Why the Frisian Language is a Linguist’s Dream

When it comes to the Germanic languages, most people in the polyglot community are learning major West Germanic languages like German and Dutch. Fewer people are learning North Germanic languages like Norwegian, Swedish and Danish. And up to this day, I have only met one fellow polyglot who is studying a language that is a unique and fascinating mix of all the above-mentioned languages: Frisian.

This is not really surprising – Frisian is a minority language after all. Though at this point, it should be said that there is no single Frisian language as such: there is West Frisian spoken in Friesland (West Frisian: Fryslân), the Netherlands – by far the most vigorous variety – and North Frisian and Saterland Frisian/Saterlandic in Germany, two other varieties of Frisian that are much smaller. It should also be mentioned that these languages are not mutually intelligible. There are roughly 450,000 native speakers of Frisian in the Netherlands. Additionally, North Frisian is spoken by about 8,000 to 10,000 native speakers and East Frisian (also known as Saterfrisian) is spoken by 2,000 native speakers. West Frisian is counted as ”vulnerable” and the other two varieties are ”severely endangered”.

It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly the Frisian language came into use, but it has been around for at least 2,000 years. In its heyday, Frisian was mainly spoken in the areas bordering on the North Sea (known as the Mare Frisicum or the ”Frisian Sea” back then). The Frisian language expanded around the North Sea coastal areas through trading activities. The Vikings also settled in Frisian-speaking areas for periods of time throughout the 9th and 10th centuries.

In this blog I will be focusing on West Frisian, the ‘’biggest’’ out of the three varieties of Frisian. Known as ”Frysk” by native speakers, it is the language spoken in Friesland where I currently live and the language spoken by both of my parents. Short note: when the Frisians living in the Netherlands lost their independence in 1498, Dutch became the official language in the province of Friesland. The Frisian language began to be widely used in print in the early 20th century. As a matter of fact, Frisian only received recognition by the Dutch government as an official language in 1956. For five centuries, Frisian was a minority and unsupported language surrounded by Dutch. Luckily it has managed to retain a written history and a literary tradition.

Frisian compared to other Germanic languages

One of the questions that linguists have raised about Frisian is whether it is the closest living language to English. Some linguists argue that it indeed is, whereas other linguists argue that Scots is the closest. Either way, there is no denying the resemblance between Frisian and other Germanic languages like English:

In some cases English and Frisian share a cognate that wasn’t passed on to Dutch and German, as is the case with kaai / key:

Meanwhile, Frisian at times also shows similarities with North Germanic languages:

Unique Frisian Words

The above-mentioned similarities show the historical ties between Old Frisian, Old English and Old Norse. Frisian is a language with a rich history, yet filled with mystery. I’d like to finish this blog article with the following sentence, which I came up with myself, to illustrate how the language is influenced by several other Germanic languages and yet still manages to be unique: De bern boartsje op sneon en snein net op skoalle. Sy boartsje in ‘t wykein in de boarterstún. The children don’t play at school on Saturday and Sunday. At the weekend, they play at the playground.

Vocabulary notes:
bern = children
boartsje = to play
sneon = Saturday
snein = Sunday
skoalle = school
wykein = weekend
boarterstún = playground

The word for children, bern, is the same as in Norwegian – as we have just seen. Sneon and snein are radically different from Saturday/Samstag/Zaterdag/Lørdag and Sunday/Sonntag/Zondag/Søndag. What happened here? Then there are skoalle (school) and wykein (weekend), which aren’t too different from English. And what’s with this verb boartsje? It means ‘’to play’’ – but Frisian has two verbs for ‘’play’’: spylje and boartsje. I’ve made the mistake of using boartsje to refer to playing a musical instrument before. In this context, it’s not used correctly. I should have used spylje here instead. Boartsje is only used in the context of children playing. That leaves us with one more word: boarterstún. Boarters are ‘’players’’ (little children); tún means ‘’garden’’. A play garden? That’s right. Here, knowledge of Dutch comes in very handy, as the Dutch speeltuin (also literally translated as ‘’play garden’’) shares the same concept.

During my Frisian language learning I’ve often wondered how words like boartsje and sneon and snein have come to exist. Unfortunately, there is no etymological dictionary for Frisian (yet), so some questions remain unanswered. Frisian may seem a bit nuver (weird) at first, but I hope that this blog has sparked an interest in this minority language which, in my view, is majestic in its inclusiveness and unique sense of self.

Resources for studying the Frisian language

Fryske Akademy
https://www.fryske-akademy.nl/en/
The Fryske Akademy (Frisian academy) was established in 1938 with the aim of researching and preserving the Frisian language. The website offers a lot of information about the Frisian language.

Afûk
https://kursus.afuk.frl/buitenlandstalig/english_frisian/ingelsk
Afûk offers Frisian self-study courses available in Dutch, German and English.

Futurelearn’s Introduction to Frisian
https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/frisian
A three-week course on the basics of Frisian, taught in English. Freely accessible.

Omrop Fryslân
https://www.omropfryslan.nl/
Frisian radio and TV. The news articles are also available in Dutch.


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