More than one official language in the Netherlands

More than one official language in the Netherlands

Did you know that the Netherlands has more than one official language? Maybe you have been to, or have heard of, Friesland (see map); the popular Dutch model Doutzen Kroes was born there.

In this region they speak Frisian, or as the locals might say Frysk, alongside the more standard Dutch language.

The Frisian language

Frisian is known as a bit of a ‘farmer’s language’, since there are a lot of farms in Friesland and locals are very strict about holding on to their language. In recent years many measures, such as teaching Frisian in schools and recognising it as an official language, have been put into place by the government and local bodies in order to promote the use of Frisian and ensure it does not die out.

Frisian and Dutch are two separate languages, which differ in their vocabulary and sound system, and although the Frisian language does bear a resemblance to Dutch, the two languages are not mutually intelligible.

How many people speak Frisian?

In 2015, 646.257 people lived in the province of Friesland, and more than half indicated that Frisian was their mother tongue.

How many types of Frisian are there?

There are three different types of Frisian; West Frisian, spoken today in the province of Friesland; North Frisian, spoken in Nordfriesland in Germany and Saterland Frisian, a dialect of East Frisian, spoken in Germany.

Examples of Frisian words and phrases

If you’re heading off to Friesland and want to try to impress some of the locals with your knowledge of Frisian, the next few words and phrases might come in handy:

  • Hello - Goeie
  • How are you? - Hoe is it mei dy?
  • Do you speak English? - Praatsto ek Ingelsk?
  • Thank you - Tige tank
  • Goodbye - Oant sjen

History of Frisian

So where did Frisian come from? Well, when the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language tree branched off, so to speak, Dutch and German went one way, and English and Frisian the other. Because of the split from Dutch and German, Old English and Old Frisian share many similarities.

There are a few important turning points in the Frisian language. Frisian went through three language periods, the last of which carries on today:

  • Old Frisian

In the Old Frisian period (around 1150 to 1550) West Germanic languages experienced a sound shift, which mostly affected English and Frisian.

  • Middle Frisian

In 1550-1820, the period of Middle Frisian, Dutch became the official language of administration in the province of Friesland. This thus suppressed Frisian, and in this period it became a spoken language only.

  • New Frisian

In the period 1820-to date, interest in the Frisian language and community grew. The pronunciation of Frisian underwent a change, and it is in this period that the standard spelling system was decided upon.

The province of Friesland has been officially bilingual for a while, but it was only in 1956 that Frisian became officially authorised for use in the courtroom. Frisian was also afforded rights through the 1992 Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in 1996; these rights were put into action in 1998. In 1995, Frisian also became recognised as the language of administration in Friesland.

Interesting facts about Frisian and Friesland

Every language has its nuances; here are a few Frisian ones:

  • Frisian uses the Latin alphabet, but not the characters Q or X- they are only used in loan words.
  • Some words sound similar to English, such as: griene tsiis = green cheese.
  • Frisian has two genders for words (common and neuter) - as does Dutch, de or het, and in Frisian de or it.
  • Friesland has its own flag, and those objects that look like hearts? They are actually Lilly pads, or pompeblêden.
  • Friesland is famous for its Elfstedentocht ice skating race. This is held once every couple of years, when it is cold enough for all the canals in the province to freeze over. Participants ice skate 200 kilometres through 11 Frisian towns. Because of a run of warm winters, the Elfstedentocht has not been held since January 1997 but it is still a beloved annual topic for discussion.
  • Leeuwarden is the capital of Friesland.

Take a look at Greg Shapiro’s satirical presentation of Friesland.

Mina Solanki


Mina Solanki

Completed her Master's degree at the University of Groningen and worked as a translator before joining IamExpat. She loves to read and has a particular interest in Greek mythology. In...

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