Who speaks the language closest to English?

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode

Kavita Pillay: Hi, Kavita Pillay here. I don’t know a huge amount about where the English language came from. But I do know that it’s a long history with many twists and turns. You might call today’s episode a chapter in that history.

It’s also a chapter in a very different kind of history: that of language revitalization; a language clung to, passionately and stubbornly.

So now, from the Linguistic Society of America and Quiet Juice, here’s an episode reported in 2016 by Patrick Cox.

Patrick Cox: About 1400 years ago, the English established some laws. The local king — he was called Ethelbert — he oversaw the establishment of these laws: the Kentish laws, as they became known. The Kentish Laws are a big deal for several reasons.

They were written down on the oldest surviving document in the English language, albeit Old English — which you or I would need to study before understanding it. Also they were the first laws that we know of written in any Germanic language. But I’ve got to say I think the Kentish laws are remembered because they were cool. Especially the ones that dealt with compensation for acts of violence which were listed in some detail, one stab or gouge or chop at a time. Like this one.

Han Nijdam: [Phonetically] Fiaxfang, which is hair pulling. Pulling someone’s hair.

Patrick Cox: I think this needs a soundtrack, don’t you?

Music: Frisian metal band Baldrs Draumar

Patrick: Oh yeah. So that old English phrase for hair pulling, it’s nearly identical to a phrase in another Germanic language, Frisian. No, this is not a fake news story. Frisian exists. And here’s the word in Old Frisian for hair-pulling.

Han Nijdam: [Phonetically] Faxfang.

Patrick Cox: Almost exactly the same. And not just this. Old English and Old Frisian shared loads of words; they appear to have been closely related. The Frisians, by the way, they lived across the North Sea from England in what today is the Netherlands; also in parts of northern Germany, southern Denmark. And the Frisians wrote down their laws pretty early on too. Which is super handy for linguists. That’s how they’ve been able to establish this first-cousin relationship between the two languages.

OK, let’s get back to some more violence.

Han Nijdam: Piercing someone’s nose. Blinding him. Going through the stomach. The list goes on and on.

Patrick Cox: This splendid man is Han Nijdam. He specializes in Old Frisian — and in these legal documents in particular. And he seems to have a lot of fun doing it. Yeah and the metal music? It’s a Frisian band. They’re singing — singing? — in Frisian. I don’t know about what but it goes well with medieval torture.

Aside from being the language closest among all languages to English, Frisian is still spoken. Today we have six snapshots of Frisian and the people who speak it. And I promise you that by the end of this podcast, you will too love Frisian. It’s not all beard burning.

Part One: If you listen hard — really hard — you may just hear Frisian in America.

OK, I lucked out here. I happen to have a Frisian-American friend. Not only that, we share the same birthday: The stars are aligned. Anyway, her mother is full-on Frisian. So at the start of my quest to understand all things Frisian, I just had to visit my friend’s mother. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts, her name is…

Maaike Hoving: I would say Maaike.

Patrick Cox: Maaike Hoving. She came to the US in 1962, age 23. She was born and raised in the Dutch coastal province of Friesland. More than 300,000 people speak Frisian there, most of them village dwellers. Maaike’s village — it’s still there — is called Marrum.

Maaike Hoving: I think there are probably about 1,600 people living there.

Patrick Cox: And everyone was a Frisian speaker?

Maaike Hoving: Oh yeah, yeah.

Patrick Cox: So nobody would ever attempt to speak Dutch with anybody else, outside of say, school?

Maaike Hoving: School and church was in Dutch, but otherwise it was all Frisian.

Patrick Cox: Maaike never learned to write in Frisian. It was just for speaking. And even though church services were usually in Dutch, she asked that her wedding ceremony in Frisian. The church gave her a Frisian Bible.

Maaike Hoving: Well, I could start at the beginning…

Maaike Hoving reads a few sentences of the Frisian Bible.

Patrick Cox: Maaike’s Frisian — Biblical and the more conversational stuff — it wasn’t the slightest bit useful once she arrived in the U.S.

Maaike Hoving: For a long time I was the only one listed at the Widener Library in Harvard as being a Frisian-speaking person.

Patrick Cox: In Massachusetts? In New England?

Maaike Hoving: Yeah, I was the only one.

Patrick Cox: So what about Dutch, I asked Maaike. Her second language, the one was she was educated in.

Maaike Hoving: I’m just not that comfortable in it. I mean, I can do it if I have to.

