What Is South Frisian?

Written by Dyami Millarson

This type of landscape is common in the formerly Frisian-speaking rural North Hollandic locations and the present-day Frisian-speaking rural locations of the Northwestern Netherlands.

In a Latin article on the study of Frisian languages from 2016, I said that “Frīsicis linguīs generis merīdiōnālis caret secundum trāditiōnem populārem, secundum mē autem merīdiōnālēs linguae Frīsicae extant.” (Translation: Frisian tongues of the Southern type are lacking according to popular tradition, according to me, however, Southern Frisian tongues exist.) Frisian is traditionally only divided into West, East and North Frisian. I believe, however, that there is a fourth category, namely South Frisian. South Frisian has been used in German literature to mean Frisian that is not North Frisian, but I do not mean it that way, because by South Frisian, I mean Frisian that is not properly West Frisian, East Frisian, or North Frisian, and as the name suggests, this Frisian is located in the South of the Frisian-speaking territories of Northern Europe.

An article concerning the Frisian indigenous to Holland was written by me recently. In it, I posed the question of how to classify Holland Frisian. The conclusion was that the South Frisian hypothesis for Holland Frisian appears valid on purely linguistic grounds, namely that Holland Frisian belongs to a separate Frisian language family that may be named South Frisian due to being situated to the South of West Frisian. I explained in the same article that South Frisian must have branched off from West Frisian in much the same fashion as North Frisian branched off from East Frisian. I have recently also written an article about the branches of Old Norse, where I mentioned that Old Norse split off into Old West Norse, Old East Norse, and Old Gutnish, each of which, in turn, went on to produce their own descendant languages.

Even though I have mostly shared purely linguistic reasonings in the aforementioned article on the classification of Holland Frisian, historical and geographical factors were in the back of my mind as well. The Frisian-speaking regions to the South were successively conquered by the Franks between the 8th and 13th centuries, which politically cut the Frisians native to today’s two Hollands, namely North Holland and South Holland, off from the Frisians living to the North in what is now simply known as Frisia (i.e., the West Frisian-speaking region). Old Frisian texts from the Frankish-controlled Frisian-speaking regions have not been handed down to us, as far as I know. The South Frisians left no written records in Old Frisian times just like the North Frisians. However, Holland Frisian, which is the descendant of Old Frisian spoken in North Holland, is the only Frisian from Frankish-controlled regions of which a text has been handed down to us. The only extant Holland Frisian text is a 17th-century text.

Old Frisian is said to have been spoken between the 8th and 16th centuries. We know South Frisian started being cut off already early on – between the 8th and 13th centuries. South Frisian being politically cut off from West Frisian at such an early stage obviously had profound linguistic effects which laid the basis for the emergence of a separate South Frisian language family, which had adopted Frankish traits. During the same time that the South Frisians were losing ground to the Franks, the North Frisians were gaining ground on the islands and mainland of North Frisia. The fact the North Frisians were removed from the East Frisians had profound linguistic effects that produced the separate North Frisian language family.

We must also consider that the geography of the Netherlands was very different in the 8th to 13th centuries. The Frisian-speaking areas were still way more connected by geography than they were at later times. Floods gradually changed the landscape to what it is today and these floods had the geographical effect of cutting the South Frisians off from the West Frisians. Particularly St. Lucia Flood of the 13th century was a turning point for the geography of the region. Encyclopedia Britannica has a whole article dedicated to South Sea floods. The northmost South Frisians must especially have stood in closer geographical connection with the Terschelling Frisians and the coastal Frisians of the region around Hindeloopen at earlier times. By the time the Holland Frisian text was recorded, the landscape had already completely chanhed beyond recognition from the perspective of the 8th-century Frisians.

A video which shows the changing landscape of the Netherlands throughout the ages.

The term “South Sea” came into use after the St. Lucia Flood. The South Frisians must have continued their linguistic contact with the nearby insular and coastal West Frisians via shared activities, such as trade and fishery, in the South Sea region. The Terschelling Frisians and South Sea Frisians are prime candidates for this continued linguistic contact between South Frisian and West Frisian. Basically, while the old geographical link via land had been lost, the contact had started taking another shape. The South Frisians would, nevertheless, would also have encountered other non-Frisian peoples at sea, and so the South Sea did not grant them exclusive contact with their Frisian brethren.

Holland Frisian was spelled in a contemporary Hollandic manner. Hindeloopen Frisians today have a traditional preference for the spelling of van der Kooy, which is also a spelling with Hollandic features. The issue of connection with Holland is particularly relevant to the Hindeloopen Frisians today for cultural, linguistic, and orthographic reasons. Hindeloopen had a traditional focus on North Holland. The Hindeloopen Frisian seamen used to have a close connected with North Holland, particularly Amsterdam. In early times, they would have heard Holland Frisian in this region, but in later times they would have heard the mixed North Hollandic languages with Hollandic Frisian substrate in this region. This linguistic contact may have influenced Hindeloopen Frisians and prompted it to retain its archaisms – some of which match with Holland Frisian. South Frisian may have had an influence on West Frisian coastal and insular regions – either in its original purely Frisian form or through its mixed-language descendants.

South Frisian became a language family through a confluence of historical and geographical factors. Isolation brought about by geographical changes and historical events with profound political repercussions is what determined the linguistic development of South Frisian, namely that it would be different from West Frisian. Holland Frisian belongs to what would be the northernmost South Frisian, and this Frisian must originally have been West Frisian. We have, unfortunately, no records of the Frisian speakers even more to the Sourh. However, we may assume on account of history and geography, these northernmost South Frisians would have been relatively the most similar to West Frisians in terms of language and customs. When I speak of the South Frisian language family, I am actually specifically referring to the attested northernmost South Frisian, namely what I call Holland Frisian. Since no texts of the other more Southern Frisian tongues are attested, we can only look for relics, which is one of the motivators for me to learn all languages along the Dutch coast from North Holland to Zeeland, hoping to find some more linguistic clues.

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