• Janine de Groot

Why the Frisian language is a linguist's dream

Updated: May 2

When it comes to the Germanic languages, most people in the polyglot community are learning West Germanic languages like German and Dutch. Less people are learning North Germanic languages like Norwegian, Swedish and Danish. And up to this day, I have only met one fellow polyglot who has been studying a language that is a unique and very interesting mix of all the above-mentioned languages: Frisian. And that makes sense – Frisian is a minority language after all. It is mostly spoken in the region of Friesland, which is a province in the Netherlands. There are roughly 400,000 native speakers of Frisian in the Netherlands. Additionally, North Frisian is spoken by about 10,000 native speakers and East Frisian (also known as Saterfrisian) is spoken by 1,000 native speakers. 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 spoken in the areas near the North Sea (known as the Mare Frisicum or the Frisian Sea back then). The Frisian language was spread among the North Sea areas through trading activities. The Vikings also settled in Frisia for periods of time throughout the 9th and 10th centuries.

In this blog I will be focusing on West Frisian, the ‘’biggest’’ language out of the three and the language spoken in Friesland where I currently live and the language spoken by both of my parents. Short note: when the Frisians lost their independence in 1498, Dutch became the official language. The Frisian language saw its revitalization in the early 20th century. As a matter of fact, Frisian only received recognition as an official language only in 1956. For five centuries, Frisian was a minority language surrounded by Dutch. Luckily it has managed to retain a written history and a literary tradition. Frisian vs. Germanic languages One of the questions that linguists have raised about Frisian is whether Frisian is the closest language to English. Some linguists argue that it indeed is, whereas other linguists argue that Scottish is the closest. Either way, there is no denying about 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 is also similar to 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 the blog with the following sentence, which I came up with myself, to illustrate how the language is simultaneously 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. During the weekend, they play on 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 seen just earlier. Sneon and snein are radically different from Saturday/Samstag/Zaterdag/Lørdag and Sunday/Sontag/Zondag/Søndag. What happened here? Then there is skoalle (school) and wykein (weekend), which aren’t too different from English. And what’s with this boartsje verb? It means ‘’to play’’ - but Frisians has two verbs for ‘’play’’: spylje and boartsje. I have made the mistake of saying piano boartsje before. In this context, it’s not used correctly. I should have used piano 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 en 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 that, in my point of view, is majestic in its inclusiveness and unique sense of self. Resoures on 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


Afûk offers Frisian self-study courses available in Dutch, German and English. Futurelearn’s Introduction to Frisian


A three-week course on the basics of Frisian, taught in English. Freely accessible. Omrop Fryslân


Frisian radio and TV. The news articles are also available in Dutch. _____________________________________________________________________

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