularity of diminutives (Häuschen=Hüüschi)
I have heard that Alemannic has preserved old Germanic language forms. Modern German being the 'transformed' variety. Alemannic, the more conservative, is closer to its original state.

A very interesting post.

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009, 10:47 PM
After 700 years of separation, the alpine people known as the Walsers are still proud of their common heritage.

“I was very impressed by the Walser reunion last year in Brig, in canton Valais,” explains Hubert Sele, mayor of the alpine village of Triesenberg in Liechtenstein.

“There were people there from Walser communities in Switzerland, Austria, Liechtenstein and Italy. The Walser anthem was sung and I somehow felt a certain solidarity with the other Walsers. I was touched by the experience.”

Triesenberg sits on a shelf above the Rhine, affording a wonderful view of the wide river valley. The Rhine is at its eastern most point here and serves as the border between the tiny principality of Liechtenstein and Switzerland.

After dark, the course of the river is marked by the headlights of a steady stream of cars moving north out of Switzerland’s interior.

13th century journey

Sele’s ancestors made the same journey – albeit more gruelling – in the 13th century from the upper Rhone Valley in what is now the Swiss canton of Valais.

These people were taking part in a large migration from the Rhone Valley, which saw families head east and south, following the promise of a better life.

Some settled in Eastern Switzerland – Davos is a Walser community. Others travelled to Liechtenstein, across the border in today’s Austria and in Northern Italy. To this day, they identify with being Walsers as much as they are Austrians, Swiss, Liechtenstein citizens or Italians.

“You have to be proud to be a Walser. It may be a little crass but in some ways we are a little different from people from other communities in Liechtenstein,” says Sele.

“The fact that we are a mountain folk certainly makes us different, but the biggest difference is our [German dialect],” he adds.

The accent is impossible to convey in words but there are certain pronunciation and grammar nuances unique to Walser German, and they change from Walser community to community.

“When someone from Triesenberg speaks, everyone knows where he comes from,” Sele says. “But you can’t tell the hometown of any other person from Liechtenstein just by the way they talk.”

The story is similar a couple hundred kilometres east in the Austrian alpine resort of Lech.

“You are confronted with the [Walser] culture if you come to Lech,” says Petra Malin, an archivist who is the first person attempting to write down the particular Walser dialect spoken in Lech.

“If you go into a local’s house, there are special chairs, and dishes and photographs. The house owners like to talk about their culture,” Malin says.

The fact that most alpine regions remained economically backward until the post-war period helped preserve Walser culture because there were few outside influences.

From farming to skiing

The culture was nearly destroyed once the modern world invaded, transforming many of the poor farming villages into ski resorts.

Paradoxically, the tourist boom has enabled the Walsers to prosper, preventing a mass exodus to towns in the valleys seen elsewhere in the Alps. This would have been the final nail in the coffin of Walser culture.

Instead, people with Walser ancestry are more curious than ever about their roots, and are trying to save what remains. The dialect is still being spoken, and proudly, even if the vocabulary once rich with words important for an agriculture-based society has been decimated.

Malin says the dialect is more popular than it was a few years ago, and it has become politically correct to speak it. “Our mayor only speaks in dialect. It’s the only thing I hear him speak.”

The tens of thousands of tourists who descend on Lech and Triesenberg each year are guests in hotels and restaurants named “Walser” and tour the Walser museums found in both villages.

“Languages, by their very nature, change over time,” says Josef Eberle, who runs the Walser museum in Triesenberg. “But it’s remarkable that our dialect has survived the centuries.

Alien language

“I can still remember from my school days when most people in the village spoke the dialect. There was someone from a different part of the country in my class and he spoke differently. It sounded almost alien.”

Eberle’s museum displays farm and household implements marked with the names in two languages – German and Walser German. He is hopeful Walser culture can be saved, despite the new threat of globalisation.

“The dialect has the potential to be considered an important cultural value, so that young people can feel they are special, and can identify with their community, with their language,” he says.

“There is a trend across Europe to recognise the importance of the individual regions. Not everything has to be seen from a global perspective. We are starting to recognise the cultural values of small communities.”

by Dale Bechtel

The source:
http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/index/Mountain_people_rediscover_their_roots.h tml?cid=1021756