Patrick Cox: Interacting with other Dutch people here in the US — that’s not especially comfortable for Maaike either.

Maaike Hoving: There are Dutch people here, Dutch groups of people here, pretty snobbish.

Patrick Cox: One time, she recalls being invited to some local Dutch-American event, an academic society.

Maaike Hoving: Oh what a bunch of snobs! They were, to me, like typically Dutch people. Because Dutch people can be sort of stuck up.”

Patrick Cox: OK, you get the picture. Frisians don’t like being looked down upon by other Dutch people. And the two languages: they’re both assigned roles in this dynamic.

Which brings me to Part Two: Is the Frisian language a real language or just a dialect of something else: Dutch or English or German?

So a couple of days after talking with Maaike, I flew to Amsterdam. Friesland is about two hours north on the train. But I made a little detour first. I went to see Gaston Dorren. He’s the star of a previous podcast we did. He speaks a lot of languages, writes about them too. So, of course, I wanted to know what he — a Dutch speaker who also speaks his own local dialect, but not Frisian — I wanted to know what he thought about the Frisians. He didn’t hold back. In a Dutch way of not holding back.

Gaston Dorren: I get a bit tired sometimes by Frisians going on about how special their language is.

Patrick Cox: So wait a minute. Frisian is nothing to write home about, it’s just the Frisians talk a good game? Yes, Gaston told me. The other smaller languages of the Netherlands, he said, they don’t get the same props.

Gaston Dorren: The typical wording that you hear is that Frisian is a language while the other reasonable lingos are mere dialects. That is just not true.

Patrick Cox: Oh dear. There’s a theme here. Frisians and other Dutch people, they don’t seem to like each other that much.

Well, for one reason or another, Frisian does enjoy a higher status in the Netherlands — it’s an official language. The other languages — languages, dialects, you pick your poison — they’re not official. So what is it? Stubbornness. That’s what a lot people think. Frisians are so stubborn they insist on speaking this old dialect and calling it a language. I had to ask some Frisians, right away, as soon as I got to Friesland. And I found some, in a school, in a village. We sat in a room, a group of us, teachers and students and then the Frisian teacher, Anna Marije Bloem, told me just what she thought of the Dutch and their attitudes.

Anna Marije Bloem: I think they need to make an effort to get to know the Frisian people and language because we are not stubborn at all. Do you think we are stubborn?

Patrick Cox: What do you think I’m going to say?

Anna Marije Bloem: Because a lot of people also say, “We thought Frisian people were stubborn, but you are really are goign for what you want and what you believe in.” And I think we are really honest and real, instead of being stubborn.

Patrick Cox: Maybe. But I tell you something else Frisians are. They are savvy. This teacher, Anna Marije, she’s quite a language activist. You’ll see her on local Frisian-language TV a lot talking up the language and culture. And when I visited her school, she made sure the local new media knew about it. There were reports in the local newspapers. I was on the radio. Even TV!

Frisian-language TV report, includes the words, Patrick Cox, BBC America.

Patrick Cox: World famous in Friesland! Even if I don’t work for BBC America. My branding people will speak to your branding people. And if that wasn’t enough, Anna Marije also plied me with delicious local pastries.

Anna Marije Bloem: This is from our bakery here, the best bakery. You have to try it.

Patrick Cox: More from her and her students later. Last thing from language writer Gaston Dorren, though, because I don’t want you to think he’s all down on Frisian. He told me this too:

Gaston Dorren: I do remember that when I was on the train to Friesland years ago, I saw all these kids enter the train and I heard them talk to each other. I wasn’t paying much attention and I thought, are these Danes or Swedes or — and then I realized, wait a minute, I’m heading for Friesland, this must be Frisian. And I didn’t understand a word.”

Patrick Cox: Part Three: How did Frisian end up as an official language?

Of course, in its heyday 1400 years ago, Frisian didn’t have official status. People just spoke it. and because the Frisians were fantastically successful at buying and selling stuff, they became rich, and other people want a bit of the action. So they started speaking Frisian too.

Then — and this is a horribly shortened version of history that doesn’t even mention the Vikings, except for just then — along came the Dutch. They were getting rich themselves and they didn’t want to speak Frisian. They wanted to speak Dutch.

Dutch alphabet song

School was in Dutch, that was the language of instruction. In the large towns people mainly spoke Dutch. Frisian was pushed into the villages, the farms, homes.

