Deciphering Molkwerum Frisian Pronunciation

Written by Dyami Millarson

Molkwerum Frisian, which is the most closely related to Hindeloopen Frisian, went extinct in the 19th century. Although there are no sound recordings of Molkwerum Frisian, a few short Molkwerum Frisian biblical texts and a list of 400+ words have been handed down to us. All of these materials have different spellings. I may use Hindeloopen Frisian, Schiermonnikoog Frisian, Terschelling Frisian and Shire Frisian to decipher the pronunciation of Molkwerum Frisian; I am quite familiar with the phonology of all these Frisian languages of the Netherlands and so I can use this phonological information for getting an accurate idea about Molkwerum Frisian. A reconstruction of the Molkwerum Frisian phonology is required for the revival of the Molkwerum Frisian tongue.

Selection of online materials we will use for reconstructing the pronunciation of Molkwerum Frisian:

Edit: After I had already started analysing Winkler’s edition of Matthew 6:19-30 in Molkwerum Frisian, I wanted to look up the original text as I was curious about its spelling for the accurate reconstruction of Molkwerum Frisian sound and so I analysed the original text of Matthew 6:1-34 later, which deviated from the spelling of Winkler’s redacted version of Matthew 6:19-30 and this meant I had to modify some of my initially drawn up conclusions. This is normal with the process of reconstruction as I am immediately writing down my thoughts during the process of analysis. I will simply scrap blatantly wrong, unlikely or unappealing ideas as I progress further. The ideas I no longer support in whole or in part have been stricken through; I will add my newly developed ideas below those stricken through texts. I allow myself the freedom to scrap, modify or add ideas, because that is the quickest way to make meaningful progress. Such freedom aids my thought process.

I will now especially focus on resolving the most difficult and pressing questions regarding the Molkwerum Frisian pronunciation; I will now seek to assign the correct phonetic quality to the various strange vowel spellings. In any case, this will get very technical since it involves reasoning about possible phonetic interpretations based on phonological comparisons with other Frisian languages I studied these years. Reconstructing a dead language’s sounds is complicated! I have experienced this difficulty with Latin, Ancient Greek and Gothic as well, but I am up for the challenge because I am determined.


