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West Frisian
Spoken in  Netherlands
Region  Friesland
Total speakers 360,000–700,000
Language family Indo-European
Official status
Official language in Province of Friesland
Regulated by Fryske Akademy
Language codes
ISO 639-1 fy
ISO 639-2 fry
ISO 639-3 fry
Taalsituatie Noord-Nederland.png
Map showing the Frisian-speaking areas in the Netherlands

West Frisian (Frysk) is a language spoken mostly in the province of Friesland (Fryslân) in the north of the Netherlands. West Frisian is the name by which this language is usually known outside of the Netherlands, to distinguish it from the closely related Frisian languages of Saterland Frisian and North Frisian, which are spoken in Germany. Within the Netherlands however, the West Frisian language is the language of the province of Fryslân and is virtually always just called Frisian: Fries in Dutch, and Frysk in Frisian. The 'official' name used by linguists in the Netherlands to indicate the West Frisian language is Westerlauwers Fries (West Lauwers Frisian), the Lauwers being a border stream which 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. This province was formerly officially called Friesland, but officially changed its name to Fryslân in 1997. The province has 643,000 inhabitants (2005); of these 94% can understand spoken Frisian, 74% can speak Frisian, 75% can read Frisian, and 26% can write it.[1]

For over half of the inhabitants of the province of Friesland, 55% (c. 354,000 people), Frisian is the native tongue. In the central east, Frisian speakers spill over the province border, with some 4–6,000 of them actually living in the province of Groningen, in the triangular area of the villages Marum (Frisian: Mearum), De Wilp (De Wylp), and Opende (De Grinzer Pein).[2]

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

In addition, there is a surprisingly large Frisian diaspora abroad, with Friesland having had in relative terms the highest percentage of emigrants of all Dutch provinces between the Second World War and the 1970s. It is estimated that there may be as many as 80–100,000 Frisian speakers scattered around the world, with the largest concentrations located in Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. Therefore, the total number of Frisian speakers in the world today may be as high as 600,000. The West Frisian surname perhaps most familiar to Americans is Dykstra.

Apart from the use of Frisian as a first language, it is also spoken as a second language by about 120,000 people in the province of Friesland. [3]


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

Hylpersk (in Dutch known as Hindeloopers), the archaic 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 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 South West Corner"), deviates from mainstream 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. It actually differs from Wâldfrysk so little that it is quite often not acknowledged to be a dialect within its own right, but merely the northern variety of Wâldfrysk.

By far the two most widely spoken West Frisian dialects are Klaaifrysk and Wâldfrysk. Both these names are derived from the Frisian landscape. In the western and north-western parts of the province, the region where Klaaifrysk is spoken, the soil is made up of thick marine clay, hence the name Klaaifrysk, which literally means "Clay Frisian". While in the Klaaifrysk 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. Therefore, the dialect spoken in the eastern area is called Wâldfrysk, meaning "Wood Frisian" or "Forest Frisian".

Although Klaaifrysk and Wâldfrysk are mutually very easily intelligible, there are, at least to native Frisian speakers, a few very conspicuous differences. These include the pronunciation of the words my ("me"), dy ("you"), hy ("he"), sy ("she" or "they"), wy ("we") and by ("by"), and the diphthongs ei and aai. [4]

Of the two, Wâldfrysk probably has the greatest 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

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, however, did bear a striking similarity to Old English. This similarity was reinforced in the late Middle Ages by the Ingaevonic sound shift, which affected Frisian and English, but hardly the other West Germanic varieties at all. Historically, 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 Anglo-Frisian nasal spirant law. Also, when followed by some vowels the Germanic k softened to a ch sound. For example, the Frisian for cheese and church is tsiis and tsjerke, whereas in Dutch it is kaas and kerk.

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

Middle Frisian and New Frisian

Up until the fifteenth century Frisian was a language 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 Duke Albert of Saxony, who replaced Frisian as the language of government with Dutch.

Afterwards this practice was continued under the Habsburg rulers of the Netherlands (the German Emperor Charles V and his son, the Spanish King Philip II), and even when the Netherlands became independent, in 1585, Frisian did not regain its former status. The reason for this was the rise of Holland 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 great Frisian poet Gysbert Japiks (1603–1666), a schoolteacher and cantor from the city of Bolsward (Boalsert), who largely fathered modern Frisian literature and orthography, was really an exception to the rule.

His example was not followed until the nineteenth 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 point in time, around 1820.


West Frisian uses the Latin alphabet.



Frisian vowels with example words
Symbol Example
IPA IPA orthography English translation
i vit wyt 'white'
tiːt tiid 'time' ("tide")
ɪ sɪt sit 'seat' ("sit")
 1 seː see 'sea'
ɛ lɛt let 'late'
ɛː 2 fɛːst fêst 'firm' ("fast")
ə de 'the'
a axt acht 'eight'
iərde ierde 'earth'
ɔ ɡɔt gat 'hole' ("gate")
ɔː 2 vɔːd wâld 'forest' ("wold"/"weald")
o op op 'on, at' ("up")
 1 hoːpjə hoopje '[to] hope'
u busə bûse 'wallet'
huːt hûd 'skin' ("hide")
y yt út 'out'
dryːf drúf 'grape'
ø pøt put '(water) well' ("pit")
øː 1 løːnə leune 'to support, to lean'
stiən stien 'stone'
ɪə ɪər ear 'ear'
huət hoed 'hat' ("hood")
oər oar 'other'
nyət nuet 'tame'
œː frœːn freon 'friend'
ɛi hɛi, bakərɛi hy, bakkerij 'he', 'bakery'
øy strøyə struie 'to sprinkle' ("strew")
ui bluiə bloeie 'blossom'
oəi moəi moai 'beautiful'
aːi kaːi kaai 'key'
ai mais mais 'corn' ("maize")
au haut, ɡau hout, gau 'wood ("holt"), soon'

