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1 Introduction to the Saterland Frisian language

Frisian is an ancient language of the West Germanic language family, which also includes German, Dutch and English. Like Old English and Old Saxon, Old Frisian belongs to North Sea Germanic. Nowadays, Frisian is a language family which has three members: West Frisian, North Frisian and East Frisian. All three separate languages have been fully recognised as independent languages at the highest level of recognition by the national authorities.


From the middle of the first millennium AD onward, an uninterrupted Frisian settlement extended over the coastal area, from the Weser to the Scheldt. Linguistic traces of the ancient Frisians can still be found in these areas today, including place and field names. In addition, there are traces of Frisian in today's local dialects. Evidence of the Old Frisian language has been preserved in legal manuscripts of the late Middle Ages. These manuscripts come from the present-day Dutch provinces of Friesland and Groningen as well as from the East Frisian districts of Emsgau (around Emden) and Brookmerland (near Aurich), and from the Rüstringerland around the Jadebusen in present-day Niedersachsen.

Today, the Frisian language family is divided into three modern languages:

  • West Frisian
  • North Frisian
  • Saterland Frisian

These three languages ​​were included in Part III of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages ​​in 1998: West Frisian by the Netherlands, North Frisian and Saterland Frisian by Germany. West Frisian is spoken in the province of Fryslân (Dutch: Friesland). There are about half a million Frisians who understand Frisian and at least half speak it. Unlike North Frisian, it has little dialectal variation, which has facilitated the development of a standard language. North Frisian is spoken in Schleswig-Holstein on the western side of the border with Denmark. It consists of nine very different dialects, which are divided into two groups: island North Frisian and mainland North Frisian. There are about ten thousand speakers.

In the course of the Middle Ages, the Frisian area was further expanded. In the 7th-9th centuries, the North Frisian islands were settled and around the middle of the 11th century the North Frisian mainland. The coast between the Weser and the Elbe was also Frisian in later times. Saterland will also have belonged to these settlement areas. Judging from their language, the settlers came from the Emsgau (Fort 2001). Saterland Frisian is the only surviving remnant of East Frisian, which was spoken both in the Ommelanden of the province of Groningen and in the region of Ostfriesland, Wursten and Butjadingen. After that, speakers gradually switched from Frisian to Low German. It was able to survive in some remote places. One of these places was Saterland, a sand island in a swamp which was difficult to penetrate. The language also held out longer in the countryside of parts of Harlingerland, Wursten and on the island of Wangerooge.

Since about 1800, Saterland Frisian has attracted the interest of a growing number of linguists. In media coverage it is sometimes claimed that this linguistic interest, particularly the work of Marron Curtis Fort and of Pyt Kramer, has helped to preserve the language and to revive speakers’ interest in passing it on to the next generation.

In the last century, a small body of written language has come into existence in the Saterland language. Fort also translated the New Testament and the Psalms into the language with help from native speakers.

There is some variation in estimates of the number of speakers still speaking the language today. It is probably spoken by some thousand to two thousand speakers (out of a total Saterland population of about fourteen thousand people). The vast majority of native speakers belong to the older generation. Saterland Frisian is therefore a highly endangered language. However, several reports indicate that the number of speakers is increasing among the youngest generation.

[+]Frisian and the Frisians in Roman times

The spread of the Frisian varieties today is the result of a long historical process. In Roman antiquity, a people by the name of Frisii was mentioned, among others, in the work of the Roman historian Tacitus (56-117, Germania, Annales) and in the Geographia of Claudius Ptolemy (87-150); see Looijenga, Popkema & Slofstra 2017. These Frisii lived north of the Rhine to the Ems in Roman times, just outside the Roman Empire but within the Roman sphere of influence. They were intensively involved in trade, as archaeological finds from the terpen (artificial mounds) show. It is not entirely clear today whether - or to what extent - today's Frisians descend from their namesakes from Roman times. There is also no certainty that the Frisii of antiquity spoke a Germanic language (Looijenga, Popkema & Slofstra 2017). Some personal names of Frisian kings have come down to us in Roman source. These names suggest that the Frisians were not a Germanic speaking people. However, we also know that personal names may be easily borrowed. The sections which follow below are based in large part on Bremmer's (2009) invaluable introduction to Old Frisian.

