What Do I Mean by Shire Frisian?

Written by Dyami Millarson

A road in my Frisian region. The road is intended as a metaphor: the road to properly understanding and categorising Frisian languages and cultures is very long.

Frisians in my region often just say they speak “Frysk” (Frisian) without specifying what kind of Frisian, and since there is not just one Frisian language in reality, I required terminology to describe what is meant by when people say they speak “Frysk.” In the past, I used the traditional term Lânfrysk, which I translated to English as Land Frisian, to describe what is spoken on the Frisian mainland in the Netherlands. I have found, however, that Lânfrysk or Land Frisian is an unsatisfactory term, because it is unclear what is meant by “lân” and “lân” might even be misinterpreted as “national.” Furthermore, I found that there was a need to develop a term, which asserts a Frisian linguistic identity that is by definition separate from the Frisian linguistic identities of Hindeloopen, Schiermonnikoog, and Terschelling. I really wanted the term to encapsulate something that feels like the particular type of Frisian identity that I want to refer to; I believed that I should aim to make the term a cultural and linguistic fit.

So I came up with Geafrysk, which I translated as Shire Frisian. This term really stuck with me, as it expressed something I could not express properly before; it really satisfied my feeling and I could intuitively know what it meant, namely the kind of Frisian linguistic system that is separate from what is spoken in Hindeloopen, on Terschelling and on Schiermonnikoog. Shire Frisian always included Wood Frisian and Clay Frisian, but I have often not been really that clear on whether it includes Southwest Corner Frisian, and my ambiguity on this issue has been deliberate. While Southwest Corner Frisian is relatively more closely related to Wood-Clay Frisian, I have sonetimes treated it as included in the Shire Frisian category. The written standard of the “Frysk” language – i.e., written Shire Frisian – deliberately excludes Southwest Corner Frisian forms. Wood-Clay Frisian is a linguistic identity group that usually excludes Southwest Corner Frisian, and so I have quite often treated Shire Frisian as excluding Southwest Corner Frisian.

Southwest Corner Frisians, who are apparently an excluded and rejected linguistic-cultural tribe on the mainland, may be regarded as a “disadvantaged group” on several accounts. One issue that strikes me is their underrepresentation in writing. Joël Hut is a Southwest Corner Frisian writer and I applaud his efforts to write Southwest Corner Frisian. Analysing his written Southwest Corner Frisian also makes it clear why it is excluded from the Wood-Clay Frisian written norm, it is basically too divergent, even though it also has features resembling Wood-Clay Frisian. The linguistic question is really where to place Southwest Corner Frisian. It does not fit into the same category anymore with Hindeloopen Frisian since it has assimilated a great deal with Wood-Clay Frisian, yet it exhibits also distinct linguistic traits, which makes its inclusion in the same group as Wood-Clay Frisian dubious.

Southwest Corner Frisian is basically a mixed language – it stands between Hindeloopen-Molkwerum Frisian on the one hand and Wood-Clay Frisian on the other hand. This is the result of assimilation to the Wood-Clay Frisian norm, but Southwest Corner Frisian can still never be “proper Clay or Wood Frisian.” Southwest Corner Frisian still contains plenty of what I would call “South Sea Frisian substrate,” i.e., substrate from the Frisian that was spoken by South Sea-oriented groups (the South Sea was turned into the IJsselmeer in 1932 when the Afsluitdijk was finally closed and therefore finished). It may thus be practical to accept that Southwest Corner Frisian is its own category, separate from South Sea Frisian proper as represented by Hindeloopen-Molkwerum Frisian and from Shire Frisian proper as represented by Wood-Clay Frisian. Finally, it should be noted that classifying mixed languages is no easy endeavour as mixed languages – by definition – blur the lines between categories.

I will now provide the two definitions of Shire Frisian that I have used:

  1. (Rare, old) Frisian geographically defined by being spoken on the continent, so that this Frisian excludes East and West Terschelling Frisian, Schiermonnikoog Frisian, and Hindeloopen Frisian.
  2. (Common, new) Frisian linguistically defined by the “twadde brekking” (second diphthongisation), so that this Frisian excludes Southwest Corner Frisian, East and West Terschelling Frisian, Schiermonnikoog Frisian, and Hindeloopen Frisian.

The coexistence of these 2 definitions shows flexibility on my part due to the fact that Southwest Corner Frisian both fits and does not fit the Shire Frisian category. Definition 1 shows the temptation to include the Frisian Southwest Corner geographically into the definition of the “Frisian Shire” area. Another reason for this definition is the temptation to include Southwest Corner Frisian due to apparent linguistic similarity. However, this inclusion appears impractical upon closer expectation – especially when considering that the Southwest Corner is excluded from the standard writen norm of Shire Frisian, i.e., it is deemed as too non-Shire Frisian. That is also why I have increasingly leaned towards definition 2 as  I understand that Southwest Corner Frisian is too linguistically divergent to be truly part of Shire Frisian – definition 1 may be too idealistic and not representative of linguistic facts. In fact, I have seldom defined Southwest Corner Frisian as belonging to Shire Frisian with full conviction; I have always considered it an outlier and never seen it as “true Shire Frisian” for that matter. 

