Written by Dyami Millarson
I wanted to write this article on North Frisian in general due to the fact that I have been studying Northern Goesharde Frisian this month, which I will talk more about in my forthcoming article on how to learn Northern Goesharde Frisian. North Frisian is spoken on Germany’s most outlying island Helgoland and in the Northwest of Schleswig-Holstein, which is situated in the Northwest of Germany near the border with Denmark. There are many types of North Frisian (we will come to that later), but the main distinction between them is that some are insular and others are continental (we will talk more about that later as well). The continental types of North Frisian are spoken in the area of the West coast of Schleswig-Holstein, and the insular types of North Frisian are spoken on various islands off the coast of the mainland of Schleswig-Holstein. The North Frisian of the Halligen (many of these islands were once part of the mainland) is a special case because, although Halligen Frisian is spoken on several islands, it ought to be classified as continental, whilst it originates from the continent.
There is also East Frisian and West Frisian, which I have been studying since this year and 2016 respectively, but relative to North Frisian, they are spoken more to the South and thus they may be characterised as “South Frisian”. I find this apt on a superficial level, for it seems “South Frisian” has a lot in common with its own constituents whilst North Frisian has a lot in common with its own constituents as well.
However, to say that East Frisian as spoken in Germany is more like West Frisian than North Frisian may be somewhat of a stretch (this is, nevertheless, a notion worth checking/verifying with future research; it is always good to check and check again). Saterland Frisian seems genetically closer to North Frisian than West Frisian. This can, for instance, be seen in grammatical items such as articles. “South Frisian” is a fictional classification that I brought up to highlight the different developmental path in the Frisian North and South which helps us to be cognizant of the fact that North Frisian is a complex reality of its own as it seems (I say seems because I have not yet studied all types of North Frisian) to have as much – if not more – diversity as all of the “South Frisian” languages combined. Nevertheless, if North Frisian is (chiefly) derived from East Frisian, then North Frisian may be more properly termed “Northern East Frisian” and East Frisian “Southern East frisian”.
Last year I attended a North Frisian conference in Germany to find out more about the language situation in North Frisia with regards to each type of North Frisian (see here and here). I use type not to say dialect or language, it is also possible to say lect but I do not like using that word because type suffices here and lect looks too similar to dialect, which is not really a neutral word; what I wish to distinguish is language family and language, and what I am wondering is whether North Frisian is actually a language or language family, and this question may be answered by simply learning all types and thus being able to compare them properly.
The main question I wanted to be answered during the conference was how many speakers each type of North Frisian had, and hence deduce the level of endangerment that each type of North Frisian faced. My goal was to learn the most endangered types of North Frisian first and to focus on rendering aid to those languages in the sense of preservation.
I said in 2018, as a matter of principle, that the types of North Frisian that need help the most should be studied first. I justify my order of learning based on level of endangerment (see here my German-language article on the most endangered North Frisian types). This appeared a logical method to me, but apparently this is what makes us unique, for our approach seems wholly alien to others. Having gained experience with 3 Frisian highly endangered minority languages of the Netherlands in 2018, I was more eager than ever to apply a similar yet improved approach to learning & saving North Frisian. My initial assumptions had been proven correct and I had learned a few new things along the way, so I was determined to deal with the daunting task of saving North Frisian in a much more sophisticated way.
In 2018, I was still trying to wrap my head around the geography of the North Frisian types as well as the names. It was a much more complex situation than I had faced thus far, for the situation in the Netherlands and across the border near the Netherlands was much simpler in that regard. Many sources cited there were 10 types of North Frisian, but this included one type that had gone extinct in the 1980s according to sources. Based on available data, I was able to extrapolate quickly in 2018 that there are 9 living North Frisian types, which is hence also the figure that I held on to as I attended the conference:
- Location: Föhr and Amrum. Endonym: Feer and Oomram. Speech name (in German): Föhrer Friesisch (alternatively: Föhring) and Amrumer Friesisch (alternatively: Amring). Endonym: Fering (Fresk) and Öömrang (Fresk).
- Location: Sylt. Endonym: Söl’. Speech name: Sylterfriesisch. Endonym: Söl’ring (Friisk).
- Location: Bökingharde. Endonym: Böökinghiird. Speech name: Mooringer Friesisch. Endonym: (Mooringer) Frasch.
