• Dutch
  • Frisian
  • Afrikaans
Show full table of contents
A general introduction to Frisian
quickinfo

Frisian is a West Germanic language which is spoken in Fryslân, one of the twelve provinces of the Netherlands. It is spoken by approximately 450.000 people. Most inhabitants of Fryslân, approximately 94%, can understand Frisian. Around 74% of the population is able to speak Frisian. Frisian has been recognized officially as the second language of the Netherlands in the province of Fryslân. It has a standardized spelling (see taalweb) and it is used in several domains of Frisian society. Frisian commands a relatively strong position in the domains of family, work and the village community. The use of Frisian is fairly limited in the more formal domains of education, media, public administration and law. Speakers of Frisian may find themselves in a situation of "competing bilingualism". In theory, there is institutional support for scientific research on Frisian, since the Dutch government ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages with respect to Frisian. By doing so, it recognized Frisian as a minority language and it commited itself to the moral, though not legal, responsibility to preserve and reinforce the Frisian language. There are three major dialects: KlaaifryskClay Frisian, WâldfryskForest Frisian and SúdwesthoekskSouthwestern variety. In addition, there are some smaller dialects of West Frisian. The province of Fryslân harbours not only dialects of Frisian but also a number of Frisian-Dutch and Frisian-Saxon contact variaties. They are all mutually comprehensible. Taalportaal describes the grammar of Standard Frisian, which is mainly based on Clay Frisian.

readmore
[+] Sociolinguistic situation

Frisian is a West Germanic language which is spoken in Fryslân, one of the twelve provinces of the Netherlands. The province is located in the north-west, and it borders on the North Sea. Fryslân has 620.000 inhabitants. It is known from representative sample surveys that approximately 94% of the population can understand Frisian, 74% is able to speak it, 65% can read it and 17% can write it. A substantial part, approximately 19%, must be second-language learners, because Frisian is the mother tongue of 55% of the inhabitants of Fryslân. Currently, just over half of the population speaks Frisian regularly at home. Over the last fifty years there has been an increase in reading and writing abilities. Overall the percentages have been relatively stable over the last fifty years. As a rule, all inhabitants of Frisia are able to speak, read and write Dutch (disregarding a very small percentage of illiterates), but about 60% of the Frisian speakers claims to have greater fluency in Frisian than in Dutch.

Frisian commands a relatively strong position in the domains of family, work and the village community. The use of Frisian is limited in the more formal domains of education, media, public administration and law, although it has made some progress during the last decades. Speakers of Frisian may find themselves in a situation of "competing bilingualism". Survey research on language use shows that the language of an interlocutor is an important factor for language choice. If the interlocutor is Dutch speaking, then Frisian people tend to accommodate to Dutch. Frisian is only spoken to Frisian speakers. Between strangers, Dutch is the unmarked, safe choice. Literature: Gorter (2001).

[+] Dialects of Frisian and Dutch-Frisian and Saxon-Frisian contact varieties

There are basically two kinds of dialects in the province of Fryslân. On the one hand there are three main dialects (Klaaifrysk, Wâldfrysk and Súdwesthoeksk), and a number of smaller ones. On the other hand, there are a number of Dutch-Frisian contact varieties, each with its own unique character.

The West Frisian speech community is basically homogeneous and all the dialect varieties are mutually comprehensible. The three major dialects are called KlaaifryskClay Frisian, WâldfryskForest Frisian and SúdwesthoekskSouthwestern variety. Speakers of Clay Frisian speak with a drawl, producing longer vowel sounds and diphthongs. Speakers of Forest Frisian tend to speak faster, they have a different form of breaking and they have a characteristic, short pronunciation of the personal pronouns. The third major dialect, Southwestern, is spoken, unsurprisingly, in the south-western corner of the province. It differs from the other varieties in its own particular pronunciation, lacking the phonological feature of breaking, but reproducing the morphological function of breaking by means of an extra phoneme, which is absent in the other Frisian dialects. The standard variety of West Frisian is mainly based on Clay Frisian, but without the drawl. Taalportaal describes the grammar of the standard variety, but sometimes provides additional information on Frisian dialects.


