Early Germanic Dialects – Old Frisian

It’s time for our second language in the Anglo-Frisian branch of the West Germanic languages! Let’s take a look at Old Frisian!

Now, though I usually start these posts with a history lesson, this one I’m going to start off a bit differently: with a word of caution.

You see, we say Old Frisian, but in fact, the surviving texts that we have are from periods which would qualify as the middle periods for most Germanic languages (e.g. Middle English). The oldest surviving Old Frisian texts are actually from the middle of the 13th century, a very late “start”. Why? Well, for that, we need our history lesson!

Very little has actually been said about the history of Frisia…

In fact, we have gaps of a few centuries in which they are barely mentioned at all.

The first we hear about it is in Tacitus’ account of the Roman general Drusus crossing the lower Rhine in 12 B.C. There, he apparently encountered a tribe named the Frisii. Now, because he was Roman and that is what Romans did, Drusus immediately subjugated the Frisii. And, for the next three hundred years or so, the Frisii were under the yoke of the Roman Empire.

It may seem obvious that these people called the Frisii were the ancestors of the later Frisians. However, there are actually some conflicting opinions on this matter. Some scholars have suggested that the Frisii might actually have been a non-Germanic group. This group merged with Germanic groups, lending their name to the final result.

The etymology of the word Frisii or Frisian doesn’t really help. There are some potential Germanic roots, but there are also some non-Germanic ones. Ideas range from meanings like friends or free men to edge dwellers or curly-haired ones.

Where exactly the Frisii lived is also a bit unclear. Their homeland might have stretched as far down as the Old Rhine (which flows into the North Sea at Katwijk in the Netherlands) and as far northeast as the Ems, or potentially only as far as the Lauwers.

So what do we know?

Well, we know that the early Frisii were herders rather than farmers. We also know that they supplied provisions and soldiers to the Roman army. Likely, they were also a part of the Roman garrisoning of Britain.

We know that they successfully cast off the Roman yoke in a revolution in A.D. 28 but that, 19 years later, they were back under the yoke. After that, we, again, hear very little about the Frisii.

However, even though we don’t hear anything, we know that a lot of things must have happened.

For one thing, the beginning of the 5th century marked the start of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain. This was followed by the great migration (that is, when the Saxons and Angles actually moved to Britain). Suddenly, there was a lot of land no longer in use and the Frisians spread out over the area.

Until the 7th century, when they made the mistake of trying to retain Frisia Magna despite increased Frankish pressure. Most Germanic groups appear to have had some or another difficulty with the Franks, and Frisians were no different. Although valiantly attempting to defend their territory, their most famous defender, King Redbad or Redbod, was defeated in 719. During the following decades, the Frisians were gradually annexed by the Frankish empire, but they remained in its periphery.

This may actually have been considered a blessing for a long time.

You see, it allowed the Frisians more independence than most annexed areas. But, it also meant that the Frisians received less protection from the mighty Frankish empire. This likely became unpleasantly obvious for the Frisians with the arrivals of the Vikings in the 9th century.

It is always the Vikings, isn’t it?

Anyway, Charlemagne’s grandson didn’t really want the hassle of a Viking invasion. So, he simply ceded parts of Frisia to the war-crazed people from the North. It was basically a, “Here, take this for not invading us. Also, it’s your responsibility now, have fun with the other Vikings!”

It didn’t last very long and appears to have had no direct influence on the history or culture of the area; however, it did lead to an increase in power for the Frankish counts in Holland. They eventually pressed a special claim on West Friesland, and the area fell to them in 1289.

That wasn’t the end of it. In 1464, German East Friesland was given to the Low German-speaking counts of Cirksema. As a result, the Frisian language came under immense pressure. Eventually, the northern areas of Groningen also went over to using Low German. In Germany today, Frisian is only spoken in an area known as the Saterland.

Similarly, in Holland, the Frisian language is under heavy pressure from the Dutch standard language.

The prognosis for the continued survival of Frisian is not good, Robinson noted in 1992. And it hasn’t gotten better since.

According to the Endangered Languages Project, Frisian (also known as Saterfriesiesch) has roughly 5,000 native speakers. Compare that with a “strong” Germanic language, like Swedish with its roughly 9.2 million native speakers. Its survival is thus qualified as “Threatened”.

So, if you, after this post decide to learn Frisian, and teach it to your kids and so on… Go for it!

With that said, let’s look at the language (or its historical ancestor anyway).

Old Frisian and Old English are pretty closely related, so it is unsurprising that they share a number of features. One example is palatalization:

For example, we find the combination [ts] or [ tʃ] in church, a sound that came to be written in many different ways in Old Frisian (e.g. tsyurka, szurka, tszurka). We also find palatalization in Old Frisian g, which can be pronounced as [g], [ɣ] or even [x] or [ç] in certain dialects (I’ll take this opportunity of loads of IPA characters to remind you of Rebekah’s previous post on consonants).

Some other things that Old Frisian has in common with Old English are:

  1. No evidence of sharpening – that is, the general sound development in Gothic by which Proto-Germanic *ww becomes ggw (as seen in Gothic)
  2. Rhotacism has taken place – that is, Proto-Germanic *z has become r
  3. Evidence of metathesis of the sequence CrV to CVr – that one might be tricky because I did not mention it in my post on Old English. Basically, what it means is that in words like Old Saxon brennian, where a consonant precedes the <r> and a vowel follows it, the vowel and the <r> trades places. Hence, Old Saxon brennian ‘burn’, becomes Old Frisian berna (Old English beornan ‘be on fire’ or bærnan ‘to kindle’).

This list is by no means exhaustive!

Let’s move on from the things Old English and Old Frisian share and look at how they are different!

Unlike Old English, <k> is much more common in Old Frisian. In fact, <k> was required before the letters i and e.

Also unlike Old English, there is some variation in the reflexes of the Proto-Germanic diphthong /ai/. In Old English, this diphthong invariably becomes [a:], but in Old Frisian, it can also become [ē] (e.g. mēn ‘false’ vs. Old English mān).

Similarly, the Proto-Germanic diphthong /au/ becomes ā in all circumstances. For example, Old Frisian rād ‘red’ but Old English rēad.

And… well, in terms of what my primary source has to say, that’s pretty much it.

However, again, the lists (both here and in my sources) are not exhaustive. I’m sure you can find plenty more differences between Old Frisian and Old English! Why don’t you tell me some of the ones that you can spot?

Until next time, I hope you enjoyed this little bit on Old Frisian! Next week, we’ll start to check out our last group: the Proto-German languages, starting with *drumroll* Old Low Franconian!

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References

As always, I direct you to our primary source: Robinson, Orrin W. 1992. Old English and its closest relatives.

In addition, I have been using:

The Endangered Languages Project

The article “How Many People Speak Swedish, And Where Is It Spoken?” by Steph Koyfman in +Babbel Magazine.

Omniglot’s pronunciation charts of Frisian

and

Etymonline’s entry on the development of ‘burn’ in English.

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