The Northern Languages of the Dutch Kingdom

Written by Dyami Millarson

Clay Frisian was studied by me together with Ken Ho in 2016. The three Frisian languages Aasters, Eilauners and Hielepes were studied by us in 2018. I noticed patterns of similarities and differences between Frisian languages in 2018, which helped me to learn to speak and write them properly without confusing them too much. Since I started studying Gronings seriously this January, I started noticing similar patterns of similarities and differences that I had previously observed in the Frisian languages of 2018. Ken Ho has eagerly joined me in studying Gronings, while he shares my research interest(s). I had already learned Gronings casually in 2018 and it had taken me only about 2 weeks in total to learn to write and speak Gronings. I was, however, still very critical of my language skills, because I had not yet learned to command Gronings with absolute fluency, and that is why I wanted to commence 2019 by studying Gronings seriously. My main interest in Gronings stems from the fact that it is spoken in the North of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and I have been studying languages spoken in the North of the Netherlands together with Ken Ho since the start of our team initiative in 2016.

After studying Gronings since the beginning of this month, I have concluded that Gronings is linguistically Northern in character, for it not only deviates from Dutch in particular areas, but it deviates from Dutch often in the same areas as the Frisian languages, thus exhibiting strikingly similar patterns that cannot be mere coincidences. These similar patterns build up from pronunciation and run all the way through grammar to vocabulary. Let me give a brief overview and explain afterwards:

  • Alveolar trill.
  • Pronunciation of -en.
  • Pronunciation of w as v.
  • Preservation of Germanic ī, no ei/ij merger.
  • Preservation of Germ. ū as monophthong.
  • No ge- in past participles
  • Doar used as relative pronoun.
  • Preservation of Germanic 2nd person singular pronoun
  • Word order with verbs.
  • Same irregularities: to go and to stand.
  • Typical stem vowel deviations from Dutch in certain lexical items: The Groninger words for Dutch een ‘one’, drie ‘three’, vier ‘four’, met ‘with’, voor ‘for’, jaar ‘year’, etc. are different.
  • The typical use of krekt and proaten.
  • Same typical conjunctions: eer, as.

All Frisian languages have alveolar trills, and so has Gronings. Dutch may be pronounced with an alveolar trill as well, but there is great variation in the pronunciation of the r in Dutch, whereas practically no such variation exists in the Frisian languages and Gronings. I noticed that Gronings drops the r in syllable-final positions sometimes, such as veujoar ‘spring’ for veurjoar. This r deletion is very reminiscent of the Frisian languages: fojier ‘spring’ for forjier in Aasters, feujier ‘spring’ for feurjier in Eilauners.

The w is pronounced always as v in Gronings as well as the Frisian languages, whereas in Dutch it may be pronounced (1) as a v which is in fashion nowadays, (2) as a truly bilabial w but that has a sound quality between a v and English w (this reflects my own pronunciation of w in Dutch which I favour explicitly on account of its advantage in differentiating w and v), or even (3) as an English w by some Dutch speakers (which seems somewhat too exotic to me as a more Northern, although traditional, speaker of Dutch). The suffix -en produces various syllabic sonorants in the Frisian languages and Gronings, which is a phenomenon described in Dutch as ‘swallowing the n’ (de n inslikken).

The Germanic monophthong ī has generally been lost in Dutch with a few rare exceptions such as bijzonder (say biezonder) and kiekeboe, for it has usually been merged with the falling diphthong ei (falling diphthong means that the final vowel ‘i’ has a non-syllabic pronunciation). All the Frisian languages have preserved the Germanic ī (long i) as a pure monophthong, although the exact length of the vowel may vary. It is, therefore, worth noting that Gronings has preserved the Germanic ī as a monophthong as well. While we have observed this pattern of preservation for the preservation of a Germanic close long vowel ī, it is particularly interesting to note the same pattern with another Germanic close long vowel ū, which is generally preserved in Gronings (Hogelandsters) as the monophthong oe, usually preserved in Clay Frisian as û and often preserved in the various other Frisian languages as an /y/-sound. A typical example of this would be the words for house and mouse: Gronings hoes and moes, Clay Frisian hûs and mûs, Aasters huus and muus, Eilauners hús and mús and Hielepes huus and muus.

All such features taken together establish the image of a distinct Northern pronunciation that underlies the phonetic structure of the Frisian languages as well as Gronings. This typically Northern pronunciation sets speakers of Northern languages apart. It takes a trained ear to hear it, and since I came to live in the North of the Netherlands in 2009, I took a few years before I recognised this ‘Northern accent’. The majority of my ancestors come from the North of the Netherlands, but I was prior to 2009 still completely unfamiliar with the phonetic features that characterise the North of the Netherlands linguistically.