[+]Frisian and Anglo-Saxon

When the Frisians reappear in historical sources (after 500), they occupy the same territory as in Roman times, except that they have expanded it considerably. They are found along the coast as far south as the rivers Sincfal and Schelde (near Bruges) and as far north as the Weser. By the fifth century, Angles and Saxons had crossed the North Sea and conquered England, pushing back the Celts (including Romanised Celts) into Cornwall, Devon, Wales and Scotland. Possibly the Frisians expanded their territory along the Dutch and German coasts as part of this 5th-century Anglo-Saxon migration wave to England. Anglo-Saxon or Old English is the West Germanic language spoken and written down in present-day England. Old Saxon is the language that was spoken and written down on the continent after the great migration of the neighbours of the Frisians.

The early medieval Frisians controlled maritime trade between southern and northern Europe (Pye 2015). At this time, the North Sea is sometimes referred to as Mare Frisicum (the Frisian Sea). After the Migration Period, the Frisians remained in close contact with the Anglo-Saxons through maritime trade and occasionally appeared in their literature, for example in pieces such as the Finnesburg Fragment and in one of the gnomic poems. The Frisians were defeated by the Frankish commander Karl Martell in the early 8th century. In the same century they were Christianized. In the late 8th century, Charlemagne had the Frisian laws codified in the Latin Lex Frisionum (the law of the Frisians).

The only tiny source of written Frisian in the first millennium AD are about 30 runic inscriptions (apart from a few terms in the Lex Frisionum). The language of these runes is very similar to Old English (or Anglo-Saxon), as shown by Nielsen (1985) and Löfstedt (1963-1969). The lion's share of the Old Frisian corpus, namely the legal texts mentioned above, were only recorded from the thirteenth century, much later than the peaks of Old English literature (e.g. Beowulf, probably eighth century).

Below are some (not necessarily exclusive) similarities between Old Frisian and Old English (Bremmer 2009, pp. 125-128). The parallels below involve historical phonology.

  • Words like five have lost their nasal consonant (OE and Ofr. fīf), compare StFr. fieuw (WFr. fiif).
  • The former aa in sheep is now pronounced at the front of the oral cavity (OE. skēap, Ofr. skēp), compare StFr. skäip (WFr. skiep).
  • The short e in fechten (to fight) is broken into two parts (OE. feohtan, OFr. fiuchta), compare StFr. fjuchte (WFr. fjochtsje).

Similarities from the vocabulary include examples like the following:

  • The word for key (OE. cǣg, OFr. kēi), compare StFr. koai (WFr. kaai).
  • The word for girl (OE. fǣmne, OFr. fomne), compare StFr. Fauene and WFr. faam. Both words nowadays mean ‘maid’, no longer ‘girl’, though in compounds the original meaning may show up, such as WFr. jongfaam ‘young unmarried woman’.
  • OE., OFr. wēt ‘wet’, compare StFr. wäit (WFr. wiet).
[+]Some features of Old Frisian

Characteristic of all variants of Old Frisian, as far as attested, are the following features, which overlap with the English-Frisian parallels (based on Bremmer 2009:109ff, see also: Löfstedt 1963-1969, Nielsen 1985, Smith 2007). In terms of phonology, there are for example these features:

  • The Germanic syllable au becomes a long ā: bām ‘tree’. In Saterland Frisian, the long ā often becomes a long ō: boom, in contrast to West Frisian beam.
  • The Germanic vowel ai also becomes a long ā, as in mārra ‘more’, compare StFr. moor, in contrast to WFr. mear.
  • The dental-alveolar nasal is deleted at the end of the word, as in settan > setta ‘to set’, būtan > būta ‘outside’, compare StFr. sätte, WFr. sette.

The following parallels may be mentioned in word formation and grammar:

  • Use of personal pronouns hiu ‘she’ and hia ‘they’, compare StFr. ju and jo (and WFr. somewhat outdated, hja ‘she, they’).
  • There are two classes of weak verbs (examples: setta ‘to set’ and mākia ‘to make’, compare StFr. sätte, moakje (and WFr. sette, meitsje).
  • There are no reflexive pronouns (like German sich). Instead, personal pronouns are used. Compare English himself, herself, WFr. him(sels), har(sels). In Saterland Frisian, the reflexive marker sik is a relatively new phenomenon, a borrowing from Low German.
  • The adverb thēr ‘there’ can serve as a relative pronoun (thi mon thēr ‘the man that’). This is no longer observed in Saterland Frisian, and it died out in West Frisian in the 19th century.
  • Strong masculine nouns take a plural ending ar, as in bāmar ‘trees’. This can no longer be observed in Saterland either, though there are example from Middle East Frisian.

