West Frisian language

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West Frisian
Native toNetherlands
RegionFriesland, Groningen
Native speakers
470,000 (2001 census)[1]
Official status
Official language in
Netherlands (Province of Friesland)
Regulated byFryske Akademy
Language codes
ISO 639-1fy
ISO 639-2fry
ISO 639-3fry
Frisian languages in Europe.svg
Present-day distribution of the Frisian languages in Europe:
  West Frisian
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For a guide to IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.
Map of the West Frisian-speaking areas in the Netherlands

West Frisian, or simply Frisian (Frysk, pronounced [ˈfriːs(k)]; Dutch: Fries [ˈfriːs]) is a West Germanic language spoken mostly in the province of Friesland (Fryslân) in the north of the Netherlands, mostly by those of Frisian ancestry. It is the most widely spoken of the three Frisian languages.

For English linguists West Frisian is notable as being the most closely related language to English outside of Britain.


The name "West Frisian" is only used outside the Netherlands, to distinguish this language from the closely related Frisian languages of Saterland Frisian and North Frisian spoken in Germany. Within the Netherlands, however, "West Frisian" refers to the West Frisian dialect of the Dutch language while the West Frisian language is almost always just called "Frisian" (in Dutch, Fries for the Frisian language and Westfries for the Dutch dialect.) The unambiguous name used for the West Frisian language by linguists in the Netherlands is Westerlauwers Fries [ˈʋɛstərˌlʌu̯ərs ˈfris] (West Lauwers Frisian), the Lauwers being a border river that separates the Dutch provinces of Friesland and Groningen.


Most speakers of West Frisian live in the province of Friesland in the north of the Netherlands. Friesland has 643,000 inhabitants (2005), of whom 94% can understand spoken West Frisian, 74% can speak West Frisian, 75% can read West Frisian, and 27% can write it.[3]

For over half of the inhabitants of the province of Friesland, 55% (c. 354,000 people), West Frisian is the native language. In the central east, West Frisian speakers spill over the province border, with some 4,000–6,000 of them actually living in the province of Groningen, in the triangular area of the villages Marum (West Frisian: Mearum), De Wilp (De Wylp), and Opende (De Grinzer Pein).[4]

Also, many West Frisians have left their province in the last 60 years for more prosperous parts of the Netherlands. Therefore, possibly as many as 150,000 West Frisian speakers live in other Dutch provinces now, particularly in the urban agglomeration in the West, and in neighbouring Groningen and newly reclaimed Flevoland.[citation needed]

In addition, there is a Frisian diaspora abroad, with Friesland having sent, in relative terms, the highest percentage of emigrants of all Dutch provinces between the Second World War and the 1970s. The largest concentrations of Frisian speakers outside the Netherlands are located in Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.

Apart from the use of West Frisian as a first language, it is also spoken as a second language by about 120,000 people in the province of Friesland.[5]

West Frisian is considered by UNESCO to be a language in danger of becoming extinct, officially being listed as "Vulnerable".[6]


The West Frisian language consists of eight dialects, of which four are widely spoken and the other four are confined to small communities of less than a hundred to several hundreds of speakers. The main dialects are mutually intelligible; not all the minor ones are.

The least-used dialect of West Frisian is Skiermûntseagersk, the island dialect of Schiermonnikoog (West Frisian: Skiermûntseach), which is actually on the verge of language death, because it is spoken by no more than 50–100 people (out of an island population of 900 people).

Hindeloopen Frisian (Hylpersk, Dutch Hindeloopers), the archaic West Frisian dialect of the peninsular harbour town of Hindeloopen (Hylpen) on the west coast, is still spoken by some 300 people at the most.

Skylgersk (also known as Westersk) and Aastersk are the dialects of the western and eastern parts of the island of Terschelling (Skylge) and have about 800 and 400 speakers respectively. They are separated from each other by the Dutch dialect of Midslands, which is spoken in the central part of Terschelling.

Because of their insular nature these four less-used dialects are also those that have deviated the most from mainstream West Frisian. In fact, three of the four widely used mainland dialects are so much alike that a non-Frisian could probably not make out any differences.

The fourth mainland dialect, that of Súdwesthoeksk ("South Western"), which is spoken in an area called de Súdwesthoeke ("the Southwest Corner"), deviates from mainstream West Frisian in that it does not adhere to the so-called newer breaking system, a prominent grammatical feature in the three other main dialects.

The Noardhoeksk ("Northern") dialect is spoken in the north eastern corner of the province but does not differ much from Wood Frisian.

