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Definite Article

Frisian has two definite articles, viz. de and it; their distribution is dependent on the number and the gender of the noun. Plural nouns invariably have the article de, while singular nouns have de for common gender and it for neuter. Modern Frisian articles no longer inflect for case, except for a few petrified expressions and constructions. The former Old Frisian case system has also left its traces in cases where the article it varies with de, for instance in the phrase yn 'e hûs in the house next to the noun it hûs.

After some prepositions we find reduction of de to 'e and it to 't. In some other prepositional phrases, the definite article may even completely disappear, for instance in nei tsjerke to (ones's own) church.

The main function of definite articles is to introduce identifiable referents of the Noun Phrase (NP). The referents of NPs with indefinite articles have usually not been identified yet. In addition, there are some uses in which articles may have a different function, for instance distributive in tsien euro de moanne ten euro's per month and in alienable possession as replacement for the possessive pronoun as in hy pakte de fyts he took his bicycle. We find the definite article relatively frequently also in place names, for instance in De Lemmer, which is bare Lemmer in Dutch.

[+]Standard form

The definite article shows a number distiction. In the singular it also has a gender distinction. Common nouns take the definite article de /də/, neuter ones take it /ət/. Plural nouns always have the article de, irrespective of the gender of the noun. Schematically, the distribution is as follows:

Table 1
Singular Plural
Common gender de de
Neuter gender it de

Some examples are provided in (1) and (2):

Example 1

a. de hûn the.SG.C dog.SG.C the dog
b. de hûnen the.PL dog-PL the dogs
Example 2

a. it keal the.SG.NEUT calf.SG.NEUT the calf
b. de keallen the.PL calf-PL the calves
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The Schiermonnikoog dialect

The only West Frisian dialect that still displays a three gender system is the one of the island of Schiermonnikoog. It is, however, remarkable that this three-way system is not reflected in the distribution of the articles. Rather, the dialect's system is comparable to the one in the other Frisian dialects, that is, singular neuter nouns have the definite article it, and masculine and feminine nouns display de. Plural nouns have de, too. The situation with respect to articles is different compared with demonstrative pronouns, relative pronouns and the inflection of adjectives. In these instances the three genders are still discernible. For more information about the genders in the dialect of Schiermonnikoog, see three genders in the dialect of Schiermonnikoog.

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For a short general overview of the Frisian article, see Folkertsma (1944/45).


The articles de /də/ and it /ət/ both have a schwa nucleus, and hence they bear no stress. Stress may be used; then the NP acquires a special meaning of uniqueness, one of a kind, etc. For example:

Example 3

De AFUK is it adres foar Fryske boeken
the AFUK is the adress for Frisian books
The AFUK is the best adress for Frisian books

A rather idiomatic use is exemplified in:

Example 4

Nei syn oerwinning wie Sven Kramer de man
after his victory was Sven Kramer the man

This approximately has the meaning that Sven Kramer was most respected and popular.

[+]Nominal ellipsis

De forms de and it are not allowed in nominal ellipsis, i.e. when the following noun is not expressed, and the article is the only prenominal element in the NP. In this case, the definite article turns to the forms dy before common nouns and dat before neuters. Compare:

Example 5

a. Hy seach in boat, mar de boat wie net te keap
he saw a boat, but the boat was not for sale
He saw a boat, but the boat was not for sale
b. *Hy seach in boat, mar de ___ wie net te keap
c. Hy seach in boat, mar dy ___ wie net te keap

If we replace the common NP de boat the boat by the neuter NP it skip the ship, then at first sight it seems that the article it is nevertheless permitted:

Example 6

Hy seach in skip, mar it wie net te keap

Clearly, however, in this sentence the pronoun it is involved; it represents the whole NP it skip, and not the single noun skip. If we force the interpretation of nominal ellipsis we see that it is ungrammatical indeed, and that the form dat is called for:

Example 7

a. It skip bûtendoar wie te keap, mar it skip yn 'e loads net
the ship outside was for sale, but [the ship in the hall] not
The ship outside was for sale, but the ship in the hall was not
b. *It skip bûtendoar wie te keap, mar it ___ yn 'e loads net
c. It skip bûtendoar wie te keap, mar dat ___ yn 'e loads net

The forms dy and dat are similar to the forms of the demonstrative pronoun. Historically, the definite article originated from the demonstrative pronoun.

