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Frisian and Free:
The History and Survival of the Frisian Language

Frisian is a member of the Germanic family of languages, and is the closest living language related to English. It is still spoken today in small pockets of the Netherlands and northern and western Germany. The Frisian language is divided geographically into three groups: North Frisian, East Frisian, and West Frisian. Approximately ten to fifteen thousand speakers of North Frisian remain on the western coast of Schleswig-Holstein (just below the Danish border) in Germany. East Frisian was once used throughout the countryside of Osterfriesland. Now it is reduced to only one or two thousand speakers between the city of Oldenburg and the Dutch frontier (Tiersma 1). Both North and East Frisian are under pressure from Low German and have largely been supplanted by it. West Frisian is spoken in the province of Friesland in the Netherlands, and retains three to four hundred thousand speakers (Tiersma 2). Unless otherwise specified, when I use the word “Frisian” in this paper, it is to the larger and more intact West Frisian dialect that I refer.

There are two major reasons why the history of the Frisian language should be of interest to people who study languages and language change. The first is that the nature of the relationship between Frisian and English will make the history of the language of particular interest to English speakers. The second and more important reason is that the history of Frisian provides an excellent case study in the chances of survival for a minority language.


Frisian and English

“Butter, bread, and green cheese, makes good English and and good Frees” (Krol xviii). As little sayings like this attest, Frisian and English share a special relationship. As mentioned before, Frisian is the closest living relative of the English language, and for this reason its history is of great interest to English speakers. Rod Jellema, a translator of Frisian poetry, relates a story of when he got his car fixed. Imagine the mechanic, a Frisian-American, probably tall and blue-eyed. He eyes the engine and after a thoughtful pause says: “If it weren’t for William the Conqueror we would all be speaking Frisian” ( Jellema xxxiv). Though by no means typical of under-the-hood banter, this comment probably sums up the reason why I feel an intense pang of curiosity whenever the legends of these people are mentioned.

Scholars believe that at one time Frisian and Old English were mutually intelligible, but English became influenced by Norman French, and Frisian by Dutch. (Jellema xxxiv). The mechanic’s comment about William the Conqueror can be seen as accurate to a certain extent. Old English and Old Frisian were so similar, that if it hadn’t been for the conquering influences of other nations, the two languages would enjoy an even greater inventory of similarities than they already do.

English and Frisian are often grouped together as Anglo-Frisian (Crystal 301) however it it now believed that the hypothesis that Old English and Frisian can be derived from a single Anglo-Frisian mother tongue is an oversimplification (Tiersma 2). But even now, after centuries of language change the connection between the two languages can still be seen. Consider the following examples in which an eg in certain environments became an ei or ai in Frisian and English, but not in Dutch or German:





















Other sound correspondences include Frisian and English /tļ/ (spelled with a “tsj” or a “ch” respectively) to a German or Dutch /k/, Frisian and English /i/ to Dutch and German /a/, and /j/ to a Dutch or German /g/ or /x/. Frisian and English also largely lost nasal /n/ before a voiceless fricative while Dutch and German did not.

In addition to similarities in sound changes the two languages underwent, there are also similarities that still exist between the morphological systems of Frisian and English. Note the similarities in the following examples of the formation of comparative and superlatives:

Frisian English

read, reader, readstred, redder, reddest

siik, siiker, siikstsick, sicker, sickest

In Frisian, the superlative takes an additional -e inflection when it precedes a noun ( Tiersma 53). The “reddest wagon”, for example, would be the “readste wein.” These systematic similarities between Frisian and English, prove very valuable to a person who wants to understand sound changes in English, and even the other West Germanic languages.

There has been extensive research on the Germanic family of languages, but there is still much that is unknown. In Hans F. Neilsens’s book Old English and the Continental Germanic Languages, pages are spent detailing different arguments for subgrouping the Germanic Languages.

The problem that occurred again and again in subgrouping English with other Germanic languages is that the precise nature of the language spoken by the original Germanic invaders of the British Isles is not certain. Who knows what little clues Frisian might hold for us?

