Before we dive into Frisian, we should mention that the title is a bit misleading: There’s not just one Frisian language, but three. Much of the time, the name Frisian is used synonymously with the most widely spoken of the contemporary Frisians, West Frisian. But what is Frisian, actually?
Frisian was once the primary language of a larger geographic area called Frisia, which spanned the North Sea coasts and islands of modern-day Germany and the Netherlands during the early to late Middle Ages. While Frisia may no longer exist today, three of its most popular dialects have survived. With that said, let’s explore the history of this fascinating language, the closest lingual relative of English!
A Brief History Of Frisian
The road to modernity was not a smooth journey for Frisian, as many dialects died out with their last living speakers in the 20th century. The name most likely comes from the ancient Germanic tribe, the Frisii, that dwelled in what was once Frisia, an independent territory with its own languages and kings. Due to severe flooding, the Frisii suffered a dramatic decrease in population. Those who remained found new neighbors in the Anglo-Saxon settlers, mingling with them to become the ancestors of modern-day Frisians.
After various squabbles for land, a Holy Roman Empire interlude, and a losing war with the counts of Holland, the formerly united Frisia dissolved and was divided up between domains later to become Germany and the Netherlands. Along with this defeat came significant lingual changes. Written records of Old Frisian date back to before the 9th century, but Frisian eventually became a purely oral language and was gradually undermined by the more dominant languages Dutch, German and Low German.
Of the original language, only West Frisian, North Frisian and Saterland Frisian (the last remaining dialect of East Frisian) all managed to withstand the test of time. The struggle for survival is not yet over, however, since all three are officially protected minority languages due to their critically endangered status. There remains some hope: Contemporary revival and conversation efforts are active within local communities. Outside of Germany and the Netherlands, Frisians have also spread out to places like Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
The Frisian Language
So what is the language itself like? Well, it turns out that Old Frisian and Old English had a lot in common, and that relationship remains today: Frisian is English’s closest living relative with 80% lexical similarity. Together, they form their Anglo-Frisian branch of the West Germanic language family tree, which also houses German and Dutch. There’s even a saying that demonstrates their alikeness: “Butter, bread and green cheese is good English and good Frisian,” which is pronounced more or less the same in West Frisian: “Bûter, brea en griene tsiis is goed Ingelsk en goed Frysk.“
Don’t forget that modern Frisian actually consists of three (very similar) mutually unintelligible languages. Here are some useful phrases in each language that show just how much they resemble each other:
|English||Frysk (West Frisian)||Nordfrasch (North Frisian)||Seeltersk (Saterland Frisian)|
|Good morning||Goeie moarn||Moin||Moarn|
|I don’t understand||Ik begryp net||Ik begrip dåt ai||Iek begriep dät nit|
Pretty close, right? Let’s break it down further and take a closer look at each surviving Frisian language.
1. Frysk (West Frisian)
Along with Dutch, West Frisian is the official language in the northern province of Friesland in the Netherlands. There are over 450,000 Frysk speakers, who typically identify themselves as ethnically Dutch, rather than Frisian. They also have their own regional dialects. The two major ones, Clay Frisian (Klaaifrysk) and Wood Frisian (Wâldfrysk), take their names from the Frisian landscape (almost like they’re right out of Game of Thrones). Despite a comparatively high number of native speakers, West Frisian is currently a critically endangered minority language thanks to its historical transformation into a predominantly oral language and present-day low levels of literacy.
Preservation efforts began in the 17th and 18th centuries with poets and academics who pioneered the revival of written Frisian. Historically, West Frisian has been a language of the rural lower class and therefore lacked the stable prestige of Dutch. The Ried fan de Fryske Beweging organization and the education commission, Afûk, are two of the most active agents for raising awareness about West Frisian. There’s even a Frisian academy for linguistic research and the creation of a standardized dictionary.
2. Nordfrasch (North Frisian)
North Frisian is spoken in (surprise, surprise) North Frisia, what is now the northwest island and coastal region of Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. Schleswig-Holstein is home to a variety of languages, with local enclaves of German, English, Danish, Plattdeutsch (Low German) and North Frisian. In truth, Nordfrasch is an amalgamation of nine different dialects spoken today by less than 10,000 people. No lingua franca was able to emerge from these dialects, as the two primary mainland and island factions never established a common cultural or lingual tie.
Additionally, Standard German has gradually modified North Frisian or, in some places, replaced it entirely. Today, North Frisian has a small public presence and most preservation is limited to education efforts in local elementary schools.
3. Seeltersk (Saterland Frisian)
And so we come to the last Frisian dialect: Saterland Frisian. Its 2,000 speakers can be found in the region west of Oldenburg in Lower Saxony, Germany. Similar to North Frisian, German and Dutch have steadily driven out all other modern forms of Old East Frisian. Seeltersk is the last living dialect and still remains critically endangered, due to its concentration in smaller rural communities and lack of academic clout.
The Saterlandic alliance, Seelter Buund, and a prominent community member who translates children’s books into Saterland Frisian, serve as the safeguards of this fragile language. There’s also a playful language learning app targeted towards kids called Kleine Saterfriesen (Little Sater Frisians).