Written by Dyami Millarson
Having spent a great deal of time studying North Frisian languages in 2021, the across-the-board affinity of North Frisians with Scandinavia became increasingly clear to me. Therefore, we will today deal with the question of why North Frisians are the most Scandinavian-like among all of the major Frisian groups, namely the West Frisians and East Frisians. Historically, the Frisians were united under one King, but they were defeated by the Franks (ancestors of the Dutch). Over the course of history, the Frisians fell apart into 3 major groups: the North Frisians, the East Frisians and West Frisians. These major groups themselves grew more and more apart over the course of a millennium and they started speaking their own separate languages, which is why North Frisian, East Frisian and West Frisian are 3 separate language families containing various independent languages.
If one takes the historical reality – as well as the genuine status quo – of North Frisian into account and if one considers what it is like for learners to study different varieties of North Frisian, one has to concede that North Frisian is not a single language with divergent dialects, but a language family with independent languages, which really makes more sense historically and pedagogically and conscientiously acknowledging this – perhaps to some people politically inconvenient – historical fact that North Frisian is not a single language will do contextual justice to the speakers of the various languages, who, in the depths of their hearts, feel neglected, and acknowledging the true diversity of these languages will encourage learners to study and respect these languages as truly independent languages and the acknowledgement will also help preserve the languages as they demand full attention as one would dedicate to any other true language like Italian, Spanish and French, which, although related and coming from the same source, are languages of their own; each North Frisian group has its own unique history, which deserves celebration and admiration.
North Frisian languages are: Southern Goesharde Frisian, Central Goesharde Frisian, Northern Goesharde Frisian, Halligen Frisian, Karrharde Frisian, Sylt Frisian, Föhr and Amrum Frisian, Bökingharde Frisian, and lastly Wiedingharde Frisian which is spoken next to the Danish border. East Frisian languages are: Wangerooge Frisian, Sagelterland Frisian, Upgant Frisian, Wursten Frisian, Harlingerland Frisian, and some would say Schiermonnikoog Frisian must historically be included here as well although its vocabulary appears very West Frisian nowadays. West Frisian languages are: Hindeloopen Frisian, West and East Terschelling Frisian, Clay and Wood Frisian (= Shire Frisian), possibly Southwest Corner Frisian (if it is to be reckoned an independent entity from Shire Frisian, i.e., Clay and Wood Frisian), and probably Schiermonnikoog Frisian which, however, may be connected to East Frisian in some way and may thus be at the crossroads between East and West Frisian while (coincidentally?) resembling Wangerooge Frisian and Sagelterland Frisian in some (superficial?) aspects of pronunciation and grammar, although not vocabulary.
As recent as the 19th century, the North Frisians, West Frisians and East Frisians have historically been divided between three competing nations: the Dutch Kingdom, the German Empire and the Danish Kingdom. The West Frisians live among the Dutch due to being situated in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the East Frisians are situated in what nowadays is called the Federal Republic of Germany, and the North Frisians are situated in the same country as the East Frisians, but they are located at the fringes of the German territory near the Danish kingdom, and the North Frisians as inhabitants of Schleswig-Holstein were historically part of the Danish kingdom before 1864 when it lost the Second Schleswig War and had to cede the territory, in which, among others, the North Frisians traditionally live, to Prussia and Austria; the latter of the victors ceded the territory to the former in 1866 after losing the Seven Weeks’ War and North Frisia, as part of Schleswig-Holstein, became part of the newly united Germany as Prussia went on to form the German Empire in 1871, which can be seen as a European contextual parallel to the Meiji Restoration which occurred a few years prior in 1868 in Japan. The North Frisians are at the crossroads between Scandinavia and the West Germanic-speaking continent. As the North Frisians have lived in close proximity to the Danes for a long time and many North Frisians continue to live in close proximity to the Jutes who are a Danish-speaking tribe within Germany (for which reason, some North Frisian tribes tended to be traditionally conversant in Danish as well), it is not surprising that their languages, cultures and folk traditions and folk stories have been influenced by this.
