The Position of Frisian in the Germanic Language Area

Charlotte Gooskens (C.S.Gooskens@let.rug.nl) & Wilbert Heeringa (W.J.Heeringa@let.rug.nl)

In the present investigation we measured linguistic distances between Frisian and the other Germanic languages in order to get an impression of the effect of genetic relationship and language contact for the position of the modern Frisian language on the Germanic language map. We included six Frisian varieties and one Town Frisian variety in the investigation. Furthermore, eight Germanic standard languages were taken into account. The linguistic distances between the varieties were calculated with Levenshtein distance. With this algorithm, pronunciation differences can be measured for corresponding pronunciations in two varieties. On the basis of the average Levenshtein distances, we obtained a hierarchical classification of the Germanic varieties and rankings with respect to each of the standard Germanic languages as well as to (Town) Frisian.

Examining the classification, on the highest level we find a division between English and the other Germanic languages. The group of other Germanic languages is divided in North Germanic languages and West Germanic languages. In the West Germanic group, we find German on the one hand and a Dutch group on the other hand. The Dutch group includes the Frisian varieties. The classification reflects the traditional classification of the Germanic languages to a large extent.

From the literature it is known that there is a strong genetic relationship between Frisian and English. In the ranking with respect to Frisian, town Frisian appears to be most related, followed by Dutch, German and East Scandinavian languages. English is next in order of ranking. However, in the ranking with respect to English, the highly conservative Frisian variety of Hindeloopen appears to be most strongly related, although its distance to English is rather great.

Heeringa (2004) shows that among the dialects in the Dutch language area the Frisian varieties are most distant with respect to standard Dutch. However, we found that the distance between Frisian and Dutch is smaller than between any pair of non-Frisian standard languages. The distance between Town Frisian and Dutch is even smaller. Therefore, the current linguistic position of Frisian provides too little foundation for becoming independent from the Netherlands, as some Frisians may wish.


CLCG Klankleer Group Workshop 'On the Boundaries of Phonology and Phonetics'