Name: Frisians; West, North, East
Location: Netherlands, Federal Republic of Germany
Population: total about 700,000
% of population: Netherlands about 4%
Religion: mainly Reformed Church
Language: Frisian dialects, Dutch, German

Frisian-language speakers comprise a linguistic and cultural minority group of northern Europe and are today divided into three distinct groups; the Western Frisians of the northern Netherlands and the Northern and East Frisians of the German Federal Republic. Frisian is a language of the West Germanic family but the three Frisian-speaking groups today speak different dialects of Frisian which are not always mutually intelligible, for example the dialect of the North Frisians is unintelligible outside their own community to all but a few educated speakers of West Frisian. Despite the official recognition given to West Frisian, Frisian today is in general a language in decline.

The West Frisians

The West Frisians are based in the province of Friesland in the north of the Netherlands. It includes the islands of Texel, Vlieland, Terschel-ling, Ameland, Schiermonnikogg and Rottum. Of the 550,000 inhabitants, about 400,000 are Frisian language speakers with probably another 300,000 living outside the province. As a language West Frisian is more like English than Dutch in many respects but many town dwellers speak “town Frisian”, a mixed dialect of Dutch and Frisian dating back to the seventeenth century.

Friesland, previously semi-independent and later part of the Hapsburg Empire, joined the United Republic of the Netherlands in 1648. It was. and remains, one of the poorer areas of the country, leading to large-scale emigration to North America in the nineteenth century. Despite this, in the seventeenth century a Frisian language movement was born and this continued into the nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century the Frisian Movement expressed identity mainly in literary terms and this laid the basis for modern West Frisian identity. In 1938 the Fryske Academy was established and pioneered the teaching of Frisian in schools.

Friesland is unique among the eleven provinces of the Netherlands in having its own language which is allowed restricted use in courts of law. Frisian has been recognized as a medium of educational instruction since 1955 and in 1975 the Dutch government accepted a proposal that it be used in primary schooling and be made a compulsory study subject. The language is also studied at colleges and five universities elsewhere in the Netherlands. Frisian is spoken to some extent in the provincial council and bilingual signs are permitted. There is a modest Frisian weekly and monthly press.

However other factors mitigate against the use of Frisian. There is no Frisian TV service and only a small radio programme daily. Most Frisians speak Dutch for business purposes and use Frisian in the home. The province has lost much of its agricultural base and has little industry, and there is high emigration among young people, while non-Frisian speakers holiday or retire there.

The North Frisians

The North Frisians live in the land of Schleswig-Holstein in the Federal Republic of Germany in an area known as the Kreis of Nord Friesland. In 1970 it had a total population of 154,000 of which about 60,000 were said to consider themselves Frisians. However only a minority speak Frisian and the numbers have dwindled steadily from 19,300 in 1890 to 15,000 in 1928 and 10,000 in 1968.

It is questionable whether the North Frisians can be regarded as a national minority in the same way as the West Frisians are since the language has been virtually abandoned in favour of local German dialects and there has been continuous intermarriage between Frisians, Germans and Danes for centuries. German has been used in schooling since the introduction of state education in the nineteenth century while during the Nazi period use of the Frisian language was forbidden. Today some classes in primary and secondary education are conducted in Frisian. The North Frisians have no special legal position as a minority group, unlike the Danish minority. Economic conditions are poor and emigration levels are high; while tourism is welcomed for economic reasons, it has further undermined the Frisian character of the area.

The East Frisians

The speakers of East Frisian in the late 1970s comprised about 11,000 people in Saterland in the Federal Republic of Germany, south of the town of Emden. Although geographically they are relatively close to West Frisian speakers they are seen as having collaborated with the Nazi regime and this partly explains the lack of close regular contact between the different groups. Like the North Frisians they have no special legal position as a minority group.