Saterlandic, Part 3: What Is Saterfrisian Related To?

See part 1

See part 2

Written by Dyami Millarson

Saterfrisian is the smallest language that has been officially recognised by the Federal Republic of Germany. However, history is a warning that Saterfrisian may not be safe. I do fear that Saterfrisian, following a historical trend, should die out, because a group of languages that were similar to Saterfrisian used to be much more widely spoken in the region. What few remains today is the result of gradual language death through assimilation with Low Saxon and nowadays High German. Saterfrisian is the last living remnant of East Frisian in Germany, while the last living remnant of East Frisian in the Netherlands is the highly unusual Frisian tongue of Schiermonnikoog. East Frisian is the primal language of the Dutch province of Groningen and the German province of Ostfriesland, which means that the East Frisian original cultural-linguistic area spans all the way from the Netherlands to Germany. The historical memory of this cultural-linguistic area has been forgotten – or actively suppressed – in the province of Groningen and remains highly sensitive in Groningen to this very day. However, their German neighbours are very proud of their East Frisian roots, although they speak a Low Saxon tongue nowadays that is said to be remarkably similar to the one spoken in Groningen. Speakers of Low Saxon in Groningen and speakers of Low Saxon in Ostfriesland can traditionally understand each other. What these two groups of Low Saxon speakers have in common is that their ancestors spoke East Frisian and the East Frisian language has survived to some extent in the vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation.

What is even more fascinating is that the ancestral East Frisian tongues that influenced these local Low Saxon tongues are still living languages with unbroken continuity on Schiermonnikoog in the Netherlands and in Saterland in Germany. The East Frisian in the Netherlands that used to be spoken on the mainland has enjoyed no continuity at all except as substrate in the language of Groningen and has gone extinct completely since the Middle Ages. However, Insular East Frisian in the Netherlands may have some continuity in the language of the island Schiermonnikoog and may – if the language of Schiermonnikoog is some kind of East Frisian survival or East Frisian remnant language influenced by West Frisian – have outlived the extinction of Continental East Frisian by many centuries. The Insular East Frisian, which was survived in Wangerooge Frisian (and we hope to revive this language in the 21st century by learning how to speak and write it ourselves), has died out in Germany in the previous century, and therefore only the Continental East Frisian survives. This means that the still living Frisian language (in the Netherlands) that is probably the most closely related to Saterlandic is Schiermonnikoog Frisian or Eilauners, the local name of the language of the island of Schiermonnikoog.

It would be interesting for us to investigate what variant(s) of Saterfrisian the speakers speak in Sedelsberg which is the new village in Saterland. Reportedly, they speak Scharrel Frisian in Sedelsberg. I for one would be thrilled to make some recordings of their speech. Moreover, I am deeply intrigued by knowing that there are three variants of Saterfrisian, and I would like to investigate the extent of the difference; I want to learn Scharrel Frisian, Strücklingen Frisian and Ramsloh Frisian, and by doing so, I want to know whether these are ‘dialects’ or ‘languages’. Whether I call them ‘dialects’ or ‘languages’ depends on how different they are, and especially how difficult it is to learn them. Ere I have learned these local variants myself, I do not want to offer any opinion on what Scharrel Frisian, Strücklingen Frisian and Ramsloh Frisian really are and that is why I call them ‘variants’, because I still need to investigate this issue properly and I am also interested in whether people might call their local variant a separate language. It is vital to investigate linguistic self-identification in Saterland. I really want to know: Do the locals traditionally see themselves as speaking different local languages that are closely related, or do they see themselves as speaking different dialects of the same language? In other words, do they see themselves as some kind of equals (i.e. speaking related or similar languages) or do they view themselves in some kind of hierarchical manner (i.e. speaking different dialects of one and the same language)?

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