Tower of Babel

Besides the North Sea coast has always been a dangerous territory, writing about the different dialects, languages and speeches is just as dangerous. If you miss the subtleties, your life as you know is, will be over. Too many different languages is even against the will of gods (Genesis 11: 1-9). To make it a bit manageable we shall focus mainly on those areas that are covered by the Frisia Coast Trail.

​The official languages of the four countries you walk through from south to north are: 

  • In Belgium the three official languages are Dutch, French and German.
  • In the Netherlands these are Dutch and Frisian (i.e. Mid-Frisian, also called Westerlauwers Frisian). Low Saxon (also called West Low German or Nedersaksisch) is recognized as regional language, but has no official status.
  • In Germany there is one official language, namely German. Official minority languages of Germany are: Danish, Frisian (i.e. North-Frisian and Saterland Frisian, also called East-Frisian), Romani and Sorbian (both Upper- and Lower-Sorbian).
  • In Denmark, like Germany, there is one official language, namely Danish. The three official minority language are German, Faroese and Greenlandic.

1. Low-Franconian & Low-Saxon languages

1.1. Low-Franconian

Walking stages 1-3 of the Frisia Coast Trail you pass through two different countries, namely Belgium and the Netherlands. All three stages are within the Low-Franconian language area.

​Low-Franconian has several dialects spoken on three continents. The principal variants are Afrikaans (spoken in Namibia and in South Africa), Brabantic, Flemish (East- and West-Flemish), Hollandic, Limburgian, South Guelderish (also called Clevian) and Zeelandic. Together Flemish, Hollandic and Suriname-Dutch form the official language Dutch. Dutch has an official status in Aruba, Curaçao, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sint Maarten, South Africa and in Suriname. Note that Limburgian is also considered a variant of High-German which depends on what the distinctive feature is in the definition.

​The specific Low-Franconian dialects you will be confronted with when hiking these stages are: Brabantic (or Brabants), West-Flemish (or Westvlaams), Hollandic (or Hollands) and Zeelandic (or Zeeuws). The border between the dialects West-Flemish and Zealandic is the River East-Scheldt in province Zeeland in the Netherlands.

​One linguistic anomaly you will come across during stage 3 of the trail, is the region Westfriesland within province Noord Holland in the Netherlands, where a ‘creole’ speech is spoken which is a mixture of Hollandic-Low-Franconian and Old-Frisian. This is Westfries, and not be confused with Mid-Frisian, also called Westerlauwers Frisian, spoken in province Friesland in the Netherlands. Memorise this as a warning. It saves lives!

1.2. Low-Saxon

Starting with stage 5 means you enter the territory of the Low-Saxon language. Crossing the tiny River Lauwers marks this big transition. During stages 5 and 6 you hike in respectively province Groningen in the Netherlands and region Ostfriesland (or East Frisia) in Germany. The Low-Saxon dialect spoken in both areas is called Gronings-Oostfreesk. This dialect differs from other Low-Saxon dialects because of the strong influence of the Old-Frisian language that was spoken in these areas until the High Middle Ages. Of course, Gronings and Oostfreesk differ from each other too, since each is influenced by a different lingua franca (resp. Dutch and German). 

​During stage 7 you still hike in Low-Saxon language territory. The dialect variants of Low-Saxon spoken here are Northern Low-Saxon and Holsteinisch. Again, the lingua franca is German.

​Stage 8, where the North-Frisian language still is spoken modestly too (see further below under 2), is where the Low-Saxon dialect Schleswigsch is spoken. In the border area with Denmark, Danish is also spoken and this is one of the official minority language of Germany. About 0,06 percent of the German population speaks Danish.

When crossing the border between Germany and Denmark at the start of stage 9 of the trail, you are still within Schleswigsch Low-Saxon language area, although the majority will speak Danish or Jutlandic dialect (see further below under 3).  

2. Frisian language

Hiking stages 4 – 8 of the Frisia Coast Trail, you will be walking in areas where the Frisian language is (also) spoken. These are respectively the Frisian dialects Mid-Frisian (or Westerlauwersk Frysk) and North-Frisian (or Nordfriisk). There is also a very little patch of East-Frisian left in Germany, namely: Sater-Frisian (or Seeltersk).