  • The original biblical translation of Matthew 6:1-34 contains the mysterious sound : forgeærje, tjeæuven, eæg, greæt, leæuw, feær. The is distinguished from æ (ae), e, oa: æk, wæze, trochgræve, kwæ, hæbbe, derom, waeses, mear, den, woar, naat. The Molkwerum Frisian words with eæ correspond to words with aa or ee in Hindeloopen Frisian: fegaarje, *tjeeuw, eeg, graaet, leeuw (I am always using the spelling of T. van der Kooy for Hindeloopen Frisian as that spelling is favoured by many locals and regarded as authentic for their language). One might at first sight be tempted to interpret it as Hindeloopen Frisian aa, but the sound would have been closer to Hindeloopen Frisian ee, because (1) looks like Shire Frisian ea, which is pronounced like Hindeloopen Frisian éé (notice the grave accent); (2) Molkwerum Frisian occurs in all places where one would traditionally also expect Shire Frisian ea: fergearje, tseaf (obsolete), each, great (obsolete); and (3) Heeroma’s wordlist spells as ee: eeg instead of eæg. I believe it may be safely concluded that the eæ is the same as Terschelling Frisian and Shire Frisian ea and Hindeloopen Frisian éé, which sound somewhat similar to the Britisb English ea as in hear. The ea-sound occurs in Schiermonnikoog Frisian only before an etymological r and is nowadays spelled with ee though it was spelled ea in the past: heersd, which was spelled heasd in the past. Therefore, eæ is no exotic sound, it may simply be a long vowel or a falling diphthong; see below why Molkwerum Frisian eæ cannot be a rising diphthong.
  • The æ in the biblical text is not the same as . The æ stands for ê: Molkwerum Frisian wæze corresponds to Terschelling Frisian and Shire Frisian wêze and æk stands for Shire Frisian ek, which means æ is similar to e in value, but simply different in length as æ is long and e is short (observe that der is never spelled deær even though it is dêr in Shire Frisian, which means it was short in Molkwerum Frisian like in Hindeloopen Frisian). Molkwerum Frisian would certainly not be a rising diphthong as one may think based on the value of æ, because æ in actually stands for an i-like sound, which is not as tense as in the combination ei. Since the i-like sound, or the lax i as in British English pit, was not like an a, the writer apparently deemed it inappropriate to write ea, and wanted to go for a sound between a and e, which he could not represent in any other way; the ei or ii was already taken, which would have been a logical choice, but the only option that was left was using a or e, and since using double ee was not an option and the writer deemed ea inappropriate, the writer struck a compromise by using . Nonetheless, it would be written ea if we were to apply the modern spelling of Terschelling Frisian or Shire Frisian to Molkwerum Frisian, or it would be written éé if we were to use the Hindeloopen Frisian spelling, which would be the most natural as Hindeloopen Frisian and Molkwerum Frisian are closely related, and thus a word like eæg would be written éég, which is very close to the spelling of Heeroma’s worldlist, yet the æ-sound as found in Molkwerum Frisian wæze would be written as èè (grave accent) in the Hindeloopen Frisian spelling: wæze would become wèèze, which produces the same result as in Hindeloopen Frisian where this exact word also exists with the exact same pronunciation.
  • The Molkwerum Frisian ii as found in the biblical text of Matthew 6:19-30 adapted by Winkler simply corresponds to Hindeloopen Frisian ie, which was once also spelled ii, and to the Shire Frisian, Terschelling Frisian and Schiermonnikoog Frisian y: Molkwerum Frisian iin should thus be written ien according to the logic the Hindeloopen Frisian spelling of T. van der Kooy. Heeroma’s wordlist also spells ii as ie and the original text of biblical translation spells ii as y like in Shire Frisian.
  • Heeroma’s wordlist includes . He spells it as such because apparently it was not like his native Dutch eu. In other words, it is not equivalent to Hindeloopen Frisian úú. The seems to have come from ao, which would be spelled ô in Terschelling Frisian. It does therefore not have the same origin as Schiermonnikoog Frisian eu, and it would presumably have been pronounced lower: would be similar to the long ö as in Swedish bröd. Thus, Molkwerum Frisian baön would presumably sound like böön, not beun or búún. The öö is also written as in other Dutch local languages, so this spelling is not unique. In addition, is more economical than öö because one needs to write only one umlaut and looks like ao, which is its etymological origin.
    • Heeroma’s wordlist, which is influenced by Dutch spelling, used the diaeresis or umlaut (¨) to mark a group of vowels as consisting of separate sounds in reality and therefore being a diphthong as in the case of ieë (see below). If Heeroma’s wordlist used the diaeresis to indicate that ieë is a diphthong, then could it be the case that the diaeresis/umlaut was also used to mark a diphthong in the case of aö and aä? I am going to investigate that now, because, in the context of the diaeresis being used to mark a diphthong in the case of ieë, it seems more plausible that the diaeresis also marks a diphthong in the case of , , oeë, eeë and . Furthermore, the Dutch language, unlike German and Swedish, has no tradition of using the diaeresis/umlaut to mark a different vowel quality; the Dutch traditionally use the diaeresis only to mark a vowel separation of some kind, as is also a common convention for Ancient Greek and Latin. Nonetheless, it ought to be noted that Heeroma’s worldlist broke with Dutch convention by using the diaeresis to mark a different vowel quality as in the following cases which cannot be interpreted as being a diphthong due to the fact that there is only one vowel (i.e., one vowel cannot be divided and according to that logic, the diaeresis cannot be used to mark vowel separation in such a case): kökje, molkenvöt, tsönne (alternatively written as tsiönne to mark palatalisation of ts- like in Shire Frisian tsiis and Heeroma’s wordlist itself even included the Molkwerum Frisian form tsjiies; such palatalisation would only occur with front vowels like German or Swedish ö and not a back vowel like Hindeloopen Frisian ò or