On average Frisians use a high number of long vowels. To reduce the length of speech there are two systems to reduce consonant length. The first is the new Frisian breaking. New Frisian breaking reduces the length of a long vowel by replacing it with a consonant and a vowel or semi vowel. Breaking pairs are ie-ji/i, ue-uo, oa-ua and dei-je/dje.

The second system is article and suffix reduction to glottal stops. Both definite articles (de (/də/) and it (/ət/)) and the indefinite article (in (/ən/)) may undergo article reduction. Popular suffixes for reduction include -en (/ən/) and -t (/ət/). "it tinken" (the act of thinking) for example may be reduced from /ət tɪŋ͡kən/ to /ʔtɪŋ͡kʔ/. This however is an extreme reduction and does not occur in most dialects. More common is removing the schwa (/ə/) and in case of a reduced article following a reduced dental suffix one of the /t/'s is dropped. In Standard Frisian writing this phenomenon can be represented by replacing the character representing the schwa by an apostrophe.

The use of both systems vary from dialect to dialect and in the standard language there are irregularities whether to write broken vowels in their broken or unbroken form.


b ch d f g h j k l m n p r s sj t tsj v w x y z
b x d, r f ɡ, ɣ h j k l m n p r s sj t tsj v v, f, w ks j z
  • /eː/, /oː/ and /øː/ are commonly realized as the diphthongs [eɪ], [oʊ] and [øʏ].
  • /ɛː/ and /ɔː/ are commonly realized as [ɛ.ə] and [ɔ.ə].
  • a is pronounced [ɔ] before d, t, l, n, s
  • er is pronounced [ɛː] in bern, gers and ferzen
  • eau is pronounced [øə] in past participles and [joː] in preterites and other words
  • ei is pronounced [i] in Moandei and other compounds with -dei
  • eur is pronounced [øə]
  • the word ôf is pronounced [ɔu] or [ɔː]
  • oa becomes [a] in moatte and Moandei, and [ãː] in Woansdei
  • oe is pronounced [u] before ch, g, k
  • y is pronounced [ɛi] in my, dy, hy, wy, by, but [i] in dy as demonstrative pronoun
  • any vowel or diphthong before n + s, z, f, v, w, j, l, r, is nasalised
  • any nasalised vowel is lengthened before ns, nz
  • d is silent before l. often pronounced [r] in intervocalic position
  • h is silent before [j], [w] and in thús
  • j is often silent before [i]
  • in âl, l is silent before d, t
  • when assimilated, n becomes [m] before p, [ŋ] before k, or is dropped while nasalising the preceding vowel
  • r is silent before t, d, n, l, s, z
  • w is pronounced [v] at the beginning of a word, [f] in final, [w] elsewhere. It is silent before [w]. ww is pronounced [v]


In 1951 Frisian language activists, protesting the exclusive use of Dutch in the courts, caused a riot in Leeuwarden[5]. The resulting inquiry led to the establishment of a committee of inquiry. This committee recommended that the Frisian language would receive a legal basis as minority language.

Since 1956, West Frisian has an official status along with and equal to Dutch, in the province of Fryslân. It is used in many domains of Frisian society, among which are education, legislation, and administration.

Although in the courts of law the Dutch language is still mainly used, in the province of Fryslân 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 Fryslân was made bilingual in 1956, which means Frisian can be used as a teaching medium. In the same year, 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 Frisian got the status of a fully-fledged, i.e., required, subject in primary schools, and not until 1993 that it got the same position in secondary education.

In 1997, the province of Fryslân officially changed its name from the Dutch form Friesland to the Frisian Fryslân. So far 4 out of 31 municipalities (Tytsjerksteradiel, Boarnsterhim, Littenseradiel, and Ferwerderadiel) have changed their official geographical names from Dutch to Frisian.

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 and Dutch

A 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 Friese," which sounds not tremendously different from "Brea, bûter, en griene tsiis is goed Ingelsk en goed Frysk." [6]

Another rhyme on this theme, "Bûter, brea, en griene tsiis; wa't dat net sizze kin, is gjin oprjochte Fries" (About this sound example ) (in English, "Butter, bread, and green cheese, whoever can't say that is no upright Fries") 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).

Westerlauwers Frisian

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

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

See also

External links

West Frisian language edition of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


  1. ^ Provinsje Fryslân (2007), Fluchhifking Fryske Taal.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Gorter, D. & R.J. Jonkman (1994), Taal yn Fryslân op 'e nij besjoen. Ljouwert: Fryske Akademy.
  4. ^ Popkema, J. (2006), Grammatica Fries. De regels van het Fries. Utrecht: Het Spectrum.
  5. ^ Geschiedenis van Friesland, 1750-1995, Johan Frieswijk, page 327.
  6. ^ The History of English: A Linguistic Introduction, Scott Shay. Wardja Press, 2008, ISBN 0615168175, 9780615168173


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