View Full Version : The Frisian Language

The Black Prince
Sunday, January 1st, 2006, 11:51 PM

Development of the Frisian language

Frisian is a West Germanic language which is spoken by about 400,000 people in the province of Friesland in the Netherlands. It is closely related to Dutch but also shows a number of striking similarities to English, especially at the lexical level.

Dutch is, however, the most important language for the development of Frisian. In the course of history the two languages kept coming into contact with each other. This linguistic contact was determined by the power relationship in the Low Countries and has been a great influence in the development of the present language situation in Friesland.

It is difficult to determine the time from when it is meaningful to speak of "a Frisian language", just as it is with Dutch. In about the 8th century the Germanic languages Old Saxon, Old Franconian, Old Frisian etc were still close to each other.

In the 5th century the tribe of the Frisians inhabited the whole North Sea coast from the Rhine to the Elbe, and probably exercised some influence on the languages of the other tribes in that area. Not until the 8th century were the Frisians driven back, and finally subjugated by Charlemagne. After his death the regions he had conquered fell apart again.

During the whole of the Middle Ages Friesland was monolingual and autonomous, under the leadership of frequently changing tribal chiefs. Old Frisian was not only the spoken language but also the official language of government and judicial power. Old Frisian legal documents have survived from the 13th century.

In the course of the 16th century Friesland lost its independence - in 1579 it became part of the Republic of the United Netherlands. The government passed into Dutch hands and standardised Dutch became the language of writing, government, school and church.
Influential Hollanders settled in the Frisian towns - Frisian and Dutch came into contact with each other and what was later to be known as "Stadsfries" ["Town Frisian"] arose.

There are two explanations today for this language variant. On the one hand it is claimed that Town Frisian is the language of the Frisians who tried to adapt themselves to the new Dutch upper echelons (ie they spoke a "Hollandised Frisian"; see Boelens, 1982: 41). On the other hand it is also thought possible that Town Frisian is a further development of 16/17th century Holland dialect, under influence of Frisian (ie it is really a variant of the dialect of Holland province; see Jonkman, 1993).

As a result of the polderisation of the "Middelzee" in the 16th century farmers from Holland province settled on the new land. Here too there was language contact - the Bildt dialect arose.

Until the 19th century Frisian developed further only as a spoken language. It was driven back to the interior and there underwent hardly any influence from Dutch. The language of the upper social levels (in towns) was Dutch, that of the middle classes was Town Frisian, which managed to preserve its relatively high status until the 1950s. Written Frisian hardly existed in this period.

One exception was formed by the 17th century poet Gysbert Japiks who wrote his poems in Frisian. Not until the 19th century, with the rise of romanticism, did anything arise that could be called a Frisian language consciousness - "people's poets" such as Joost Hiddes Halbertsma wrote in Frisian.

However, there was no question of Frisian having a place in government, school and church in the 19th century. In schools the teachers were even advised "Friesch Boers niet te gedogen" ["not to tolerate rustic Frisian"] (De Jong/Riemersma, 1994: 15). Moreover Frisian had still not become standardised - not until 1879 did it get its first official spelling.

The 20th century brought gradual improvements for Frisian. Frisian took over more and more domains. Since 1937 Frisian could also be taught in elementary schools and since 1955 it could also be used as the medium of tuition. Since 1980 it has been a compulsory language in elementary schools, and since 1993 also in secondary education. Since the 1950s Frisian may be used in courts, official documents may be drafted in Frisian and there is also the possibility for bilingual place name signs.
The first bible translation dates from the 1940s.

At the same time, however, Dutch was also invading the old Frisian domains (country community matters and the family), primarily as a result of migration and mixed marriages. The language situation in Friesland changed in this way from a stable diglossia (Frisian for the country and informal domains, Dutch for the town and formal domains) into a sort of informal (and receptive) polylingualism.

Attitudes to Frisian have become ever more positive, and it has become acceptable to use it in more and more domains (radio, newspapers etc) and a growing number of people know Frisian, at least passively.
"Stedsk" in general, and Leeuwarden dialect (a version of Town Frisian) in particular, increasingly lost status. The Leeuwarden dialect became a sociolect that is now only spoken by the lower classes (see Jonkman, 1993).In recent years, however, there have been "action" to encourage people to use their "Leeuwarders" dialect.