ó, which serves as additional evidence that single ö in Heeroma’s wordlist definitely had a different vowel quality than o which normally stands for a back vowel), wöttels, vöt, böst. Regardless, while I have already established that ieë likely stood for a diphthong as it corresponds etymologically with a diphthong in Shire Frisian, Terschelling Frisian and Schiermonnikoog Frisian and it makes definitely no sense from the perspective of Dutch spelling to write it as ieë if it were pronounced as Hindeloopen Frisian long monophthong éé which corresponds etymologically with a diphthong in other Frisian languages of the Netherlands (after all, using ieë for éé would not be necessary because Heeroma’s wordlist already employed ea as in roggenbrea for transcribing the Molkwerum Frisian equivalent of Hindeloopen Frisian éé), the same method of comparing Molkwerum Frisian with other Frisian languages spoken in the Netherlands, particularly the Shire Frisian which had begun to displace Molkwerum Frisian and the closely related Hindeloopen Frisian which has always been spoken in geographical proximity to Molkwerum Frisian, ought to be used for discerning whether , , oeë, eeë and are diphthongs, although I am already inclined to answer affirmatively simply by the looks of it in Molkwerum Frisian words as well as the fact that such use of the diaeresis makes intuitive sense from the perspective of someone well-versed in Dutch spelling (nevertheless, caution is advised since Heeroma’s wordlist had no qualms about breaking with Dutch convention). These are the cases where the diaeresis could potentially be interpreted as marking diphthongs or diphthongisation: maölken, hoeëp, baön, snoeëk, heeë, staäl, miïlt, haöls, doeëk, baänd, haänd, baöd. The use of the diaeresis in Heeroma’s wordlist often corresponds with the use of thsubscript letters in T. van der Kooy’s spelling for marking diphthongisation in Hindeloopen Frisian: because Hindeloopen Frisian mòòlken corresponds with maölken, Hindeloopen Frisan bòn (short stem-vowel) with baön and Hindeloopen Frisian bid with baöd to name a few, it is reasonable to construe the Molkwerum Frisian examples as diphthongs and consequently spell them as follows according to the Hindeloopen Frisian spelling of T. van der Kooy: mòòlken, bòòn, snoek, héé (possibly: hééje), stââl (or staal?), miₐlt (or milt), doek, bâând (baand?), hâând (haand?), bòòd. The sound of these words suddenly makes sense and does not seem as alien when one pronounces them as dipthongs, strongly corresponding to diphthongs or instances of diphthongisation in Hindeloopen Frisian. What may serve as additional evidence is the fact that the diaeresis is used in Hereroma’s wordlist in places where one would expect an etymological r: baön and baöd stand for *baorn and *baord. The biblical texts do write the etymological r, and they include such forms as hort and korsse. Hort, which should presumably be spelled *haöt according to Heeroma’s wordlist, corresponds with hèₐt in Hindeloopen Frisian; the same word in Schiermonnikoog Frisian is het and in East Terschelling Frisian it is hêt. However, the same word in West Terschelling Frisian is interesting because it shows the same variation as between Hindeloopen Frisian hèₐt and Molkwerum Frisian hort: the West Terschelling Frisian word is also spelled hort by prominent West Terschelling Frisian author G. Knop. West Terschelling Frisian hort rhymes with word (pp. 12, 50, 116), fort (pp. 33, 90), God (p. 70) and kort (pp. 11, 119) in G. Knop’s Fersen (1949). The rhyming with God (pronounced as Gòt) proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that hort is pronounced hòt in West Terschelling Frisian. This is further confirmed by the fact that the West Terschelling Frisian word may in modern times be spelled as wod (pronounced as wòt). While East Terschelling Frisian and West Terschelling Frisian are a closely related pair like Hindeloopen Frisian and Molkwerum Frisian, it is very interesting that the phonetic pairing hêt : hort separates the two as much as hèₐt : hort does with Hindeloopen Frisan and Molkwerum Frisian. The e-sound (front vowel) evolved into an o-sound (back vowel) on account of influence from a second etymological vowel (indicated somewhat ambiguously in Heeroma’s wordlist with a diaeresis and indicated unambiguously in T. van der Kooy’s precise, useful and aesthetically pleasing spelling of Hindelooper Frisan with a subscript letter) which came to replace the r. In other words, the loss of the r was paired with compensatory diphthongisation, which, in turn, could lead to the change of the stem vowel. In the case of Hindeloopen Frisian bòn and Molkwerum Frisian baön and West Terschelling Frisian born (which G. Knop rhymes with ferlorn, presumably having a long stem-vowel; p. ???????????), this is exactly what happened, while the other Frisian languages of the Netherlands still exhibit the original e-sound: East terschelling Frisian bên, Schiermonnikoog Frisian ben and Shire Frisian bern (pronounced bèèn according to the spelling of T. van der Kooy for Hindeloopen Frisian or beeën according to the spelling of Heeroma’s wordlist). The word gos, which should etymologically be gaös while corresponding with Hindeloopen Frisian gèas, underwent the same phonetic evolution, but the stem vowel is short like in Hindeloopen Frisian bòn, though it could alternatively also be long as indicated in Heeroma’s wordlist (the form gaós, which may be read as gaös, is included in the wordlist) As an afterthought, I would like to remark that the spelling of , , oeë, eeë and as found in Heeroma’s wordlist reminds me of the spelling of Kerkrade Ripuarian (Dutch: Kerkraads) and Low Dutch Ripuarian (Dutch: Platdiets), Central Franconian/Frankish languages spoken in the South of the Netherlands which also adopt the diaeresis to indicate diphthongs that normally do not exist in Dutch.
  • The original biblical Molkwerum Frisian text of Matthew 6:1-34 spells ie, yet Heeroma’s wordlist spells ieë (alternatively in the online edition of Heeroma’s wordlist: and ieê). This means the sound is pronounced as ie in Terschelling Frisian, Schiermonnikoog Frisian and Shire Frisian and as iee (also spelled iee when no subscript is readily available) in Hindeloopen Frisian.