2.1. Mid-Frisian

Mid-Frisian (mf) is spoken between Lake IJssel (IJsselmeer) and the River Lauwers in the Netherlands and, therefore, locally often referred to as Westerlauwersk Frysk, meaning ‘Frisian west of Lauwers’. Within the Mid-Frisian speech several dialects are being distinguished. The main relevant dialects are Clay-Frisian (or Klaaifrysk), Northern-Edge Frisian (or Noordhoeks), Southwestern-Edge Frisian (or Zuidwesthoeks) and Wood-Frisian (or Wâldfrysk). These four dialects are quite interchangeable and offer no problem for speakers to understand each other. This contrary to the dialects of North-Frisian (see further below under 2.3). Here some words with comparison:

  • jûn (mf) – evening (en) – avond (ne) – Abend (de) – aften (da)
  • moarne (mf) – morning (en) – ochtend (ne) – Morgen (de) – morgen (da)
  • tsjerke (mf) – church (en) – kerk (ne) – Kirche (de) – kirke (da)
  • wiet (mf) – wet (en) – nat (ne) – nass (de) – våd (da)
  • wetter (mf) – water (en) – water (ne) – Wasser (de) – vand (da)

On the Wadden Sea islands Schiermonnikoog and Terschelling different dialects of Mid-Frisian are spoken. An example:

  • English: I – you – you – he / she / it – we – you – they
  • Mid-Frisian: ik – do – jo – hy / hja & sy / it – wy – jimme – sy
  • Schiermonnikoog: ik – dò – ji – hi / jò / et – wy – jimme – jà

​Also, the Mid-Frisian dialect of the little town Hindeloopen in the southwest of province Friesland is a different dialect, among other because Old-Frisian words have been preserved better due to georgraphical and social isolation, in combination with a stable population. It became a secret language for marine traders from Hindeloopen. That itself might have been extra help for the survival of Old-Frisian. Other Mid-Frisians have a hard time to understand even a bit of Hindeloopen-Frisian (hy), also called Hylpers. Here some examples:

  • bòn (hy) – child (en) – bern (mf) – kind (ne) – Kind (de) – barn (da)
  • jitte (hy) – yet (en) – noch (mf) – nog (ne) – noch (de) – endnu (da)
  • jo (hy) – she (en) – hja/sy (mf) – zij (ne) – Sie (de) – de (da)
  • lik (hy) – little (en) – lyts (mf) – klein (ne) – klein (de) – lille (da)
  • tòk (hy) – fat (en) – tsjok (mf) – dik/vet (ne) – fett (de) – tyk (da)

​There are two non-Frisian language anomalies you will come across when hiking stage 4. The first is the ‘creole’ speech Bildts in the north of province Friesland. This is a mixture of the Frisian and Low-Franconian languages. It is spoken in the former Middle Sea reclaimed-land area since the beginning of the sixteenth century. Besides a different speech, people here are mostly catholic instead of being protestant, what is generally the case in the north of the Netherlands. Find here a dictionary of Bildts. The second anomaly is spoken in the southeast of province Friesland, namely Stellingwarfs. This is a Low-Saxon dialect strongly influenced by the Mid-Frisian language.

2.2. East-Frisian

Sater-Frisian (or Seeltersk) is spoken in northwest Germany in four villages. These are Strücklingen (or Strukelje), Ramsloh (or Roomelse), Sedelsberg (or Seedelsbierich) and Scharrel (or Schäddel). To avoid disappointment, in the town Friesoythe just south of Scharrel, no East-Frisian is spoken (neither in the town of Friesenheim near Strasbourg, France or Friesach in Austria, by the way). The Coast Trail does not pass through theses four little villages, but the real freaks can make a detour.

​Sater-Frisian (sf) is the last remnant of East-Frisian which was spoken both in province Groningen (region Ommelanden) in the Netherlands, and in the whole region Ostfriesland (East Frisia) in Germany until around the fifteenth century. You hike through Groningen during stage 5 and region Ostfriesland during stage 6. It is where Frisian has been replaced by the Low-Saxon language (Gronings-Oostfreesk). The reason Sater-Frisian survived (longer) has to do with being an island within the impenetrable (former) peat area. Their geographical isolation was complemented with social isolation since these villages stayed Catholic during the Reformation. And, maybe also because it became a secret language in trade, comparable with the Hindeloopen speech as described above. It is sad, but Sater-Frisian is at the brink of extinction. Only a few hundred to a thousand speakers are only left (anno 2015). According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger severely endangered. So, it might justify the detour when you are in the hood.