Figure 1

[click image to enlarge]

Minor Frisian dialects are spoken in relatively isolated areas close to the sea. Skiermûntseagersk is spoken on the island of Skiermuontseach (Dutch: Schiermonnikoog). The island of Skylge (Dutch: Terschelling) features two Frisian dialects, Westersk and Aastersk. At the north-eastern border of the province a local dialect known as Kollumersk is spoken, which has some features in common with the adjacent dialects of the province of Groningen.

During the the first part of the 16th century, a separate linguistic system emerged in at least eight towns, the so-called StedsfryskTown Frisian (see Bree (2008)). This dialect emerged due to the presence of a Dutch elite, consisting of immigrant civil servants and rich traders. A substantial part of Frisian natives acquired Dutch inadequately as a second language, mixing with the elite and producing Town Frisian. As a result, Town Frisian can be informally characterised as Dutch with Frisian substrate: it sounds Dutch, but it has Frisian characteristics in its emotional and specialist vocabulary, in its unaccented morphology and in its syntax, that is, those aspects of language which users are less aware of. The emergence of Town Frisian led to a contrast between the towns and the countryside, which is reflected in the distribution of Frisian. In the countryside 70% of the population has Frisian as its home language and in the larger cities this is only 40% percent or less. In the course of time, Town Frisian became a characteristic of low class speech, whereas the elite began to speak perfect Dutch.

Another Dutch-Frisian contact variety is Midslânsk, spoken in Midslân (Dutch: Midsland), the capital of the isle of Terschelling. And yet another contact variety is spoken in the area of It Bilt. This area was reclaimed from the sea around 1600 by inhabitants of the provinces of North and South Holland. As a result, a contact variety came into existence, Biltsk, which sounds Dutch, but which displays some morphological and syntactic characteristics of Frisian (Koldijk (2004)). Furthermore, a Saxon-Frisian contact dialect is spoken in the South of the province. It is called Stellingwerfsk and it is spoken by about one third of the inhabitants of the region (around 20.000 people) (Bloemhof (2002)).

The dialects of the province of Groningen can be loosely defined as Saxon dialects with a Frisian substrate (Hoekstra (2001)), which are quite similar to the type of Low German spoken on the other side of the Dutch-German border. The Groningen dialects came into existence when the inhabitants of the countryside switched from Frisian to Low German in the 14th century (Huizinga (1914)).

Historically, all Frisian dialects derive from Old Frisian. Around the year 700, it was spoken in the coastal area between Rotterdam and Bremen, as is shown on the following map.


Figure 2

[click image to enlarge]

Needless to say, this area was much less densely populated than it is today. Frisian was quickly wiped out in the province of South Holland after the defeat of the Frisian king Redbad (Dutch: Radboud) in the first quarter of the 8th century. The present-day dialects of the province of North Holland still contain linguistic traces which are reminiscent of Frisian. The Frisian evidence is most conspicuous in place names, field names and water names, but some of the dialects still show the presence of Frisian substrate in their vocabulary, their morphology and their syntax (Hoekstra (2001)).

[hide extra information]
x Frisian in Germany

Frisian as spoken in The Netherlands is sometimes referred to as West Frisian, to distinguish it from the two other Frisian languages, which are spoken in Germany: North Frisian and East Frisian. They are not mutually understandable. As a result, Frisian can be viewed as a language family consisting of three branches. Note that, within The Netherlands, Westfries (West-Frisian) is used to refer to a dialect spoken in the province of North Holland. This is a Dutch dialect with a Frisian substrate dating back to the time (early Middle Ages) when Frisian was spoken in North Holland.