[hide extra information]

This section is based on Dyk (2011).

[+]Reduced forms

After some prepositions the article de may be reduced to 'e /ə/, which acts as a clitic. We see this phenomenon especially in fluent speech. Some relevant prepositions are the following:

Example 8

a. fan 'e moanne of the moon
b. oan 'e muorre on the wall
c. tsjin 'e holle against the head
d. yn 'e tonne in the barrel
e. op 'e tafel on the table
f. út 'e stêd out of town

After other prepositions initial /d/ is retained. We see the full form de especially after prepositions ending in a vowel (e.g. mei with; nei after) or ending in a schwa syllable (e.g. fanwegen because of; tusken between), and usually also after prepositions ending in /r/ (e.g. oer over; foar for; ûnder under) although even in the latter case some speakers allow reduction. The forms with 'e may also be found after the conjunctions en and and om to, as in:

Example 9

a. Jelle en 'e frou
Jelle and the wife
Jelle and his wife
b. It is te let, om 'e trein te heljen
it is too late [PRT the train to catch]
It is too late to catch the train

Reduction after conjunctions is never reflected in the written language, however.

[hide extra information]

For cliticization and subsequent reduction of the definite article de, see Visser (1990). For phonological aspects see also the definite article. For a short overview see also Hoekstra (1989). A short older publication is Sytstra (1930).

Likewise, the definite article it can optionally have a special form after prepositions, viz. 't [t]:

Example 10

a. fan it/'t hynder of, off the horse
b. yn it/'t wetter in the water
c. op it/'t finster on the window
d. troch it/'t gat through the hole
e. oer it/'t lân over the land
f. ûnder it/'t konsert during the concert

The reduced form 't is not allowed if the preposition ends in /t/:

Example 11

a. út it/*'t easten from the east
b. sûnt it/*'t beslút since the decision

The reduced form is obligatory in certain fixed expressions:

Example 12

a. fan 't/*it hynder off the horse in a flurry
b. tsjin 't/*it sin against the mood unwillingly
c. op 't/*it heden at the present at the moment
d. yn 't/*it paad in the path in the way

This enclitic use of a reduced form 't should not be confused with the optional reduction of it at the beginning of a sentence. Compare the following song line:

Example 13

't Hoantsje ropt: kûkelû / 't Doke ropt: rûkûkû!
The cock says: cock-a-doodle-doo! / The pigeon says: coo-coo!

This is an instance of proclisis.

[+]Older case forms

Frisian once had the Old Germanic case system, which broke down after the Old Frisian period. Nowadays, only some remnants are left in a few fixed expressions. The genitive form is practically restricted to religious language:

Example 14

de grime des Heare the wrath of God
Example 15

Katechismus fan de leare der wierheit
[book title (1878)]
catechism of the doctrine of the truth

The majority of the case forms is couched in a prepositional phrase:

Example 16

a. op 'en paad on one's way
b. op 'en baan up and about, on the go
c. op 'en doer in the long run
d. op 'en heechsten, bêsten, slimsten at the most, best, worst
e. op 'en nij once again, anew
f. út 'en fjouweren at a gallop
g. út 'en draaf at a trot
h. út 'en rûgen roughly
i. út 'en readens sjen, skine to have a red tint, glow
j. troch 'en dei during the day; usually
k. troch 'en bank by and large
l. einlings en te'n lêsten at long last
m. tenein (= te 'n ein) broken-down, worn-out; exhausted
n. tenearsten (= te 'n earsten) initially, at first; for the time being

Some expressions show the original female form der:

Example 17

a. mei der tiid in (due) time
b. út 'er haast in haste
c. uterstee (= út 'er stee) net not at all
d. yn der ivichheid net not in a month of Sundays (never)
e. yndertiid at the time, way back then
f. by der hân to the left (for the driver of a wagon)
g. fan der hân to the right (for the driver of a wagon)

The rare form den mostly has an emphatic flavour:

Example 18

a. foar den duvel
for the devil, damn you
b. foar den donder
bloody well, damn it
c. al den dei
all day long
d. al den duvel
all ... over the place, nothing but ...

