- This page covers the Frisian language or languages, as spoken in the North of The Netherlands and Germany.
- For other Frisian languages see Frisian language (disambiguation).
Frisian is a Germanic language, or group of closely related languages, spoken by around half a million members of an ethnic group living on the southern fringes of the North Sea in the Netherlands and Germany. The ancient Frisians figured prominently in North European history. They were especially noted as traders and raiders during Viking times.
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There are three divisions of Frisian: West Lauwers Frisian 'Frysk', Saterland Frisian 'Seeltersk', and North Frisian. Some consider these, despite their mutually unintelligibility, to be dialects of a single Frisian language, while others consider them to be three separate languages. Of the three, especially the North Frisian language is further segmented into several additional strongly unique speech forms.
The northern dialects include Mainland dialects, Island dialects, and the Heligoland dialect. There is such a large difference between the island and mainland forms of North Frisian that it has been speculated that the mainland and insular areas were settled by separate waves of ancient Frisian colonizers in different eras.
Most Frisian speakers live in the Netherlands, primarily in the province of Fryslân, since 1997 officially using its Frisian name, where the number of native speakers is about 350,000. An increasing number of Dutch native speakers in the province of Friesland are able to speak the language. In Germany, there are about 2,000 speakers of Frisian in the Saterland region of Lower Saxony, the Saterland's marshy fringe areas having long protected Frisian speech there from pressure by the surrounding Low German and High German languages.
In the Nordfriesland (Northern Frisia) region of the German province of Schleswig-Holstein, there are 10,000 Frisian speakers. While many of these Frisians live on the mainland, most are found on the islands, notably Sylt, Föhr, Amrum, and Heligoland. The local corresponding Frisian dialects are still in use.
Frisian is officially recognised and protected as a minority language in Germany and is one of the two official languages of the Netherlands. ISO 639 codes 'fy' and 'fry' were assigned to the collective Frisian languages.
Old Frisian was highly similar to Old English, and historically, Frisian is classified as the closest existing language to English (not including Scots). For example, the Frisian for "green cheese" is "griene tsiis", whereas in Dutch it is "groene kaas". One rhyme demonstrates the similarity of the two languages: "Bread, butter and green cheese is good English and good Friese," which is pronounced more or less the same in both languages (Frisian: "Brea, bûter, en griene tsiis is goed Ingelsk en goed Fries.")
This similarity was reinforced in the late Middle Ages by the Ingaevonic sound shift, which affected Frisian and English, but not or hardly the other West Germanic varieties. However, such classifications, where possible, are based on studies of the earliest written forms of languages, so in the case of Frisian and English, they do not take into account the centuries of drift of English away from Frisian norms. Thus the modern languages are mostly unintelligible to each other, partly due to the marks Low Franconian languages (such as Dutch) and Low Saxon/Low German have left on Frisian. Still, in 1945 it was noted by English-speaking liberators of The Netherlands that in Fryslân, only, they were able to communicate with the local population when they each spoke their own language.
The earliest definite written examples of Frisian are from approximately the 9th century. A few examples of runic inscriptions from the region 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. Actual Frisian writings appear a few centuries later, and are generally restricted to legalistic writings — this the Old Frisian period.
Each of the languages has several dialects. Between some, the differences are such that they rarely hamper understanding, there just the number of speakers justifies the denominator of 'dialect', in other cases, even neighbouring dialects may hardly be mutually intelligible.
- West Frisian language, spoken in the Netherlands.
- Clay Frisian
- Wood Frisian
- East Frisian language, spoken in Lower Saxony, Germany.
- Several extinct dialects
- North Frisian language, spoken in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany.