In the northern part of the Netherlands sits the province of Friesland, or Fryslân, historically known as Frisia, an area with its own unique language. Frisian, like many languages, is an important part of the heritage and culture of its people, and has an interesting history of how it came to be.
1. Who speaks it and what is it?
The Frisian language, or Frysk, is spoken and understood by most of the Frisian people (649,944 in 2020), with 600,000 speakers, including 350,000 native speakers. The language itself is West-Germanic, with Frisians also speaking and understanding the country’s native Dutch language, and the province is officially bilingual so signs are written in both Frisian and Dutch with place names in both languages. Officially, Frysk is the second language of Province of Fryslân and is also recognised as a Minority Language in the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. It is used orally and in writing in public administration, judiciary, education, media, leisure, cultural and social life.
As well as the Fresian (also called West Frisian) spoken in Friesland (including and the islands of Schiermonnikoog and Terschelling), there are also other dialects of the language. East Frisian is spoken in the Saterland west of Oldenburg, Germany, and North Frisian is spoken along the country’s west coast of Schleswig and on the offshore islands of Sylt, Föhr, Amrum, the Halligen Islands, and Helgoland.
2. A brief history
Originally, Frisian was spoken in a much larger area, from what is now the province of Noord-Holland (North Holland) in the Netherlands along the North Sea coastal area to modern German Schleswig, as well as in the offshore islands in this area. Written records dated from the end of the 13th century exist in Old Frisian, a version of the language that lasted until the late 16th century and is interesting as it shows all the features that distinguish English and Frisian from the other Germanic languages. For a period of about 300 years after this, Frisian was little used as a written language, however there has now been a revival in the West Frisian area, with the language being used in the schools and courts of Friesland. There is also a Frisian Academy and East and North Frisian are being gradually supplanted by German.
3. The English – Frisian link
Frisian is the most closely related West Germanic language to English and has been called the closest relative of Modern English still in existence today. Both English and Frisian can trace their shared ancestry to the Anglo-Frisian language group, which are a group of mutually intelligible languages to which Anglo-Saxon (ancestor of modern English) and Old Frisian belonged. There has been suggestions that both languages in fact came from the same root language, also part of the Anglo-Frisian language group, however many linguists have now overturned this idea.
They believe it was more likely that Anglo-Saxon and Old Frisian were both part of a dialect continuum of Western Germanic languages, which could have been because of the close trading relationships throughout the long-lived Hanseatic League, an influential medieval commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and market towns in central and northern Europe founded in 1356. Interestingly, there was a time where Old English and Frisian were mutually intelligible, however as time passed both languages changed as a result of different sociopolitical circumstances, becoming more unrecognisable to each other. Take a look at this clip in which someone goes to Friesland and (somewhat successfully!) speaks old english with a local farmer, managing to buy a cow!
4. Some useful Frisian words
Although many Frisians nowadays speak and understand English too, it is always good to learn some words from the local language when visiting a place to help you connect better with it, as well as the people themselves. Here are some useful words and phrases in Frisian:
- Hello, how are you? – Hoi, hoe giet it?
- Good morning/good afternoon/good evening – goemoarn/goemiddei/goejûn
- My name is… – Myn namme is…
- It was nice to meet you! – It wie aardich om jo te treffe!
- Hello – goeie
- Goodbye – oant sjen/sjoddy’
- Please – asjebleaft
- Thank you – tankewol