How long can a language survive?

Detmer Kremer (Friesland, UWCiM 2010-2012)

Ik bin ’n Frysk. I am a Frisian. My passport is Dutch, but my ethnicity is Frisian. When I first came to UWCiM, I had to explain to people what that was. You, as a reader of this article, probably also don’t know what it is. This happens when the writer is part of a dying culture.

Let me briefly explain to you what the Frisian culture is. The Netherlands is divided into twelve parts, so-called provincies or in English provinces. The province where I’m from is called Fryslân or, in English, Friesland and it’s the most northern province. This province is different from all the other provinces. It is the place where the Frisians live, a culture older than the Dutch. During Roman ages, the Frisians were known as the Frisii and they had their own independent state until the 18th century, when Frysland became a part of the Seven United Netherlands. As the time passed, the Netherlands was shaped and formed as it now is, starting in 1830 with the independence of Belgium.

In 2011, Frisians still exist as an independent culture. The province of Friesland is unique because it is one of the last strongholds of the Frisian culture. Frisian is still spoken there, the national Frisian sports are still played, feasts are celebrated and the list goes on. The most important question now is: for how long? The Frisian culture and language are dying.

The saddest part is that the Frisian language and culture are not the only language and culture that are dying out. If you look at the UNESCO world atlas of endangered languages, you can see that although Frisian is vulnerable it still has about 400,000 speakers.

In general, there are six levels of languages: safe ( languages such as Russian, English and Spanish ), vulnerable ( languages such as Frisian, Tamahaq and Zhaba ), definitely endangered ( languages such Bukharic, Palu’e and Tunebo ), severely endangered (languages such as Cherokee, Languedocian and Korandje) and critically endangered ( languages such as Tsakonian, Boguru and Nihali ).

The final stage of an endangered languages is ‘the extinct’. There are no speakers left. Sometimes a language is not even recorded and we only know the name of the language. For example, the last speaker of an extinct language Elmolo, in Kenya, died in 1992. Karelian is a recently extinct language in Russia, possibly remembered by a few. Also, the last speaker of the language Uarava died in 2000 on an island near Papua New Guinea.

I can hardly imagine being the last speaker of a language. Being in a UWC makes you more aware of this. I am the first Frisian in this college, and the only one who speaks Frisian language. How do I know I am not the last? It scares me to think about a culture that is disappearing, because I see it happening with mine almost every day. Globalisation is something what I think will help this world, but as with everything, there are pros and cons. Are we willing to pay the price and let 2437 endangered languages die? Will we try to keep them alive or will we let this number grow? How many languages need to go extinct before we realize what we’re losing? All I know is that I don’t want to be the last one saying Ik bin ‘n Frysk.

-United World College Student Magazine-


2 thoughts on “How long can a language survive?

  1. This is a great article, especially reading as a student at the new UWC in the Netherlands. I’d heard of the Fresian culture but I had no idea it was considered vulnerable. I’m glad you are proud to be who you are and that you aim to preserve your language and heritage. I hope many more do the same.

  2. Hoi! Very nice article!

    Although I have a Czech surname, my mother tongue is Catalan. I think that the health of a language cannot be measured by the number of its speakers. For example only about 200.000 people speak Icelandic and it is a very healthy language. Over 5.000.000 people speak Catalan as its mother tongue, but they shift always to Spanish without even realizing it. One key aspect that sets a difference between vulnerable and safe languages is the psychological complex about speaking your own language in your own country. Catalans are complexed, and that makes their language much weaker than languages with less, but also less complexed speakers, such as Icelandic, Norwegian, Danish or Slovak.

    Marcel Skoumal i Canals, from Barcelona.

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