And there it stayed, stubbornly no doubt. For centuries. Until the 19th century. In Germany the brother Grimm — you know them right? — they collected folktales and wrote them down. They wrote the way people speak, and so they transformed the German language.Well, the same thing happened in Friesland! They had their own brothers Grimm. They weren’t called Grimm though, and actually they weren’t brothers. It was just one guy, He was called Joost Hiddes Halbertsma [in Frisian: Joast Hiddes Halbertsma]— wow I murdered that pronunciation — and he wrote Frisian much more like it was spoken. It was a big inspiration for Frisians who wanted a bit more respect for their language. Which is what led to Clubbing Friday.

Dance music

Patrick Cox: I know, that’s what I thought when I heard “Clubbing Friday.” But no, it’s not.

Back to Han Nijdum. Yes, the hair-pulling man. Han is a scholar with an institution that researches all things Frisian. It’s called the Frisian Academy. He told me about a key moment for Frisian a few decades ago — it was to do with the law courts. Back then, if you were charged with an offense you had to defend yourself in Dutch.

Han Nijdum: And this led to a famous case in the 1950s where a soprt of mini-revolution started because a milkman had written Milk and Churned Milk on his milk containers. And he was brought to court for this, and tried for it. A few journalists made this into a big thing. And then Frisians — a small group revolted on the square here before the court. And this is called “Clubbing Friday” because the police had to charge and drive the people apart. But this was a turning point because after this moment things changed for the better, and the Frisian language got more rights. So you could now use Frisian in court, you could use Frisian in official communication to the province, etc, etc.

Patrick Cox: There were Frisian-language schools after that, Frisian news TV and radio, all with support from the Dutch national government. It seems like it came quite easily. Much more than with, say Welsh, which has had similar legal and civil rights battles but they went on for decades.

So there wasn’t a sustained Frisian civil rights movement. And perhaps because there wasn’t, other Dutch people sometimes forgot about Frisian. You know it’s that heavy dialect they talk up north.

Well, Lutz Jacobi wasn’t going to stand for that. She’s a politician, a member of Dutch parliament from Friesland. And she came up with a novel way of reminding the Dutch public of the Frisian language. The occasion was the swearing-in of the new King of the Netherlands, Willem-Alexander. This was in 2013. As part of the ceremony members of parliament had to pledge loyalty to the new monarch.

Sound of MPS pledging

Jacobi did a little research and found out that you didn’t need to state your pledge in Dutch. You could say it in your native tongue. So she rounded up a few Frisian speaking MPs.

Lutz Jacobi: I asked all the other ones who can speak Frisian, I said, “We do it all together now, you should use it. Today is the day to use. “ And they said, “No, I don’t want to, no, please not.” And then I said, “I am proud Frisian.” So I stand up, hand on my heart.

Sound of Lutz Jacobi pledging allegiance to the Dutch king in Frisian.

Lutz Jacobi: And the king was, “What is that?” And then he was smiling, like, “Frisians do always separate.”

Patrick Cox: The king may have smiled, but Jacobi knew it was provocative.

Lutz Jacobi: I heard on the broadcast, there was immediately a discussion: “Is it allowed?” “Why did she do that?” That kind of thing. Dutch people who don’t live here [in Friesland], they always think, “It’s an accent difference. There is only one language. It’s Dutch.” No it’s not true.

Patrick Cox: Aargh, we’re back here again. Time to find out more about the language itself. Part Four: What is Frisian and why does it sound so similar to Dutch?

So at the beginning of the podcast there was this:

Frisian metal music

And there was that linguistic connection in those early laws in old English and old Frisian. Similar words. But is that it? I mean there a lots of language that have words in common. I asked Han Nijdam of the Frisian Academy about grammar. Are there grammatical patterns that Frisian has in common with English and not with Dutch. Yes, he said, quite few. For example,

Han Nijdam: The Dutch use zich for reflexive form, to wash oneself, zich wassen in Dutch. But in Frisian — as well as in English in the older forms — you use him. Hy wasket him. He washes himself. There you have the him. He washes himself. There are a few other things but you can’t hear them in modern English because it changed so much. But both English and Frisian developed a common form for all plural verbs. So we go, you go they go. This developed into an -aþ ending, both in old English and in Frisian, whereas the German and Dutch had different endings for we and you and they.

Patrick Cox: Wow! That was a major geek-out. But I get it. In those early days English and Frisian took certain similar grammatical pathways whereas other related languages like Dutch and German went in different directions.

