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On the Boundaries of Phonology and Phonetics

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6.Conclusions and discussion

Overall, the classification of the Germanic languages resulting from our distance measurements supports our predictions. This goes for the classification of the Frisian dialects and also for the rest of the Germanic languages. We interpret this as a confirmation of the suitability of our material showing that it is possible to measure Levenshtein distances on the basis of whole texts with assimilation phenomena typical of connected speech and with a rather limited number of words.

The aim of the present investigation was to get an impression of the position of the Frisian language in the Germanic language area on the basis of quantitative data. The fact that Frisian is genetically most closely related to English yields the expectation that these two languages may still be linguistically similar. However, the distance between English and the Frisian dialects is large. We can thus conclude that the close genetic relationship between English and Frisian is not reflected in the linguistic distances between the modern languages. Geographical and historical circumstances have caused the two languages to drift apart linguistically. Frisian has been strongly influenced by Dutch whereas English has been influenced by other languages, especially French.

It would have been interesting to include these languages in our material. This would have given an impression of their impact on the English language. At the same time it would also have given us the opportunity to test the Levenshtein method on a larger language family than the Germanic family with its relatively closely related languages. It would also be interesting to include Old English in our material since this would give us an impression of how modern Frisian is related to the English language at a time when it had only recently separated from the common Anglo-Saxon roots to which also Old Frisian belonged.

For many centuries Frisian has been under the strong influence from Dutch and the Frisian and Dutch language areas share a long common history. It therefore does not come as a surprise that Dutch is the Germanic language most similar to the language varieties spoken in Friesland.

It may be surprising that the linguistic distances between Dutch and the Frisian dialects are smaller than the distances between the Scandinavian languages (a mean difference of 6%). Scandinavian languages are known to be mutually intelligible. This means that when, for example, a Swede and a Dane meet, they mostly communicate each in their own language. This kind of communication, which is known as semi-communication (Haugen, 1966), is not typical in the communication between Dutch-speaking and Frisian-speaking citizens in the Netherlands. The two languages are considered so different that it is not possible for a Dutch-speaking person to understand Frisian and consequently the Frisian interlocutor will have to speak Dutch to a non-Frisian person. Our results raise the question whether semi-communication would also be possible in a Dutch-Frisian situation. If this is not the case, we may explain this by linguistic and non-linguistic differences between the Frisian-Dutch situation and the Scandinavian situation. The Levenshtein distance processes lexical, phonetic and morphological differences. All three types are present in our transcription, since word lists are derived from running texts. Syntactic characteristics are completely excluded from the analysis. It might be the case that certain characteristics play a larger role for the Levenshtein distances than desirable in the case of the Scandinavian languages if we were to use the method for the explaining mutual intelligibility. For example, it is well-known among the speakers of Scandinavian languages that many words end in an ‘a’ in Swedish while ending in an ‘e’ in Danish. Probably people use this knowledge in an inter-Scandinavian situation. However, this difference is included in the Levenshtein distances between Swedish and Danish. It is possible that Frisian-Dutch differences are less predictable or less well-known by speakers of the two languages. It is also possible that the difference in communication in the Netherlands and in Scandinavia should be sought at the extra-linguistic level. Scandinavian research on semi-communication has shown that the willingness to understand and the belief that it is possible to communicate play a large role for mutual intelligibility between speakers of closely related languages.

Staying with the Scandinavian languages, it should be noted that the mainland Scandinavian languages are in fact closer to Frisian than English, even though the Scandinavian languages belong genetically to another Germanic branch than English and Frisian. This can probably be explained by intensive contacts between Frisians and Scandinavians for many centuries. However, the common idea among some speakers of Frisian and Scandinavian that the two languages are so close that they are almost mutually intelligible is not confirmed by our results, at least not as far as the standard Scandinavian languages are concerned. Probably this popular idea is built on the fact that a few frequent words are identical in Frisian and Scandinavian. It is possible, however, that this picture would change if we would include more Danish dialects in our material. For example, it seems to be relatively easy for fishermen from Friesland to speak to their colleagues from the west coast of Denmark. Part of the explanation might also be that fishermen share a common vocabulary of professional terms. Also the frequent contact and a strong motivation to communicate successfully are likely to be important factors.

As we mentioned in the introduction, among dialects in the Netherlands and Flanders, the Frisian varieties are most deviant from Standard Dutch. However, among the varieties which are recognized as languages in the Germanic language area, Frisian is most similar to Dutch. The smallest distance between two languages, apart from Frisian, was found between Norwegian and Swedish: 43.4%. The distance between Frisian and Dutch is smaller: 38.7%. The Town Frisian variety of the capital of Friesland (Leeuwarden) has a distance of only 20.3% to Dutch. Although the recognition of Frisian as second official language in the Netherlands is right in our opinion, we found that the current linguistic position of Frisian provide too little foundation for becoming independent from the Netherlands, as some Frisians may wish17.

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