North Frisian is a cover term for nine dialects, which can be divided in mainland dialects (the dialects of Wiedingharde, Bökinghardem, Karrharde, Norder- and Mittelgoesharde, Halligen) and insular dialects (the dialects of Sylt, Föhr, Amrum and Helgoland) (Walker (2001)). Some of these dialects are to a certain degree mutually incomprehensible. North Frisian is spoken by around 8.000 speakers, but there are no exact surveys (Walker (2001)). All people in North Frisia are bilingual, trilingual or even quadrilingual. Five languages are spoken in North Frisia: Frisian, Low German, High German, Jutish and Danish. North Frisian is a endangered (just as Jutish and Low German) language as the percentage of speakers in the younger generations is decreasing rapidly. The North Frisian area was settled by Frisian in two waves of migration, in the 8th century and in the 11th century (Århammar (2001)).

East Frisian was once spoken in the area roughly defined by the cities Bremen and Oldenburg and the Dutch-German border. In the course of the Middle Ages, East Frisian gradually gave way to Low German, as also happened in the Dutch province of Groningen. Nowadays, East Frisian consists of one last living dialect: Sater Frisian. It is spoken in the Saterland area, in the former state of Oldenburg. Sater Frisian is spoken by approximately 2.500 people, the majority of them elderly people. Sater Frisian is therefore seriously endangered (Ford (2001)).

[+] Politics and education

Frisian has been officially recognized as the second language of the Netherlands within the province of Fryslân. It has a standardized spelling (see taalweb) and it is used in several domains of Frisian society. There is institutional support for scientific research on Frisian, since the Dutch government ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages with respect to Frisian. By doing so, it recognizes Frisian as a minority language and it commited itself to the moral, though not legal responsibility to preserve and reinforce the Frisian language. One of the spearheads of language policy is education. Frisian has a modest place in the education system. Since 1980 the language became an obligatory part of the curriculum in all primary schools. Time devoted to Frisian is limited and does mostly not exceed 36 minutes per week. Currently, there are trilingual schools, using Frisian as a medium of instruction besides Dutch and English.

Pre-schoolers often go to playgroups. The Stifting Frysktalige BerneopfangFoundation for child care in Frisian is responsible for running Frisian and bilingual playgroups. Child care is meant for children between two and a half and four years old. This foundation has an explicit language policy and aims to establish a Frisian-speaking environment for young children. In secondary education Frisian is an obligatory subject in the lower grades. It is sometimes an optional exam subject in the higher grades. The attainment targets for the lower grades differentiate between students which have Frisian as their mother tongue and those who do not. In vocational education Frisian has no formal position in the curriculum, but it is regularly used as a medium of instruction and it sometimes is an optional subject. When it comes to higher education, the University of Groningen offers a study programme Minorities and Multilingualism with a specialization track in Frisian language and culture. A teacher-training Master's degree (120 ECTS) is also available there. The Department of Dutch Studies of the University of Amsterdam offers a full minor (30 ECTS) as well as some master courses in Frisian language and literature. At Leiden University Frisian can be taken as an additional subject.

Teacher training for the primary level is provided by the Stenden Hogeschool and the NHL Hogeschool, both situated in Leeuwarden, which is the capital of Fryslân. Training for the secondary level is also provided by the NHL Hogeschool.

There is a covenant between the Province and the State Government which includes provisions for Frisian media, education, culture and scientific research on Frisian, but also for public administration and the use of Frisian in court. The Province and a number of municipalities make use of both written and spoken Frisian in public administration. The two major daily newspapers contain some Frisian every day, mainly in quotes, although the actual percentage measured in words is very small (less than 3%). Furthermore, articles written in Frisian often have no news value (De Schiffart (2009)). The regional broadcasting company transmits radio and television broadcasts mostly in Frisian.

In Fryslân there are several institutions dedicated to the advancement of the Frisian language. One of these is the Fryske AkademyFrisian Academy, which is the scientific research center of Fryslân for the Humanities, researching the Frisian language, culture, history and society. Among other things, linguists of the Fryske Akademy compiled a dictionary of the Frisian language in 25 volumes, also available on the internet (WFT). The goal of the AFÛK-foundation is to promote the knowledge and use of the Frisian language as well as promoting the interest in Fryslân and its culture. Employees of the AFÛK organize courses in Frisian for both non-Frisian speakers as well as Frisian speakers. The foundation It Fryske boekThe Frisian Book' is concerned with promoting books written in Frisian.