Den donder also occurs in a purely nominative position:

Example 19

Nou het den donder him sels scienmeitse wollen
now has the thunder him self cleanmake wanted
Now has that damned guy tried to excuse himself!
[Brethren Halbertsma, Rimen ind Teltsjes (1871), p. 194]
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A comparison with Dutch

Although Frisian and Dutch both lost their morphological case system at the end of the Middle Ages, Dutch has retained the genitive in elevated style. Furthermore, one cannot escape from the impression that Dutch has retained considerably more fixed expressions with older case forms than Frisian. If this impression is correct, then an explanation could presumably be found in the different social function of the languages: Frisian has predominantly remained a spoken language, without a fully fledged distinguished register. Note that also in Dutch the expressions with older case forms are mainly restricted to the written language.

[hide extra information]

The case system for definite articles in Old Frisian can be found in Steller (1928:54) or Bremmer (2009:54).

The emphatic use of den is noticed in Verdenius (1942). See for this use in Dutch dialects also Overdiep (1937:290).

[+]Variation of de and it

A few nouns which take it show the article de in certain contexts. The inverse case, i.e. de becoming it, is also found.

A frequent case of a neuter noun that may nevertheless show the common definite article de in some contexts, is it hûs the.N house.N the house. After certain prepositions, we see the article de (or reduced 'e):

Example 20

a. yn 'e hûs in the house indoors, inside; into the house
b. út 'e hûs out the house out of the house
c. ta de hûs yn/út to the house in/out into/out of the house
d. troch de hûs through the house through the house

Note that hûs in these examples can only refer to one's own home, or a house which is salient in the discourse context. If hûs has its normal meaning, only the regular definite article can be used:

Example 21

Myn faam wennet yn it/*'e hûs by de brêge
My girl-friend lives in the house near the bridge

What is involved here historically is the old singular dative form (Olf Frisian tha) of the neuter article (Old Frisian thet). This dative form developed into de in Modern Frisian and, as a consequence, coincided with the common gender article de. Other examples are:

Example 22

a. it midden the middle
b. yn 'e midden in the middle
Example 23

a. it bosk the wood
b. yn 'e bosk in the wood
Example 24

a. it pleit the lawsuit
b. yn 'e pleit wêze foar in the lawsuit be for plead, argue for
Example 25

a. it leach caustic, lye
b. immen út 'e leage waskje someone out the caustic wash tell someone the plain truth

It is no incident that it are mainly locality terms that are involved in the transition. These are typically used in the context of a dative, which hence becomes the unmarked case, instead of the nominative. Note, in addition, that the form leage in the last-named expression still shows the old dative ending -e of the noun.

There are not many cases of such variation, since there has been a good deal of analogical levelling to the extent that either it or the has been generalized. Some speakers, for example, always use it bosk, also following a preposition, whereas, on the other hand, in Standard Frisian de bosk has been propagated in alle contexts. In a word like de mar the lake the dative form of the neuter article has been generalized in present-day Frisian (cf. Dutch het meer; German das Meer). Where a clear semantic difference is involved, the variation may persist more easily. An example is ein end, which is de ein if interpreted as the last part of a stretch, but it ein in a more independent sense as unit, for instance in it ein tou the piece of rope or it ein rinnen the distance to walk.

[hide extra information]

Toponyms may typically occur in prepositional phrases, and hence may readily show deviating articles. An example is De Lege Midden The Low Middle, the name of a Frisian region. The noun midden middle has the article neuter it otherwise. A comparable example is the famous leaning tower of the Frisian capital Ljouwert (Leeuwarden), called De Aldehou. This must originate in Old Frisian prepositional phrases like bi/to tha alde hove near/to the old church. Old Frisian hof church'; yard was a neuter noun just like its Modern Frisian counterpart (it) hôf (church)yard. The dialect form (it) hou is the generalized dative form of this noun. However, the development may also go into the other direction. Modern Frisian de mar the lake originates in a dative form, but the toponym It Mar (a village near Heerenveen) still shows the original neuter article.

