Issue 4 |


by on September 1, 2015

West Frisian, more commonly known as Frisian, is a language that is primarily spoken in Friesland, a region of the Netherlands. It has about 470,000 native speakers and 120,000 second language speakers. The language is noteworthy for being, linguistically speaking, the closest relative of Modern English still in existence (with the exception of Scots, which is frequently considered a dialect of English).

English and Frisian can trace their shared ancestry to the Anglo-Frisian language group, a group of mutually intelligible languages to which Anglo-Saxon and Old Frisian, ancestors of modern English and Frisian respectively, both belonged. Although there was a hypothesis that both languages originally came from the same root language, also part of the Anglo-Frisian language group, many linguists later agreed that this was “an oversimplification”. Instead, it was more likely that Anglo-Saxon and Old Frisian were both part of a dialect continuum of Western Germanic languages, possibly a result of the close trading relationships throughout the long-lived Hanseatic League during which Middle Low German had been a lingua franca.

At one time Old English and Frisian were mutually intelligible, but as time passed English and Frisian acquired divergent traits as a result of differing sociopolitical circumstances. Historically, both English and Frisian phonology were marked by the loss of the Germanic nasal in words like us (ús; uns in German), soft (sêft; sanft) or goose (goes; Gans). Also, when followed by some vowels, the Germanic k softened to a “ch” sound; for example, the Frisian for ‘cheese’ and ‘church’ is tsiis and tsjerke, whereas in Dutch it is kaas and kerk, and in High German the respective words are Käse and Kirche.

The languages also share the palatalisation of velar consonants. For example, whereas the closely related Old Saxon and Old Dutch retain the velar in “dag”, Old Frisian has dei and Old English has dæġ [dæj]. Finally, when followed by front vowels the Germanic /k/ changed to a /tʃ/ sound. The Old Frisian for church was tzirke or tzerke, in Old English it was ċiriċe [ˈtʃiritʃe], while Old Saxon and Old Dutch have the unpalatalised kirika.

One rhyme demonstrates the palpable similarity between Frisian and English: “Butter, bread, and green cheese is good English and good Frise,” which is pronounced more or less the same in both languages (Frisian: Bûter, brea, en griene tsiis is goed Ingelsken goed Frysk.)


However, the languages later split from one another due to differing circumstances in their interactions with other linguistic communities. The Saxons belonged to a group that migrated from the European continent to the British Isles, living alongside and gradually assimilating the local Brythonic and Celtic speaking populations. As a result of this linguistic contact, Celtic syntactic structures were introduced to the invaders’ language, marking the first significant divergence of Anglo-Saxon from Frisian.

An example is the introduction of the progressive, or –ing form, of English. The formation of the –ing form has always been a mystery to historical linguists, who note that there is no other example of such a phenomenon in any other Germanic dialect. The most likely explanation is that this syntactic structure was adapted from the Celtic language during the cultural assimilation of the Celts. Evidence in favor of this is that the Celtic languages, even in their earliest forms, have had parallels to the English progressive in the form of constructions involving the verb ‘be’ followed by the verbal noun. Furthermore, in addition to similar syntactic structures the English progressive and its Celtic equivalents also share highly similar semantic properties, most notably the emphasis on the concept of “imperfectivity”.

Over time, the branch of Anglo-Saxon that later became the modern English language gradually gained influences from varied sources, most notably Norse and Norman French. The Norse influence precipitated changes such as the loss of grammatical gender and explicitly marked case (with the notable exception of the pronouns). Subsequent Christianisation of the Danes allowed intermarriage, further fostering closer ties between the two groups and encouraging the two languages to influence each other. Words including ‘anger’, ‘bag’, ‘both’, ‘hit’, ‘law’, ‘leg’, ‘same’, ‘skill’, ‘sky’, ‘take’, and many others (possibly even including the pronoun ‘they’) were among the approximately 2,000 words borrowed from Old Norse.

The language was later influenced to an even greater extent by the Normans, who spoke a French dialect called Old Norman. Approximately 10,000 French (and Norman) loan words entered Middle English, particularly terms associated with government, church, law, the military, fashion, and food. A tendency for French-derived words to have more formal connotations has continued to the present day. For example, most modern English speakers consider a ‘cordial reception’ (from French) to be more formal than a ‘hearty welcome’ (from Germanic).

The introduction of Christianity from around the year 600 encouraged the addition of over 400 Latin loan words into Old English, such as ‘priest’, ‘paper’, and ‘school’, and a few Greek loan words. By the time of the Great Vowel Shift in the 1400s, English and Frisian were no longer mutually intelligible languages.

In the meantime, Frisian became more and more influenced by Dutch. Up until the 15th century Frisian was a language widely spoken and written, but from 1500 onwards it became an almost exclusively oral language, mainly used in rural areas. Due to the loss of written forms of the language to cement linguistic norms, Frisian began to undergo more significant and dynamic changes in its linguistic structure. It was around this time that the Dutch influence on Frisian was the most significant.

