Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Frisian is a West Germanic language spoken in its West Frisian form by an estimated 400,000 people in the province of Friesland, where the total population is around 640,000, and by another 300,000 Frisians who left Friesland to find work elsewhere in the Netherlands. Frisians are bilingual in Frisian and Dutch. The capital of Friesland is Liouwert (Leeuwarden). There are two regional dialects in Friesland, Stellingwerf in the south east and Bilts in the north west, and two other versions, North and Saterlandic Frisian spoken in Germany. Standard Frisian is also spoken in Denmark, but the largest community by far is in the Netherlands.
Frisians were predominantly rural, but now most work in the service industries and trade, with a much smaller proportion working in agriculture. Friesland has high unemployment, although the figure declined to 6.7 per cent for those 15 years and older in 2016 compared with 7.9 per cent the year before. Frisians are both Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians. The Frisian National Party is represented in the Frisian provincial legislature and in the national senate. The Ried fan de Fryske Beweging (RfdFB, or Raad van de Friese Beweging) (Council of the Frisian Movement) represents various organizations involved in the promotion of the Frisian language, culture and economic and social well-being of the province.
The earliest settlements in Friesland date from 700 BCE, and Frisians became a distinctive tribe in around 200 BCE. They resisted the Romans. In 250 CE Friesland was flooded and Frisians moved to Flanders and Kent, England, before returning in 400. They became a force against Christianity and the Frankish Empire until the seventh century. In 734 Frisians were conquered by the Franks but they kept their distinct identity and a measure of independence. From the eleventh century Frisians developed a seawater drainage system which reclaimed a vast peat bog for agriculture. This led to an increase in population and brought about growth in industry and commerce as well as agriculture, helping to develop towns into centres independent of external authority. After the demise of the Franks in 1100, Friesland was self-governing and relatively democratic. The Old Frisian Laws from the twelfth century are set out in a Scandinavian-style saga. Four free cities in Friesland were part of the Hanseatic League in the twelfth century.
In 1648 Friesland joined the United Republic of the Netherlands. While this hastened the decline of the Frisian language, which was already under pressure from German and Dutch, it also marked the beginnings of the modern Frisian movement and its promotion of Frisian language and literature.
The first society for the promotion of the Frisian language was founded in 1844. During the twentieth century Protestant and Roman Catholic groups established separate organizations to promote Frisian.
From 1948 Frisian could be taught in secondary school. In 1955 the language was recognised as a medium for instruction in the first two years at primary level and as a subject in later years. In 1974 Frisian became a compulsory subject in all primary schools in Friesland. In 1993 it became compulsory in lower secondary education in the province.
Within the legal system, a 1956 Act allows for Frisian to be used in law courts for sworn testimonies, complaints and responses, and some judges use Frisian orally. The language of legal documents, however, is Dutch. Some municipal authorities, such as Tytsjerksteradiel, have translated official documents into Frisian for lawsuits.
In 2001 the Netherlands and the Friesland governments signed the Covenant on the Frisian Language and Culture, as an implementing agreement for the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. It outlined an agreement by which any Dutch government policy relating to Friesland would consider any implications on the Frisian language, also covering issues such as education, administration, judicial matters, economic and social life, the media, cultural activities. This was followed in 2013 by the Administrative Agreement on Frisian Language and Culture 2013-2018. Specifically targeting education and media, this agreement covers administrative actions for the promotion of Frisian language and culture. The same year, the Netherlands government enacted the 2013 Law on Frisian Language Use. This law reaffirmed the official status of the language in Friesland and provided a legal framework for the Covenant on the Frisian Language and Culture.
Frisian language and culture are promoted through the Ried fan de Fryske Beweging (RfdFB, or Raad van de Friese Beweging) (Council of the Frisian Movement), which provides an umbrella for the work of eight organizations, and the provincial government. The RfdFB has voiced concern that Dutch authorities have failed to protect and encourage the use of Frisian, despite having signed the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML) as well as the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, and enacted the Law on Frisian Language Use. In doing so, it has noted that dwindling resources and the absence of effective governance structures has reduced the use of Frisian at an institutional level.
Parents speak to their children in Frisian and young people are keen on learning the language. There are textbooks for the language and other subjects, such as history, geography, biology, religious education and music. The Frisian Broadcasting Company produces and transmits educational radio and TV programmes. There are daily newspapers, magazines and broadcasting in Frisian. There is a Frisian language version of Google and of the web browser Opera.
Primary education in Friesland is conducted in both Frisian and Dutch. However, the language of instruction in secondary schools and colleges is Dutch, with Frisian only mandatory in the lower secondary years. Frisian is a mandatory subject in teacher training colleges. There is no university in Friesland but the state universities of Amsterdam, Groningen and Leiden offer Frisian courses.
Updated April 2018.