On the Revival of Extinct North Frisian Languages

Written by Dyami Millarson

The following North Frisian languages have already gone extinct: Eiderstedt Frisian (since 18th century), most Strand Frisian variants (since 19th century) and Southern Goesharde Frisian (since 20th century).

I visited Eiderstedt in 2018 for a North Frisian conference. Eiderstedt Frisian was spoken on the peninsula of Eiderstedt (coordinates 54.3333° N, 8.7833° E) until the 18th century when it went extinct.

The tragedy of language extinction is that if a language (or the set of related languages) has not been properly documented, it is as though it has never been. In the case of Eiderstedt Frisian, this may be said, because no Eiderstedt Frisian texts have been handed down to us.

Depending on whether or not sufficient data is available to reconstruct aspects of Eiderstedt Frisian and help us classify properly whether it belongs to the continental or insular North Frisian languages, it may prove an impossible exercise to revive Eiderstedt Frisian.

All that has been handed down directly to us are some isolated Eiderstedt Frisian words and names. So the Eiderstedt Frisian phonology may be reconstructed to some extent, but grammar and syntax would not be directly known from extant data, because that needs to be deduced from texts.

What we do know about Eiderstedt Frisian is that it is North Frisian and other North Frisian languages have been handed down to us. In this light, it would be relevant to know what North Frisian languages that have been better-documented are most closely related to Eiderstedt Frisian.

A language cannot be used when only its sounds are generally known. Based on what we know about the relationship of Eiderstedt Frisian with the other North Frisian languages, we might borrow syntax and grammar from other related North Frisian languages if we wish to recreate a working Eiderstedt Frisian language.

Reviving Eiderstedt Frisian with the aid of all the available data using deductive methods and with the aid of related North Frisian languages using inductive methods may still prove a daunting task. A combination of deductive and inductive logical reasoning may help us produce a working language, but the real challenge with using induction is knowing whether, or to what extent, the final result looks plausibly Eiderstedt Frisian.

Deduction can help us increase the plausibility of the final result, but with limited data available to deduct from, this leaves a wider range of unknown probability for induction. So when there is no better data available to us, we can only be left to speculate about what an extinct language such as Eiderstedt Frisian originally looked like before it went extinct.

Based on the limited available data, we might never know whether, or precisely to what extent, truly authentic Eiderstedt Frisian exactly as it was in the past may be revived. However, Eiderstedt Frisian that looks plausibly authentic may be revived, given that other North Frisian languages have been handed down to us.

This may come as a relief to those living on Eiderstedt who wish to reclaim their historical Frisian identity, because, as it may be said, something is always better than nothing. However, it is still a huge undertaking because before a functional language emerges, a lot of work has to be done. Moreover, after having created it on paper based on a current or future desire for the revival of Eiderstedt Frisian identity, the latest challenge will be to actually use it on a daily basis and become fluent in it, or to actually use it within certain limited historical-cultural contexts if full fluency is not the goal of the community.

In that latter case, one may imagine revived Eiderstedt Frisian being used for nostalgic cultural events that may be attractive to locals and tourists alike. After all, a revived Eiderstedt Frisian that looks plausibly authentic might have the power to convey a strongly sensual message of local identity and if this is what the community longs for, this is what they can get from such a revival.

Whereas Eiderstedt Frisian requires a lot of induction for its revival on account of a dearth of historical information, Strand Frisian, which used to be spoken on the island Strand that partially disappeared and was consequently broken into two in the 17th century, does have more available historical data, including a few texts from different geographical areas and historical times. This means that the grammar and syntax of Strand Frisian can be known through deduction to some extent.

The extinction of Strand Frisian is complicated, because it has been a gradual development and it did not happen simultaneously in every location. Instead, there are multiple histories of Strand Frisian having survived somewhere for a while and going extinct at some point. Strand Frisian may be said to have had three such lives and deaths and consequently three completed histories after one historic event, namely the Buchardi flood in the 17th century, separated the speakers of Strand Frisian into 3 groups.

The three historical varieties of Strand Frisian after the Buchardi flood are thus: Nordstrand Frisian, which was spoken on Nordstrand (coordinates 54.5109° N, 8.9247° E) until the 17th century when it went extinct, Pellworm Frisian, which was spoken on Pellworm (coordinates 54.5305° N, 8.6566° E) until the 18th century when it went extinct, and Wyk Frisian, which was spoken on Wyk auf Föhr (coordinates 54.6885° N, 8.5564° E) until the 19th century when it went extinct.

