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Frisian languages

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Title: Frisian languages  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Saterland Frisian language, West Frisian language, North Frisian language, Frisians, Languages of Europe
Collection: Frisian Languages, Languages of Germany, Languages of the Netherlands
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Frisian languages

Bilingual sign in German and North Frisian, respectively, in Husum, Germany
Native to Netherlands, Germany
Region Friesland, Groningen, Lower Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein
Native speakers
480,000  (2001)
Early forms
Official status
Official language in
Regulated by NL: Fryske Akademy
D: no official regulation
unofficial: the Seelter Buund (for Sater Frisian), the Nordfriisk Instituut (for North Frisian)
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Glottolog fris1239[1]
Linguasphere 52-ACA
Present-day distribution of the Frisian languages in Europe:

The Frisian [2] languages are a closely related group of Germanic languages, spoken by about 500,000 members of Frisian ethnic groups, who live on the southern fringes of the North Sea in the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. The Frisian dialects are the closest living languages to English, after Scots. However, modern English and Frisian are mostly unintelligible to each other. Frisian languages bear similarities to Low German, Dutch (from which many Frisian words have been borrowed), and Danish. Additional shared linguistic characteristics between the Great Yarmouth area, Friesland, and Denmark are likely to have resulted from the close trading relationship these areas maintained during the centuries-long Hanseatic League of the Late Middle Ages.


  • Division 1
    • Speakers 1.1
    • Status 1.2
  • History 2
    • Old Frisian 2.1
    • Middle Frisian 2.2
  • Family tree 3
  • Text samples 4
    • The Lord's Prayer 4.1
    • Comparative sentence 4.2
  • See also 5
  • References 6
    • Notes 6.1
    • General references 6.2
  • External links 7


There are three varieties of Frisian: West Frisian, Saterland Frisian, and North Frisian. Some linguists consider these three varieties, despite their mutual unintelligibility, to be dialects of one single Frisian language, whereas others consider them to be three separate languages, as do their speakers. West Frisian is strongly influenced by Dutch, and, similar to Dutch, is described as being "between" English and German. The other Frisian varieties, meanwhile, have been influenced by German, Low German, and Danish. The North Frisian language especially is further segmented into several strongly diverse dialects. Stadsfries is not Frisian, but a Dutch dialect influenced by Frisian. Frisian is called Frysk in West Frisian, Fräisk in Saterland Frisian, and Frasch, Fresk, Freesk, and Friisk in the dialects of North Frisian.

The situation in the Dutch province of Groningen and the German region of East Frisia is more complex: The local Low Saxon dialects of Gronings and East Frisian Low Saxon are a mixture of Frisian and Low Saxon dialects; it is believed that Frisian was spoken there at one time, only to have been gradually replaced by the language of the city of Groningen. This local language is now, in turn, being replaced by standard Dutch.


Most Frisian speakers live in the Netherlands, primarily in the province of Friesland, since 1997 officially using its West Frisian name of Fryslân, where the number of native speakers is about 350,000. An increasing number of native Dutch speakers in the province are learning Frisian as a second language.

In Germany, there are about 2,000[3] speakers of Saterland Frisian in the Saterland region of Lower Saxony; the Saterland's marshy fringe areas have long protected Frisian speech there from pressure by the surrounding Low German and standard German.

In the Nordfriesland (North Frisia) region of the German province of Schleswig-Holstein, there are 10,000[4] North Frisian speakers. Although many of these live on the mainland, most are found on the islands, notably Sylt, Föhr, Amrum, and Heligoland. The local corresponding North Frisian dialects are still in use.


Saterland and North Frisian[5] are officially recognised and protected as minority languages in Germany, and West Frisian is one of the two official languages in the Netherlands, the other being Dutch. ISO 639-1 code fy and ISO 639-2 code fry were assigned to "Frisian", but that was changed in November 2005 to "Western Frisian". According to the ISO 639 Registration Authority the "previous usage of [this] code has been for Western Frisian, although [the] language name was "Frisian".[6]

The new ISO 639 code stq is used for the Saterland Frisian language, a variety of Eastern Frisian (not to be confused with East Frisian Low Saxon, a West Low German dialect). The new ISO 639 code frr is used for the North Frisian language variants spoken in parts of Schleswig-Holstein.

