Written by Dyami Millarson
Curious what ters1236, schi1234 and hind1273 mean? These are Glottocodes that stand for the following languages: Terschelling Frisian, Schiermonnikoog Frisian and Hindeloopen Frisian. We studied these languages in 2018 as part of our Operation X mission for the spreading of linguistic awareness about the undeniable scientific fact of the diversity of Frisian; in the process of studying these languages, we became convinced ourselves that these are not varieties or dialects but languages in their own right and we discovered that the speakers were also convinced of this fact. Adapting to the linguistic reality that we encountered among the language communities in 2018, we studied aformentioned languages as a language family. While the three languages were included as independent languages in the bibliographic language database of Glottolog 3.4 which came out in April 2019 as a result of the aforementioned findings that were also reported by the media in 2018, Terschelling Frisian, Schiermonnikoog Frisian and Hindeloopen Frisian have received de facto international recognition for being independent languages since April this year. I may add: Therefore, there is growing awareness that Frisian as spoken in the Netherlands is a language family.
What is Glottolog?
Glottolog, which is an online bibliographic language database, is an initiative of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Humanity History. The latest edition is currently Glottolog 3.4 which came out April this year. Glottolog strives to include all existing languages that are documented in the scientific literature. In essence, Glottolog is cataloguing the existence of languages which is really helpful for science. Glottolog differs from similar language database Ethnologue in that it exhibits the scientific orientation towards bibliography. Harald Hammarström, who is the main author of Glottolog, thus explained the Glottolog initiative in an email addressed to me:
‘Glottolog (glottolog.org) attempts to catalogue all the languages of the world and provide bibliograhical references and a complete historical classification of them. Glottolog currently lists 7,410 spoken L1 languages and has over 300,000 references justifying this list and providing more information on them. It differs in some important respects from the [sic] another widely used catalogue, Ethnologue, although the inventories are, on the larger scale, quite similar. Ethnologue records more information associated with each language such as the speaker number and its political status, while Glottolog defers this information to the original sources. Ethnologue does not systematically indicate its sources neither for its language information or classification, while Glottolog does this in great detail, consist [sic] with scientific practice in the field of linguistics. Glottolog also has a more open workflow for edits and corrections and closer ties with the academic community of linguists.’
What is the role of Wikipedia in all this?
Glottolog and Harald Hammarström are often referenced on Wikipedia, which is thus helping to raise awareness about languages. We can expect a reference to Glottolog soon to be included on the Wikipedia pages about Terschelling Frisian, Schiermonnikoog Frisian and Hindeloopen Frisian.
What is the international recognition?
The inclusion on Glottolog is to be interpreted as a sign of growing international awareness about the existence of 3 small language communities in the Kingdom of the Netherlands that speak their own languages. The inclusion has a highly symbolic meaning, as it is definitely welcomed by speakers as justice done to them.
Why formerly misunderstood as dialects?
Based on socio-political considerations, the languages were called dialects. It behooves no explanation that according to the people’s perception, dialects are inferior to real languages, essentially meaning that these minorities were speakers of ‘inferior Frisian’ of some kind, and this idea of inferiority has led to progressive language death and gradual loss of territory in all 3 areas where the languages were traditionally spoken. It has been no help for reversing these trends that scientific theories of language evolution based on a single origin (genetic fallacy) were later used to attempt to rationalise these discriminatory socio-political notions. This style of argumentation may be summed up as follows: ‘These 3 languages come from Frisian, therefore they are Frisian dialects.’
