Defining Cultures by Their Occupation(s) and Environment(s)

Written by Dyami Millarson

Figuring out the traditional or historical primary means of subsistence of (usually small and isolated) communities has been relevant to our language preservation efforts, because it helps us to identify what kind of language community we are dealing with. For instance, a people such as the Hindeloopen Frisians who were historically sea-faring traders is deeply connected with the language they speak, thus they are influenced by their historically transmitted terms and idioms which reflect their unique sea-faring trade history. After studying the vocabulary of the endangered language we are interested in, we move on, as a matter of procedure, to study the occupational history of the community of speakers in order to confirm what the vocabulary was already telling us about the chief occupation(s) of the speakers. We operate by the principle that an orally transmitted endangered language would not possess certain terms that are connected with specific occupations unless the speakers engaged in those occupations. For instance, we may assume that if a language possesses a word for kneading or for weaving, the community of speakers would have engaged in those activities at some point.

The vocabulary of a language usually speaks volumes about the history of the occupations of its speakers, and it is part of our effort to revive the awareness of the traditional link between the languages and those occupations. We may, therefore, define Hindeloopen Frisian as a “trade language,” because this does indeed reflect what we see in the vocabulary. However, we would not be satisfied by defining Hindeloopen Frisian merely in this manner, because the means by which the Hindeloopen Frisians subsisted themselves were influenced by environmental factors. In our opinion, the geographical features of the area in which Hindeloopen Frisian is spoken ought to be taken into account, because that historical environment is reflected in the language as well. While Hindeloopen Frisian is spoken in the city of Hindeloopen which was traditionally located on the coast of the Zuiderzee, a historical sea, that was turned into a lake called IJsselmeer in the 20th century, Hindeloopen Frisian may be characterised as a “Zuiderzee trade language.” This characterisation takes into account both history and geography, which is important for raising awareness about the value of the preservation of Hindeloopen Frisian to its local environment.

My criticism of taking only a historical perspective into account is that it would not be specific enough as history without geographical context may be too generic. Surely, there are other trade languages as well, but defining it as a Zuiderzee trade language limits Hindeloopen Frisian to a specific environment, and it gives an idea about the unique social and natural ecology in which the language has existed for many successive centuries. I try to make my characterisations sufficiently specific with the aid of historic and geographic reality, because when the characterisations are too generic, it runs the risk of becoming a meaningless stereotype, and it will therefore miss its purpose. After all, the purpose of such characterisations of entire languages is to promote those languages and to help people recognise particular endangered languages. Carefully designed characterisations, which are based on both geography and history, are powerful mnemonic devices that can aid the popularisation process that is required for raising awareness about the endangered languages. Whilst some may object that such characterisations are perpetuating offensive stereotypes, it is important to recognise that generalisations, and perhaps (over)simplifications, are ways in which the human mind tries to make sense of the complex realities of the world, and even if the human mind may be capable of grasping those complex realities fully, it is always useful to have some ready-made concepts in order to help the human memory retain some important facts and details.

Characterising Hindeloopen Frisian as a Zuiderzee trade language is a convenient way to introduce this endangered language to people who know nothing about it. Furthermore, it conveys some important historical facts and geographic details to people unfamiliar with the language. Of course, such a characterisation which is essential to our efforts of raising awareness about Frisian minority languages may also help the endangered language community itself to rediscover their local ethnolinguistic identity, which is strongly linked to the local history and geography. As yet another rebuttal of the notion that such characterisations are necessarily harmful to the local communities, there is historical truth to the stereotypical notion that the Continental Frisians of the Netherlands are pastoral farmers, and there is even merit in acknowledging this historical truth and employing it to point out the fact that there is a close connection between Frisians, nature and cattle. In fact, this historical reality brings the Frisian tribe closely in line with the Germanic tribes of yore, which also used to keep livestock as a means of subsistence (thus providing some rare ancient historical legitimacy to the Frisian pastoral culture, although it ought to be noted that any means of subsistence defining a community is a source of legitimacy because if anything we have in common as biological beings, it is our natural desire to survive). Furthermore, the ancestors of the modern Frisian tribe inhabiting the mainland of the Frisian peninsula in the Netherlands are the Frisii, who were, as we are told by Roman and later historians writing in Latin, known for cattle-herding. It is therefore not so curious that terms for cattle-herding have been well-preserved in Continental Frisian and cattle-herding still dominates the linguistic psyche of the modern Continental Frisians, whether they like it or not. We believe it is essential to embrace the language as it has been transmitted and fully acknowledge the historical and geographic realities associated with it.

This is part of the rediscovery of the traditional identity of the speakers of the language, and this rediscovery, which is natural for the intertwined process of popularisation and revitalisation, may give a boost to the language and its speakers as not the status of the language is raised by comparing it negatively with others, but the old, healthy status quo, which existed for generations, is being restored. Such languages were already languages, but may have lost prestige due to negative comparison with surrounding dominant languages which came to have a more dominant role in the lives of the endangered language speakers and eventually came to gradually supplant the language of those speakers. All in all, it is quite relevant to note that characterisations may be based on the truth and that characterisations may not necessarily be equivalent to negative stereotypes, but may actually be a force of justice in this world when such characterisations are applied correctly. Of course, when Continental Frisians are called pastoral farmers, this may be meant in a negative sense by outsiders, but Continental Frisians themselves may also find pride in being farmers, who, in some way, continued the authentic pastoral traditions of the Frisii into the modern age and therefore the millennia-old pastoral traditions of the Germanic peoples as a whole. The Continental Frisians represent a modern tribal group of people who live in naturally perpetual continuity with the past. This is how a characterisation, which may be used negatively by some, can be turned into an advantage, because there is an underlying historical truth to this stereotype, that is worth emphasising, although anti-Frisian sentiments should definitely not go unaddressed. Whilst popularising the Continental Frisian language, we discovered in 2016, much to our dismay, that the hate against the Frisian tribe as a vulnerable minority within the borders of the Netherlands was real and we consequently made the resolve to do something about this, because the Continental Frisians are an indigenous tribe of the Netherlands that deserves correct understanding and awareness of their unique place within the history and geography of the Netherlands. Anti-Frisian hate is best mitigated by encouraging people to learn more about the Frisians as different tribes of humans and even study Frisian languages, which are indigenous to Germany and the Netherlands.


  1. Characterization is very important for saving endangered languages. I think it is like our names and our personalities.Why do we have name? Why are there personality for describing people. It is a signal of us,right? Whenever we think of others first,we will consider what their name. Besides cGenerally it is hard for people to remember who we are according to what we did. However,it is much easier for us to remember our names and personalities first. Nowadays, we have to much information to remember,we can’t just remember details,we need a “name” to impress us. Just like what you mentioned in the article,such as “trade languages”,this characterization for this language can give us a context for this language,and it can arouse our interests to explore why it is defined as “trade languages”. It is very a good way to promote endangered languages. If we just classify endangered languages by their areas ,we may have less motivation to explore their languages,tradition,culture,ect. For Chinese languages,there are a lot of words having specific meaning,such as idiom. Even for native speakers,we cannot understand it truly meaning according to characters,let alone foreigners. Generally,the real meaning of these idioms has relationship with the area where they originated from. So connecting languages with historical and geographical realities is very valid as well.

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