In my past writings, I have often deliberately refused to name Southwest Corner Frisian when I defined Shire Frisian, and I have instead opted to only mention Wood and Clay Frisian as Shire Frisian. In my classification of which a copy is now saved in a recent article, it is shown that I classify Southwest Corner Frisian as South Sea Frisian-Shire Frisian, which implies a mixed category, and I deliberately put Shire Frisian last in that name as I meant to emphasise that Southwest Corner Frisian is leaning relatively more towards Shire Frisian than towards South Sea Frisian. It shows that I have practically given up on the idea of defining Southwest Corner Frisian as Shire Frisian, as I have basically modified my category for Southwest Corner Frisian to “something that is Shire Frisian-like.”

There is then still the question of whether Southwest Corner Frisian belongs to Terschelling-Shire Frisian, and whether this is a valid category. Glottolog calls this category “Westerlauwers-Terschelling Frisian” and my term “Terschelling-Shire Frisian” is synonymous with that. If we were to accept the hypothetical Terschelling-Shire Frisian category, I would consider Southwest Corner Frisian as “falling outside the Terschelling-Frisian category” due to Southwest Corner Frisian having its own linguistic history that was separate and only became more similar to Shire Frisian due to assimilation, and therefore I would just continue my convention of listing it as its own category separate from Hindsloopen-Molkwerum Frisian and in that case, from Terschelling-Shire Frisian as well. It would also be incorrect in my view to list such a mixed language as truly “Terschelling-Shire Frisian,” and the only solution would be to say it is “South Sea Frisian-Terschelling-Shire Frisian” but the length of the name of this category would cause inconvenience.

I did deliberately not include the Terschelling-Shire Frisian category in my classification as shown in the recent copy of my mission statement, so I did not group Terschelling and Shire Frisian together, but left them defined as two separate West Frisian groups rather than as a group within West Frisian that has two subgroups named Terschelling and Shire Frisian. After all, what we can see today is that there are four different groups within West Frisian, and if these are all West Frisian, they are ultimately related by virtue of being West Frisian, which might also eliminate the immediate need for a Terschelling-Shire Frisian category that is meant to emphasise the relatedness of Terschelling and Shire Frisian. Granted, Shire Frisian and Terschelling Frisian are relatively more related to each other than to Schiermonnikoog or Hindeloopen Frisian. However, this does not garantee the validity of such a category as we have seen with Southwest Corner Frisian, and so it is safer to just note “Terschelling Frisian” and “Shire Frisian” as groups within West Frisian.

I always try to play it safe with linguistic classidication and leave as much theorising out of it as possible; for theorising about the exact relationships of these groups can be done separately and I know that such debates – given their theoretical nature – may not be settled easily. What we need, however, is reliable classification and in order to do that, we should eliminate hypothetical assumptions to the maximum extent possible. My classification is based on a concept of hypothetical minimalism, which I may easily demonstrate thus: I define Schiermonnikoog Frisian as East-West Frisian (alternatively: Lauwers Sea Frisian) and Hindeloopen-Molkwerum Frisian as South Sea Frisian, which are minimal assumptions and simply as descriptive as possible. I prefer not finding myself on too shaky grounds, and East-West Frisian and South Sea Frisian are simply useful categories for accurate down-to-earth descriptions, yet Terschelling-Shire Frisian is really quite lofty as a concept and actually opens a can of worms – it creates problems in the classification of West Frisian which, when you try to solve them properly, leads to new problems. The easiest way to minimalise the issues is simply to present the West Frisian language family thus:

  • West Frisian
    • Shire Frisian
      • Clay Frisian
      • Wood Frisian
      • North Clay Frisian
    • South Sea Frisian
      • Hindeloopen Frisian
      • Molkwerum Frisian
    • Terschelling Frisian
      • East Terschelling Frisian
      • West Terschelling Frisian
    • East-West Frisian
      • Schiermonnikoog Frisian

The issues in this classification have been reduced to a bare minimum. One historical issue might be where to classify Ameland Frisian, but a simple solution might be offered by categorising it as a separate group as well. Furthermore, it would also have been grouped separately if Ameland Frisian had survived up to this day and continued to develop on Ameland; I am sure Ameland Frisian would have developed additional distinct features, which would have made the need for a separate category even clearer. If we go back in time, Frisian languages – and this applies to other Indo-European languages as well – become more similar to each other, and all we can say with some degree of certainty is that West Frisian would have been more similar in the past than now. This means for Amelandic that it is proper to categorise it as a separate entity; it was developing in its own unique environment that was going its own way, but this development got interrupted. In any case, it must have been on its way to become more distinct, and the ancestor forms of contemporary West Frisian languages which are now classified into different categories did also exhibit more similarity in the past than now, which would be true for Amelandic as well, yet it is still useful to categorise them all as separate groups, while it is now – as it was then – a fact they diverged, but only more so at this point in time than in the past.

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