By far the two most widely spoken West Frisian dialects are Clay Frisian (Klaaifrysk) and Wood Frisian (Wâldfrysk). Both these names are derived from the Frisian landscape. In the western and north-western parts of the province, the region where Clay Frisian is spoken, the soil is made up of thick marine clay, hence the name. While in the Clay Frisian-speaking area ditches are used to separate the pastures, in the eastern part of the province, where the soil is sandy, and water sinks away much faster, rows of trees are used to that purpose. The dialect spoken in the eastern area is thus called Wood Frisian.

Although Klaaifrysk and Wâldfrysk are mutually very easily intelligible, there are, at least to native West Frisian speakers, a few very conspicuous differences. These include the pronunciation of the words my ("me"), dy ("thee"), hy ("he"), sy ("she" or "they"), wy ("we") and by ("by"), and the diphthongs ei and aai.[7]

Of the two, Wâldfrysk probably has the greater number of speakers, but because the western clay area was originally the more prosperous part of the mostly agricultural province, Klaaifrysk has had the larger influence on the West Frisian standardised language.


Old Frisian[edit]

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 "Greater Frisia" or Frisia Magna, and many of the areas within it still treasure their Frisian heritage, even though in most places the Frisian language has been lost.

Old Frisian bore a striking similarity to Old English. This similarity was reinforced in the late Middle Ages by the Ingvaeonic sound shift, which affected Frisian and English, but the other West Germanic varieties hardly at all. Both English and Frisian are marked by the suppression of the Germanic nasal in a word like us (ús), soft (sêft) or goose (goes): see Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law. Also, when followed by some vowels the Germanic k developed into a ch sound. For example, the West Frisian for cheese and church is tsiis and tsjerke, whereas in Dutch they are kaas and kerk. Modern English and Frisian on the other hand have become very divergent, largely due to the heavy Norse and French influences on English and similarly heavy Dutch and Low German influences on Frisian.

One major difference between Old Frisian and modern Frisian is that in the Old Frisian period (c. 1150c. 1550) grammatical cases still occurred. Some of the texts that are preserved from this period are from the 12th or 13th, but most are from the 14th and 15th centuries. Generally, these texts are restricted to legal documents. Although the earliest definite written examples of Frisian are from approximately the 9th century, there are a few 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 language period (c. 1550c. 1820) is based on the fairly abrupt halt in the use of Frisian as a written language.

Middle Frisian and New Frisian[edit]

Up until the 15th century West Frisian was 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 Albert III, Duke of Saxony, who replaced West Frisian as the language of government with Dutch.

This practice was continued under the Habsburg rulers of the Netherlands (Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and his son Philip II, King of Spain). When the Netherlands became independent in 1585, West Frisian did not regain its former status, because Holland rose 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 Frisian poet Gysbert Japiks (1603–1666), a schoolteacher and cantor from the city of Bolsward (Boalsert), who largely fathered modern West Frisian literature and orthography, was really an exception to the rule.

His example was not followed until the 19th 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 Súdwesthoeksk. Therefore, the New Frisian period is considered to have begun at this time, around 1820.


West Frisian uses the Latin alphabet. A, E, O and U may be accompanied by circumflex or acute accents.

In alphabetical listings both I and Y are usually found between H and J. When two words differ only because one has I and the other one has Y (such as stikje and stykje), the word with I precedes the one with Y.

In handwriting, IJ (used for Dutch loanwords and personal names) is written as a single letter (see IJ (digraph)), whereas in print the string IJ is used. In alphabetical listings IJ is most commonly considered to consist of the two letters I and J, although in dictionaries there is an entry IJ between X and Z telling the user to browse back to I.


Spoken West Frisian



Bilingual West Frisian–Dutch signs in Hindeloopen.

In 1951, Frisian language activists, protesting at the exclusive use of Dutch in the courts, caused a riot in Leeuwarden.[8] The resulting inquiry led to the establishment of a committee of inquiry. This committee recommended that the Frisian language should receive legal status as a minority language.[9]

Since 1956, West Frisian has an official status along with and equal to Dutch in the province of Friesland. It is used in many domains of Frisian society, among which are education, legislation, and administration. In 2010, some sixty public transportation ticket machines in Friesland and Groningen added a West Frisian-language option.[10]

Although in the courts of law the Dutch language is still mainly used, in the province of Friesland, Frisians have the right to give evidence in their own language. Also, they can take the oath in Frisian in courts anywhere in the Netherlands.

