catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 11 :: 2007.06.01 — 2007.06.15


Sheer pride keeps alive Frisian, a cousin to English

With a vague sense of ethnic pride, a vaguer sense that I owed it to my great-grandfather and a complete ignorance of the Frisian language, I attended the 50th and final Frisian worship service in Grand Rapids, Mich., last month. 

For me, the service hammered home a key distinction about my own ethnicity. I usually say that my ancestors were Dutch. But my great-grandfather, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1980, might have objected to that claim. Technically, he was Frisian, and for Frisians, that is more than just a technicality. 

Friesland is a province of the Netherlands along that country's northern coast, but dating to the ancient days when it was a vast kingdom and maritime power, it has always been its own country, in a way.  The Frisians are one of the oldest ethnic groups in Europe and one of the most doggedly independent. A famous Frisian slogan is "Frysk en Frij," meaning "Frisian and Free." 

The Frisian language also represents a piece of linguistic trivia: Old Frisian was the closest relative of Old English, its sibling in the West Germanic language family. Linguists tend to say that in its earliest days, English used to sound a lot like German. But it's closer to the truth to say that English used to sound a lot like Frisian. 

So as a Frisian descendant and an aspiring linguist, I had two good reasons to attend the final Frisian-language worship service in Grand Rapids, where an annual Frisian service has been held since 1957 in an area church. 

In recent years, attendance has dwindled to fewer than 100 people, but last month, more than 250 people came, some from around the U.S., Canada and yes, Friesland. The language intimidated me at first, especially when the room erupted in laughter at a Frisian quip while I sat silent and oblivious. Sitting next to me, my father knew German and Dutch well enough to pick out some key words and give me the gist of what I missed. Soon I caught on to a couple of basics as I studied the bulletin: the "tsj" sound in Frisian is basically the English "ch," so the word "tsjerke" sounds something like its English translation, "church." The first hymn was "Hillich, hillich, hillich," which I identified as "Holy, Holy, Holy," and in the first line, the word "almachtich" gave itself away as "almighty." Fortunately, the ushers handed out an English text of the sermon.

The service happened to be held the same week that the U.S. Senate approved two language proposals, including one that would single out English as our national language. Even if neither measure becomes law, the Senate sent the message that linguistic diversity is unwelcome and even threatening. But on that Sunday in Grand Rapids, in a congregation that was all white and mostly gray-haired, the church was surging with immigrant pride.

"I knew it would be emotional," said Louis Tamminga, who preached the sermon. Fifty years ago, Tamminga was the young seminary student and Frisian immigrant who preached the sermon in the first Frisian service, in his native language.

Notably absent from the Frisian service was its founder, Bernard Fridsma, who died in December. Fridsma immigrated from Friesland at age 3, and taught a course on Frisian at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, where I work (and where, today, one of the most common surnames is still "DeVries," meaning "the Frisian"). Fridsma wrote an "Introduction to Frisian" workbook for the course, with the dream of eventually publishing it as a textbook.

Born in Friesland

That dream has now been inherited by Frisian native and retired English professor Henry Baron, who was raised speaking Frisian, educated in Dutch, and learned English after immigrating to the U.S. after World War II. Baron taught courses on Dutch and Frisian at Calvin College, and still has lunch every other week with ten to 20 other Frisian natives living in West Michigan.

"No other Dutch province has anything like that," Baron says about these gatherings of expatriates. "It's an extension of this Frisian solidarity…. You come across a Frisian anywhere in the world, and you identify each other as Frisian, and you immediately have a bond there. It's as if you're long-lost buddies."

This Frisian pride has helped keep the Frisian language alive, despite the constant threat of extinction. So has the Dutch government; in 1955, the Netherlands officially recognized Frisian as its second language and dropped a 19th Century ban on teaching Frisian in Frisian schools. Today, out of Friesland's population of about 600,000, about 400,000 speak Frisian, Baron says, while most of the rest can understand it.

After the Frisian service in Grand Rapids, I met Koen Zondag, who traveled from Friesland for the service and gave a public greeting from the homeland. I asked him whether he considered himself Frisian or Dutch. He sighed and looked away, searching for a way to explain it, then looked me straight in the eye.

"Are you American or from Michigan?" he asked.

"I live, speak, and dream in Frisian," he said. "But the question of identity is complex."

This article originally appeared on June 7, 2006 as part of Nathan Bierma’s “On Language” column series written for the Chicago Tribune.  You can receive his weekly column by e-mail and view Frisian links and resources at Nathan’s web site.

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