The mirror image of the article variation mentioned above can be found in the names of the seasons. Normally, they all have common gender, as in de simmer the summer etc. However, after the prepositions fan of and by by, the (reduced) article 't shows up:

Example 26

a. fan 't maitiid this spring
b. by 't maitiid in the spring
Example 27

a. fan 't simmer this summer
b. by 't simmer in the summer
Example 28

a. fan 't hjerst this autumn
b. by 't hjerst in the autumn
Example 29

a. fan 't winter this winter
b. by 't winter in the winter

Other are other examples of common nouns which have the article it in prepositional contexts are provided below:

Example 30

a. de soad the boil; cooked mess
b. by 't soad galore
Example 31

a. de seksje the section
b. by 't seksje galore
Example 32

a. de skik the form; propriety; nature
b. op 't skik pleased, happy
Example 33

a. de spier the muscle
b. yn 't spier at work
Example 34

a. de kier the chink; crack
b. yn 't kier ajar

What has been going on in these cases historically is a phonological process by which a proclitic de was reduced to [d] and sharpened to [t] in certain prepositional contexts. This [t] was then identified with the special form of the neuter article. There has been a good deal of levelling here. As a result, Frisian has a considerable number of neuter nouns which are common gender in Dutch.

[hide extra information]

The subject of this section is dealt with thoroughly in Hoekstra and Visser (1996) and in Visser (2011). For a short overview, see Hoekstra (1991).

[+]Lack of the definite article in prepositional phrases

In a number of idiomatic prepositional phrases the definite article is absent in Frisian, as is shown below:

Example 35

a. op bêd in bed
b. nei, yn, út, fan skoalle to, at, from school
c. nei, op see to, at sea
d. nei hûs ta, op hûs yn (back) home
e. nei, yn, út tsjerke to, in, from church
f. nei stêd to town
g. nei, om buorren to, around the village (centre)
h. nei, by, efter, bûten dyk to, on, behind, beyond the dike
i. foar, ûnder, nei iten before, at, after dinner
j. op knibbels on one's knees
k. op bôle on the bread
l. oan bar wêze on turn be to be next
m. om bar at turn alternatively, in turns
n. oer iis across the ice
o. foar tsjuster before dark

Note that the nouns in these expressions mostly refer to entities that are well-known to the speaker. Thus for tsjerke church in nei/yn/út tsjerke, it is the church that the speaker regularly visits, and of which he is a number. If he visits a church as a tourist in a foreign town, he will insert the definite article after such prepositions. So, the nouns in these Adposition Phrases (PPs) more or less function as proper nouns.

It appears that languages can vary in the omission of an article in such expressions, as can already be detected from the English translations. For example, only the cases (a)-(d) are without an article in the comparable idioms in Dutch. On the other hand, Dutch has quite a number of phrases without article where it is obligatory in Frisian:

Table 2
Frisian Dutch translation
op 'e souder op zolder in the attic
op 'e tafel op tafel on the table
op 'e tiid op tijd in time
op 'e strjitte op straat on the street
yn 'e sliep in slaap asleep
yn 'e brân in brand on fire
yn 'e ljochte lôge in lichter laaie ablaze, in a blaze
op 'e stâl op stal in the shed
yn 'e hûs in huis indoors
op 'e siik op zoek on the look-out
op 't slot op slot locked
yn 't sicht in zicht in sight
út it sicht uit zicht out of sight
op 'en nij opnieuw anew, once again

In a number of prepositional phrases with the preposition mei with and a noun denoting a body part, Frisian has to use a definite (or indefinite) article, whereas Dutch and, in some cases, English may leave it out. Compare:

Table 3
Frisian Dutch translation
mei de mûle iepen met open mond with open mouth
mei de hannen omheech met opgeheven handen with uplifted hands / with hands uplifted
mei de holle foardel met gebogen hoofd with bowed head / with head bowed
mei in bliedend hert met bloedend hart with a bleeding heart
mei in tsjûke tonge prate met dikke tong spreken speak with a thick tongue
mei in trilderich lûd met trillende stem with/in a tremulous voice
mei in útset lûd met luide stem out loud

In addition, there are two expressions in which Frisian has a definite article, where the comparative Dutch phrase shows an indefinite article. These are mei de dronkene kop drunk and mei de lilke kop angry. These have the Dutch counterparts met een dronken kop and met een kwaaie kop, respectively.