Primary education in Friesland was made bilingual in 1956, which means West Frisian can be used as a teaching medium. In the same year, West Frisian became an official school subject, having been introduced to primary education as an optional extra in 1937. It was not until 1980, however, that West Frisian had the status of a required subject in primary schools, and not until 1993 that it was given the same position in secondary education.

In 1997, the province of Friesland officially changed its name from the Dutch form Friesland to the West Frisian Fryslân. So far 6 out of 31 municipalities (Dantumadiel, Tytsjerksteradiel, Boarnsterhim, Littenseradiel, Wûnseradiel and Ferwerderadiel) have changed their official geographical names from Dutch to West Frisian. Some other municipalities, like Heerenveen and the 11 towns, use two names (both Dutch and West Frisian) or only a West Frisian name.

Within ISO 639 West Frisian falls under the codes fy and fry, which were assigned to the collective Frisian languages.

Folklore about relation to English[edit]

Anglo-Frisian languages in Europe.

The saying "As milk is to cheese, are English and Fries" describes the observed similarity between Frisian and English. One rhyme that is sometimes used to demonstrate the palpable similarity between Frisian and English is "Bread, butter and green cheese is good English and good Fries", which sounds not very different from "Brea, bûter en griene tsiis is goed Ingelsk en goed Frysk".[11]

Another rhyme on this theme, "Bûter, brea en griene tsiis; wa't dat net sizze kin is gjin oprjochte Fries" (About this soundexample ; in English, "Butter, bread and green cheese, whoever can't say that is no genuine Frisian") was used, according to legend, by the 16th century Frisian freedom fighter Pier Gerlofs Donia as a shibboleth that he forced his captives to repeat to distinguish Frisians from Dutch and Low Germans.

Despite the genetic relationship with English, Frisian is not intelligible to monolingual English-speakers.

Westerlauwers Frisian[edit]

West Frisian can be confused with an area (or its local language, which is a dialect of Dutch) in the Dutch province Noord-Holland (in Dutch: area = West-Friesland or local language = West-Fries); that is why the term Westlauwersk Frysk or Westerlauwers Frisian for proper West Frisian language has been introduced. The River Lauwers is the part of the border between the Dutch provinces of Friesland and Groningen.

In the Netherlands, West Frisian can refer to the local language spoken in the regions of Hoorn, Enkhuizen and Medemblik.

Sample text[edit]

Below is the Lord's Prayer from the Frisian Bible third edition, published in 1995, with the corresponding English text from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (see also Frisian languages#The Lord's Prayer).

Us Heit yn 'e himel,
lit jo namme hillige wurde,
lit jo keninkryk komme,
lit jo wil dien wurde
op ierde likegoed as yn 'e himel.
Jou ús hjoed ús deistich brea
en ferjou ús ús skulden
sa't wy ús skuldners ek ferjûn hawwe;
en lit ús net yn fersiking komme,
mar ferlos ús fan 'e kweade;
want jowes is it keninkryk
en de krêft
en de hearlikheid
oant yn ivichheid. Amen.

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,
forever and ever. Amen.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ West Frisian at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Western Frisian". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ Provinsje Fryslân (2007), Fluchhifking Fryske Taal.
  4. ^ Gorter, D. L.G. Jansma en G.H. Jelsma (1990), Taal yn it Grinsgebiet. Undersyk nei de taalferhâldings en de taalgrins yn it Westerkertier yn Grinslân. Sosjaal-wittenskiplike rige nummer 10. Akademy-nummer 715. Ljouwert: Fryske Akademy.
  5. ^ Gorter, D. & R.J. Jonkman (1994), Taal yn Fryslân op 'e nij besjoen. Ljouwert: Fryske Akademy.
  6. ^ Moseley, Christopher, ed. (2010). Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. Memory of Peoples (3rd ed.). Paris: UNESCO Publishing. ISBN 978-92-3-104096-2.
  7. ^ Popkema, J. (2006), Grammatica Fries. De regels van het Fries. Utrecht: Het Spectrum.
  8. ^ Geschiedenis van Friesland, 1750–1995, Johan Frieswijk, page 327.
  9. ^ Buruma, Ian (2001-05-31). "The Road to Babel". The New York Review of Books. ISSN 0028-7504.
  10. ^ "Ov-chipkaartautomaten ook in het Fries" [OV chip card machines also in Frisian]. de Volkskrant. 13 September 2010. Retrieved 14 September 2010.
  11. ^ The History of English: A Linguistic Introduction, Scott Shay. Wardja Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0-615-16817-3

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]