The Frisian Problem

Some early Christmas mail included a small package from Amsterdam, which I assumed to be from my Dutch friend, Rina. (See Dutch in Three Weeks) When I first looked at the letter, a wave of disappointment swept me, as it was in Dutch, and while I was enormously flattered, Rina knows very well that my Dutch isn’t really up to a long letter. And then, as I looked at it more closely, a wave of despair swept me, and I realized that I sure had forgot a lot of my Dutch since last May.

But then, when I concentrated on that first sentence with all those words I didn’t remember, I suddenly realized that I could understand it even though most of the words were spelled differently than I remembered. And then it occurred to me that maybe Rina was using the Dutch spellings from before the reforms (not that I knew what they were), but why would she do this?

Then I looked a bit more closely at the second sheet of paper that was in the package, which was typeset, and saw handwritten at the bottom the English words “website of frisian literature.” Back to the first page. Yes, it was not, after all, in Dutch. It was, in fact, my very first Frisian letter, from someone named Lysbeth.

Then I played the cassette tape that was in the package. It started with a bunch of talking in what I assume to be Frisian, as it sounds sort of Dutch but not really. Then Rina came on in English, but she said nothing about this Lysbeth person, so I realized that I was definitely going to have to translate the letter to figure out what’s going on. Rina would have found the letter tedious to read, if she even tried, so this explains why she made no mention of it on the cassette. Obviously, our mutual friend Robert, who somehow knows Lysbeth, merely passed the letter on to Rina. Hmmm. The plot thickens.

To make the problem worse, the letter was handwritten, and reading Europeans’ handwriting is always a bit tricky at first until you figure out which letter each one of those little squiggles is supposed to represent in a particular national script. Thus, my usual approach to decoding, guessing at whole words and then extrapolating from that the individual letters that I can’t read, doesn’t work nearly as well as it does in English.

I can just glance at the first page and see things like “myn hûs” and know without even looking elsewhere that this is in Dutch “mijn huis” and in English “my house.” But this is an instance in which the individual letters are clear to me. (As an aside, I just flashed on this single shred of evidence suggesting that Frisian, like the other European languages, failed to participate in the Great Vowel Shift (although it does look like Dutch might have experienced a Small Vowel Drift). For those who have not been following the GVS, it was not a recent event, having occurred at 4:53 PM on a sunny Thursday afternoon in October of 1493.)

I would expect Lysbeth to have been taught Dutch script even though she may have been in a bilingual Frisian/Dutch school. As I understand it, at least part of the curriculum is now being taught in Frisian in selected schools in the Dutch part of Friesland. This is a relatively new practice, and I’d be surprised if it went back more than fifteen years or so. Certainly when I was in graduate school, Frisian was described as moribund. Since Frisians have not been sufficiently powerful to control schools for centuries, instruction would have been provided by the Dutch school system, which would have taught the standard Dutch letter forms. I find it hard to imagine that anyone would have dug up examples of Frisian handwriting from centuries back and then taught this script to the kids. Besides, it looks like Dutch handwriting to me even though I’m hardly an expert.

At any rate, it is clear that Frisian is a lot closer to Dutch than English. Not of course that my Dutch is good enough to make that statement with any confidence, since it is barely sufficient to conduct the most ordinary social and business transactions, while my Frisian ability is that gained by a bit of Internet surfing and by studying the introductory material in my Frysk-Engels dictionary and a few of the dictionary entries themselves.

It’s been only the past couple of days that I’ve been seriously working on the letter, and this industry was provoked by my realizing that I would be lunching today with a group of former colleagues including one who is a brilliant linguist completing a doctorate at UC Berkeley and to whom I had sent a scanned copy of the letter. Fear that she’d probably have it completely translated by now has been an effective goad. The only thing that might have slowed her down is that she doesn’t know Dutch. On the other hand, she does know Old English and Icelandic, and since her main focus is on dead languages and she thus spends a lot of time with dusty old manuscripts, she is a whiz at reading strange handwriting.

The letter is, as best I can tell, in rather bad Frisian…or at least in highly Duchified Frisian. I suppose it’s a supreme arrogance for me to say that, but People’s Exhibit A is a list of words from the letter that even I know in Dutch but are not found in my Frisian dictionary.

It’s also full of words that exist in no language that I am familiar with. Words like “roastfrystaal,” which obviously means “stainless steel” but of which only the final element is correctly spelled in Frisian, English, Dutch, or German. “Staal” is the Dutch word for “steel.” The first two elements are not correct in any of these languages. Grrr.

But wait, before I accuse Lysbeth of writing bad Frisian, I must take into consideration that Frisian, as we would expect from a language that for all practical purposes has barely existed as a written language for several centuries, is distinguished by its abundance of dialects. Lysbeth’s dialect is probably just not covered in my dictionary.

Anyhow, the linguist and I, by putting our notes together, were able to translate almost the entire letter. I haven’t had so much fun in ages.

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