Frisian is my native language and is generally regarded as the closest language to English that is still spoken.  West Frisian is spoken in the Dutch province of Friesland.  North Frisian is still spoken in a part of Germany, on some of the islands and mainland of the North Sea coast below Denmark.  Finally, there are some speakers of East Frisian in the area of Germany between Oldenburg and the Dutch border.

The following information is from the introduction to my Frisian Reference Grammar and will give you some additional information about the language.  I have also placed some sound files on this website. 

1.1.  Frisian

Frisian is one of a number of Germanic languages, a family which also includes
English, German, Dutch, Afrikaans, Norwegian, Danish, Faroese, Swedish, and
Icelandic. Of these languages, the last five comprise what are known as the
Scandinavian (or North Germanic) languages, while those remaining are
classified as West Germanic. Dutch, Afrikaans, and German are closely related,
just as the relationship between English and Frisian is, at least in historical
terms, a close one.

Frisian, which is thus the living language most similar to English, is spoken
in three main areas in The Netherlands and in Germany. Some ten thousand
speakers of North Frisian live on the western coast of Schleswig-Holstein in
Germany just beneath the Danish border. This region includes the environs of
Naibel (Ger. Niebüll) and much of the rest of the area north of Bräist
(Bredstedt), as well as the islands of Söl (Sylt), Feer (Föhr), Oomram (Amrum)
and Deät Lun (Helgoland). (Note: throughout this book names of Frisian places
are given in Frisian). The dialects spoken in these areas differ substantially from
the other varieties of Frisian and also among themselves, to the extent that
speakers from one region often cannot understand those from another. At this
time virtually all varieties of North Frisian are severely threatened by German,
although perhaps in part on account of this threat, there is increased appreciation
of the cultural value which the survival of this language offers its speakers.

In a different region of Germany, located between the city of Oldenburg and
the Dutch frontier, is the last remaining pocket of speakers of East Frisian. Real
East Frisian should not to be confused with a type of Low German called
Ostfriesisch. The real East Frisian was once extensively spoken throughout the
countryside of what is known as Ostfriesland. Its use receded until the last
speakers of the East Frisian Island dialect of Wangerooge died at the beginning
of this century, leaving the inhabitants of Saterland as the only representatives
of this variety of the language. In the villages of Schäddel (Ger. Scharrel),
Strukelje (Strücklingen), and Roomelse (Ramsloh), some one to two thousand
souls use East Frisian (Seeltersk) for their daily communicative needs.

This grammar will describe West Frisian, the language of three to four
hundred thousand residents of the province of Fryslân in The Netherlands. The
Dutch province of Groningen and the uppermost portion of the province of North
Holland (still referred to locally as Westfriesland) were also heavily Frisianspeaking
at one time, but the language has been displaced there by various
Netherlandic dialects and, more recently, by Standard Dutch (Algemeen

1.2. Origins

The first historical mention of the Frisians was made just after the time of Christ
by Pliny, who locates them near the mouth of the Rhine. Tacitus later
corroborates this. Nonetheless, the exact extent of Frisian territory in early times
cannot be determined with absolute accuracy. What seems fairly certain is that
Frisian was spoken along the North Sea coast between what is now the Iselmar
(Du. IJsselmeer) in The Netherlands and the Weser River in Germany. It was
also the language of the upper part of the province of North Holland and appears
at times to have been spoken even further south along the coast. North Friesland
was colonized from East or West Friesland in two migration waves in the 8th/9th
century and the 11th/12th century, which accounts for the fact that the regions
between East and North Friesland are not traditionally Frisian-speaking.

The earliest documentation of the Frisian language comes from East and West
Friesland, mainly in the form of runic inscriptions and isolated words or names
in Latin texts. The oldest complete texts in Frisian are legal documents which
date from the thirteenth century, although they almost certainly reflect a
language older than that. Until approximately 1550 several manuscripts containing
mainly Frisian legal texts were compiled in both East and West Friesland.
The language of this period is referred to as Old Frisian, even though Old
Frisian does not overlap chronologically with other “old” Germanic dialects like
Old English.

