Last Updated: Thursday, 23 November 2017, 12:01 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Netherlands : Frisians

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Netherlands : Frisians, 2008, available at: [accessed 24 November 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Frisian is a West Germanic language spoken in its Standard Frisian form by an estimated 400,000 people in the province of Friesland, where the total population is around. 640,000, and by another 300,000 Frisians who left Friesland to find work elsewhere in the Netherlands. Frisians are bilingual in Frisian and Dutch. The capital of Friesland is Liouwert (Leeuwarden). There are two regional dialects in Friesland, Stellingwerf in the south east and Bilts in the north west, and two other versions, North and Saterlandic Frisian spoken in Germany Standard Frisian is also spoken in Denmark, but the largest community by far is in the Netherlands.

Frisians were predominantly rural, but now most work in the service industries (62 per cent) and trade (30.2 per cent), while 7.7 per cent work in agriculture. Friesland has high unemployment. Frisians are both Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians. The Frisian National Party is represented in the Frisian provincial legislature and in the national senate. The Ried van de Fries Beweging (Council of the Frisian Movement) represents various organizations involved in the promotion of the Frisian language, culture and economic and social well-being of the province.

Historical context

The earliest settlements in Friesland date from 700 BC, and Frisians became a distinctive tribe in around 200 BC. They resisted the Romans. In 250 AD Friesland was flooded and Frisians moved to Flanders and Kent, England, returning in 400 AD. They became a force against Christianity and the Frankish Empire until the seventh century. In 734 Frisians were conquered by the Franks but they kept their distinct identity and a measure of independence. From the eleventh century Frisians developed a seawater drainage system which reclaimed a vast peat bog for agriculture. This led to an increase in population and brought about growth in industry and commerce as well as agriculture, helping to develop towns into centres independent of external authority. After the demise of the Franks in 1100, Friesland was self-governing and relatively democratic. The Old Frisian Laws from the twelfth century are set out in a Scandinavian-style saga. Four free cities in Friesland were part of the Hanseatic League in the twelfth century.

In 1648 Friesland joined the United Republic of the Netherlands. While this hastened the decline of the Frisian language, which was already under pressure from German and Dutch, it also marked the beginnings of the modern Frisian movement and its promotion of Frisian language and literature.

The first society for the promotion of the Frisian language was founded in 1844. During the twentieth century Protestant and Roman Catholic groups established separate organizations to promote Frisian.

From 1948 Frisian could be taught in secondary school. In 1955 the language was recognised as a medium for instruction in the first two years at primary level and as a subject in later years. In 1974 Frisian became a compulsory subject in all primary schools in Friesland. In 1993 it became compulsory in lower secondary education in the province.

Although Frisian is an officially recognized language, there has been no policy for its use. A special committee of the Friesland government is currently developing rules for the use of Frisian in the public domain. A 1956 Act allows for Frisian to be used in law courts for sworn testimonies, complaints and responses, and some judges use Frisian orally. The language of legal documents, however, is Dutch. Some municipal authorities, such as Tytsjerksteradiel, have translated official documents into Frisian for lawsuits.

Current issues

Frisian language and culture are promoted through the Ried fan de Fryske Biweging (Council of the Frisian Movement), which provides an umbrella for the work of eight organizations, and the provincial government. At present Frisian in written form is not much used in public administration. However, questions and letters in Frisian to the Dutch and Frisian authorities, including utilities, are usually answered in Frisian.

Parents speak to their children in Frisian and young people are keen on learning the language. There are textbooks for the language and other subjects, such as history, geography, biology, religious education and music. The Frisian Broadcasting Company produces and transmits educational radio and TV programmes.

However, the language of instruction in secondary schools and colleges is Dutch. Frisian is a mandatory subject in teacher training colleges. There is no university in Friesland but the state universities of Amsterdam, Groningen and Leiden offer Frisian courses.

There are daily papers, magazines and broadcasting in Frisian. There is a Frisian language version of Google and of the web browser Opera.

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