However, such bias towards conforming with discriminatory socio-political notions ignores parallel linguistic evolution and its resultant linguistic realities. Namely, Terschelling Frisian, Schiermonnikoog Frisian and Hindeloopen Frisian, although archaic, are no longer Old Frisian (origin), nor is Standard Frisian. We have come a long way since then. The languages along with their cultures have evolved parallelly, at the same time, side by side, for centuries morphing themselves into new ethnolinguistic entities. When one can speak Terschelling Frisian, Schiermonnikoog Frisian or Hindeloopen Frisian, one can still not speak Standard Frisian. Traditionally, speakers of Terschelling Frisian, Schiermonnikoog Frisian and Hindeloopen Frisian are no speakers of Standard Frisian, and still today many of them are unable to speak Standard Frisian and speakers of Standard Frisian are unable to speak the 3 small Frisian languages. It took a long time for these languages to form; Terschelling Frisian, Hindeloopen Frisian and Schiermonnikoog Frisian have gone their way long ago, and they are no descendants of Standard Frisian. These languages even have their own dictionaries, which the serious-minded learner has to consult intending to speak and write properly.
Due to separate parallel evolution, Standard Frisian cannot be claimed to hold any ‘authority’ over Terschelling Frisian, Schiermonnikoog Frisian and Hindeloopen Frisian. Standard Frisian is no more valid as a language than the other languages, precisely because they are products of parallel evolution. It cannot be claimed that Standard Frisian is “truer” or “more authentic” in the sense that the other languages would be mere offshoots, i.e. mere dialects of it. Thus, Terschelling Frisian, Schiermonnikoog Frisian and Hindeloopen Frisian is a language of the Frisian family, in the same vain as the Frisian languages of Germany belong to this family. It is equally absurd to suggest Standard Frisian has any claim to the languages spoken in Germany since they descend from Old Frisian, as it is to claim Standard Frisian has any claim to Terschelling Frisian, Schiermonnikoog Frisian and Hindeloopen Frisian. For this reason, it is also understandable that the local schools of these minorities do not teach Standard Frisian but instead they teach their own languages.
The socio-political misgivings of the past should be left behind and progress towards understanding the minority perspectives on language and culture should be embraced. David Crystal (Language Death, 2000: 38) has pointed out most accurately that ‘dialects are just as complex as [entire] languages in their sounds, grammar, vocabulary, and other features. […] [T]he boundary between dialect and language is arbitrary, dependent on sociopolitical considerations that can transform a dialect into a language at the drop of a bomb.’
Why learn the languages?
By studying the language ourselves, we could discover it was a language family. Thus, adapting to the linguistic reality we encountered in 2018, we decided that we were not studying Frisian varieties in the sense of dialects but we were in fact studying Terschelling Frisian, Schiermonnikoog Frisian and Hindeloopen Frisian as languages belonging to a Frisian language family. I give more elaborate reasons why they are not dialects in my recent Dutch article.
What is Frisian diversity?
Traditionally, Frisian is not as monolithic as people might imagine it to be. There is no single Frisian language. Outside the Dutch borders, there are several Frisian languages. This linguistic fact is known by quite a few people nowadays. However, little do people know that also within the Dutch borders, there is a whole Frisian language family. This is a progressive development in our collective awareness about what Frisian is linguistically. Frisian has since time immemorial not been a single monolithic language. Instead, when we look at the traditional linguistic reality, we see an image of multiple languages appear and these languages have, unfortunately, been pushed to the brink of extinction. That is why it was our goal for 2018, whilst these languages still existed in that year, to bring to the public’s attention that these languages still exist and they are endangered.
What is our history with Frisian?
We studied Standard Frisian in 2016 out of our own scientific curiosity about Frisian language, culture and history. We received much interest from the media in 2016 because we managed to master the language in a short period of time. Ken Ho has been much of the focus of this media attention, but it is a misconception that I could already speak Frisian. I had been sympathetic to Frisian prior to 2016, and so I bought Frisian books sometimes as a way of showing my appreciation, but I did definitely not speak Frisian prior to 2016, because Frisian is not spoken in Leeuwarden where I have lived since 2009.
