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So, what is Frisian?

Date:04 March 2020
Author:Sinead Walsh
So, what is Frisian?
So, what is Frisian?

So, what is Frisian you may ask? As an international student, I’ve been asking this for a long time myself. However, the funny thing is, that if you ask Dutch people to explain Frisian to you, many of them won’t be able to do it sufficiently. Frisian encapsulates many things, from the language that they speak to beliefs and values of the Frisian people. In an attempt to not do the usual colonial thing and appropriate their culture, I will tell you what I have learned about Frisian from Frisian and Dutch people over the few years I’ve lived in the Netherlands.

Source: Phenomenal Globe
Source: Phenomenal Globe


Friesland [or Fryslân] is an area inhabited by a Germanic ethnic group called Frisians who are indigenous to the coastal parts of the Netherlands and North-West Germany. Previously, Frisian people were one big ethnic group, however, due to loss of territory in the Middle Ages, they are now split between North Frisian [Germany], East Frisian [Germany] and West Frisian [Netherlands]. The West Frisians who inhabit the land our beautiful University is located upon, apparently do not see themselves as part of the larger group of Frisians. According to a poll taking in 1970, West Frisians identify themselves more with Dutch people than North or East Frisians in Germany. Thus, the term “Frisian”, when applied to speakers of all three Frisian Languages, is a linguistic, ethnic and/or cultural concept, not a political one. However, there is a part of the province of Noord-Holland that is called West Friesland, so for many Dutch people, West Frisian has an association only Noord-Holland instead of the area reaching from Groningen to Noord-Holland. 


First and foremost, when you ask a person about Frisian, they tend to think of the Frisian language. “What is the Frisian language?”, I asked many a time. “They speak it in Fryslan”, they would reply. “Oh, so it’s like Dutch?”, and then I would get this look of horror. “No, it is not like Dutch, it’s a language in itself.”. So basically what I learned from this, is that it’s not Dutch but it’s also not English [or German or French.] However, to this day the Frisian language(s) are spoken by more than half a million people. In Fryslân alone there are more than 60 dialects. Fun fact: Frisian is actually closer to English than it is to Dutch!


Frisian is a culture in itself and Frisians have a very specific way of life. From Fierljeppen [jumping over the dykes between fields] to Fryske Dumkes [Frisian cookies], they’ve got it all. However, I have heard from many people that Frisians tend to be a stubborn bunch, they’re very set in their ways of doing things. On top of this, Frisians love their sugar, whether this is suikerbrood [sugar bread], Fryske Dumkes or Frysk Oranjekoeke [Frisian orange cookie], they love it all! Fryske Oranjekoek is a biscuit filled with almond-like paste and covered with a sweet glaze, it’s a typical Frisian treat. Despite what the name may suggest, the glaze is pink, although they do change it to orange for Kings Day, along with everything else in the country!


Frisians have a certain sense of pride in their place. They feel slightly separate from the rest of the country. They feel a certain pride in being hard-working and to the point. People from the Randstad are apparently seen as posh by Frisians. They claim to be down to earth people and pride themselves on this fact. Additionally, much of Fryslân has a different religion to the rest of the country. Traditionally, they are Calvinists which makes them Protestant while the South is generally Roman Catholic. Speaking of religion and pride, the two Frisian soccer clubs, Heerenveen and Cambuur are like fire and ice. They are deep rivals and have been for many years. Apparently, they won’t even say the name of the other club instead, they refer to the other DVK or Dertig Kilometer Verderop, which means thirty kilometres beyond, sounds pretty mystical to me!


Many of you may have seen the beautiful sight of a Frisian cow happily eating grass on a hazy morning but did you know that Fryslan is also famous for the Friesian horse. The title of  “Worlds Most Beautiful Horse” belongs to a Friesian stallion named Frederik the Great. Additionally, the horse in the 2005 movie The Legend of Zorro, starring Antonio Banderas, was also a Friesian stallion however, in the movie the horse Tornado begins to disobey the owner. This is explained in the movie by the horses’ inability to understand English commands, but honestly, it seems to me that the horse only spoke Frisian! They really should have thought that one through. 

Friesian horse
Friesian horse

Elfstedentocht [elf-stay-den-tocht] - Eleven Cities Tour 

The eleven cities tour is a long-distance skating event almost 200km long. It is heald as both a speed skating competition and a leisure tour. The tour is held at most, once a year and only when the natural ice along the entire course is at least 15cm thick. The trail follows a circular route along frozen canals and rivers visiting the eleven historic Frisian cities along the way, starting and finishing in Leeuwarden. The Elfstedentocht is such a rare event, the announcement of it creates excitement all over the country. However, since the last Elfstedentocht took place is 1997, the Frisians are more than ready for another one. 

All in all, Fryslân is a wonderful place with a colourful and rich history. You can do everything here, from horseback riding to Fierlieppen, or maybe even go Fierlieppen with the horse. And, if you’re someone with a sweet tooth, they’ve got all the sweet treats you can imagine. Don’t knock it until you’ve been here.

Tags: Leeuwarden

About the author

Sinead Walsh
Hey there! My name is Sinead Walsh. I grew up in Ireland and I'm in the process of figuring out life as an international student in the Netherlands. Aside from an interest in politics and the environment, I am currently studying an MSc in Sustainable Entrepreneurship at Campus Fryslan.  You'll see me around the campus almost daily so don't be afraid to come up for a chat any time!