An example of lexical borrowing of grammatical forms by Frisian from Dutch include the expansion of the usage of the affix –tsje. Both –ke and –tsje were once used interchangeably as dimunitives in Frisian: however, over time, -ke and –tsje ended up being used in differing situations, with the number of situations in which –tsje was used far outnumbering the situations in which –ke was used, and is in fact still expanding to this day. This is very likely because the Dutch suffix –je is used in all situations that used to be shared between –ke and –tsje, and the expanded use of –tsje is a result of its audio similarity to the Dutch suffix. Interestingly, under the influence of Dutch, Frisian also lost its grammatical case.


Despite all these differences, Frisian (F) and Modern English (ME) are still mutually intelligible in some situations:

F: Winter is kald, simmer is hjit. Ik lyk de waarmte en myld weder de best.

ME: Winter is cold, summer is hot. I like the warmth and mild weather the best.


F: Wy had in floed oer de nacht. De grun steit is wiet. De rein was dien by de moarn.

ME: We had a flood over the night. The ground is still wet (literally “The ground’s state is wet”). The rain was done by the morning (“morn”).

This degree of mutual intelligibility is due to the presence of shared words between the two languages. This is because Frisian has also experienced some Latin influence through Dutch, and as such, picked up lexical terms similar to those borrowed by English! Examples of such words include ‘dozen’ and ‘dozyn’ for a measurement of twelve. In addition, Frisian has loanwords of French origin, also acquired by way of Dutch, such as puur, which means ‘pure’ (sometimes just spelled like the English ‘pure’), preciis (‘precise’), priis (‘price’), and batterij (‘battery’).

Most interestingly, Frisian has acquired Latin words that are also found in English but are not present in either Dutch or German, such as bist which means ‘animal’ or ‘beast’, from old French. Cognates for these words exist in Latin languages, including Latin itself, but not other Germanic languages, such as:


The future of the Frisian language

In Friesland today, about half of the 600,000 inhabitants speak Frisian as their first language at home. Frisian enjoys official status in the province, which is officially bilingual, and use of the language is allowed in a number of areas — including the courts, the administration, and the education system.

The use of Frisian is however declining. Dutch is clearly the dominant and more prestigious language: the higher someone’s socio-economic position, the more likely he or she is to speak Dutch instead of Frisian. At the same time, there is an ongoing influx of non-Frisian speaking immigrants. In the countryside, mass tourism and second homes facilitate the further penetration of Dutch. As a result of these developments, there are no longer any monolingual speakers of Frisian.

There has also been a decline in the inter-generational transmission of Frisian, especially in mixed marriages where, increasingly, parents are ceasing to educate their children in Frisian. Although all primary schools in Friesland are obligated to teach Frisian, in the school year 2005-2006 only about 20% of these schools used Frisian as a language of instruction — in most of the other schools Frisian is taught for only one hour a week. More than a third of secondary schools do not use Frisian at all. Furthermore, there is no exchange of information between primary and secondary schools with regards to curriculum, making it difficult to sustain a high level of competency. Frisian is used in the media, but Frisian television is facing enormous financial difficulties and the two largest newspapers in the province have only one page per week in Frisian, and refuse to increase this for fear of losing subscribers.

In this situation, Frisian survives mostly as a spoken language with considerable dialectal variation. The standard for Frisian therefore remains fluid, and the language is an easy target for continued syntactic and lexical changes under Dutch influence. Dutch words and constructions are often unconsciously adopted by Frisian speakers, and Frisian is giving way, especially in the towns, to an urban Dutch dialect with Frisian features.

However, in recent years, the Frisian language has had increasing institutional leverage on its side. The administration of the Friesland region of the Netherlands has made promoting the Frisian language a priority, and has established institutional frameworks in order to do so. A significant number of initiatives regarding the promotion of Frisian is carried out through Afûk, an institution set upfor this specific purpose. Afûk provides mandatory lessons in Frisian for all new immigrants to the Friesland region, in addition to publishing Afûk magazines, computer games, and books in Frisian. Most notable is the ”Praat mar Frysk” campaign, an awareness raising campaign aiming at stimulating the use of Frisian by using social media.

On 4 June 2013 the Dutch parliament voted in favour of an act regarding the use of the Frisian language. The act reinforces the status of Frisian as the second official language of the Netherlands and regulates the use of the Frisian language in public administration and in the legal system. In other words, it ensures that Frisian remains relevant as a language used in administrative documentation. A similar act regulating the use of Frisian on public broadcasting networks such as television and radio is also purportedly in the works. The Frisians have been officially recognised as a linguistic minority in the European Union, and are actively involved in the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages, where they work together with the Welsh, the Basques, and the Catalans among others, to improve the situation of Europe’s linguistic and cultural minorities.

Finally, there is a small but active Frisian literary scene. Each year, about a hundred Frisian books are published, ranging from new works of fiction to classics such as Alice yn Wûnderlân. Recent years have seen the success of two full-length Frisian films, The Dream and The Lighthouse, both made by Pieter Verhoeff. As such, the prospects for the survival of Frisian is hopeful, considering the efforts that have been undertaken to increase both its international visibility as well as its cultural and administrative relevance.

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