Finally, the definite article may be omitted after the preposition fan of. One case is in expressions of abundance: the preposition fan is followed by a bare plural in Frisian, whereas in Dutch the definite article is used. Compare Frisian maitiids tilt it hjir fan blommen in spring this place is full of flowers with Dutch in de lente wemelt het hier van de bloemen. Other examples of a similar kind are provided below:

Example 36

a. It wie swart fan minsken op 'e diskemerk
it was black of people at the fair
There were lots of people at the fair
b. It stjonkt dêr fan plysjes
it stinks there of policemen
That place was infested with policemen
c. It swimt hjir fan wetter
it swims here of water
This place is awash with water
d. Dizze tsiis libbet fan maitsen
this cheese lives of maggots
This cheese is crawling with maggots

Furthermore, we see no article after the preposition fan in emphatic expressions in which the prepositional phrase denotes a cause with respect to the intense state of affairs. Some examples are the following:

Example 37

a. Hy wie wiet fan it swit
he was wet of the sweat
He sweated heavily
b. Ik wie ferlegen fan pine
I was embarrassed of pain
The pain was driving me mad
c. Wy fergriemden ús fan laitsjen
we wasted ourselves of laughing
We laughed fit to burst
d. Hy wie ferrêde fan toarst
he was torn.apart of thurst
He was dying of thirst

The corresponding Dutch expressions show an article, respectively: hij was nat van het zweet; ik was gek van de pijn; we schudden van het lachen and hij verging van de dorst.

[hide extra information]

On the absence of the article in PPs and a comparison with Dutch, see Hoekstra (1987). The omission of the article after the prepositon fan of is dealt with in Hoekstra (1990).


The various uses of the definite article will be briefly touched upon in this section. More can be found in the syntactic part of Taalportaal, following the corresponding links: the function of the definite article, idiom formation, correlative measure constructions and inalienable possession.

In general, in NPs with an article, definite articles are used for known referents, and indefinite articles for referents that have not been identified yet. Hence, the order of the various articles in the opening fragment of an imaginary children tale is fine:

Example 38

Piter sjocht in kat. De kat hat read hier
Peter sees a.INDEF cat. The.DEF cat has red hair
Peter sees a cat. The cat has red hair

If we change the order of the articles, the sequence becomes unacceptable:

Example 39

*Piter sjocht de kat. In kat hat read hier

The definite article may also be used generically if the sentence predicate applies to all members of a species:

Example 40

De dodo is útstoarn
The dodo has died out

However, usually the indefinite article is used for generic purposes. The use of the definite article in denoting abstract unique concepts is more or less the same. As can be seen from the translations below, English usually has no article here:

Example 41

a. De tiid hâldt gjin skoft the time takes no pause time flies
b. It libben is swier life is hard
c. De moderne maatskippij modern society
d. De Fryske skriftekennisse Frisian literature
e. De prizen geane omheech prices are rising

If, however, the pertinent noun is countable, then in indefinite NP is preferred:

Example 42

a. Froulju binne oars as manlju
women are different then men
Woman differs from man
b. Minsken binne stjerlik
people.PL are mortal
Man is mortal

In cases of inalienable possession, the definite article is used instead of the possessive pronoun, for example when referring to body parts:

Example 43

a. Hy die de hannen yn 'e bûse
he did the hands in the pocket
He put his hands in his pockets
b. Hja sloech him op 't wang
she hit him on the cheek
She hit him on the cheek

A definite NP following a quantified noun can have a distributive function in Frisian; English uses the indefinite article here, or the preposition per. Compare:

Example 44

a. fiif jirpels de man five potatoes a/per head
b. in tsientsje it stik ten guilders a piece
c. tûzen gûne de moanne thousand guilders a/per month
d. in gûne it pûn one guilder a/per pound

A curious use of the definite article is also found in a number of place names, where in the Dutch counterparts the article is lacking. Here are some examples:

Table 4
Frisian place name Dutch cognate
De Jouwer Joure
De Lemmer Lemmer
De Harkema Harkema
De Hommerts Hommerts
De Westereen Zwaagwesteinde
De Pein Opeinde
De Tynje Tijnje
It Hearrefean Heerenveen

It should be noted that if such place names are used in a prepositional phrase, the preposition op on/at is used instead of yn in. So we have op 'e Lemmer in Lemmer and yn Ljouwert in Leeuwarden.

[hide extra information]

This topic is greatly indepted to an unfinished grammar of Frisian, written in English by Jarich Hoekstra. A short overview of the use of the indefinite article in alienable possession is Hoekstra (1991). An in-depth study of a construction in which inalienable possession is embedded in an adjectival phrase is found in Hoekstra (2004). For the historical background of the article in place names and the accompanying preposition, see Popkema (2006).

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