Arts, Culture & Media

The first cousin of the English language is alive and well in the Netherlands

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Students Andries Jacobi, Nienke Kooi and Fardau de Vries attend a trilingual (Dutch, Frisian, English) public school in Koudum in the Dutch province of Friesland.   

Credit:

Patrick Cox

People who study the evolution of the English language have always had a fascination with Frisian. 

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In their older forms, the two languages shared vocabulary and grammar patterns that differed from other Germanic languages.  

It's less clear today. The Norman invasion of England in 1066 resulted in a French invasion of English, while Dutch has rubbed off on Frisian, or at least the version of Frisian that is spoken in the Netherlands.

Many children's books are translated into Frisian.

Credit:

Patrick Cox

English has become the world's premier language. And Frisian ... it has managed to hang on, against the odds. It's now making a comeback, partly thanks to the European Union and Dutch government support (sometimes begrudgingly) for Frisian language schools, news media and performance arts. Frisians themselves are more likely to say their language has survived because of the determination of the Frisian people. Non-Frisians in the Netherlands sometimes characterize this as stubbornness. Whatever it is, people in villages across the province of Friesland still speak Frisian. And increasingly, young people write in Frisian, especially when using social media.

So what about that connection with English? It goes back at least 1,400 years. The English king Ethelbert oversaw the establishment of the so-called Kentish laws, the first laws that we know of written in any Germanic language. The Kentish Laws are the oldest surviving documents in Old English.

This is the oldest fragment of Old Frisian, circa 1100-1125. It was sold by Sotheby’s in 2014 and bought by a private collector in Belgium. 

Credit:

Courtesy of Han Nijdam

Medievalist scholar Han Nijdam of the Frisian Academy in the Netherlands has studied both these and a similar set of laws written in Old Frisian. There are sections that deal with compensation for acts of violence — eye-gouging, nose-piercing ("one nostril or two") and beard-burning. "The list goes on and on," says Nijdam. The offenses and the punishments are remarkably similar in the two sets of documents. The language too. The words for "hairpulling" for example are almost identical in Old English and Old Frisian.

I spoke with Nijdam and many others in Friesland about the Frisian language: writers, artists, teachers, students and just plain old speakers of a language that has refused to die.

Frisian teacher Anna Marije Bloem discusses an essay topic with students.

Credit:

Patrick Cox

Podcast Contents

00:30 The Kentish Laws and the Frisian connection

1:05 Soundtrack provided by "Furious Frisian folk" band Baldrs Draumar.

4:02 Frisian in America. You can hear it, if you're lucky.

6:22 The Frisian view: "Dutch people can really be so stuck up."

7:20 The Dutch view: "I get a bit tired by Frisians going on about how special their language is."

8:50 Teaching and language activist Anna Marije Bloem: "Do you think we are stubborn?"

9:30 I am on Frisian TV

12:26 Clubbing Friday. Not what you think. 

Dutch MP Lutz Jacobi raised eyebrows when she pledged allegiance in Frisian at the coronation of Dutch King Willem-Alexander in 2013. 

Credit:

Patrick Cox

14:52 Frisian-speaking Dutch MP Lutz Jacobi gets cute with the new king of the Netherlands. 

17:30 English and Frisian are grammatical bedfellows.

19:30 Why Frisian today sounds so similar to Dutch. 

Ira Judkovskaja is the artistic director of Frisian-language theater company Tryater.

Ira Judkovskaja is the artistic director of Frisian-language theater company Tryater.

Credit:

Omrop Fryslân/Annet Huisman

20:46 Theater director Ira Judkovskaja: "There are some people who call me 'Our Frisian Russian.'"

21:52 A play about Friesland's epic speedskating race. 

Novelist Willem Schoorstra at his home in Ternaard, Friesland. 

Credit:

Patrick Cox

25:20 Learning in three languages.

27:08 Weirded out at the very idea of writing in Frisian.

28:10 Social media is reintroducing Frisians to written Frisian. 

29:10 Standard written Frisian may not remain standard.

29:30 Why novelist Willem Schoorstra never corrects people's written Frisian on Facebook. 

30:30 "In 100 years, our language will be very different."

31:00 Willem Schoorstra's first novel is being made into a film

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National Endowment for the Humanities

With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities