Measuring Effectiveness - A study on changes in minority language use and perception due to revitalisation efforts, with evidence from North Frisian

The project aims to measure the effectiveness of past and present revitalization activities for North Frisian. At present, the socio-demographic description of North Frisian lacks robust figures on the number of speakers and their geographical spread. In addition, it is not clear which planning and revitalization efforts have been implemented in which places throughout the region over what time periods. Our project aims at filling these gaps, providing insight into the nature and the effects of these activities. In order to measure the effectiveness, it first intends to offer a survey of the language planning or revitalization initiatives that have been undertaken and provide an overview of the scholarly work that has been conducted on North Frisian. Subsequently, the status quo of the usage of the language today will be documented, focusing particularly on the language competence and perception in the different regions. Finally, the project compares these findings and seeks to identify any links between the past and present revitalization activities on the one hand and current competence and perception of the language on the other, intending to uncover whether any correlations, or indeed causal connections, exist between the two.


Minderheitensprachen, Friesisch, Nordfriesisch, Sprachpolitik, Sprachpflege
01.03.2018 - 30.09.2019
Sustaining Minoritized Languages in Europe - North Frisian
Institution der EUF
Institut für Friesisch und Minderheitenforschung


1 Project scope and impact

A key problem in studying the value of language revitalisation measures relates to the difficulty of measuring their effectiveness. Part of the problem is that language policy and planning activities often take place without properly establishing the sociolinguistic status quo of a particular language beforehand, be that with regard to its usage, competence, or perception. The situation for the language to be studied as part of this research project – North Frisian – is no different in this regard. North Frisian, or rather its many distinct varieties have been subject to scholarly investigation for a long time, with a tradition of explicit language planning activities dating back to the 1800s and the teaching of North Frisian in schools to the early 1900s. Whilst this appeared to have done little to stop or slow down the decline of the language, we do not have any truly robust figures on the number of speakers or the geographical spread of where North Frisian is spoken nowadays. Handbooks and introductions traditionally name a figure of 10,000 speakers and offer a map of the region that is now 50 years old (Århammar 1968). Neither is still held to be accurate by any scholar on the subject and yet such figures continue to be used in public presentations (exhibitions, lectures) as well as some scholarly writing.

This research project seeks to address the urgency for reviewing these representations by documenting the status quo of language usage today. Crucially, the research project proposes to compare and contrast its findings on the competence, usage and perception of North Frisian with the existence – past and present – of language revitalisation activities in the region. In this way, this project will test to what extent any explicit or implicit links and correlations can be identified between the two: does the current or historical presence of language revitalisation activities in a particular village or region correlate with (and thus arguably be seen to have caused) a higher degree of Frisian language use or competence or a more positive perception of the language? Can this be said for more than one area, if any, and what patterns of distribution and strength of such correlations can be attested?

2 Description of the speaker community

a. Introduction of programme and community

North Frisian (ISO code: frr) is a West Germanic language spoken by some 5,000 speakers (Århammar 2008, who estimates that there may be another 1500 or so who live in the diaspora outside of North Frisia), i.e. around 10% of the North Frisian ethnic group (Volksgruppe) along the coastline and islands of Northwestern Germany (see Appendix I). There is, however, no reliable survey to confirm or challenge this figure of 5,000 and many pamphlets and lay opinion continue to speak of 10,000 speakers.

The language is generally considered severely or critically endangered (Moseley 2010; Krauss 2007 respectively). Most speakers are elderly and intergenerational transmission has come to a near or complete halt in most varieties, the only real exception being that of Fering-Öömrang, the Frisian spoken on the island of Amrum and the western part of the island of Föhr where the language is used in everyday public life. In the rest of North Frisia, the use of Frisian is largely restricted to the private domain and mostly used by elderly people. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the shift to using the dominant language German in daily life, positive attitudes towards North Frisian have been reported (Simons & Fennig 2017).