Some items from the lexicon may be mentioned as well, in addition to the Anglo-Frisian words mentioned above: tusk ‘human tooth’, compare StFr. tusk, WFr. tosk), swēte ‘sweet’, compare StFr. swäit, WFr. swiet), hengst ‘horse (not just a stallion)’, compare StFr. hoangst, WFr. hynder, and so on. As the smallest West Germanic language, Old Frisian has not been as thoroughly researched as Old Dutch, Old German and Old English. Real discoveries can be made once the Old Frisian language corpus is made available to the international community.

[+]Varieties of Old Frisian

Around 750-1000, Old Frisian was spoken on what is now the Dutch and German coast between the Scheldt (near Antwerp) and the Weser (near Bremen). Three variants of Old Frisian can be distinguished (compare Sjölin 1969, Munske et al. 2001):

  • Old West Coast Frisian
  • Old West Frisian
  • Old East Frisian

Old West Coast Frisian has long since disappeared from the present-day provinces of Noord- and Zuid-Holland, perhaps beginning around the year 1000 in the southern part and finishing around 1600 in the northern part of this area. Old Frisian is not attested in this area. However, there are still traces of West Coast Frisian, in technical vocabulary from ancient charters and from agriculture, in some place names (e.g. kaag ‘dyked land’), and especially in the local northern dialect which is called West Fries. This should not be confused with West Frisian, the Frisian standard language of the province of Friesland. West Fries is spoken in the north of the province of North Holland, and it is a Dutch dialect full of Frisian substrate. The debate about the role of medieval West Coast Frisian is still ongoing (cf. E. Hoekstra 2001, Versloot 2003, De Vaan 2012, 2017). An early modern West Coast Frisian poem from 1643 was recently discovered by the linguist Arjen Versloot (Versloot 2018).

Old West Frisian (or: Westerlauwers Old Frisian) was spoken in what is now the province of Friesland between Lake Flevo and the Lauwers River. Numerous manuscripts and documents have come down to us from this area since the late 13th century. There are also strong indications that part of the laws, though written down in the 13th century, actually date back to the 11th and 12th centuries. Nowadays, the language is endangered, despite the large number of speakers, as it is a second language for many speakers.

Old East Frisian was spoken between Lauwers and Weser. It can be divided into Old Ems Frisian and Old Weser Frisian. The area of ​​Old Ems Frisian covers roughly what is now the province of Groningen and the adjacent area in Ostfriesland. Saterland Frisian derives from old Ems Frisian dialect, and it is the only variety of East Frisian that still survives. The other branch is Old Weser Frisian, which is spoken in the rest of the area up to the Weser (Wursten). Old Weser Frisian exhibits a form of vowel harmony, and in some words, the main accent fell on the second syllable, with reduction of the first one. This led to words like kma ‘come’, snu ‘son’, and so on (Versloot 2001 a,b).

The North Frisian islands were settled by speakers of East Frisian (probably Ems Frisian) in the 9th century. The adjacent mainland was settled in the 12th century (Århammer 2001). As a result, North Frisian was heavily influenced by the adjacent Jutish-Danish dialect, especially on the mainland. There is no Old North Frisian attested (Arfsten, Paulsen-Schwartz and Terhart 2019, 2020). The North Frisian language varieties are quite different from one another.

As already mentioned, the old Frisian legal sources date from the 13th century and later. They often have an archaic character, both linguistically and in terms of content, as is clear from the mention of the terrible Viking - Old Frisian witzing or northman - who has not been seen in reality after the year 1000. The texts often deal with the so-called Frisian freedom, that is: the relative self-government of the Frisians within the Frankish kingdom. Some texts, e.g. the ‘Seventeen Statutes and the Twenty-Four Land Rights’ have been handed down in various Old East Frisian manuscripts. The so-called Emsinger Codex and the so-called Brokmerbrief are two well-known Old East Frisian documents. The three so-called Riustringer manuscripts were recorded in the Old Weser Frisian dialect. Many surviving documents were written down in the Old West Frisian dialect in the late Middle Ages. For an overview of Old Frisian texts and manuscripts see Bremmer (2009: 6-15), Johnston (2001). On the periodization of Old Frisian, see de Haan (2001) and Versloot (2004).