- Location: Wiedingharde. Endonym: Wiringhiird. Speech name: Wieringharder Friesisch. Endonym: (Wiringhiirder) Freesk.
- Location: Karrharde. Endonym: Karhiird. Speech name: Karrharder Friesisch. Endonym: (Karhiirder) Fräisch.
- Location: Helgoland. Endonym: deät Lun (*Halun is not used as far as I know). Speech name: Helgoländisch. Endonym: Halunder (Friisk).
- Location: Halligen. Endonym: Halii’e. Speech name: Halligfriesisch. Endonym: Halifreesk or simply Freesk (the latter is my linguistic assumption). Note: Although Halligen Frisian is spoken on an island, it is counted among the North Frisian speech systems of the mainland.
- Location: Goesharde. Endonym: Gooshiird. Speech name: Norder-, Mittel- and Südergoesharder Friesisch (counted as 3 separate types). Endonym: (Gooshiirder) Fräisch (Northern: Langenhorn), (Gooshiirder) Freesch (Northern: Ockholm, Middle & Southern). Note: Southern Goesharde Frisian has died out since the 1980s, hence there are 9 living types of North Frisian (left in total). See here my article on Goesharde Frisian.
Let me simplify that for you (the colon : in this list stands for “is associated with”):
- Föhr & Amrum/Feer & Oomram : Föhrer & Amrumer Friesisch/Fering & Öömring (Fresk).
- Sylt/Söl’ : Sylterfriesisch/Söl’ring (Friisk)
- Bökingharde/Böökinghiird : Mooringer Friesisch/(Mooringer) Frasch.
- Wiedingharde/Wiringhiird : Wieringharder Friesisch/(Wiringhiirder) Freesk.
- Karrharde/Karhiird : Karrharder Friesisch/(Karhiirder) Fräisch.
- Helgoland/deät Lun (*Halun) : Helgoländisch/Halunder (Friisk).
- Halligen/Halii’e : Halligfriesisch/Halifreesk (or maybe just Freesk as well).
- Goesharde/Gooshiird : (Gooshiirder) Fräisch/Freesch.
I have not included the anglified names in the lists, because the German forms suffice for the exonyms in my practical opinion (the already complicated lists would otherwise be overcomplicated). According to these lists, we count 10 types of North Frisian to have been alive/spoken until the 1980s. We count, however, 9 types of living North Frisian nowadays: total number of living Frisian languages today = 10 – x + y, where x stands for the languages that have died and y stands for the languages that have been revived (see here for additional North Frisian languages that may yet be revived). I cannot be entirely sure that Halligen Frisian or Central Goesharde Frisian is still alive, but I have heard/seen it reported they are; for the sake of science, I need to verify this myself just in case (after all, it is entirely my fault if I do not check things properly). So, I assume that x is currently only 1 and y is 0. My calculation is intended to show that the total number may change if Southern Goesharde Frisian and/or additional North Frisian tongues are revived.
What made it confusing to me at first is that I had to learn the German exonyms and the local North Frisian endonyms of all locations, I had to know all the exonyms and endonyms of the speech names, and I had to know where each location/language was situation relative to each other on the map. There was an initial stage of confusion as I was trying to wrap my head around the situation, but confusion is a psychological step in the right direction, for it aids learning and comprehension (see here).
With regards to language endangerment, geography is helpful, for I have observed a North-South division: the most endangered languages, including Helgolandic, are located to the South (language death in the North Frisian-speaking territory is progressively climbing upwards), the less endangered languages are located to the North. This seems to be the general trend. I am, however, unsure about the situation of Wiedingharde Frisian. Things are probably very bad there as well. With language death, things are often worse than expected. Let me take Hielepes as example. Hielepes was exclusively being spoken at a fluent level by elderly. The version that younger people speak is a somewhat “decayed” version of Hielepes, for it has been heavily assimilated, as is the case with many languages undergoing language death. The work for the survival of Hielepes cannot merely focus on acquiring the language, but most also focus on the quality of the language, for the quality is what has been deteriorating fast (i.e., we must learn an earlier language variant that conserves more of the distinct/unique features). So, what made our work special in 2018 was not merely that we learned to pronounce the words in Hielepes as perfectly as possible and learned to speak it as fluently as possible, we also learned to use old words and expressions as much as possible. Indeed, what was unique about our work is that we focused on learning an unassimilated prior version of Hielepes as spoken by the elderly, or even as spoken by the grandparents of the elderly (the elderly speakers of Hielepes could confirm we did indeed speak like their grandparents). It requires special attention as well as careful linguistic anlaysis to achieve this.