The language is principally divided into two groups, namely island and mainland varieties. The island varieties split into three subvarieties (Sölring, Fering-Öomrang, Halunder), whereas the mainland varieties are traditionally split into seven further varieties (Wiedingharder, Bökingharder (Mooring), Karrharder, Hallig-Frisian, Norder-, Mittel- and Südergoesharder), with the last two considered extinct for the last 20 years. The principal division into two main dialect groups is justified linguistically and explained by the different arrival times of Frisians in their current homeland. Whilst the islands were settled in the eighth century approximately, the marshes of what constitutes the current mainland were settled by a different wave of Frisians migrants some three or four centuries later (the coastline shifted considerably during the Early and High Middle Ages, with further significant changes through natural and man-made causes well into the twentieth century). North Frisian has an extremely limited historical writing tradition, with hardly any printed or handwritten texts until the beginning of formal language planning activities in the late nineteenth century. It easily qualifies as an "invisible language" as defined by Langer & Havinga (2015) due to its restriction, in practice, to oral and private usage (cf. Koch & Oesterreicher’s 1994 term of language of proximity). Linguistic codification took place from the nineteenth century onwards with the publication of dictionaries. In the early twentieth century, first steps to teach North Frisian in schools were taken (Steensen 2002), beginning haltingly but steadily gaining momentum until all such efforts were stopped in the 1930s. The post-war period saw attempts at resurrection. However, although there was a considerable number of pupils taking classes in Frisian by the 1980s, provisions always remained voluntary and never covered the whole Frisian-speaking area at any given time. In addition, the nature of Frisian education changed, with classes at the beginning of the twentieth century generally aimed at native speakers, whereas since the 1960s, the number of non-native speakers generally outnumbered those of the natives1.

The study of Frisian language, culture, and literature is undertaken by different organisations. The oldest are private learned societies that date back to the late nineteenth century. The foundation of Nordfriesischer Verein für Heimatkunde und Heimatliebe (North Frisian Society for the Love and Understanding of the Homeland)2 in 1902 was a milestone in this regard, as it is the largest Frisian society, operating across the Frisian and non-Frisian speaking areas of North Frisia. The founding of the Friesisch-Schleswigscher Verein (Frisian-Slesvigian Society)3 in 1923 was triggered by the strong desire of some North Frisians to be considered a distinct ethnic minority, rather than part of the German people, as advocated by the Nordfriesischer Verein. The opposition between those two societies abated only in the last 20 years approximately. It is unclear to what extent this has had any direct relevance to the current levels of competence or usage of the Frisian language.

Apart from the private societies, North Frisian also found a place in school education, but at levels which varied greatly across time and region. By and large, it was restricted to one or two hours per week in primary schools, with some notable exceptions in the last one or two decades. Most famously, Frisian is offered as a school subject to be taken in the school-leaving examination at Year 13 (Abitur) at the Eilun Feer Skuul (Island-Föhr School) on the island of Föhr where it is taught at native-speaker level. However, few, if any, of these students continue their Frisian studies at university.

In the 1950s, a research centre (Nordfriesisische Wörterbuchstelle – North Frisian Dictionary Centre) was established to work on the publication of a comprehensive North Frisian dictionary at the University of Kiel, some 50 miles from North Frisia but, at that time, the only university in Schleswig-Holstein. The position of Frisian in Higher Education was further strengthened by the establishment of a full professorship at Kiel (1979) and Flensburg (1987). At both universities, North Frisian is taught as a practical language for beginners and as an academic subject, i.e. linguistics, literature and cultural history. This also has some very practical relevance for acquisition planning: whilst it is acknowledged that the two universities with Frisian Departments, Kiel and Flensburg, cannot, for logistical reasons and reasons of student numbers, teach all the varieties, it is an absolute given that there should always be provision of at least one mainland and one island variety.