  • is /ɪː/ when it isn’t followed by r and it is /ɪə/ before r, yet eæ is not pronounced /ɪ̯ɛ ~ jɛ/ or /ɪ̯ɛː ~ jɛː/ or in any other exotic way which is not found in other Frisian languages of the Netherlands, which shows that knowledge of all the living Frisian languages steers one in the right direction for understanding the pronunciation of Molkwerum Frisian;
  • ii is generally /i/ (for instance, driinke is definitely /driŋkə/), it may nonetheless have stood for /iː/ in some cases as with the old Hindeloopen spelling which did not distinguish short and long ii; speakers of Dutch generally wouldn’t be able to appreciate this distinction as such a phonemic distinction does not exist in Dutch;
    • y found in the original edition of Matthew 6:1-34, which was spelled as ii in Winkler’s edition of Matthew 6:19-30 in Molkwerum Frisian (e.g., driinke in the latter’s spelling stands for drynke in the former’s spelling) and as ie in Heeroma’s wordlist, stands for short /i/ and corresponds to this sound in other Frisian languages and may be spelled ie according to the Hindeloopen Frisian spelling of T. van der Kooy;
  • is /œː/ and ao is /ɔː/;
    • All double or triple vowels marked with a diaeresis (or the like) in Heeroma’s wordlist – namely, ieë, , , oeë, eeë and – are genuinely pronounced as diphthongs, the use of the diaeresis over vowels corresponds to the use of subscript in the Hindeloopen Frisian spelling of T. van der Kooy; and the Molkwerum Frisian ieë (see phonetic value below), /ɔːə/, /aːə ~ ɑːə/, oeë /uə/, eeë /ɪːə ~ ɪːɔ?/ and /ɪɔ ~ ɪə?/ (iï is an indication indication that falling diphthongs ending in /ɔ/ rather than /ə/ may exist in Molkwerum Frisian just like in Hindeloopen Frisian, while the hèₐt : hort pair, which is the result of a sound shift from e to o, also already suggested this) may be spelled ieₑ, òòₑ, ââₑ (aaₑ?), oeₑ, ééₑ, iₐ (iₑ) accordingly;
  • ieë is the falling diphthong /iə/, which would have sounded similar to when followed by an r.


    • The idea behind this article is that if we wish to bring back Molkwerum Frisian from the dead, we should start with figuring out the pronunciation.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s