As a result of our efforts in 2018, we became among the youngest fluent speakers of Hielepes, if not the youngest, for the fluency of other young people remains to be seen, and we were glad to be, probably, the only young people capable of speaking the same as the elderly, or even to speak in a more classical way than they do. This aspect is vital to our revitalisation project, because we believe that when language shift is taking its toll on a language, and a language is under severe pressure from assimilation, it serves the preservation of the language to reverse all the assimilation and turn the language back to an earlier stage where it was much more vital and dynamic than it is now. We wish to revive the old dynamism or authenticity that has been lost over time (I will later in this document also mention “taalgeest” and this is the energy we wish to bring back into a language; from a Chinese philosophical perspective, one may compare this to qi & dao), and the elderly speakers may not even have noticed how much has been lost. In the case of Hielepes, it was possible to recover much of what has been lost and hence we can speak the language like the grandparents of the last elderly fluent speakers of Hielepes. Indeed, they feel as though (the voices of) their grandparents have been brought back to life. What a strange experience it must be to them! However, to us, it is completely natural and normal, because we have been studying old documents of Hielepes; most of the documents we could use for learning the language were from long ago.
What becomes clear from the speech names is that idebtity is complex in North Frisia. Föhr, Amrum, Sylt, Helgoland and Halligen (or Heligoland in English, see my article on this here) are islands, Karrharde, Wiedingharde, Goesharde and Bökingharde are locations on the mainland. Observe in the list above that they call themselves Fresk or Friisk on the islands, Frasch, Freesk, Fräisch and Freesch on the mainland locations. Notice that all island names for Frisian end in -sk, while mainland names end in either -sch or -sk. Of the 5 living Continental North Frisian types, Halligen and Wiedingharde Frisian are the only ones that exhibit -sk: Freesk.
Furthermore, the -sk form with the stem vowel ee only occurs in Continental North Frisian, it does not occur in Insular North Frisian. So, although the -sk form is the same, the stem vowel is not. Moreover, the forms of the word for Frisian in all types of North Frisian are much more divergent than they are in all “South Frisian” languages (remember, “South Frisian” is a fictional classification that I made up to highlight developmental differences between North and South). The Clay Frisian form is Frysk, the form in Hielepes is Fries, the form in Aasters is Frys, the form in Eilauners is Friesk and the form in Seeltersk is Fräisk. All of these forms are not that dissimilar. However, one should notice that the Schiermonnikoog Frisian form Friesk and the Saterland Frisian form Fräisk are the only forms with diphthongs in “South Frisian”, and these forms are closer to the North Frisian ones. Obviously, Fräisk is a form that is very similar to Fräisch in Langenhorn Frisian, which I am studying this month.
However, please observe in the lists above that all the insular speech names have the word for Frisian between brackets, whereas the continental speech names have the location between brackets. As a matter of identity, the continental groups seem to identify more with their local word for “Frisian”, whereas the insular groups seem to identify more with their locations. At least, this is what I have been able to gather from the sources. I have not yet verified whether this is the case, and it would definitely be a very interesting topic to investigate further. When one speaks the same language as the informants, it is easier to win their trust, and obtain information that one would otherwise have trouble to get by. Speaking the same language establishes rapport, and this is very important for linguistic and cultural research. I think that the social importance of speaking a (local) language has often been ignored, and what influence it might have on the quality of research, if one does not speak the language. I do already notice in my encounters with locals that they treat me different when we speak in the local language, and they offer me different information that is valuable. It appears that they are more reserved when they speak the (national) language. I believe – after witnessing this phenomenon regularly in different communities – that this reality should not be ignored for any research conducted in this field. For research on minority languages and cultures, we rely heavily on locals and their trust. Indeed, their willingness to participate in the research and offer information depends on this.