So why this connection between Frisian and English? Many researchers have tried to figure this out. Even Eddie Izzard did. Have you seen his video on the links between Frisian and English? It’s on YouTube, it’s very funny, check it out. The thing is, we don’t really know. We do know that post-Roman times, there were movements of people — Angles, Saxons and Jutes — from what is today northern Germany and Denmark. They went eastward, to Friesland, to England.

In any case, it seems likely that Frisian and English grew out of the same language.

Later, history happened. England was invaded by the Vikings, who left behind some Old Norse words. And then there was 1066. The Normans occupied England, and French occupied English. Friesland was occupied by the Dutch, and so Frisian started sounding more and more Dutch. That’s still going on.

Han Nijdam: My senior colleagues who were born here in Friesland, some of them didn’t speak Dutch till they went to school, when they were seven or something like that. They had real trouble in that first period. That’s a completely different situation to now. Now every Frisian child grows up bilingually at the same time. And you can tell: you can hear that the spound of Frisian is also changing toward Dutch. And if you listen to the recordings of Frisian from the early 20th century, it is completely different. It has a different sound system from Dutch. And now, to my ears, young Frisian speakers are speaking Frisian with Dutch sounds in their heads.

Patrick Cox: Part Five: Does anyone else — apart from Frisians — speak Frisian?

Ira Judkovskaya: My first name is Ira, or Irina. Last name is Judkovskaya.

Patrick Cox: That doesn’t sound so Frisian.

Ira Judkovskaya: There are some people who call me our Frisian Russian.

Ira Judkovskaya moved to the Netherlands aged 15. Her family arrived from the Soviet Union as Jewish refugees. At school, Ira studied Dutch. Later, at theatre school one of her professors told her he was a native Frisian speaker.

Ira Judkovskaya: And I was surprised because I had not heard about it. And I was just happy that I learned Dutch, so I was not not thinking about learning another language. I also didn’t know much about it.

Patrick Cox: Until she took a job as the artistic director of Friesland’s Frisian-language theater company.

Ira Judkovskaya: I think the experience of Friesland made me think different about languages. I am from Moscow, the big city. Before I went to Friesland, I had no idea about what it can mean to people, to the audience. So it’s changed my world. It’s the right of people experience art in their language.

Sound of a theater production in Frisian.

Patrick Cox: This is a play that Ira directed. The subject is about as Frisian as hair-pulling. Once every 20 or 30 years, when the winter’s cold enough, there’s an epic speed-skating race in Friesland, along a network of canals. You may have heard of it. It’s called the 11 cities tour. It’s almost 200 kilometers long. If any part of the circuit isn’t frozen, the race is cancelled. The last time it was run was 20 winters ago.

Ira Judkovskaya: So we made performance about it, but not about how fun it is and how people eat soup together. But about what happens in someone’s mind and body when you go skate 200 kilometers. And it took 12 hours, the performance. It started a six o’clock in the morning in the winter, outside. A lot of people came to see it, and it was really quite an experience — for ourselves and for the audience. It was about experiencing yourself, your boundaries and the environment. And the sound of the wind was very important. It was one of the most important players in the play.

Patrick Cox: Skating isn’t just a Frisian obsession. Most Dutch people love it too. So I asked Ira which language was the play performed in?

Ira Judkovskaya: It was in both languages because people came even from the south of the Netherlands, so it was mixed.

Patrick Cox: So mixed, she says, that you couldn’t decide which language the actors were speaking. There were scenes across the entire race circuit. Audience members were bussed from one scene to the next and given headphones so it was almost like they were getting inside the heads of the skaters.

Ira Judkovskaya: People liked to hear Frisian because it’s a very beautiful language to hear.

Patrick Cox: And so what about the answer to the question I asked a few minutes ago: Does anyone else speak Frisian? I suppose the answer’s…not many. Ira’s one of a few exceptions. Friesland doesn’t attract many immigrants or refugees, at least compared to, say, Amsterdam. And of those who do come to Friesland — they tend to settle… not in the Frisian-speaking villages but in the larger towns where people mainly speak Dutch.

Frisian isn’t alone here. All “small, minority” languages have similar problems attracting outsiders. Some don’t try to be welcoming. They like the keep the language secret, for one reason or another. Others are more open, hopeful that people like Ira will learn the language and settle there.

Part Six, the final part. Frisian has another problem. And maybe a solution.

This problem is this: Most people don’t write in Frisian. It’s been that way for hundreds of years, ever since the Dutch imposed their language on schools. And so Frisian is mainly a spoken language. It’s why people dismiss it as a “dialect.”