Although some of the main actors in the language revitalization of North Frisia can already be identified at this stage, a detailed survey is lacking about which language planning or revitalization initiatives have been undertaken at what time in which region, village or town, and it is yet fully unknown how these past and present initiatives correlate to current competence and perception of the language. Our project aims at filling these gaps in the socio-demographic description of North-Frisian, providing insight into the nature as well as into the effects of the different revitalization activities that have been carried out in the region. A first step needs to be the establishment of a summary of what has taken place in the past, both with regard to North Frisian sociolinguistics generally and with regard to language revitalisation efforts more specifically. Consequently, we propose the following first two research questions (RQs) in this regard:4

  • RQ1. Summative I: What types of language revitalisation activities have taken place at what time in what areas of the North Frisian language region?
  • RQ2. Summative II: What scholarly research has been conducted with what aims and in which parts of North Frisia?

b. Attitudes

The H-language of North Frisia is High or Standard German, in its codified written norm and with some noticeable and but locally rarely noticed Northern features in its spoken form. There are no monolingual speakers of North Frisians and it is generally not possible to tell from the spoken or written High German whether somebody is a native speaker of North Frisian (but cf. Jacob-Owens 2017 for a historical study on this issue). In addition to High German and North Frisian, another three languages are used in the region, namely Standard Danish – largely confined to institutional use in the Danish minority – South Jutish (Sønderjysk) – the autochthonous variety of Danish, in Germany nowadays restricted to a very narrow strip on the Danish-German border – , and Low German, an autochthonous regional endangered language spoken in rural communities across the North of Germany.

Standard Danish, in its spoken form, is a relatively recent arrival in the area, although it has been used as a written language in some formal domains since the nineteenth century. The other languages have co-existed in the area for centuries. Importantly, North Frisian has never really been used in the written domains; those were restricted to Latin and Low German until the seventeenth century and later to High German. It was only as late as 2004 that the regional parliament of Schleswig-Holstein passed a law to permit anyone to communicate with the state authorities in North Frisia in North Frisian and for the responding civil servants to respond in the Frisian language, too. Whilst the practical application of the law may be very small, the very gesture to make North Frisian a language equal to High German in formal administration was highly symbolic.5

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that most people in North Frisia no longer consider the language as fundamentally backward but equally there are anecdotes where teachers, nursery nurses, and medical doctors have advised parents and young speakers to avoid using North Frisian as it might confuse minds or limit cognitive abilities. Whilst many will be quick to say that they are in favour of supporting North Frisia revitalisation efforts, e.g. on signposts or in schools, views often change when they are directly affected themselves, e.g. some parents feel that for their own child it might just be a little overwhelming to learn Frisian at school and that valuable classroom time ought to be spend on more important topics (or languages) instead.

Part of this project is to collect more robust empirical evidence in this regard so as to permit us to make more generalizable claims on the competence, use and perception of North Frisian. We will achieve this by conducting interviews with both speakers and non-speakers of North Frisian and we propose the following the research questions for this part:

  • RQ3. Data collection I: In what geographical area / villages and with what socio-demographic dynamics are the figures for language competence and language usage highest or lowest?
  • RQ4. Data collection II: What is the perception of the North Frisian language, its users and any language planning / revitalisation activities that consultants (both speakers and non-speakers) have encountered?

c. Intergenerational transmission and lifelong learning

Very little is known in this regard about the situation today and many of the existing studies investigate this area in a geographically rather patchy way, relying on known personal contacts for logistical reasons. Whilst on the island of Amrum and the western part of the island of Föhr transmission to the next generation seems to be generally natural, all other geographical areas undergo a significant, long-lasting and steady decline in the number of new native speakers. On the island of Sylt, the largest North Frisian island, native speaker use seems to be restricted to a small number of families. On the mainland, the community of Risum-Lindholm is said to be the last area where Frisian can be heard on the street. In the remaining villages of North Frisia, Frisian is most vibrant on cultural festivities and events organised by Frisian societies, most notably the Friisk Foriining which uses North Frisian as its primary means of spoken and written communication. However, many of the society’s members hail from families that have been part of the society for more than a generation and it is an important aspect of this research to investigate to what extent this impression is confirmed, i.e. that active transmission of native speaker competence is largely restricted to those who are actively wedded to the Frisian cause, e.g. by way of membership in organised societies.