[+]From Old East Frisian to Saterland Frisian

In the period 1350-1550, the Frisian language gradually gives way to the Low German of the Hanseatic cities. This process is called ontfriezing ‘de-friezing’ (Huizinga 1914). No Old East Frisian legal texts were written after about 1450. Instead we find that after 1450 Old Frisian texts are translated into local Low German and reproduced (Johnston 2001b, Sytsema 1998). The spoken Frisian language became extinct, but not everywhere at the same time: in western Ostfriesland and Butjadingen 1550-1650; in Harlingerland, Brokmerland and Land Wursten, between 1650 and 1800, and the last speaker of the Wangerooger dialect only died in 1950. The Low German dialects of Groningen (Hoekstra 2001) and Ostfriesland (Scheuermann 2001) still contain some Frisian traces in personal names (e.g. Hidde), geographical names, vocabulary (e.g. eide ‘harrow’), word formation (e.g. Knoal-ster weg ‘Canal-er road’) and grammar (lack of Ersatzinfinitiv, word order in the verbal cluster, and so on). Saterland Frisian has been in good condition for a long time because the Saterland moors could only be reached by ship. At that time, the Saterland Frisians only used Low German as a commercial language (Fort 1990: 12-47; 2001, Aden 2022).

[+]Saterland Frisian today and in the future

The Saterland Frisians constitute one of the smallest recognized language minorities in the world. They live in the municipality of Saterland (Frisian: Seelterlound). Saterland Frisian is still spoken today by around 1000-2000 people. The municipality of Saterland is part of the district of Cloppenburg in the federal state of Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen). It is a small areas located in the middle the triangle of Leer, Cloppenburg and Oldenburg. Saterland is situated on a 15 km long and up to 4 km wide sandy island surrounded by moors. Around 13,000 people currently live here. Since March 1, 1974, it consists of the districts of Strücklingen (Strukelje), Ramsloh (Romelse), Scharrel (Skäddel) and Sedelsberg (Sedelsbierich). Sedelsberg is the youngest place, since it was only settled in 1803.

In the 20th century in particular, Saterland Frisian was spoken less and less and was increasingly influenced by High and Low German. In recent decades, however, attempts have been made to preserve the language. The first Seelter Buund was founded in 1952. The second, from 1977 onward, is still active today. The lexicographers Marron Fort and Pyt Kramer, as well as the writers Hermann Janssen, Gretchen Grosser, Gesina Lechte-Siemer, Johanna Evers and others have recently cultivated the Saterland Frisian language as a written language. Kramer collected and transcribed an impressive body of spoken Saterland Frisian, which is available for research purposes through the contact address of seeltersk.de. In addition, he published numerous small articles on various aspects of the language, among which a small grammar (Kramer 1996). Fort collected folktales in the Saterland language (Fort 1985, 1990), and he produced an outstanding dictionary of the language (Fort 2015), which is digitally available through: seeltersk.de. An overview of Saterland Frisian phonetics recently appeared (Peters 2019), who also wrote an overview of its socio-economic status (Peters 2020).

In addition to these linguistic fruits, the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages ​​was presented by the Council of Europe in 1992 (ratified for Saterland Frisian in 1998, entered into force in 1999). Since autumn 2020, drs. Henk Wolf works as scientific officer for Saterland Frisian in the municipality of Saterland on behalf of the Oldenburgische Landschaft. Oldenburg University has a special departmental focus on Low German and Saterland Frisian as a subject component within the German studies at the Carl von Ossietzky University (see: Niederdeutsch und Saterfriesisch 2023). Lots of materials dealing with the language have been made available at: seeltersk.de. There is currently a coordinated effort to draw and devote attention from linguists to this endangered language, which has culminated in the publication of a reference grammar written in German (Hoekstra and Slofstra 2023), and in the publication of a large-scale scientific grammar written in English (phonology: Laker & Peters to appear; syntax, morphology: Hoekstra & Slofstra to appear). In addition, educational material for use in primary schools has been developed (REFERENCE). Mention must also be made of the course of Saterland Frisian (Evers 2011), and its adaptation for West Frisians (Jetten 2020). The Seelter Buund fulfills an important role in bringing together speakers of the language, which otherwise mostly speak the language only wityhin their own families. Finally, the authorities of the municipality have been essential in facilitating this upsurge in scientific and societal attention for the Saterland language and heritage.

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