I heard different opinions at the conference, but a few are to be noted here: I heard the opinion that all North Frisians should speak 1 North Frisian language yet North Frisians only want to speak their own dialect, a new identity should be created, and there are 10 dialects of North Frisian. However, for the sake of researching the current reality, I am skeptical that there are 10 dialects of 1 language, because (a) I have seen it reported that 1 has already died out since the 1980s and hence the figure of 10 should be updated to 9, (b) I have seen it reported that many North Frisian types are not mutually intelligible and this my suspicion is raised that North Frisian is linguistically a language family, and (c) I got the impression, from the stories about North Frisian resistance to speaking 1 unified North Frisian language, that they actually consider themselves as speaking distinct languages, perhaps similar to the situation between Swedish, Norwegian and Danish or as between Dutch, Afrikaans and German. This reinforced my hypothesis that there are 9 types of living North Frisian, which are actually 9 independent languages that have evolved over the course of many generations and many centuries and that belong to a single North Frisian family.
My hypothesis is scientifically falsifiable because (a) languages can be etymologically compared, (b) mutual intelligibility can be measured and (c) last speakers can be asked to comment on whether they see themselves as a distinct entity on the linguistic and cultural levels (self-identification). However, as I am studying North Frisian this year, the evidence is piling up fast for the North Frisian language family theory. It looks like that just as in the Netherlands, we are not dealing with 1 language that has a few somewhat divergent variants, but with multiple languages belonging to 1 family. Regarding point (c), the last speakers’ account needs to be taken into consideration. Linguists have often overlooked the opinions of last speakers with regards to their social group identity based on language/culture (answering questions such as: To what group do they believe they belong? Do they believe they can speak with other related groups in their language? How distinct do they believe they are from them?), but this should not be ignored: the language-dialect debate is also a social issue, and therefore it requires a democratic/sociological solution. One needs to be very careful with such interviews and verify whether what has been reported reflects their views accurately.
How exactly to classify the members of the linguistic family is a matter for further debate, but my first priority is to establish they are languages that ought to be learned entirely as separate foreign languages. Moreover, as with any speech system that is called a dialect, I am curious about its nature; I believe that the dialect/language debate applies to any so-called dialect. Linguists often refrain from commenting on whether some speech system is a dialect/language, but I think it is scientifically relevant and intellectually meaningful (particularly for language learners and teachers) to let the linguistic data and the last speakers speak for themselves with regards to whether it is a language.
This is not an act of artificially raising the status of a language, but it is merely (re)affirming the existing reality. If a language is a language, it was already a language for a long time, and we missed that fact in previous studies due to our lack of familiarity or simple ignorance thanks to not learning/studying the language to a sufficient degree to know it is not a mere dialect but actually amounts to something more that is part of something bigger (i.e., a language that is part of a language family). If my work/research is correct, and I see no valid objection why it isn’t, then it shatters an earlier “romantic” belief there are 3 Frisian languages (namely West, East and North Frisian), but 3 Frisian language families with their own independent member languages.
This view is, I believe, much more accurate and helpful to language researchers, students and teachers alike. Furthermore, it helps us to appreciate each individual language more from a scientific viewpoint; it encourages others to do more research on each of these individual languages. One of my main goals is to persuade the scientific community to study all of these languages more on an individual level, for that would help with the preservation effort of each individual language. The focus has been too much on the idea we were dealing with 1 language and multiple dialects. This blurred our vision very much. It is quite interesting, then, how a word such as dialect could have led to a lot of myopia.
Moreover, although raising the status is a concern to some linguists, seeking social recognition from outsiders for the local language and culture is entirely human and their yearning for equal treatment fits our (democratic) legal system; objections to this may have far-reaching implications, considering the basic (international) juridical assumptioms around which our modern Western society is built. Furthermore, every human individual wants their dignity to be recognised, and so does every group which possesses their own language and culture; this is the human survival instinct, and we should simply offer equality to those who seek help. Recognition-seeking is a behaviour that I recognise as a plea for help, and I have seen that the communities I work with are in dire need of more recognition and protection, otherwise their heritage is at stake. It is about raising awareness as to their plight, and it serves our societal/human interests to take a good look at these people and give them a proper nod that we know they exist and that their existence is worthy of equal treatment. Problematic about “dialect” is that it seems to negate and turn away attention from these vulnerable communities’ dignity and recognition of their uniqueness as linguistic and cultural groups. This is not to elevate them above others, but to simply let them be truly part of our society and to give them an equal stake. Recognition of local communities is about inclusion, whereas the term dialect draws on exclusion from the club, which is, I think, neither fitting nor fair in a modern Western society with the rule of law.