Historians of the past have described Frisians as a Nordic people or tribe, and I am inclined to agree with them that the Frisians are clearly and distinctly Northern. The Schiermonnikoog Frisians and Hindeloopen Frisians have folk traditions about their close ties with Scandinavia, and as sea-faring peoples, this is very plausible. Although such Northern link nowadays belongs to the Schiermonnikoog Frisian and Hindeloopen Frisian folk traditions, this might be said of all Frisians: the Frisians of the past were not just victims of the Vikings, but they were Vikings themselves and they may have had close relationships (friendships/alliances) with the (Danish) Vikings during pagan times. This is not at all strange, since the Frisians have been a littoral or coastal people since time immemorial and the Scandinavians must have – already since ancient times – passed by the same shores as where the Frisians lived. So, we can suppose that the Frisian-Nordic link stretches way back, and it makes sense for Frisians believing themselves – or at least their ancestors – to be a people or tribe of Nordic descent.
We have now established that all Frisians may have some kind of tie – or nostalgic feeling of ancestral ties – to the North. As we have spoken about where the West Frisians, East Frisians and North Frisians live, please recall the West Frisians live in the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the East and North Frisians in the German Federal Republic. The North Frisian tribes or clans, which of all Frisian peoples live in closest proximity to the Scandinavians living in their independent nations and the Danish tribal minority known as the Jutes who live, for a part, within German borders and partially within Danish borders, are without a doubt the most Scandinavian of all Frisians; this is simply due to geographic proximity, and this is the easiest and simplest explanation for a fact that is reflected in the North Frisian languages (such as grammar and vocabulary), the North Frisian cultures and the North Frisian folk stories. It is, for this very reason, equally no wonder that the West Frisians are the most Dutch-like among the Frisians.
Additionally, we may also say that the Frisian groups or tribes, dwelling in Germany, are also the most German-like Frisians. Yet, we should be careful to specify what kind of German we mean. Historically speaking, both North Frisia and East Frisia are situated in Low German and Low Saxon areas respectively, this means that they are Low German-influenced and Low Saxon-influenced historically speaking and became only in recent times – as a result of the 19th-century unification of the German peoples into one nation called Deutschland or Germany that preferred to speak High German and the favouring of High German over Low German in the new mass education system which resulted in the rapid decline of Low German in Northern Germany – more High German-influenced. Before Germany became one nation for German peoples and adopted High German as their lingua franca, there were already the Netherlands and Switzerland doing the same thing as these nations containing many related languages and peoples united various peoples and languages that are historically related. The process by which this happened is understandable and can be compared to China, which is a union of various peoples feeling culturally and linguistically related. Today we are entering an era where there is more interest in returning to the local roots, this is the zeitgeist. As we investigate cultural, linguistic and folkloristic diversity, we are interested in the peoples of which these unions are composed and we are interested in learning more about their histories and geographies by delving deeply into their languages, cultures and philosophies as seen in folk beliefs & stories that have been passed down over countless generations.
It must be said that the West Frisians are not just Dutch-influenced either. However, Holland where Dutch is traditionally spoken has been a powerful player for longer than the High German-speaking areas, while Low German and Low Saxon were quite strong in the past; the Dutch have often felt linguistic affinity with those areas of what is now Northern Germany. The North Frisians, East Frisians and West Frisians have historically come into contact with different peoples and this is reflected in their languages, cultures and folk stories; which is highly fascinating, while this history and geography are now an integral part of what it means to be Frisian. In conclusion, the North Frisians, West Frisians and East Frisians are, to a certain degree, like the peoples by which they are surrounded. Of course, all Frisian languages are ultimately uniquely Frisian and they are different expressions of what it means to be Frisian; we cannot say that these Frisian languages are copies of their neighbours or the nations of which they are officially citizens, however as independent groups with their own heritage, they are, to a certain degree, idiosyncratic reflections of the cultural, linguistic and philosophical environments in which they interact.