  • köäre (sf) – karre (mf) – to choose (en) – wählen (de) – vælge (da) – kiezen (ne)
  • speegel (sf) – spegel (mf) – mirror (en) – Spiegel (de)- spejl (da) – spiegel (ne) 
  • moanske (sf) – minsk (mf) – man/human (en) – Mensch (de) – mand (da) – mens (ne)
  • dai (sf) – dei (mf) – day (en) – Tag (de) – dag (da) – dag (ne) 
  • juun (sf) – tsjin (mf) – against (en) – gegen (de) – mod (da) – tegen (ne)
  • tjuusterch (sf) – tjuster (mf) – dark (en) – dunkel (de) – mørk (da) – donker (ne)

​Find here a dictionary of Sater-Frisian.

2.3. North-Frisian

Hiking stage 8 you will enter Kreis Nordfriesland, and thus the area where North-Frisian is spoken. North-Frisian speech deserves some additional attention for its complex and even more fragmented situation.

There are two main groups distinguished within this dialect of Frisian, namely Island North-Frisian and Mainland North-Frisian. But that is not all. Within these two main groups many more sub-dialects are spoken. And to be clear, speakers of these sub-dialects cannot understand each other (easy).

​Not visible on the map, the dialect Fering or Ferring on the island Föhr has three sub-dialects: West-land Fering, Southern-Fering and East-land Fering. Simular fragmentation is the case on the island Sylt. The local Frisian dialect Söl’ring is spoken on the middle and southern part of the island. The northern part of the island called List, is Danish speaking. The Norderstrand-Frisian spoken on the islands Pellworm, Nordstrand and Nordstrandischmoor died in AD 1634. Rungholt-Frisian died in AD 1362 when nearly the whole island was swallowed by the sea. Read our blog post How a town drowned overnight.

​If you take all existing dialects together, including Heligolandic or Halunder at the rock island Heligoland at the North Sea, you still have a staggering fifteen different dialects within North-Frisian, within an area of around 2,500 sq km. Let’s give you an idea about all the differences:

Three North-Frisian dialects and Mid-Frisian in a sentence:

  • ​”She stands at the door”
    • Bökingharde: Jü stoont bai e döör.
    • Föhr/Fering: Hat stäänt bi a dör.
    • Sylt/Söl’ring: Jü staant bi Düür.
    • Mid-Frisian: Hja stiet by de doar.

​All North-Frisian dialects are at the brink of extinction. No zoos and no breeding programs possible to revitalize the language. Goesharde and Karrharde Frisian have stopped being a spoken language, although some speakers left. In total an estimated maximum of 10,000 people speak North-Frisian, and -thus- according to UNESCO severly endangered (2015). The fact the North-Frisian dialects are very different from each other does not help its survival. 

For a dictonary of Heligolandic or Halunder, check here.

3. Danish language

The single Danish dialect you will encounter when hiking the -final- stage 9 of Frisia Coast Trail is West-Southern Jutlandic. Though, you might also encouter German speaking Danes (see further below)

Patchwork in a bottleneck – Linguistically the border area between Denmark and Germany is interesting. Several languages meet here, namely (Southern) Jutlandic, North-Frisian (in the many, many dialects) and Schleswigsch Low-Saxon, and, of course, the linga francas Danish and German. That are three different families. An area where cultures have met, and where the border between Denmark and Germany bounced up and down for centuries, with the River Eider for long being the median.

​The (later to become) duchies Schleswig and Holstein were already an apple of discord between the Franks and the Danes in the Early Middle Ages. After several wars in the nineteenth century, Schleswig was ceded to Prussia in AD 1866. In the aftermath of the Great War and after a referendum in 1920, the people of north Schleswig chose to become part of Denmark. This marks the border as it is today. Therefore, you have a German minority living in Denmark and Danish minority living in Germany, the latter specifically in and around the city of Flensburg. Between 15,000 – 20,000 Germans live in southern Denmark of which around 8,000 speak either German or Schleswigsch Low-Saxon.

​The North-Frisians flipped sides during these wars as well. With the separation of North Schleswig from Germany in 1920, the outermost northwestern part of Nordfriesland was ceded to Denmark. There are still schools in the southwest of Denmark teaching Frisian language.

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