I theorise, if my analysis is correct about Frisian being comprised of multiple families, that the word dialect is harmful and should be avoided due to its malicious use owing to an inherent deragory meaning, as it shuts down meaningful thought/discussion while dialect means of lower status. This would legitimise a further investigation into abandoning the use of dialect in a lot of cases and bestowing well-deserved (democratic) equality upon previously discriminated local groups. Furthermore, I think dialect can reasonably be interpreted as an attack on human dignity and hence its use may actually be in direct conflict with existing international democratic laws. Thus, a legal argument may be forthcoming for putting a stop to labelling languages despite ample contrary evidence as dialects. What has to be investigated from a juridical point of view is whether the implications of the term dialect suit the (basic assumptions of) the democratic legal system, and whether its implications are, perhaps, diametrically opposed to it. If indeed dialect as a concept does not match our society and legal system, that is important, because it is then a derogatory term that is forced on people without their (legal/official) consent. Just as people do not appreciate being called an idiot, they may not appreciate their language being called a dialect by others – this is an argument from human mutual respect.
Apart from analysing the dialect label from the perspective of jurisprudence, I think it is important to focus on each individual case. It is good to look at the issue from a bigger perspective, but it is also important to familiarise oneself with languages. Legal research is definitely valuable for language preservation, but so is linguistic research; I wish to study what has been handed down to us authentically, and that is what I wish to help preserve. I mentioned before the idea that North Frisian should be unified into a single language; this runs contrary to the traditional reality, and it seems rather ahistorical to have a single North Frisian language. Such a radical idea of changing the existing reality does not suit my moderating idea of helping to preserve what exists and has existed before for many generations. I am interested in studying and aiding linguistic reality as it has been passed down to us by the ancestors or seeking to recover a forgotten reality of ancestral language (and culture) rather than trying to create a new linguistic reality; for the loss or abandonment of any type of North Frisian, that the creation of such new reality presupposes, means language death. Unification may lead to a conflictuous situation which will polarise all sides and consequently lead to the further break-up, rather than strengthening, of North Frisia’s (ancestral/indigenous) linguistic reality. Polarisation is prevented by taking the moderating approach of preserving all rather than trying to favour one over the other.
Historically, unification often required violence, repression and bloodshed. This does not fit our zeitgeist, nor is the radical unification approach, even if practised without coercion and violence, helpful in any way, for it would destroy ancestral diversity and effectively homogenise what has been transmitted. This is a tragedy, and more would be lost than can be imagined. This is also one of the reasons why each type of North Frisian should be treated as having dignity of its own; each type has its own unique value for humanity, and perhaps this is also a reason why the word dialect is dangerously misleading, for it diminishes the uniqueness of the individual entity and throws it into a generic group that largely ignores its uniqueness. All types of North Frisian should, in my view, not be treated as equally similar – for they are not – but the evidence of their unique diversity ought to be noted and sympathised with. Differences should, in other words, be respected and treated with equal dignity. An empathic approach wins more hearts than trying to coerce others into unification by letting go entirely of their ancestral legacy. A much more reasonable middle ground, which respects all and elevates no one above the other, is what will bring the North Frisian tribes together for a common goal. Frisians, as they have often been victims of repression, would naturally be allergic to any efforts to coerce them, but as so happens, the bullied may become the bully to smaller weaker entities, and this is a social issue that must be kept in mind during interactions/encounters between various smaller and larger factions of Frisians; smaller groups can easily feel victimised and left out, and this should be prevented by offering them an equal stake. After all, it is pro-social to respond when somrone is being/feeling left out.
By offering to preserve all types of North Frisian, we offer everyone an equal stake in this preservation project, we exclude no one but foster cooperation and friendship. Upholding traditional diversity rather than fighting for unification – usually justified by a dubious promise of imagined greater political power/strength if unification is achieved by means of sacrificing all identities but one – includes all local people and is pro-social; it generates a win-win situation for everybody. No one loses, everyone gains something. Zero-sum games should not be played in already precarious situations; language endangerment should not be construed as a political opportunity for ahistorical unification. Rather than thinking up radical political ideas for creating ons single faction out of many, all should be focused on devising radically effective plans to save all linguistic factions that have already existed for generations. Nothing is radical about wishing to continue what already existed for a long time, but wishing to change that is truly radical, and is often accompanied by a political agenda. Here we do not involve ourselves in politics, but we merely wish to act as concerned civilians who desire to help other civilians and present them with hope, give them happiness and offer them acceptance/recognition of their identity that is often based on their language and culture. Doing this brings people to tears and truly wins their hearts; ancestral diversity, as found among the various idependent Frisian effectively tribal factions/identities, is real and authentic, so it touches people’s hearts. Given that what unites Frisians is their appreciation of freedom, all actors should be treated equally as sides worthy of being heard and as voices that are equally worthy of being preserved. No matter how few the speakers, any minority language is worthy of preservation; and so is any type of North Frisian that has ever existed. To make distinctions between North Frisian types, with one being hailed as better than the other, is not only anti-freedom (i.e., it undermines the freedom of people to have their own separate language/identity if they so wish) but is also fundamentally anti-equality, even though equality is the only thing that can keep the various groups of Frisians together.
