Indo-European / Germanic / West Germanic / Ingwæonic (North Sea West
Area and Varieties
It is Westerlauwer Frisian that most people mean when they say
“Frisian.” Westerlauwer Frisian (Westerlauwersk Frysk, Frisian west of
the Lauwer river) is used in the Netherlands’ province of Friesland and
in the western parts of the Netherlands’ province of Groningen. Outside
the Netherlands, these varieties tend to be known as “West Frisian,”
but in the Netherlands this name (Westfries) refers to certain, strongly
Frisian-influenced Dutch dialects.
Frisian dialects survive in some emigrant communities, particularly in
Number of Speakers
The Netherlands province of Friesland has more than 600,000 inhabitants,
about 450,000 of whom are able to speak Frisian. Approximately 350,000 use
it as a native language. The estimated number of Frisian speakers in the
province Groningen is 3,000. A 1994 survey revealed that 94% of
Friesland’s population can understand Frisian, 74% can speak it, 65% are
able to read it, and 17% can write it. Westerlauwer Frisian speakers are
large majorities in rural communities. They are small minorities in the
cities, on the Frisian Islands and in two Lowlands-Saxon-dominated
southeastern municipalities of Friesland.
Friesland has been an officially (Frisian and Dutch) bilingual province
for a few decades now. In 1996, the European Charter for Regional or
Minority Languages was ratified by the Netherlands, and this included
Frisian. In 2001, a Covenant on Frisian Language and Culture between the
Netherlands’ government and the province of Friesland was signed. This
covenant is the implementation instrument of the Charter. In 1995, the
right to use Frisian in the local and provincial assemblies was confirmed
by statute. In 1980, Westerlauwer Frisian became a mandatory subject in
Friesland’s elementary schools, and in 1993 it became mandatory in early
secondary education. Already in the 1970s, Friesland’s students were
able to choose Frisian as an examination subject in secondary education
and in teacher training. The provincial government and the councils of
several municipalities have begun to afford equal rights to Frisian and
Dutch. “Friesland” (rather than Dutch “Friesland”) is now the
official name of the province, and some Frisian place names in the
province have been declared the only official ones.
In general, Frisian speakers can use their own language in contacts with
public authorities, as the provincial or state administration and a number
of other bodies have made this a matter of policy. However, official
documents still tend to be issued only in Dutch, very rarely in Frisian or
bilingually. In courts of justice all parties, including defendant and
witnesses, are permitted to speak Frisian. The court can appoint an
interpreter should this be required. Courts of justice in Friesland accept
civil actions submitted in Frisian, but this can cause problems in cases
of an appeal to a higher court. Documents published in Frisian only are
not legally binding so far, but it is expected that they will be legally
binding as of 2002.
Public signs may be in Frisian, in Dutch or bilingual, depending on the
choice of the municipality concerned.
In Friesland, a small number of playgroups are entirely conducted in
Frisian. Since 1980, Frisian has been taught in all provincial primary
schools, both public and private. In about 80% of these schools, Frisian
is also used to varying degrees as a teaching medium, alongside Dutch.
There is no provision for primary education entirely in Frisian. However,
some primary schools have been experimenting with trilingual schooling:
Frisian, Dutch and English.
At the secondary level it is also possible to use Westerlauwer Frisian as
a teaching medium for some subjects, but this option is utilized
infrequently. There is no secondary schooling entirely in Frisian. The
language is one of the six or seven exam subjects secondary school pupils
can choose from.
Since 1993, Westerlauwer Frisian has been a mandatory subject in early
secondary education. The two teacher training centres in Friesland must
also offer Frisian, and they have made it a mandatory subject leading to
elementary school teaching certification in Frisian. Secondary school
teachers are trained at the part-time higher vocational education college
in Ljouwert/Leeuwarden and at the University of Groningen (one year full
time) after having studied the language as a main subject at the
universities in Groningen or Amsterdam. In Leiden, Frisian is an elective
subject. There is an extensive network of adult language courses in
There are no printed newspapers totally in Frisian. Newspapers tend to
carry some Frisian articles on cultural matters, and in Dutch articles
Frisian speakers are usually quoted in their language. A small number of
literary periodicals are published totally in Frisian.
Frisian used to be covered rarely and sparsely in the North German media.
Some local newspapers and newsletters carry Frisian articles and columns.
Some regular Frisian radio broadcasting was introduced recently.
Literary production in Westerlauwer Frisian is considerable, fairly meager
in other Frisian language varieties. There are several Frisian museums,
libraries, archives and cultural centres in both countries.
Westerlauwer Frisian radio and television is broadcast all over the
There is some production of Westerlauwer Frisian musical compact disks and
lately also of films.