But the Frisians think they have a solution. Trilingual schools. We’re back at the school where they plied me with pastries. That’s not the only reason we’re back. This is one of scores of elementary and middle schools that teach in three languages. Dutch, English and Frisian. They leave math and science in Dutch, geography and music in English, and history and sports in Frisian. Anna Marije — the Frisian teacher of this class, and the provider of pastries — she’s part of new generation of young Frisian adults who read and write in Frisian.

Anna Marije Bloem: When I was 15 I did an exam in the Frisian language. And then I went to do the Frisian language teacher study. And now I am doing my master’s. So I really chose to do whatever I do in Frisian now.”

Patrick Cox: In this seventh grade class, Anna Marije and her students are discussing topics for a 700-word essay she’s set them. It’s quite a challenge for these kids because written and spoken Frisian are so different. It’s almost like learning two languages. Teachers have to decide which version of the language is acceptable in essay form. Should they insist on the stilted official version of the written language? Or allow something closer to how these kids speak in the playground? Listen to these two students Nienke Kooi and Fardau de Vries.

Nienke Kooi: I feel comfortable when I speak Frisian but when I write Frisian it contains a lot of mistakes.

Fardau de Vries: I like the Frisian writing but it’s with a lot of mistakes. It doesn’t matter. I always love to write in Frisian.

Patrick Cox: A lot of the students say similar things, that it’s OK: they make errors but they want to keep at it. A couple students tell me they’re sort of weirded out at the very idea of being able write in Frisian, but then they turn around and say how excited they are by that too because it’s their mother tongue — the language they best can express their thoughts in.

Essay-writing is one thing. Texting something else, its single-sentence messages written on the fly. It is almost like you’re speaking. Many of the kids here text and use social media in Frisian. And researchers have noticed. The Frisian Academy recently surveyed 2-thousand young people. They found that very few of them have confidence in their writing skills. Fewer than 15% said their written Frisian was good. But despite that, more than half of them chose Frisian when it came to messaging friends or posting updates on Facebook or Twitter.

Lysbeth Jongbloed: We think that social media has introduced the Frisian language into the written domain, that’s what it looks like.

Patrick Cox: This is Lysbeth Jongbloed, who authored the study.

Lysbeth Jongbloed: And it’s not the standard Frisian but it’s used now by a much bigger group than before.

Patrick Cox: I mean that sounds like a great benefit. They’re using the language, they’re experimenting to a degree with the language in a way that they jsut didn’t do before.

Lysbeth Jongbloed: Yes, and I think what you see now in Friesland, there are more getting an education in Frisian, so probably in ten or 20 years it will be very normal to use Frisian also in formal writing, and everybody will know how to do this.

Patrick Cox: So it sounds like social media came at a very good time for the Frisian language. Along comes social media and gives people a platform to practice their skills, even if they don’t think of it as practicing.

Lysbeth Jongbloed: Yeah, I think what you see is the children, they look at each other’s writing — “How should I write this? How should I write that?” — and thjey look at each other and tend to copy each other.

Patrick Cox: Right, and it may change what standard Frisian is, eventually.

Lysbeth Jongbloed: It’s a very interesting question, yes.

Willem Schoorstra: I’m quite active on Facebook, and when people make comments, “Well, it’s not correct,” I never correct them. Never.

This is Willem Schoorstra. He writes novels in Frisian. His Frisian vocabulary — and I’m told, his ability to express himself — is about as broad as it gets. But that doesn’t mean he thinks ungrammatical misspelled Facebook posts are a bad thing. Schoorstra’s son, by the way is in that metal band.

Baldrs Draumar song excerpt

It’s the band’s signature, almost, that they sing in Frisian.

Willem Schoorstra: They didn’t at the start. They used English, like everyone does. But after two or three years, they switch to Frisian. Very nice. The language is changing. And that’s a thing you can’t stop. It’s like nature, so to say. It’s developing itself, it’s a living thing. In 100 years or 200 years our language will be very different. But I think it still will be there. I think we will be fine. I really do.

The podcast episode is available here, at Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Thanks to Tina Tobey, Onno Falkena, Alyson Reed, Jeremy Helton, and our partners at the Linguistic Society of America and the Hub & Spoke audio collective including Erica Heilman’s wonderful podcast, Rumble Strip, in which she finds the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Subtitle is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Thanks also to international news and culture show, The World which airs daily on U.S. public radio stations.

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