I had little interest in Frisian initially and I was in fact antagonistic towards it, considering it a ‘Dutch dialect’, but gradually my understanding of Frisian transformed and in 2016 I felt psychologically prepared to learn it, having overcome my initial perception of it as ‘inferior Dutch’ and thus I had started to consider Frisian worthy of my attention and time, just like English, German, Latin, Ancient Greek and other modern and ancient languages that fascinated me. Particularly, my interest has been pronunciation and I have studied the phonology of dozens of languages intensively since 2008 (my interest in pronunciation harkens back, however, to an earlier time when I was more dependent on the spoken word due to the difficulties I experienced reading texts as a result of dyslexia). Due to my profound interest in all the sounds of the world’s languages, I assisted Ken Ho in 2016 to develop a native pronunciation of Frisian.
People commented his pronunciation of Dutch and Frisian were perfect. Considering the hours I put into achieving this result with Ken Ho, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to take a little credit for the good pronunciation. Due to my own humility, I am, however, often very reluctant to point out that pronunciation is really my thing and that it was definitely me who helped Ken Ho with it almost every single day. It was oftentimes hard because he had significant difficulties hearing sounds. Ken Ho, in that regard, is my opposite: He is good at reading new languages, but not good at listening to new languages, whereas I am not so good at reading new languages, while I am good at listening to new languages. Our teamwork is based on our mutually compensating qualities.
The logical follow-up of our 2016 project, after a bit of soul-searching in 2017, came in 2018. We had announced already in 2016 we wished to learn Terschelling Frisian, Schiermonnikoog Frisian and Hindeloopen Frisian to compare this with Standard Frisian. We were very interested in what Terschelling Frisian, Schiermonnikoog Frisian and Hindeloopen Frisian looked like. We had no idea what to expect really, except for that we had heard that they were Frisian dialects that were rapidly dying out. We ourselves were careful not to make any statements about whether they were dialects or languages, because if a traditional speech community considers they speak a language, who are we to stop them and antagonise them?
Our approach was going to be considerate of the perception of the speakers. We wanted to make sure our linguistic research would have a sound sociological basis not dismissive of the speakers themselves. We were nevertheless very open to the idea we might encounter dialects that would be easy to learn, but this hypothesis was soon falsified as we began learning the languages, and the difficulties of language acquisition, yet also the benefits of multilingualism, we experienced with these languages have made us firmly convinced that these weren’t dialects. It is really hard to speak/write Terschelling Frisian, Schiermonnikoog Frisian and Hindeloopen Frisian properly, even if one is intimately familiar with Standard Frisian. We have consulted dictionaries countless times, we have spent hours studying authentic texts and we still continue acquiring new voculabulary.
Therefore, ‘Frisian dialect’ is inappropriate here and it would only be extremely misleading to the language student who has to commit himself fully to acquiring these languages if he so wishes to speak and write them properly, as he would English, French or German. This is also what I meant when I wrote in one of my articles in 2018 that one has to take these languages seriously; to learn them properly, they deserve equally as much attention and practice as English, French or German. The student ought not to be misinformed about this, for this is the reason why many a language enthusiast has failed to learn these languages. People have often commented that it has been really a feat we acconplished by learning these languages so fast. I would comment we have achieved this by taking them absolutely seriously; I couldn’t bring myself to seriously learn/understand Standard Frisian until I had overcome my psychological barrier, and this insight helped me realise that I needed to treat these languages seriously as well and apply all the best language-learning efforts as I would with any other foreign language. Had we not learned these languages, our horizons would not have been widened; we overcame our own psychological inhibitions and gained new linguistic, cultural and historical insights that greatly satisfied our scientific curiosity.
We will continue our research on the Frisian languages of the Kingdom of the Netherlands this year: Standard Frisian, Terschelling Frisian, Schiermonnikoog Frisian and Hindeloopen Frisian. We will commence our study of the Frisian languages of the Federal Republic of Germany this year as well and hope to be able to visit Frisian communities who are German nationals as soon as possible, because we want to help preserve their languages. We are very concerned about the Frisian communities in Germany because signs of language death have been reported.