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On the Boundaries of Phonology and Phonetics

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The Position of Frisian in the Germanic Language Area

Charlotte Gooskens and Wilbert Heeringa


Among the Germanic varieties the Frisian varieties in the Dutch province of Friesland have their own position. The Frisians are proud of their language and more than 350,000 inhabitants of the province of Friesland speak Frisian every day. Heeringa (2004) shows that among the dialects in the Dutch language area the Frisian varieties are most distant with respect to standard Dutch. This may justify the fact that Frisian is recognized as a second official language in the Netherlands. In addition to Frisian, in some towns and on some islands a mixed variety is used which is an intermediate form between Frisian and Dutch. The variety spoken in the Frisian towns is known as Town Frisian10.

The Frisian language has existed for more than 2000 years. Genetically the Frisian dialects are most closely related to the English language. However, historical events have caused the English and the Frisian language to diverge, while Dutch and Frisian have converged. The linguistic distance to the other Germanic languages has also altered in the course of history due to different degrees of linguistic contact. As a result traditional genetic trees do not give an up-to-date representation of the distance between the modern Germanic languages.

In the present investigation we measured linguistic distances between Frisian and the other Germanic languages in order to get an impression of the effect of genetic relationship and language contact for the position of the modern Frisian language on the Germanic language map. We included six Frisian varieties and one Town Frisian variety in the investigation. Furthermore, eight Germanic standard languages were taken into account. Using this material, we firstly wished to obtain a hierarchical classification of the Germanic varieties. From this classification the position of (Town) Frisian became clear. Secondly, we ranked all varieties with respect to each of the standard Germanic languages as well as to (Town) Frisian. The rankings showed the position of (Town) Frisian with respect to the standard languages and the position of the standard languages with respect to (Town) Frisian.

In order to obtain a classification of varieties and establish rankings, we needed a tool that can measure linguistic distances between the varieties. Bolognesi and Heeringa (2002) investigated the position of Sardinian dialects with respect to different Romance languages using the Levenshtein distance, an algorithm with which distances between word pronunciations are calculated. In our investigation we used the same methodology.

In Section 2, we will present the traditional ideas about the genetic relationship between the Germanic languages and discuss the relationship between Frisian and the other Germanic languages. At the end of the section we will discuss the expected outcome of the linguistic distance measurements between Frisian and the other Germanic languages. In Section 3 the data sources are described and in Section 4 the method for measuring linguistic distances between the language varieties is presented. The results are presented in Section 5, the discussion of which is presented in Section 6.

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