Netherlands: Can Frisian make a comeback?

LEEUWARDEN, The Netherlands — “Buter, brea en grine tsiis is goed Ingelsk en goed Frysk.”

Look familiar?

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.”

About half the province’s population of 600,000 speaks Frisian as their first language, said Riemersma, mostly in the rural areas. Three-quarters of Frieslanders can speak it and 94 percent understand it.

The distinct, but related languages of North Frisian and Saterlandic are spoken by about 12,000 people in parts of northern Germany.

Frisian is an official second language in the Netherlands, after Dutch. The language is taught in schools at all levels in Friesland (Fryslan in Frisian), there are Frisian radio stations, TV broadcasts, regular theater performances and about 100 books published every year.

Nevertheless, Riemersma said Frisian is in danger, with much of the threat coming from its cousin across the North Sea.

“It is in decline, because of the pressure from both Dutch and English,” he explained.

“People who have a simplistic view of what’s needed for their children to climb the economic ladder tend to say ‘you don’t need any Frisian for your career, you do need English, so please forget about your own language.’”

He said the number of Frisian speakers drops by about 8 percent every generation.

Rather than trying to fight the tide of English, the Fryske Akademy is seeking to promote trilingual education at an early age with the aim of producing Friesians fully equipped to work in the increasingly universal English without abandoning the language of their forefathers.

“The discussion is never against English. English is almost the third community language of the Netherlands,” said Riemersma. “The strategy is to embrace all three, to bring the children to the same level of language command by the time they end secondary schooling.”

One positive sign he sees is that the number of pre-schools working in Frisian has grown from seven to 70 over the past 20 years.

Frisian’s closeness to English dates back to the Dark Ages when the Saxons and other German tribes moved westward into what is now Friesland before crossing the North Sea to invade Britain. The two languages drifted apart after William the Conqueror and his French-speaking knights wrestled control of England from the Saxon kings in 1066.

Some think the growing prevalence of English around the world may actually be encouraging the survival of lesser-used languages.

“The fact that English is becoming so strong, in some ways is an advantage. As it becomes the global language, people will still want to use their local language as well,” said Prys Jones, the Welshman who also serves as chairman of the Europe-wide Network to Promote Linguistic Diversity.

“There’s a feeling that we can be global, but we can also be local. It helps express a feeling of belonging,” he said in a telephone interview from Cardiff.