After studying Northern languages since 2016 now, I have come to expect certain grammatical patterns and the more I know about the similarities and differences, the more intriguing it becomes to me. One of the most striking features of the past participle in all Northern languages that I have studied thus far is the absence of the Dutch prefix ge-, which is particularly important in the formation of past participles in Dutch. One good example is the equivalent of the Dutch past particle gezien ‘seen’ in all the Northern languages that I have studied: Clay Frisian sjûn, Aasters sjoen, Eilauners syn, Hielepes siiₐnd and Gronings zain (one should here notice the intriguing absence of ge- in all past participles).

Doar ‘there’ can be used in Gronings as a relative pronoun, and this is reminiscent of the system featured in the Frisian languages, where the adverb for ‘there’ is used to construct a relative pronoun of location: dêr’t ‘where’ is used in Clay Frisian, der in Aasters, der ‘t ‘where’ in Eilauners and der ‘t ‘where’ in Hielepes.

Fascinating is the preservation of the Germanic 2nd person singular pronoun despite it being lost in the Dutch language: Clay Frisian do, Aasters do, Eilauners , Hielepes doe and Gronings doe. What interests me is the grammatical implications of this preservation. Namely, all the verbs get a characteristic form with an /s/-sound in the 2nd person singular past and present. A nice example of this is the translation of ‘you work’ and ‘you worked’: Clay Frisian do wurkest and do wurkest, Aasters do werkest (2x), Eilauners dò werkeste (2x), Hielepes doe wörkest (2x) and Gronings doe werks and doe werktest.

Verbs are a particularly important topic of discussion for the similarities and differences in the grammar of the Northern languages. There are many grammatical differences in the Northern languages when it comes to verbs, but it is noteworthy that in all these languages it is the most important to learn the strong and irregular verbs first, because that is the most difficult aspect of the grammar of these languages. Dutch, German and the Northern languages of the Netherlands have in common that they require the SOV (subject – object – verb) word in clauses when that clause is opened by words that can be translated to English as ‘that’, ‘while’, ‘before’, and so on. More abstract of a similarity between the Northern languages is the word order of the verbs as used in the SOV clauses. In Dutch, it is correct to say: Ik zeg dat ik hem gezien heb literally ‘I said that I him seen have’ and Ik zeg dat ik hem heb gezien literally ‘I said that I him have seen’. However, the latter is incorrect in all Northern languages that I have studied so far. This means that the Northern languages only allow the former in SOV clauses. This is a notable deviation from Dutch grammar that Northern languages share, adding substantial evidence to the proposition that Northern languages are interrelated linguistic systems that are substantially different from the Dutch language.

While it is important to note similarities in verbal regularities among the Northern languages of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, it is also important to note similarities in the verbal irregularities, because it is rare for languages to develop these irregularities and it is extremely unlikely for them to coincidentally develop the same irregularities across the board. Therefore, similarities in irregularities do suggest a fundamental interrelatedness of the Northern languages. A good example of this is irregular stem vowel change observed in the conjugation of the verbs ‘to go’ and ‘to stand’: ik gean ‘I go’ and ik stean ‘I stand’, hy giet ‘he goes’ and hy stiet ‘he stands’; Aasters ik gea ‘I go’ and ik stea ‘I stand’, hi geet ‘he goes’ and hi steet ‘he stands’; Eilauners ik gai ‘I go’ and ik stai ‘I stand’, hy gie ‘he goes’ and gy stie ‘he stands’; Hielepes iek gaaₑn ‘I go’ and iek staaₑn ‘I stand’, hie géét ‘he goes’ and hie stéét ‘he stands’; Gronings ik goa ‘I go’ and ik stoa ‘I stand’, hai gaait ‘he goes’ and hai staait ‘he stands’. This irregular stem vowel change in the conjugation is not shared with the Dutch verbs gaan ‘to go’ and staan ‘to stand’: ik ga ‘I go’ and ik sta ‘I stand’, hij gaat ‘he goes’ and hij staat ‘he stands’ (the a and aa are no stem vowel changes because the a in an open syllable is pronounced the same as aa in Dutch). This leads us to the conclusion that the Northern languages share grammatical systems, and one should therefore be on the lookout for similarities.

While similarities in pronunciation and grammar are important, the vast majority of the similarities between the Northern languages lies in the vocabulary. After learning the three Frisian languages in 2018, I had become so familiar with patterns in the vocabulary that I could predict similarities and differences without ever having seen the words themselves. When I started learning Gronings this year, it struck me that this knowledge proved useful yet again. This demonstrated to me that the relatedness that I observed in the Frisian languages extends beyond the Frisian languages and even includes a Saxon language such as Gronings which is spoken in the North of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. This made me aware that more was going on and that it makes sense to speak of ‘Northern languages’ due to their interrelatedness. It is understandable that such relatedness arises from geographical proximity, but historical factors such as the fact that East Frisian was spoken in Groningen in the Middle Ages ought to be taken into account as well. From a historical perspective of language shift in Groningen in the Middle Ages, it is reasonable to find East Frisian features in Gronings. (It is vitally important to grasp that in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Eilauners is the sole extant remnant of the language that was once spoken in medieval Groningen).

