Mountains lock in languages, just as surely as they conserve old beliefs. Consider that in one corner of western Europe, women did not get the vote until 1990.
The location was the Romansh-speaking villages in the canton of Graubunden in eastern Switzerland. Question: Where in the western world was motorised transport not legalised until 1925? Answer: you're getting the picture.
So it was easy for me to assume in advance that the struggle to keep the Romansh language, spoken by just 0.6 per cent of the Swiss population, from dying out was just another example of King Canute- type behaviour; trying in vain to hold back the tides of language change.
As I arrived in the pristine Alpine town of Chur, capital of Graubunden, the chilly mountain air acted as an antidote to the British traffic fumes lodged in my lungs. There was an appealing bleakness about the icy peaks looming over the little town. Once the heart of the Romansh-speaking world, Chur is still the seat of Lia Rumantscha (the central organisation for the promotion of Romansh language and culture) and of Romansh radio and TV, so I was disappointed to find the German language leaping out at me from billboards, signs, books and magazines. And despite straining my ears for a foreign tongue, only the sound of Swiss-German floated over coffee and cakes in the crowded cafes.
Fortunately, in my faux-rustic hotel, the young Latin-looking receptionist, who was chatting to her mate in a language that sounded like hurdy-gurdy Italian, instructed me where to go for the "real" Romansh experience. Tracing a line up the Engadine with her finger, she explained, "All these villages used to be Romansh, but now they're Swiss-German. But if you go here or here," she pointed to the area around Bad Scuol near the Austrian border and around Ilanz and Disentis to the west, "everything is Romansh; the kindergartens, the schools, the banks - you have to speak Romansh to live there."
I asked her where I could find interesting literature about Romansh culture and history. "Well, that's the problem," she said wistfully.
A sign for guests on the desk stated that the five major dialects of Romansh were all spoken in this hotel; Sursilvan (from the area Surselva, "above the wood"), Sutsilvan (from Sutselva, "below the wood"), Vallader, Puter and Surmiran. The problem, I discovered, was that there was no single written Romansh language.
I picked my way down icy pavements to the library of the Lia Rumantscha where, wading through scholarly tomes on the subject, I learnt that Rumantsch Grischun was invented around 1982 to address this problem. Unfortunately, less than half the Romansh-speaking population support its existence, since it is natural to no one.
Leaving Chur behind, I travelled west by train through the steep valleys of Surselva, sandwiched between the Glarner Alps to the north and the Adulamassiv to the south, heading towards Andermatt. Once I'd got over marvelling that it was possible for trains to run on time even when there was several feet of snow, I started to understand how this diversity of dialects came about.
Today, the bright-red train of the Rhatische Bahn stops every 15 minutes or so, as a cluster of snow-capped roofs comes into sight. Small towns such as Ilanz, Trun and Disentis are linked to the outside world by rail, road and global communications, even in midwinter. But in the days before motorised transport and TV, these places must have been completely cut off for much of the year, linked only by hazardous mountain-passes.
The train conductor passed the time by giving me examples of words that vary from valley to valley; so "snow" in Romansh, I learnt, could be "neiv", "nev" or "naiv". Ever since Rome invaded Rhaetia and vulgar Latin got mixed in with the local Rhaetish, resulting in Romansh, dialects have developed differently …