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Just half-a-million people in the north of the Netherlands speak Frisian, or Fryslan, but its future looks bright.
LEEUWARDEN, The Netherlands — “Buter, brea en grine tsiis is goed Ingelsk en goed Frysk.”
This is Frisian, reckoned to be the closest continental European language to English. It is spoken by about half-a-million people in the far north of the Netherlands.
Spoken out loud, the handy phrase sounds uncannily similar to its English translation: “Butter, bread and green cheese is good English and Good Frisian.”
Frisian is one of dozens of minority languages spoken by about 50 million people across the European Union.
These minority languages range from Sami, which is widely spoken in Europe’s Arctic north, to Breton on the west coast of France, and Arberesh, an Albanian dialect that survives in a scattering of villages around southern Italy.
The fate of these so-called “lesser-used languages” varies.
Some, like Catalan, Basque and Welsh, have made spectacular comebacks in recent decades, becoming widely used in the media, government and public life. Irish was even made one of the European Union’s 23 official languages in 2005.
“In general, support for minority languages is increasing,” said Meirion Prys Jones, chief Executive of the Welsh Language Board. “We’ve seen a difference over the past 20 years in people’s perceptions; they think it’s an advantage in the workplace if you speak Welsh.”
However there are some languages — such as Manx, the Celtic tongue native to the Isle of Mann in the Irish Sea, or Kashubian, which is spoken along the Polish coast — that Unesco classifies as severely endangered.
Unesco recorded that Viktor Berthold, the last mother-tongue speaker of the ancient Baltic language of Livonian, passed away in February.
In Leeuwarden, the handsome capital of Friesland province, the Fryske Akademy has been working since 1938 to ensure that Frisian does not go the same way.
“It’s still strong as a community language,” said the academy’s director Alex Riemersma. “We are doing quite well on the European scale.”