The majority of the vocabulary differences and similarities between the Northern languages is determined by the stem vowels. This is true of Germanic languages in general, for they differ more on the level of vowels than consonants. This insight has become particularly clear to me after studying the Frisian languages in 2018, and it became apparent to me yet again while studying Gronings this January. An important skill that I developed while studying the Northern languages is the ability to predict what lexical items would have stem vowels different from Dutch, while it has also been particularly important for me to be able to predict similarities between the Northern languages and Dutch. The skill of predicting stem vowels makes it less important to rely purely on memorisation for learning new vocabulary, although memorisation is still an essential part of learning vocabulary in the Northern languages. From the Frisian languages that I studied in 2018, I know that certain words will be different from Dutch. This knowledge proved useful to me when I was able to predict that words such as Dutch een ‘one’, drie ‘three’, vier ‘four’, met ‘with’, voor ‘for’, jaar ‘year’, etc. would be different in Gronings: ain ‘one’, drij ‘three’, vaaier ‘four’, mit ‘with’, veur ‘for’, joar ‘year’, etc. The reason I just intuitively knew these lexical items would be different is particularly due to my prior experience with learning Aasters, Eilauners and Hielepes in 2018.

I have noticed that there are particular words that tend to be more frequently used in Northern languages than their etymological equivalents in Dutch. The words for ‘just’ and ‘speak’ in the Northern languages are good examples of this: Clay Frisian krekt and prate, Aasters krek and praatsje, Eilauners krekt and praatje, Hielepes krekt and praatje and Gronings krekt and proaten (the Dutch etymological equivalent of krek(t) is correct). Moreover, there are also conjunctions that appear typically Northern, such as Gronings eer ‘before’ and as ‘as’. They may occur in other languages of the Netherlands, but these conjunctions are certainly universal among the Northern languages, and they can therefore be rightly described as ‘typically Northern’.

Of course this article is too short to treat all differences and similarities that exist among the Northern languages of the Netherlands, and this article serves only to give an impression. It would do great injustice to the Northern languages to suppose otherwise. I have noticed many more similarities and differences that become activated in my mind whenever I read, write, speak and hear sentences in the Northern languages, but sharing all these would be beyond the scope of this article, for it would require me to write an entire book and my current intention was merely to write an article. I hope that it has become sufficiently clear to my readers that the Northern languages are not merely a geographical concept, but a complex linguistic reality that displays various signs of interrelatedness; the main topic of this article is the interrelated of the Northern languages of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.


  1. I’m not a linguist, so thank you for making your article interesting to a wider audience. I used live and work in Amsterdam so I enjoy learning things about the Netherlands.

    When and why did these “Northern Languages” get superseded by Dutch?
    Was it the growth of movement of people that caused this?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your sincere words are much appreciated, for it provides us with new inspiration!
      If ever you visit the Netherlands, perhaps for a culinary-related event, you are always welcome to meet me, because I would really be thrilled to exchange views with you on our common passions and interests.
      I have a belief that language and cuisine truly mean a lot to each other. I explored this view in 2017 when I visited many Michelin-starred restaurants in Hong Kong. I discovered that both language and cuisine seem to connect people in magical ways. This has intrigued me to such extent that I intend to make cuisine an integral part of our future language projects. Exactly how this needs to be implemented remains open to further investigation/discussion.
      You asked an essential question, and there is no easy answer to your question. This is why I have decided to publish the answer as an article titled ‘Loss of Faith in Local Identity’ that will appear within a few hours. I took a global perspective, for the Northern languages have followed a global trend that was historically experienced by the entire world in one form or another. There was a time when the Northern languages had become completely invisible, while they were viewed as something backwards to be ashamed of, and their death had seemed inevitable even to the speakers themselves who had lost faith in the transmission of their languages, but there is now an on-going revival of the Northern languages and it delights us to be very much part of this unique historical moment where the Northern languages are (re)gaining ever more visibility and the public awareness is increasing.
      On this blog we are using languages that had until recently been predicted to be completely doomed, but we demonstrated publicly in 2018 that three languages, each with only a handful of speakers, could be saved from oblivion and even gain visibility within a very short time. This has inspired other communities and now the speed of revival efforts, to which we are happily contributing, is increasing rapidly. What is happening in the Netherlands may soon spread to neighbouring countries as well. 2018 was a great year for the Netherlands because Leeuwarden the European Capital of Culture 2018 offered opportunities for Frisia to highlight the local linguistic diversity of the Netherlands to a wider audience, and realising the importance of 2018 ourselves, we had already made plans in 2017 to learn 3 highly endangered languages fast in 2018 and demonstrate to the world that rapid revival is possible. Our ambition in 2019 is now not only to keep the heritage of Leeuwarden 2018 alive, but to spread its message of hope for local communities to the rest of the world.
      My new article that will appear soon will provide more details about what caused the demise of local languages and what makes the restoration of local languages, which had almost gone extinct, possible in the modern era. I am very curious as to your response to the article and whether it answers your intriguing question satisfactorily. A great deal can be said, but I am trying to keep it concise and understandable.
      I am grateful for everything you shared!
      – Dyami Millarson


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