The invasion began around 449 and lasted more than a century (Bloomfield 134). But the first substantial written records of these invasions come from the eighth century. This means that the “evidence for the language that these Germanic invaders spoke is much later than their first appearance in England.” (Bloomfield 136) The English historian Bede is our source for the names of the invading tribes: the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. However some scholars doubt whether the matter is so simple (Bloomfield 135). The Jutes in particular pose a problem. Archeological evidence suggests that they came from an area near the mouth of the Rhine. This was within the territory of the Frisians. Bloomfield argues:

The English language shows more affinities with Frisian than with the allegedly neighboring Old Saxon dialects, in fact, some authorities argue for an Anglo-Frisian branch of West Germanic. Some scholars think that there were no Jutes at all and that Bede made a mistake. (135)

He goes on to say that a sixth century Byzantine historian named Procopius called the invaders of Britain Angles and Frisians. This means that it is possible that Frisians were involved in the original invasion. This would certainly explain the similarities between Frisian and English. However, most historians have accepted Bede’s classification of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.

Another possible explanation for the similarities between English and Frisian, is that there is archeological evidence that the Angles and Saxons invaded northern Holland ( the home of the Frisians) while in their course to Britain. It could be that borrowing occurred across the Channel after the invasion: “Recently it has been argued that some of the distinguishing features of the OE dialects were due to Frisian influence after the settlement of Kent, the nearest point to Friesland.” (Bloomfield 136)

Frisian History

Archeological evidence of the existence of the Frisians dates as far back as 200 B.C. The first written record of the Frisians was made by the Roman historian Pliny in 12 A.D. (Mahmood 17). He locates them near the mouth of the Rhine. Although the exact extent of their territory is uncertain, we do know that Frisian was spoken along the North Sea coast between what is now Ijsselmeer in the Netherlands and the Weser river in Germany. At the peak of their power, the Frisians dominated the entire North sea shore, as evidenced by its former name the Mare Frisicum, or the “Frisian Sea” (Jellema). They lived on land that was reclaimed from the sea, and built up giant terpen , or mounds of dirt, to keep their houses above sea level. The fact that they lived on the margin of the land and the sea suggests that they were refugees (Mahmood 18). Textual reference is also made to the Frisians in the seventh century Old English poem Widsith and in the epic Beowulf (Mahmood 17).

The Frisians were a powerful and independent people. They were unique in Europe in that they did not adopt the feudal system. The Frisians have many legends associated with them, and they gained a reputation for stubborn resistance to authority. The Frisians are mentioned in the seventh century Old English poem Widsith and in the epic Beowulf (Mahmood 17).

The period known as Old Frisian (roughly 1200-1550) does not correspond to what is considered “old” in other Germanic Languages . The period consists of the oldest known complete texts in the Frisian language. These texts, known as the Lex Frisionum, are legal detailing Frisian Freedoms. The Lex Frisonum , of Charlemagne (802 - 803 A.D.) was “supposed to express in written form, the oral Frisian folk law, and also to protect certain rights” (Mahmood 18). It was in the Lex Frisonum that the phrase “the free Frisian” appeared for the first time. The Frisian was to be free to defend himself against the sea and the attack of the “wild Viking” (Mahmood 2).

The period of Middle Frisian began around 1550 and lasted up until the 1800’s. Even before the period known as Middle Frisian began, Frisian ceased to be the official language in the region. Dutch became the official language for legal documents and government affairs. Through this period, however, the Frisian were able to maintain their language and folk history. Largely due to the poetry of Gyspert Japicx, Frisian maintained a literary tradition as well.

The New Frisian period which began in the early 1800’s brought with it more writers and poets. The efforts of these writers, and the establishment of the Fryske Beweging , or Frisian Movement, allowed Frisian to be seen as more than just a “farmer’s language.” Today Frisian is increasingly being seen as a valid medium for government, school, church, and literature (Tiersma 4).

Influences on Frisian

The Frisians lost their independence to the counts of Holland in 1498. Dutch became the official language for legal documents and government affairs. Frisian has received some recognition as an official language only recently. This means that for five centuries, Frisian has been a minority language surrounded by Dutch. Naturally we would expect to see a tremendous amount of Dutch influence and pressure on the language. But Dutch is not the only language to influence Frisian. During the Napoleonic occupation of Friesland the French created a mandate for permanent last names. Up until this time it had been customary for the family to reverse the first and second name of each generation. For example, a man named Jan Kirk would name his son Kirk Jan. When it became necessary to choose a last name, many Frisians simply kept the one they had, adding a suffix -stra or -sma (much like the name of the author of the Frisian Reference Grammar I have been using: Tier-sma ) Others created last names for themselves based on their place of birth or occupation. Some Frisians, possibly with the intent of mocking the French rule, gave themselves joking names like “little cheese” (Mahmood 27). For this reason a person can see lots of variety in Frisian surnames today.

