Goesharde Frisian Tongues: Germany’s Fairest Gems

Written by Dyami Millarson

There are historically three Goesharde Frisian languages: Northern, Central and Southern Goesharde Frisian. Southern Goesharde Frisian has gone extinct in 1981, so there are only 2 left. Central Goesharde Frisian is endangered with acute extinction. It has gone extinct everywhere except one terp village called Drelsdorf with more than twelve hundred inhabitants currently. Probably not even 1% of Drelsdorf can speak the language anymore. It would be curious to gauge how many people in the village actually know that a Frisian language used to be more widely spoken there. Central Goesharde was spoken in one more village called Bohmstedt which has more than 700 inhabitants right now. However, the language went extinct there in 2006. Northern Goesharde Frisian is highly endangered as well. Northern Goesharde Frisian can be divided into Langenhorn Frisian and Ockholm Frisian. Ockholm was the only majority Northern Goesharde Frisian-speaking village at the beginning of the early 20th century. This means that Langenhorn Frisian is probably more endangered than the Northern Goesharde Frisian of Ockholm, even though both are at risk of immediate extinction.

Whatever ‘extinct’ means in the case of Southern Goesharde Frisian and in the case of the Central Goesharde Frisian as spoken in Bohmstedt remains to be seen. I expect these languages to still be in the living memory of the locals since they went ‘extinct’ recently. This means that information about these languages can still be retrieved from human memory, which is relevant to our documentation efforts. We wish to document these languages as fully as possible. If we can find informants who may be familiar with these languages, that could help us a great deal.

We would ultimately like to see the revival of Southern Goesharde Frisian. We believe in the philosophical principle that world change starts from individuals. Therefore, we are individuals eager to study Southern Goesharde Frisian eventually and consequently revive the language. When we master the language, we can pass it on to locals in Germany whose ancestors spoke the language or may have been familiar with it and to people around the world who may have an interest in this language. However, we want to learn the living Goesharde Frisian languages first. On principle, we learn the living ones first and later focus on reviving the extinct ones. I am very curious about the local culture and history behind Northern Goesharde Frisian and Central Goesharde Frisian, which are two Goesharde Frisian languages that we are going to study at some point. Furthermore, I think we are definitely going to study Langenhorn Frisian this year. I am excited about investigating these gems of Germany that have been secrets to much of the German public unaware of these fascinating small languages – i.e., cultural repositories – spoken in their midst.

6 comments

  1. Interesting! I’ve done a quick search, just to confirm for myself but it seems the Frisian you mention here may be related to the language of the Netherlands? I am South African – and speak Afrikaans, which I have believed from early days, is a close relation to Frisian. I’d like to see how true that may be…

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    • Goesharde Frisian, which is at least 3 (possibly more) separate languages traditionally spoken in Germany, is related to Frisian as spoken in the Netherlands. Communication between a speaker of Goesharde Frisian from Germany and a speaker of Frisian from the Netherlands may be much more difficult than the communication between a Frisian speaker and an Afrikaans speaker or a Dutch speaker and an Afrikaans speaker. I will go into further detail about language relations, but I want to say a few personal subjective things before I distance myself entirely from the subject matter to discuss from an objective scientific perspective.

      As a speaker of Frisian and Dutch, I am very interested in learning Afrikaans one day. I mention Afrikaans frequently on this blog because of my particular interest in this language and I want to publish my own articles written in Afrikaans one day.

      Thank you for checking the information online. There is unfortunately not much information about endangered Frisian languages online and wishing to change that, we set up this blog.
      We hope to make our readers aware that many languages are incorrectly called dialects and that it is in many cases safer to assume that a dialect is in fact a language.
      I can demonstrate this point to you by taking the Dutch-Afrikaans pair as example.

      Let me say something to you in Dutch because I know you are a speaker of Afrikaans and therefore you should theoretically be able to understand at least 95% of what I say:
      Ik wil graag Afrikaans leren spreken en schrijven. Het lijkt mij leuk om Afrikaanse artikelen te kunnen publiceren op dit blog.

      If people hear that speakers of Dutch and Afrikaans can understand each other, they may assume we speak two dialects of the same language, but this is not true. It is safer to assume we speak in fact two languages, but we are somehow able to understand each other because of shared tradition and cultural-linguistic history.
      Language evolution has created Afrikaans, and the same story is true for the Frisian languages of Hindeloopen, Schiermonnikoog and (East) Terschelling, which are incorrectly called dialects of Frisian.

      The situation between Terschelling Frisian and Frisian is similar to that between Afrikaans (‘African Dutch’) and Dutch.
      The language of Terschelling is perhaps 95% similar to Frisian, but still these two can be said to be two separate Frisian languages for cultural-linguistic reasons. The linguistic reason is that the Frisian language of Terschelling evolved separately from Frisian for a long time. The cultural reason is that speakers of (East) Terschelling Frisian do not consider themselves speakers of Frisian because they have a separate culture and have thus no established habit of talking to speakers of Frisian.
      Many experts, in denial of the linguistic-cultural facts, still call Terschelling Frisian a dialect, even though this is a falsehood, because it takes considerable time to acquire Terschelling Frisian even when you are intimately familiar with Frisian. The same I expect with Afrikaans: Even though I am a speaker of Dutch, it will take me considerable time to acquire Afrikaans.

      Mutual intelligibility does not define languages, for we need to take multiple linguistic-cultural facts into account. Language is more than just the % of common vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. It is not merely a numerical mathematical reality, but it is a complex human reality. Languages are about humans, not about numbers of any sort.

