Sunday, 20 March 2016

A Taste of Frisian

Pic of blue and white flag with diagonal stripes and red lily pad symbols on the white
Friesland's flag with its lily pad symbols

The humour continued in the Dutch Embassy’s language and culture taster class. Dutch was followed by Frisian. It is the second official language of the Netherlands. It is spoken in Friesland in the northern part of the country. Old Frisian is the closest language to Old English.

Dr Doekele van Oostrum introduced the Europe House audience to his native tongue. Frisian is a language that he only generally gets to speak with his family. This presentation was the first that he had ever carried out bearing his birth name of Doekele. In order to survive in the Dutch-speaking world, his parents had advised a switch to “Duco”. Little did they realise that the Dutch have a tendency to call their dogs “Duco”.

Duco is not a language teacher. Instead he teaches American English literature at the University of Sheffield. He relished the chance to explain his native culture to us. He interspersed his tales with snippets of the Frisian language.

Culture and Flag
Frisian is not just another of the Dutch dialects. Friesland has a strong cultural history. It has its own flag (above). Its seven symbols, commonly mistaken for hearts, represent lily pads.

History and Legend
There is no getting away from the fact that Duco’s ancestors were a violent, bloodthirsty people. The Frisian Pagans fought ferociously to keep their independence from both government and religion.

Today’s Frisians are fiercely proud of defeating the Romans in AD28. They scared the Romans off for good. They never came back. Everyone knows their Tacitus.

The Frisians brutally killed anyone who got too close to them. St Boniface was killed by the Frisians. Even dragons daren’t venture near Friesland according to legend.

The most important figure in Frisian history is Grutte Pier (Big Peter). He was a pirate by the name of Piers Gerlof Donia (1480-1520). His long sword can be found in the Frisian cultural museum.

Status and PR
Duco attributed the official status of the Frisian language to good PR. Friesland boasts the oldest Dutch University dating back to 1581. The language is taught in primary school. It can even be found in Google Translate – although as a linguist it is hard to know whether to congratulate or commiserate with the Frisians on this point.

Pic of Dr van Oostrum presenting alongside slide on Frisian culture
Twitter shot of Duco presenting Frisian Cultural Heritage

Language and Heritage
Friesland has its own radio and TV stations. There are dual language signs in Frisian cities. 

Ûs Mem
When the British think of Frisians, we think of Frisian cows first of all. It was therefore a surprise that the second most famous figure was a statue of a cow. Frisians traditionally refer to her as “Our Mother” (Ûs Mem).

Sport and Singing
Sport is an important part of Frisian culture. A gruelling 220km ice skating race is a revered tradition - though a rare event. It depends on the icy conditions. There was a massive gap between 1963 and 1985. In one famous race out of 1600 starters only 100 finished. Duco likened the Dutch ability to watch such skating races endlessly to the British ability to watch cricket.

Other Famous Frisians
Many renowned Frisians were skaters – including one world champion, a housewife and mother, who defeated a field of much younger women.

We all knew at least one Frisian – the famous spy Mata Hari from Leeuwarden.

We also heard about hand tennis matches and boat races with low keels. Heerenveen football matches are great occasions at which to speak and sing only in Frisian. Duco played us some Frisian songs. He pointed out how much easier it would be for us to speak than Dutch.

Frisian Sayings and Song
Duco likened the character of the Frisians to Brits from Yorkshire. They are pragmatists and prone to understatement. We learnt some great Frisian sayings including:

Foar de kofje net eamelje – don’t whine before coffee

Duco ended by playing a song to illustrate the beauty of his native language. Hallelujah is sung by Nynke Laverman:

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