The Ried fan de Fryske Beweging took care of the Frisian language varieties being constitutionalized. Nevertheless, Saterland Frisian and most dialects of North Frisian are seriously endangered.[7]


Old Frisian text from 1345.

Old Frisian

In the early Middle Ages the Frisian lands stretched from the area around Bruges, in what is now Belgium, to the river Weser, in northern Germany. At that time, the Frisian language was spoken along the entire southern North Sea coast. Today this region is sometimes referred to as Great Frisia or Frisia Magna, and many of the areas within it still treasure their Frisian heritage, even though in most places the Frisian languages have been lost.

Frisian is the language most closely related to English and Scots, but after at least five hundred years of being subject to the influence of Dutch, modern Frisian in some aspects bears a greater similarity to Dutch than to English; one must also take into account the centuries-long drift of English away from Frisian. Thus the two languages have become less mutually intelligible over time, partly due to the marks which Dutch and Low German have left on Frisian, and partly due to the vast influence some languages (in particular Norman French) have had on English throughout the centuries. Although intelligibility is often strained between the two languages (especially spoken), the Northumbrian dialect of English bears a striking similarity to Frisian in many ways.

Old Frisian,[8] however, was very similar to Old English. Historically, both English and Frisian are marked by the loss of the Germanic nasal in words like us (ús; uns in German), soft (sêft; sanft) or goose (goes; Gans): see Anglo-Frisian nasal spirant law. 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. Contrarily, this did not happen for chin and choose, which are kin and kieze.[9]

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 Ingelsk en goed Frysk.") [10]

One major difference between Old Frisian and modern Frisian is that in the Old Frisian period (c.1150-c.1550) grammatical cases still existed. Some of the texts that are preserved from this period are from the twelfth or thirteenth, but most are from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Generally, all these texts are restricted to legalistic writings. Although the earliest definite written examples of Frisian are from approximately the 9th century, there are a few examples of runic inscriptions from the region which are probably older and possibly in the Frisian language. These runic writings however usually do not amount to more than single- or few-word inscriptions, and cannot be said to constitute literature as such. The transition from the Old Frisian to the Middle Frisian period (c.1550-c.1820) in the sixteenth century is based on the fairly abrupt halt in the use of Frisian as a written language.

Middle Frisian

Up until the fifteenth 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. This was in part due to the occupation of its stronghold, the Dutch province of Friesland (Fryslân), in 1498, by Duke Albert of Saxony, who replaced Frisian as the language of government with Dutch.

Afterwards this practice was continued under the Habsburg rulers of the Netherlands (the German Emperor Charles V and his son, the Spanish King Philip II), and even when the Netherlands became independent, in 1585, Frisian did not regain its former status. The reason for this was the rise of Holland as the dominant part of the Netherlands, and its language, Dutch, as the dominant language in judicial, administrative and religious affairs.

In this period the great Frisian poet Gysbert Japiks (1603–66), a schoolteacher and cantor from the city of Bolsward, who largely fathered modern Frisian literature and orthography, was really an exception to the rule.

His example was not followed until the nineteenth century, when entire generations of Frisian authors and poets appeared. This coincided with the introduction of the so-called newer breaking system, a prominent grammatical feature in almost all West Frisian dialects, with the notable exception of Southwest Frisian. Therefore, the Modern Frisian period is considered to have begun at this point in time, around 1820.

Frisian-language signs
Bilingual signs in Friesland (Netherlands)
Bilingual signs Hindeloopen in Friesland (Netherlands) with the West Frisian name above and the Dutch below
Bilingual sign in North Frisia (Germany) with the German name above and the North Frisian name below
Bilingual sign in Niebüll in North Frisia (Germany) with the German name above and the North Frisian name below
Bilingual sign in Saterland (Germany)
Bilingual sign in Ramsloh, Saterland (Germany) with the German name above and the East Frisian name below

Family tree

Each of the Frisian languages has several dialects. Between some, the differences are such that they rarely hamper understanding; only the number of speakers justifies the denominator of "dialect". In other cases, even neighbouring dialects may hardly be mutually intelligible.