In the political sphere, the Frisian ethnic group is formally represented by the Südschleswigscher Wählerverband (SSW, South Slesvig Voters Association), which was founded as the political party to represent the Danish minority. Their current leader in the regional parliament is a member of the Frisian community and a speaker of North Frisian, but there is significant and ongoing lament that the Frisian cause appears to play a rather minor role in this party. Finally, an interesting topic in this context is the sizeable number of Frisian speakers in the diaspora, most notably in the nearest large town, Flensburg, some 40 km east of North Frisia, as well as Hamburg, Berlin, and New York. We know but little about their rate of linguistic transmission to the younger generations.6 The investigation of the transmission of North Frisian is covered by our RQs 3 and 4.

d. Support and infrastructure

As of 1999, North Frisian and Danish (not further defined) are protected by the European Charter of Regional or Minority Languages as minority languages, whilst Low German is an officially supported regional language. This means that Germany’s report on their implementation of the Charter includes a section on North Frisian, with most current criticism by the Committee of Experts being directed at the unsystematic way in which Frisian classes are offered in schools and the poor presence of North Frisian in public media. The inclusion of North Frisian in the Charter is a welcome gesture, and the 2004-Frisian Law can be seen as an important follow-up. A third major official document is the 2015 Handlungsplan Sprachenpolitik (Action Plan Language Policy) issued by the regional prime minister7 which has as its core a commitment to provide minority and regional language education from nursery to university. This is a very ambitious commitment and though in its detail somewhat vague – e.g. it is not clear what would happen in multilingual areas such as North Frisia – it demonstrates that minority and regional languages are taken seriously as an integral part of regional culture.

There is already much greater visibility of North Frisian than in previous decades, with many schools across the area teaching the language in Year 1 and 2, and the introduction of bilingual signs for place names, but there is few if any scholarly research on the question to what extent there has been a general shift in the attitude towards North Frisian. It has become fashionable to give shops, cafes, and small village roads names in North Frisian (or Low German) and presumably, this is partly due to the fact that North Frisia is an attractive destination for middle-class tourists looking for regional, natural and "authentic" culture. In this sense, North Frisian is a commodity, much in line with the revalorisation of markers of regional identity and culture as observed throughout Europe and elsewhere since the 1970s. It is important, however, to remind oneself that just because it has become fashionable for the educated classes to give their holiday home a Frisian name, this does not necessarily mean that the speaking of North Frisian is no longer considered ill-educated and backward.

North Frisian language classes are offered in evening schools in a number of places throughout the district. The largely government-funded Nordfriisk Instituut (North Frisian Institute) in Bredstedt also produces teaching materials. Part of the proposed research is to identify the motivations for adults taking classes in North Frisian, whether it’s because of general interest, a background in a Frisian speaking family or environment, or the recognition that it might help with one’s career. In this regard, our RQ4 addresses the visibility and reach of existing language support infrastructure by providing views from speakers and non-speakers on their perception of any activities they have been involved in or are aware of.

e. Responses to new media, domains, and speakers

The role of North Frisian in new media is restricted. The largest online resource is the North Frisian version of the Wikipedia project with currently more than 5000 articles. However, the North Frisian Wikipedia is largely written in the dialect of the island of Amrum, thus suggesting, perhaps, it is not representative of the larger North Frisian community. The main reason is the small number of contributors to this project,8 with the most active contributor obviously being a speaker of the Amrum variety. There is one media production company that has produced some North Frisian videos that can be found on YouTube, but radio broadcast is more common. A regional public radio station NDR offers a weekly programme of about three minutes in North Frisian, mostly in Mooring or Fering. The publically funded Offener Kanal (Open Channel) hosts a weekly one-hour programme Tjabelstünj, run as a voluntary project by students of Frisian at the University of Kiel and a two-hour programme Friisk Funk produced at the Ferring-Stiftung on the island of Föhr and broadcasted five times a week. All shows are downloadable from the internet but there are no studies on how much this service is used. North Frisian is also visible on the websites and social media pages of North Frisian associations, institutions and public figures and on some private pages. On social media such as Twitter, contributions in North Frisians are surprisingly rare, though, again, no actual research has addressed this yet. Most of these services and resources obviously have a limited coverage in the language community and depend on voluntary work a few activists.