Frisian Survival

As mentioned before, the Frisians lost their independence in 1498. In many cases, linguists run into difficulties when studying minority languages and language survival because of a lack of written records. Frisian has been a minority language for five centuries, yet it managed to retain a written history and a literary tradition. This brings us to the second reason why I feel that studying the history of Frisian is so valuable. That is, it provides an example (an example that is documented over a sizable amount of time) of possible outcomes for smaller minority languages when surrounded by a majority language that is seen as superior.

There are many languages around the world that feel threatened by the encroachment of other larger languages. As English gains more dominance in the world of trade and technology, even more established languages like Dutch and Danish begin to feel threatened (Tiersma 8). Language academies have been established, and some governments have resorted to language planning. However, some of these measures have not been effective in “preserving” language. Crowley suggests that the most important factor in determining the success of an effort at language planning is the attitude of the speakers (33). He cites an example of Bahasa Indonesia, as a population of speakers that have a strong enough desire to maintain their language that their language academy is successful.

With this in mind I would like to mention two ways in which the attitudes of the speakers of Frisian have contributed to the survival of their language up until this point. The first is that sometimes outside pressure will bind a community more closely together. As a minority language, Frisian has been subject to ridicule and stereotyping. The speakers have had to deal with many forms of linguistic prejudice, in much the same way as the speakers of the island languages that Crowley cites. Frisian has not been recognized as a true language, but as a dialect of Dutch. There are even Dutch jokes to the effect that Frisian is not (even) a dialect, but a speech impediment.

Secondly the work of Frisian poets can be seen as a determining factor in the survival of Frisian as a written language. In particular the work of Frisian poet Gyspert Japicx should be mentioned. Gyspert Japicx was born in 1603 and died in 1666. He restored a dormant literary tradition during the period of Middle Frisian, and his work inspired others to use the language for poetry even in up through the eighteen hundreds. Because one man decided to use the language, a literary tradition was born. This meant that Frisian could be used in literary work, and gained status as a viable mode of expression.

Frisian Revitalization

Frisian has received some recognition as an official language only recently. Efforts to preserve the Frisian Language began this century. Douwe Kalma created the Young Frisian Fellowship in 1915, and made the prorogation of the language a political undertaking (Mahmood 84). The movement not only involved politics, but also religion, and culture. In 1925 the Christian Frisian Association stated that:

Christian Friesland must be organized in the Frisian national movement. . . . the language must be preserved and made the official language of the government and the church of Friesland. (Mahmood 84)

This was an important step because up until this point, Dutch, which was seen as the “higher” language, was the language of the church. After this time, the people began to establish Frisian libraries, schools, theaters and other organizations. The Frisian Academy was founded in 1938 in order to serve as a research center for issues dealing with the language. Another important day in the Frisian revitalization movement was on a Friday in 1951. On November 16, 1951 a poet, and popular leader named Fredde Schurer criticized a judge for refusing to allow a Frisian defendant to use his native language in court. Shurer was nearly imprisoned, causing a mass demonstration outside the courtroom. The Dutch police used clubs against the demonstrators. For this reason the day is known as Kneppel-Freed or “Club Friday”. In 1955 a law was passed allowing Frisian to be used in the courts (Mahmood 85).

Frisian Today

What about Frisian today? Can a person really expect Frisian to survive when even larger and more established languages like Dutch and Danish are giving into the pressures of English dominance in the international community. I do not think that languages are preserved by maintaining isolated forms in a vault, but languages, even minority languages continue to live when they are used.

The history of the Frisian language raises several questions: What constitutes the “survival” of a language? What causes a people to hold on to a language for five hundred years? What makes the Frisians different? Are they different? What will come of the Fryske Beweging ? I feel that the study of Frisian, especially in light of its relation to English and its status as a minority language, is most valuable because of the questions it raises.


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