Although the hypothesis that Old Frisian and Old English are derived from a
common mother tongue known as Anglo-Frisian is an oversimplification, it
remains true that Frisian is genetically the closest related language to English.
The tremendous influence of French on English and of Dutch on Frisian, along
with natural changes over time, has obscured this, but even today certain
features common to Frisian and English (as opposed to Dutch and German)
document this relationship. One common development in English and Frisian is
that eg became an ei or ai sound in certain positions, as the following words

Frisian     English     Dutch     German
dei            day             dag          Tag
rein           rain            regen        Regen
wei            way            weg            Weg
neil           nail             nagel         Nagel

A related similarity is that g was converted to j (the sound of English y) in both
languages under specific conditions:

Frisian     English     Dutch     German
jilde             yield         gelden     gelten
jern             yarn         garen         Garn
juster           yester(day) gister     gestern

In much the same way, k became ch in English and tsj (which sometimes
becomes ts) in Frisian:

Frisian     English     Dutch     German
tsjerke     church         kerk     Kirche
tsjerne     churn         karne
tsiis         cheese         kaas     Käse
tsjef         chaff         kaf         Kaff

In a further development, the n before a voiceless fricative ( f, th, or s) was
largely lost in Old English and Old Frisian:

Frisian     English     Dutch     German
ús             us             ons             uns
goes         goose         gans         Gans
oar             other         ander     ander

One final feature common to English and Frisian is that an earlier e in the two
languages (now pronounced [ie] in Frisian and [i] in English) corresponds to
long a in the other West Germanic languages:

Frisian     English     Dutch     German
sliepe         sleep         slapen     schlafen
died         deed             daad     Tat
skiep         sheep         schaap     Schaf

The language used in West Friesland from about 1550 to 1800 is known as
Middle Frisian. By his time, Frisian had ceased to be the official language of the
region, legal documents now for the most part being composed in Dutch. For
some time Frisian lay dormant as a written tongue, until it was revived by the
important poet Gysbert Japicx (1603-1666).

Inspired to a large extent by the writing of Japicx, the Halbertsma brothers of
Grou ushered in the New Frisian period, which traditionally is regarded to have
begun in approximately 1800. Their prolific writings form the basis for Frisian
Romanticism and initiated a true revival of the language as a literary medium.
The efforts of writers like Waling Dykstra, along with the establishment of the
Fryske Beweging (Frisian Movement), have led to the elevation of Frisian from
being viewed as just a “farmers’ language” in the past century to what it is today
- a medium which can be used in local government, schools, and churches, as
well as in literary pursuits. Nonetheless, the ever greater pressures of larger
languages, which ultimately threaten even established smaller tongues like
Dutch, remain a powerful force which, willfully or otherwise, make the continued
existence of minority languages a constant struggle.

1.3. West Frisian
1.3.1. The West Frisian dialects

West Frisian is spoken throughout the province of Fryslân, with the exception
of the following areas. It is traditionally not spoken in It Bilt (Dutch Het Bildt),
an area which was reclaimed from the sea in the sixteenth century and was
subsequently settled by Dutch farmers. The people in It Bilt now speak a dialect
of Dutch with a number of Frisian characteristics. Furthermore, in the Stellingwerven,
a narrow strip of land between the river Tsjonger (Dutch Kuinder)
and the province of Drenthe, as well as in the area around Kollum in the northeast
corner of the province, Saxon dialects are spoken, albeit with varying
measures of Frisian influence.

As Frisian ceased to be the official language in the sixteenth century, the
language of government and commerce increasingly became Dutch, a trend
which only recently has begun to swing back to Frisian in a limited number of
domains. Government and trade being largely the prerogative of the cities, it
came about that the residents of the larger towns developed dialects based on
Dutch, although heavily influenced by Frisian. These dialects, called Stedfrysk
or “Town Frisian”, are today spoken in the cities of Ljouwert (Leeuwarden),
Snits (Sneek), Dokkum, Frjentsjer (Franeker), Boalsert (Bolsward), Harns
(Harlingen), Starum (Stavoren), and in the village of Kollum. Many of these
“mixed” dialects are being supplanted by Standard Dutch at present.