Nordstrand Frisian went extinct in the same century as in which the traumatic event of the Buchardi flood had occurred. Pellworm Frisian survived a century longer, and Wyk Frisian survived the longest. Given that such was the case, Nordstrand Frisian and Pellworm Frisian would logically have been more similar to the Strand Frisian that was spoken before the Buchardi flood than Wyk Frisian, which would have been more changed by the time of its extinction, for a few centuries had already passed by that time since the Buchardi flood.

One may even say that the Pellworm Frisian and Nordstrand Frisian would have been essentially the same, since there was a very small window of historical time for natural language change to occur (although one can imagine, for instance, a different set of borrowed vocabulary may have been in use in different locations). Moreover, since they were not that distantly removed from the original Strand Frisian, they could be said to have been essentially the same as the pre-Buchardi flood language. However, Wyk Frisian, which was a late descendant of Strand Frisian, would have been much more dissimilar from the original due to the lapse of time since the separating historic event.

A single religious text, namely a translation, has been handed down to us in the original Strand Frisian that was spoken prior to the event. Two songs, namely Miren-söngh and Een-söngh, have been handed down to us in Nordstrand Frisian. (I am not aware of any extant texts in Pellworm Frisian, however.) A religious text in Wyk Frisian has been handed down to us as well. These are few texts, but they do offer us a valuable glimpse of the grammar and syntax.

Halligen Frisian, which has been better-documented, may be the ‘sole rightful heir’ of Strand Frisian, for Strand Frisian may have survived in Halligen Frisian, which makes this North Frisian language particularly interesting to learn and that is also one reason why I wish to study Halligen Frisian this year (this month I have been studying Helgoland Frisian, which ought not to be confused with Halligen Frisian while both of them contain the letters H, L and G ). Consequently, Halligen Frisian may be used to aid the revival of Strand Frisian as it was spoken on Pellworm and Nordstrand and the revival of the late Wyk Frisian. Halligen Frisian itself may also have already gone extinct recently; it needs to be verified by our own research whether Halligen Frisian is still alive, i.e. whether there are any fluent speakers of Halligen Frisian left at all.

The project of reviving Strand Frisian for Pellworm and Nordstrand as well as reviving Wyk Frisian may be based on deducting vocabulary, grammar amd syntax from available data. The remaining gaps may be filled with inducing from what we know about Halligen Frisian. Furthermore, Halligen Frisian may be most closely related to the varieties of Goesharde Frisian and therefore Goesharde Frisian, which was historically also spoken in a geographical area near where the orginal Strand Frisian used to be spoken and Halligen Frisian was spoken, may also supply some particularly helpful inductions for the revival efforts.

If Halligen Frisian or any other Goesharde Frisian variety has not gone extinct recently, then Southern Goesharde Frisian is the most recent North Frisian language to have gone extinct, for Southern Goesharde Frisian has gone extinct in the late 20th century.

Given that the extinction of Southern Goesharde Frisian is such a recent historic occurrence, it may prove easier to revive Southern Goesharde Frisian than Strand Frisian and its late descendant Wyk Frisian, which may already be easier to revive than Eiderstedt Frisian.

It appears that the further one goes back in time, the harder it may be to revive an extinct language. It does, of course, not merely depend on the lapse of time, but also the scarcity of available data the further we go back in time. Since the extinction of Southern Goesharde Frisian is recent, we may even still find people who have some memory of Southern Goesharde Frisian. In that case, we can interview them about the language and consult them during the gradual revival process. We do not have this potential luxury with North Frisian languages that have been dead for longer than a century, for no one is alive with a living memory of those languages.

The revival of Southern Goesharde Frisian may run into its own problems, but it will be significantly eased by the fact that the related Goesharde languages have been documented as well. The documentation of the Goesharde Frisian languages leaves much to be desired, but it is better than having nothing at all. Moreover, the revival of Southern Goesharde Frisian may rely significantly less on induction, but much more on deduction, because more information appears to be available.

The conclusion is that the extinct North Frisian languages may potentially be revived to various degrees of scientific satisfaction. There will be trouble down the road, particularly for Eiderstedt Frisian, but with some ingenuity, this could be overcome if the desire for reviving extinct North Frisian local identities proves strong enough. Current or future generations may gain benefit, pleasure and fulfillment from such revivals in various creative ways that need not be enumerated here, for allusions to this reality suffice for the purpose of this article on the North Frisian languages that have gone extinct at some point in history. Extinct languages may be seen as having fallen asleep and waiting to be awakened, and thus the revival efforts are supplying local communities with the tools they need in order to reawaken local identities.

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