[+] Research

Frisian linguistics has a small institutional infrastructure. In fact, there is only a handful of researchers occupied with Modern Frisian linguistics. On a European scale there are five people working full time on it. These researchers mainly work at the Linguistic Department of the Fryske AkademyFrisian Academy. Besides that, there is academic staff for Frisian linguistics at the University of Groningen (RUG), Leiden University (UL) and at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). In Kiel, Germany, there is one professor working full-time on Frisian. Although his teaching commitment is primarily directed towards North Frisian, he in fact directs a great deal of his research towards Frisian Linguistics. Frisian linguistics has a contrastive character, focusing on differences between Dutch and Frisian.

The Fryske AkademyFrisian Academy is associated with The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). Since its foundation in 1938 the Frisian Academy has occupied a central place in research on the Frisian language, history and society. Important projects concern linguistics and lexicography, history and social sciences. The latter is mainly concerned with the sociology of language, international comparative research on other European minority languages, especially in the field of education within the framework of the Mercator project. Since its inception the Frisian Academy has published over 1000 books in many different languages, of which one third in Frisian, one third in Dutch and one third is in English and German.

References:
  • Bloemhof, Henk2002Taal in stad en land - Stellingwerfs Sdu Uitgevers
  • Bree, Cor van en Arjen P. Versloot met medewerking van Rolf H. Bremmer jr2008Oorsprongen van het StadsfriesAfûk
  • Ford, Marron C2001Das SaterfriesischeMunske, Horst Haider (ed.)36Max Niemeyer Verlag409-422
  • Gorter, Durk2001Verbreitung und Geltung des WestfriesischenMunske, Horst Haider, Århammar, Nils, Hoekstra, J.F., Vries, O., Walker, A.G.H., Wilts, O. & Faltings, V.F. (eds.)Handbuch des FriesischenMax Niemeyer73-83
  • Hoekstra, Eric2001Frisian Relics in the Dutch DialectsMunske, Horst Haider (ed.)17Max Niemeyer Verlag138-142
  • Hoekstra, Eric2001Frisian Relics in the Dutch DialectsMunske, Horst Haider (ed.)17Max Niemeyer Verlag138-142
  • Huizinga, Johan1914Hoe verloren de Groningse Ommelanden hun oorspronkelijk Fries karakter?Driemaandelijkse Bladen141-77
  • Koldijk, Jan Dirk2004Het Bildts, zijn wezen, herkomst en problematiek. Een dialectgeografisch en historisch onderzoekFryske Akademy
  • Schiffart, Marrit de2009Frysk nijs is Fryskfrjemd. In ûndersyk nei it Fryske taalbelied fan de Leeuwarder Courant en it Friesch DagbladRijksuniversiteit GroningenThesis
  • Walker, Alastair G. & Wilts, Ommo2001Die nordfriesischen MundartenMunske, Horst Haider, Århammar, Nils, Hoekstra, J.F., Vries, O., Walker, A.G.H., Wilts, O. & Faltings, V.F. (eds.)Handbuch des FriesischenMax Niemeyer284-304
  • Walker, Alastair G.H2001Extent and Position of North FrisianHandbuch des FriesischenNiemeyer
  • Århammar, Nils2001Die Herkunft der Nordfriesen und des NordfriesischenMunske, Horst Haider (ed.)50Max Niemeyer Verlag531-537
Suggestions for further reading ▼
phonology
  • Dutch
  • Frisian
  • Afrikaans
Show more ▼
morphology
  • Dutch
  • Frisian
  • Afrikaans
Show more ▼
syntax
  • Dutch
  • Frisian
  • Afrikaans
Show more ▼
cite
print