Of the four Frisian islands, the language is indigenous today to Skiermûntseach
(Schiermonnikoog) and Skylge (Terschelling). Each of these islands must
be considered a separate speech area, for their dialects differ significantly not
only from those on the mainland, but also from one another. All the island
dialects are severely threatened by Dutch. The island of Amelân (Ameland) has
long had a Dutch dialect with Frisian influence.

The mainland itself forms a much more homogeneous speech community. One
fairly divergent dialect, showing certain similarities with the speech of the
islands, is that of Hylpen (Hindeloopen). The surrounding land, the southernmost
part of the province known as the Súdwesthoeke, is one of the major dialect
areas of mainland Frisian, although its speech is easily understood by others. It
is distinguished from Klaaifrysk, spoken roughly in the western half of the
province, and Wâldfrysk, the language of the eastern section, largely by the
absence of the phonological process of breaking (see section One of the
most salient features identifying speakers of Wâldfrysk is that they pronounce
pronouns such as hy (Klaaifrysk: [hHi]) ‘he’ and my (Klaaifrysk: [mHi]) ‘me’ as
[hi] and [mi], respectively. A subgrouping of Klaaifrysk is the Noardklaai
dialect of the area known as the Dongeradielen.

1.3.2. Standard Frisian

The vast majority of the languages of the world do not possess a “standard”
variety. Rather, the most common situation, which once held also for now
well-established languages like French, English, and Dutch, is when a language
is divided into a number of dialects, none of which is considered superior to the
others. This was essentially the state of affairs in The Netherlands during the
Middle Ages, for example. Several Germanic dialects were in use at the time,
and the few people who were literate in the vernacular wrote essentially as they
spoke. This situation began to change as the region of Holland consolidated its
influence over the surrounding areas. The language of Holland thus came to be
increasingly used in administration and trade throughout The Netherlands,
especially after the Union of Utrecht in 1579. This led to its being recognized as
the standard dialect of all of The Netherlands, making it the medium of the
schools, churches, and of government. Similar scenarios describe the development
of many other standard languages. In a linguistic sense, then, a language
is simply a group of closely related dialects. One of these dialects, often that
spoken by the largest number of speakers or by those having the greatest power,
is accepted by all other speakers, or is forced upon them, as a ‘standard’.

While leery of the inherent pressure towards homogeneity which the development
of a standard language entails, Frisian scholars and activists, in part
because of a need for an interregional variety of the language to be used for
writing, in bilingual education, in schools, and to be taught to interested non-
Frisians, developed a literary language which is based largely on the Klaaifrysk
dialects. As with other such languages, Standard Frisian is quite conservative in
nature, often resisting the use of Dutch loanwords long after they are firmly
entrenched in spoken Frisian. But in view of the ease with which Dutch words
are accepted into Frisian, sometimes supplanting very basic vocabulary items,
these purist tendencies are certainly understandable.

Because Dutch remains the predominant language of church, state, and most
importantly, of education, Standard Frisian has had limited opportunities to
make significant advances. If anything, the “watering down” of Frisian through
the acceptance of ever more Dutch elements into the language has accelerated
with the advent of mass communication and increased mobility of the population.
At the same time, however, Standard Frisian has gained some important support
in the past decade or two through greater use of the language in the schools and
by the regional and provincial governing bodies, to the extent that some non-
Frisian-speaking residents of the province have declared themselves discriminated
against when available civil service positions are advertised in Frisian

Nonetheless, because a fair amount of dialectal diversity is still found in the
literary language, Standard Frisian does not have as strict a norm as do many
other standard languages. In this grammar I have attempted, where variation
exists, to include the most common form found in the literary and spoken
language. At the same time, I have sometimes added, often in parentheses or with
a note to the effect, variants which are widely accepted in the written and/or
spoken language. Still, this work adheres closely to the literary standard in that
Dutch loanwords or constructions are avoided unless they are so well established
that they cannot be ignored.