Equality within a group as diverse as Frisians is highly important for pursuing common goals and sharing a sense of common destiny. Frisians are no single nation but a confederation of tribes, and this social reality should be taken into account with any project as massive as saving Frisian languages. The loss of Frisian linguistic duversity, whether it be in West Frisia, East Frisia or North Frisia, is language death and hence an unimaginable loss of traditional knowledge, from which humanity has nothing to gain, unless the tragedy of loss is somehow (maliciously) construed as a gain for the progress of humanity; there is no gain from loss, and it is just as much a moral disaster as a practical blow to our pursuit of human collective as well as individual progress/development. Over the centuries, so many humans have drawn inspiration from their languages and cultures, and we would diminish one of the driving forces behind philosophical, scientific and technological progress if we were to allow or encourage the massive loss of languages. Unless we preserve what has been handed down to us, humanity will not easily recover from the loss of a great many sources to draw inspiration from for progress; we cannot make progress if we ignore or destroy what went before, progress means building further and learning from the past, it is a build-up or accumulation of knowledge over generations yet language death, or the conscious destruction of specific linguistic entities, would entail robbing humans of means to achieve that progress. There ought to be a balance of traditional and modern: in a certain way, (indigenous) language/culture represents the traditional, while individual/collective progress represents the modern. After all, it takes a lot of (past) creativity to create a language/culture and as such creativity takes generations of collective human effort, it is hard to replicate; in this sense, language represents a long tradition, and this continuing tradition is conducive to new individual/collective human developments. Do not throw out the baby with the bathtub as they say; languages, no matter how old, are always in their infancy, for they keep developing forever if given the chance. May furure generations be inspired by North Frisian linguistic diversity, and may future researchers take it upon them to study this carefully and discover new nuances!
My work does emphasise authenticity is important. This is the “taalgeest” (language spirit) that I have often spoken of; it is a philosophically animistic view on language which sees the language spirit inherent in every language as the living embodiment of any language’s authenticity (the heart) and tradition (continuous cycles of transmission or “journeying”; unending reincarnation of the language’s soul in different individuals). The loss of the language spirit means necessarily the loss of the The connection between authenticity and tradition is vital from a Chinese philosophical perspective, and this confirmed us in our belief that the quest for authenticity is best answered by preserving what is or to bring back what was before, rather than creating something ahistorical that runs counter to everything that was before. Creating a new North Frisian identity is not exactly what is on my mind, but rather I wish to help the communities that do exist and help them preserve their languages, if they so wish.
Let me be clear. I am all for creativity. I think creativity is a good thing. However, creating a new North Frisian identity is a political project that I am not willing to participate in, and that is where I draw the line; I do not wish to impose an identity on people who are already vulnerable. A new identity is not the solution to the gradual loss of existing local identities; instead, the reclamation of old local is a fitting solution, because that is exactly what people were missing. Do not give people a new toy when they were asking for food because they were starving. Furthermore, my project is altruistic – and perhaps I should say humanitarian – in nature. I look at things from the perspective of the last speakers, and what would make them happy and give them hope. So far I have never spoken with last speakers who actually wished their language dead. I guess there might be some of those folks out there, but they are in the minority, and I think this is because it runs contrary to human nature and the human desire to see one’s culture and language survived. Indeed, passing on one’s language and culture may be a fundamental human need. I have noticed that some last speakers may expressed resignation to fate after years of having seen the language and culture decline, but none have been actually opposed to the opportunity of having their language revitalised. I see the light in their eyes return when they are presented with such opportunity.