      A dialect is something that has little separate identity. In fact, a dialect has really no separate historical identity but rather represents a subculture (an identity within an identity), for a dialect is a speech variety that is insignificantly different from the language we know. However, Terschelling Frisian and Frisian are significantly different; and Afrikaans and Dutch are significantly different. This is what makes them languages.

      With the language-dialect definition out of the way, we can move on to acknowledge there is also intriguing similarity between Terschelling Frisian and Frisian as well as between Dutch and Afrikaans. These are related languages. Neither similarity nor difference ought to be ignored. Thus the term ‘related language’ is appropriate to describe the relative relationship between Dutch and Afrikaans or Terschelling Frisian and Frisian: ‘Language’ implies difference, ‘related’ implies similarity. It is a mix of both, because reality is complex, and this is exactly what fascinates me.

      Frisian itself is a language related to Dutch and so there is mutual intelligibility. In fact, if Dutch speakers listen closely, they can understand Frisian to a large extent. When I was younger, I fiercely argued Frisian was a dialect of Dutch, but I became eventually convinced that Frisian is a language. I am the devil’s advocate until I find evidence to support people’s claims. So my opinion that Frisian is a language wasn’t formed overnight and I copied no one. I had to basically reinvent the wheel. It took me many years and when I had finally concluded Frisian is a language, I decided to learn it.

      If, and I already know this to be true, Frisian is a language related to Dutch, then it is surely also related to Afrikaans. Therefore, I am sure that you will find the claim that Afrikaans has a close relation with Frisian is true. Of course, I encourage you to do your own research. Do not take my word for it, but check all my conclusions for yourself. If my results are correct, they may be reproduced.

      This blog is written in multiple Frisian languages: Frisian (the one you heard about), Hindeloopen Frisian, Schiermonnikoog Frisian, East Terschelling Frisian, Helgolandic, Saterlandic. We strive to provide the most multilingual Frisian blog on the internet, because we wish to emphasise the Frisian language diversity. Frisian may seem a single language at first, but it is actually a really complex reality, which involves multiple related languages. Frisian is a universe of its own, and our blog seeks to put that universe on full display, because it has never been on full display before in this manner, while few recognised the Frisian language diversity (they were stuck in a rut because they thought all these languages were dialects, which really turns off anynenthiasm one might have for learning those languages thoroughly) and no one really had the somewhat ambitious goal to fully master all Frisian languages.

      We see this goal as important, because when we master multiple Frisian languages, we can provide the service of displaying the (hidden?) Frisian language diversity. Moreover, please feel free on our blog to ask questions about any particular or all Frisian languages. We will do our best to provide a factual answer and in case we have no direct answer, we will do our best to investigate for you. This blog is service-oriented, because our original intention for this blog is to provide a new kind of service with regards to the Frisian languages, while we have always believed there was a huge (both local and international) demand for this service, which had hitherto not been satisfactorily provided.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Loads of information here, so give me a bit of time to work through it all! Thanks for answering, and interacting. I will place the comment you left in Dutch in Afrikaans a little later! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      • You are welcome! Yes, please take your time to digest all the information because it also took a while to type everything on my phone. I am very curious about how you will say it in Afrikaans, thank you!

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  2. Couple of thoughts. Let’s not call languages without native speakers “extinct “. Extinction is for ever. If a language has been documented there is still a chance of revival. Let’s call them “sleeping“ languages (not my coinage). Second, I feel the language/ dialect definition is too devisive. I have come to prefer the term “variety”. Alternatively let’s just do away with the term dialect and only use “language “.

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    • Thoughtful post. I appreciate it.

      I agree that the dialect/language defintion is very problematic. It is safer to assume any speech system is just a language. However, it is still important to try to figure out how everything fits into the bigger whole. The big question is: How are the languages related? Moreover, it is still important to get languages that are now popularly stigmatised as dialects legally recognised as languages, deserving equal rights with other recognised languages. The language-dialect debate has legal implications and this is often overlooked. Many languages are not treated equal before the law, because they are being considered dialects, and this is the main legal issue that deserves being addressed.

      Southern Goesharde Frisian has no native speakers and we are not sure it is sufficiently documented for immediate revival without significant reconstruction work based on the information we have about related languages. A sleeping/dormant language may be understood in different ways. As I understand it, rather than being an unused language with no natives, it is a language (possibly lacking natives or may perhaps still have natives but who no longer use the language) which is still being used for ceremonial purposes. A sleeping/dormant language is highly fossilised, like how the Church used Latin. The term ‘sleeping/dormant language’ is another way of saying a language that is fossilised/ceremonial, therefore dormant/sleeping. Because of this, I prefer to stick to the old terminology of extinct/dead, although I agree with David Harrison, author of When Languages Die, that languages get ‘crowded out’, i.e. replaced by other languages.

      I understand you wish to make a distinction between undocumented languages with no native speakers and documented languages with no native speakers. So saying ‘undocumented extinct language’ and ‘documented extinct language’ does its job well for this purpose, at least to my mind.

      A person who is cryopreserved is really dead, but since he/she is cryopreserved and not buried/cremated, he/she may still return despite being dead. The documentation of languages is comparable to the cryopreservation of bodies. Unlike for cryopreserved bodies, we already have reasonably good methods to bring languages back from the dead, and therefore it is no longer a necessarily permanent thing. Even some ‘undocumented languages’ under the right circumstances may be brought back. A good example of this is Proto-Germanic. If Southern Goesharde Frisian turns out to be practically undocumented save for a few words, we can still revive the language employing similar methods as for Proto-Germanic.

      – Dyami Millarson

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