1.3.3. The status of Frisian

For many of the years that Friesland has been part of The Netherlands, some
dialect of Dutch was the prestige language and Frisian was relegated to the
status of “farmers’ language.” As such it was used almost exclusively in the
home and in social gatherings in rural settings. In the schools, in church, in the
cities, and in most governmental offices the medium of communication was some
Dutch dialect. A person who spoke Frisian in such Dutch language domains was
not seen as making a statement that Frisian could be used in speaking to, for
example, a doctor, but was generally regarded as too ignorant or provincial to
speak Dutch to someone who obviously deserved more respect than to be
addressed in a peasants’ tongue.

While few would describe the situation in Friesland today in those terms, this
legacy of Frisian not being considered appropriate under certain circumstances
has survived as part of the consciousness of many Frisians. At the same time,
there have been significant strides made recently in expanding the domains in
which Frisian can be used. The increasing attention being paid to minority ethnic
groups and languages throughout Europe and the traditionally strong sense of
pride which most Frisians have fostered regarding their culture and their speech
have combined to breathe new life into the Frisian Movement during the past few

A study undertaken in 1980 sampled the language attitudes of a representative
group (some 1100) of the approximately one-half million inhabitants of the
province (Gorter et al., 1984). It was discovered that approximately 54% of the
respondents considered Frisian a first language. Some 73% claim to be able to
speak it, and 94% can understand it. The percentages of those who can read the
language (65%) and especially those who can write it (10%) are considerably
lower. It should be emphasized that this survey includes all of the province, even
those areas which have been essentially non-Frisian speaking for centuries.
In terms of language loyalty, it is interesting that 52% of those sampled speak
exclusively Frisian to a spouse/partner, and that another 4% speak both Frisian
and some Dutch dialect (Town Frisian, Standard Dutch, etc.). Approximately
24% use Standard Dutch exclusively for this purpose, while 13% use a local
dialect (mainly Town Frisian or a Saxon dialect). Of those in the sample who
speak Frisian, only 60% speak it to a shopkeeper, and only 42% report that they
converse with the doctor in their first language. Apparently, some Frisians fear
that people of perceived higher social status (who are often a more mobile
segment of the population and therefore are less likely to work in their area of
birth) either will not understand Frisian or will find it impolite to be addressed
in the local language.

Recently, certain steps have been taken to improve this state of affairs. The
most important of these is a new law which requires that Frisian lessons,
optional in the past, become a mandatory (although sometimes marginal) part of
the curriculum of all Frisian schools for approximately one hour a week. Many
regional governmental bodies in the province have begun to include knowledge
of Frisian as one of the qualifications for employment as a civil servant, a radical
departure from former practices.

Meanwhile, the Estates of Friesland have begun to take a more active and
positive role in Frisian affairs. And the Fryske Akademy (Frisian Academy) in
Ljouwert continues its work in promoting and investigating all aspects of Frisian
language and culture. Perhaps its most ambitious project to date is the compilation
of a multi-volume dictionary, intended as an exhaustive listing of all the
lexical items of modern West Frisian. The Frisian programs of the Dutch
universities (in Amsterdam, Leiden, and Groningen) also contribute a great deal
to furthering our knowledge about both old and modern Frisian.

No one can predict with any certainty what will become of languages like
Frisian in the next few centuries, or for that matter, whether even more established
languages like Danish or Dutch will be able to withstand sociological
factors – increased population mobility and the spread of mass communication,
for instance – which militate against the survival of smaller languages. At the
same time, the value of maintaining one’s culture, in which the preservation of
the language plays a pivotal role, is being increasingly recognized, especially in
those parts of the world which through modernization and industrialization have
lost much of what once rendered them distinct from others. In the final analysis,
to maintain one’s identity as a Frisian, one must speak Frisian. And to understand
the Frisians, one must first understand their language.

For more information, visit the Fryske Akademy (Frisian Academy) website.

For those who would like to hear some real Frisian:
(clicking on the links may open up a separate application so that you can hear the text)

bûter, brea, en griene tsiis, wa't dat net sizze kin is gjin oprjochte Fries
"butter, bread, and green cheese, whoever cannot say that is no upright Frisian"

ien, twa, trije, fjouwer, fiif, seis, sân, acht, njoggen, tsien
(numbers from one to ten)

 To hear more Frisian, go to my sound files.