In principle Dutch is naturally still the dominant language in Friesland, and Frisian is therefore strongly influenced by it, particularly at the lexical level. More and more people say, for example, sleutel ["key"] rather than kaai, and saterdei ["Saturday"] instead of sneon.
On the other hand, the influences of Frisian on Standard Dutch are meagre - the only words to have found entry into Dutch are those from sport terminology such as skûtsjesilen (competitive sailing with old sailing boats) and klunen (skating overland).

Frisian in Friesland (NL)

The province of Friesland is now multilingual. Alongside the national language (Dutch) and the regional language (Frisian) a number of dialects are also spoken, viz the dialects of Stellingwerf (a Saxon dialect), the area of Het Bildt (in the north west) and Town Frisian or Stedsk in the towns.

Frisian today, as can be seen from the studie van Gorter en Jonkman (1994), is the first language of 54.8% of the inhabitants of the province, and about 94% have a passive knowledge of the language.

First language:

Standard Frisian = 54,8 %
Standard Dutch = 28,0 %
Frisian dialect = 10,7 %
Dutch dialect = 4,5 %
other language = 2,0 %

Mastery of Frisian:

understanding = 94,3 %
speaking = 74,0 %
reading = 64,5 %
writing = 17,0 %

(Gorter/Jonkman, 1994)

Description of Frisian


Germanic (with Gothic, German, Swedish etc.), West Germanic (with Dutch, English etc.)


Spoken today in the Dutch state of Friesland, also on the Frisian islands in Germany and the Netherlands. Formerly was spread wider in Lowlands and even on the Jutland peninsula.


Frisian is especially rich in vowels and diphthongs: at all there are about 25 diphthongs and 6 triphthongs in the language. Diphthongs, as well as single vowels, vary in the root ablaut mutation (doar [do:ar] 'door' - doarren [dwaren] 'doors'). Together with Afrikaans Frisian is unique among Germanic languages for its nasal vowels. The sound [r] looks more like English, unlike Dutch and German - it is alveolar, not uvular. Unvoiced p, t, k are aspirated before a stressed vowel.

Nominal Morphology:

Frisian morphology is considerably richer than that of its closest relative English. The noun here has two genders, two numbers and two cases. Old Frisian had also the feminine gender, but later it coincided with masculine. The plural is formed by -s and -en endings (heit 'father' - heiten). Old Frisian kept the remains of four cases, while today's language preserved only genitive. Moreover, genitive as well is used less and less frequently, replaced by complex constructions (mem har stoel 'mother's chair'). There are definite (de, it) and indefinite (in) articles.

Verbal Morphology:

Formerly conjugated, the Frisian verb now has personal changes in the singular only. The tenses are common with similar Germanic languages, including English. All other verbal categories are also formed in an analytical way.


The Dutch language is much more suitable for expressing complex social and cultural terms, and this is why there are plenty of Dutch words in Frisian. The whole population of Friesland can speak both languages.


Latin alphabet

Close Contacts:

The closest Germanic language is English, more distant ones are Dutch and Afrikaans.


Us heit, dy't yn de himelen binne; jins namme wurde hillige. Jins keninkryk komme. Jins wollen barre allyk yn 'e himel, sa ek op ierde. Jow ús hjoed ús deistich brea. En forjow ús ús skulden, allyk ek wy forjowe ús skuldners. En lied ús net yn forsiking, mar forlos ús fan 'e kweade, Hwant Jowes is it keninkryk en de krêft en de hearlikheit oant yn ivichheit.., Amen.

Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever.., Amen. (Modern West Frisian/Geef-Frysk)

Old Frisian sample:

In contrast to Dutch where the Old Dutch period ends in the 12th century, in the case of Frisian we speak of Old Frisian until about 1550. The Frisian language of the 13th and 14th century shows certain features which correspond to the oldest linguistic forms of the other West Germanic languages, for example unreduced vowels in unstressed syllables. This can be clearly seen in the following passage from the Hungsingoër tekst from 1252 (taken from De Friese taal, 1995: 3):

Thet thredde bod: fira thene sunnandei en there helche degan. (Fr)

Het derde gebod: gij zult de zondag vieren en de heilige dagen. (NL)

The third commandment: honour Sunday and the holy days. (En)



Bronnen (http://www.ned.univie.ac.at/publicaties/taalgeschiedenis/bibliographie.htm#gorter)

Monday, December 10th, 2007, 07:57 PM
Map of area where today still the Frisian language is been spoken.