I do not come to people to impose my own views on them, but I come to prove that their language can be saved and they can help me learn all the things I need to know in order that I can pass on the language properly at a later date. My function is to give the language more time to survive, and buying a language extra time is, in effect, what will save it, because more people will be born, and there will be new opportunities as well as technologies that could help the language survive longer. A language that is spoken by few people can survive indefinitely if young people keep helping to buy the language more time so that it can be passed on at a later date. In case this tradition continues uninterruptedly, the language will effectively be immortal. In this interconnected world, there will always be some people who are interested in speaking a small language. There is no reason to be pessimistic about this, because humans are naturally curious and humans are interested in becoming familiar with things they are unfamiliar with. When presented with the opportunity to learn a lesser-used language, some people will decline, but there will always be enough who accept. It is not for everyone, but anyone who accepts is already better than no one, and that person can help keep the tradition alive.
My main interest is in the living languages, which has also to do with my Dutch philosophical concept of “taalgeest” (language spirit) which I first introduced in my report on Eilauners (Schiermonnikoog Frisian) in 2018. I asked people on the conference about the amount of speakers for each type. I said there are 9 living North Frisian types, because one has already died. One person pointed out to me that language death is very sensitive in North Frisia. I explained that I need to be very practical and express the truth there are no longer 10 but 9 now, because I want to save the living ones and I believe firmly the death of any language language may serve as a warning – a kind of wake-up call – to other adjacent languages that are still living (indeed, this was also the case with Ameland Frisian for Schiermonnikoog Frisian and Molkwerum Frisian for Hindeloopen Frisian). My goal is to learn to speak them all, thus becoming the living embodiment of language documentation and then later record everything I know on paper or by other means. Thus, my first goal is to become a fluent speaker as good as the natives/locals and absorb all their knowledge zealously so that I embody all their traditional knowledge ere it is too late. By carrying such valuable knowledge with me, I hope to help transmit that knowledge. Since I am a younger person than most speakers, this knowledge embodiment method helps to give the languages some more time ere the time to transmit it has run out and discontinuity arises. A language may recover from discontinuity in transmission if it is well-documented, but it is best to try to prevent that and keep the tradition alive of passing the language on to the next generations without interruption.
As I study living languages, I am mainly interested in the current reality. Although I am do not reject historical information, I do believe that it is very important to be based in the here and now: we are giving priority to languages that exist now and that are endangered right now. We believe that the languages that have already died are less of a priority, because their current situation will not really change, but will remain generally static. Of course, finding new texts in an extinct language is really important and could help with the revival process, but there is no guarantee such texts will be found, and although one should never give up looking for them anyway, it is reasonable to see living languages as a bigger priority, because those languages still have speakers whose knowledge should be learned and recorded so that it may be transmitted later. Our focus, as is the case in ancient Chinese philosophy, is on human beings; when there are no human beings left who speak the language, we believe it is more important to focus first on the languages that still do have such people left.
We are not at all unwilling to bring back languages that have already died out, especially if there is a living community of descendants who wish to see their ancestral local language revived. It may, perhaps, also take time for people to realise the viability of bringing languages back, and people may need to see it to really understand it. “Revival” (said of dead languages) and “revitalisation” (said of dying languages) are abstract concepts that are not easy to explain in Dutch and German, let alone local languages. In Dutch, I will describe it as “bringing back a language” (een taal terugbrengen), “blowing new life into the language” (de taal nieuw leven inblazen) or “the recovery of the language” (het herstel van de taal). I may describe language preservation in Dutch as “keeping the language alive” (de taal in leven houden) or “upholding the language’s honour” (de taal in ere houden). The latter expression seems have been favoured in the past to describe the idea of preserving a language.
Saving languages, however, is easier to translate to Dutch, because one could simply say “talen redden” (saving languages). This is just an illustration of the “translation problems” that one may encounter whilst trying to explain abstract concepts to another people with their own language and culture, and it certainly requires creativity to find the right words and expressions to help people reach the same conclusions and wrap their minds around what you are trying to do or achieve. I think language preservation, language revitalisation and language revival are often entirely novel concepts to people, and it takes time to explain it to them in a calm and clear manner, so that people know the aim of the work that we are doing for their languages. Furthermore, many of the people with whom we interact are elderly speakers, and so we need to make an effort to breach this generation gap in a meaningful way. It takes time, for instance, to explain to elderly speakers why it is important their language is being used online. However, I do notice that their willingness to learn about what we are doing makes it much easier to explain, and this stems from the fact that we have built rapport by simply speaking their language and using this language to explain our activities to them properly.