There is a small but lively music scene in which the North Frisian language is used as a unique selling point, though not exclusively so. Some artists only use Frisian lyrics, others on occasion. The production of fictional prose in North Frisian is encouraged by a fairly high-profile, biennial writing contest which attracted some 50 entries in 2016. Writing is largely restricted to short stories and poetry and given the small market, publications typically require additional support from external funders. 2016 saw the founding of Nordfriisk Teooter, a theatre company which aims to produce a play on annual basis and thus continue the tradition of putting on amateur productions in the region but with a more modern and modernising approach than in the past.

New speakers of Frisian comprise both those who hail from the region and those who only migrated there or got in contact with the language through other means, e.g. by studying it at university. A surprisingly high number of key figures in contemporary Frisian political and cultural affairs, teaching and media are such new speakers, an observation which deserves further study in a separate project. Our RQ 4 will offer empirical evidence in regard to speakers and non-speakers engagement with Frisian language in the media and related domains.

f. Further research questions

Our final two RQs 5 and 6 will combine the evidence from the desk-based RQs 1 and 2 and the fieldwork RQs 3 and 4 to arrive at the core of our project, namely measuring the effectiveness of existing and historical language revitalisation activities. We will approach this task by correlating the presence of such activities in a given geographical area or social domain with the increase / decrease / or stability of the use or competence of North Frisian in such areas or domains:

  • RQ5. Analysis: What correlations can be observed or posited between the existence of (historical or current) language revitalisation activities and changes in the competence, usage or perception of minority languages, in our case, that of North Frisian?
  • RQ6. Analysis: What wider conclusions can be drawn from a comparison of our findings for North Frisian and that of other case studies?

RQ5 will seek to identify correlations between language planning (in past and present) and the use and status of North Frisian. In this way, the analysis of the project findings will offer real insight into the success rate of current and historic language planning activities, both directly by direct question in interviews of speakers and non-speakers and indirectly by identifying whether in those areas where language planning had taking place (school, societies, theatre, etc.) the percentage of positive comments on Frisian / of language competence / of language use is higher than in those areas where no or only very brief or limited language planning had taken place. RQ6 is, in many ways, an extension of RQ5: it seeks to offer generalizable conclusions primarily based on the North Frisian data but crucially extend these other case studies, first and foremost in close conversation with other projects funded by SMiLE. The precise formulation of the sub-questions to this part will depend on the actual findings of the project, but the overriding interest will remain to measure the effectiveness of current and historic language planning activities by contrasting their existence with high values of prestige, language competence, and language usage across the North Frisian area.

  • 1 This is a rather crude description of the situation as a whole. There were always individual schools where native speakers commanded very healthy numbers; most notably this is still the case today on the western side of the island of Föhr, though this is acknowledged to be a very particular situation.
  • 2 Today: Nordfriesischer Verein (North Frisian Society).
  • 3 Today: Friisk Foriining (Frisian Society).
  • 4 A more specific description of the RQs, and corresponding tasks (Ts) and deliverables (Ds) is given in 4.3.
  • 5 It is telling, however, that the law simply speaks of die friesische Sprache (the Frisian Language) and thus avoids or ignores the fact that there is no variety of North Frisian that would qualify as being representative or being seen to be representative for all speakers of North Frisian – who will speak and write in widely differing varieties.
  • 6 The investigation of Frisian language competence, usage and perception in the diaspora is the topic of Robert Kleih’s ongoing doctoral research (University of Flensburg). This will not be a direct part of this proposal but we expect to benefit from his insights throughout the course of our research.
  • 7 First indications suggest that the new government, elected in 5/2017, will continue the course of minority policies in the same direction as their predecessors.
  • 8 As a snapshot: only six users were listed as having contributed in the month of July 2017.



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