Text samples

The Lord's Prayer

The Lord's Prayer in Standard Western Frisian (Frysk):

Us Heit, dy't yn de himelen is
jins namme wurde hillige.
Jins keninkryk komme.
Jins wollen barre,
allyk yn 'e himel
sa ek op ierde.
Jou ús hjoed ús deistich brea.
En ferjou ús ús skulden,
allyk ek wy ferjouwe ús skuldners.
En lied ús net yn fersiking,
mar ferlos ús fan 'e kweade.
[Want Jowes is it keninkryk en de krêft
en de hearlikheid oant yn ivichheid.] "Amen"

The English translation in the 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer:

Our Father, which 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 trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
But deliver us from evil.
[For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory,
For ever and ever.] Amen.

(NB: Which was changed to "who", in earth to "on earth," and them that to "those who" in the 1928 version of the Church of England prayer book and used in other later Anglican prayer books too. However, the words given here are those of the original 1662 book as stated)

Comparative sentence

  • Saterland Frisian: Die Wänt strookede dät Wucht uum ju Keeuwe un oapede hier ap do Sooken.
  • North Frisian (Mooring dialect): Di dreng aide dåt foomen am dåt kan än mäket har aw da siike.
  • West Frisian: De jonge streake it famke om it kin en tute har op 'e wangen.
  • Gronings: t Jong fleerde t wicht om kinne tou en smokte heur op wange.
  • East Frisian Low Saxon: De Fent/Jung straktde dat Wicht um't Kinn to un tuutjede hör up de Wangen.
  • Danish: Drengen strøg/aede pigen på hagen og kyssede hende på kinden.
  • Dutch: De jongen aaide/streek het meisje langs haar kin en kuste/zoende haar op haar wangen.
  • Dutch Low Saxon: De jonge strek 't dearntje um de kinne en gaf heur een smok op de wangen.
  • Colognian: Dä Fänt/Jong strech däm Weech öm_et Kenn un büzd_em op de Backe.
  • German: Der Junge streichelte das Mädchen ums Kinn und küsste es auf die Wange.
  • English: The boy stroked the girl around the chin and kissed her on the cheeks.
  • Lancashire dialect and accent: Th' lad strorkt 'lass on 'jib an busst er on th' cheaks.
  • Modern Scots: The laddie straikit the lassie aboot the chin an kisst her on the chowk.
  • Swedish: Pojken strök/smekte flickan på hakan och kysste henne på kinden.

See also



  1. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Frisian". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  2. ^ Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student’s Handbook, Edinburgh
  3. ^ "Gegenwärtige Schätzungen schwanken zwischen 1.500 und 2.500." Marron C. Fort: Das Saterfriesische. In: Horst Haider Munske,Nils Århammar: Handbuch des Friesischen – Handbook of Frisian Studies. Niemayer (Tübingen 2001).
  4. ^
  5. ^ Gesetz zur Förderung des Friesischen im öffentlichen Raum - Wikisource (German)
  6. ^ Christian Galinski; Rebecca Guenther; Håvard Hjulstad. "Registration Authority Report 2004-2005" (PDF). p. 4. Archived from the original on 2007-10-20. Retrieved 2007-11-23. 
  7. ^ Matthias Brenzinger, Language Diversity Endangered, Mouton de Gruter, The Hague: 222
  8. ^ Rolf H. Bremmer Jr, An Introduction to Old Frisian. History, Grammar, Reader, Glossary (Amsterdam & Philadelphia, 2009)
  9. ^ "English to Frisian dictionary". 
  10. ^ The History of English: A Linguistic Introduction. Scott Shay, Wardja Press, 2008, ISBN 0-615-16817-5, ISBN 978-0-615-16817-3

General references

  • Omniglot links to various Frisian resources
  • Tresoar - Frisian Historical and Literary Centre
  • "Research".  

External links

  • The Frisian foundation
  • Frisian-English dictionary
  • [PDFHewett, Waterman Thomas, The Frisian language and literature]
  • 'Hover & Hear' Frisian pronunciations, and compare with equivalents in English and other Germanic languages.
  • Frisian: Standardisation in Progress of a Language in Decay PDF (231 KiB)
  • Description of language including audio files
  • Frisian radio
  • Radio news in North Frisian
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