The Road to Babel


In 1951 there was a riot in the northern Dutch province of Friesland. It was not much of a riot, really, but the reasons for it, and the consequences, were interesting. The trouble started when a judge refused to hear the testimony of a local veterinarian in Frisian. The judge couldn’t understand Frisian, an old Germanic language related to Dutch, German, and English, and in any case Dutch was the official language of public affairs in Friesland. So the judge, though perhaps a little tactless, was within his rights.

Things were stirred up, however, by the editor of a local newspaper named Fedde Schurer, who wrote a scorching attack against the judge, comparing him to the “Saxon gang” which invaded Friesland from Germany at the end of the fifteenth century. Schurer was prosecuted for contempt of court. A mob gathered in protest in the central square of Leeuwarden, the provincial capital. Schurer was carried around on the shoulders of his supporters. The police charged with truncheons; the fire brigade pulled out the water hoses. Schurer, the people’s hero, fell through a glass window and scratched his arm. The national press began to pay attention. Metropolitan arrogance was condemned. And as a result, Frisian was recognized in 1956 as a language that could be used in the courts for the first time since the sixteenth century, when Friesland became a province of the Dutch Republic.

The idea of Frisian as a kind of national language was, like so much else, a product of nineteenth-century Romanticism. It had not been used in government, schools, or churches for hundreds of years. But in the late 1800s, folk poets emerged to promote the native tongue. The first Bible translation was only completed in the 1940s. Teaching the language in primary schools has been permitted since 1937 and in higher education since 1980. About 400,000 people now know Frisian—that is to say, about half the people in Friesland have at least a passive knowledge of it. You can hear it spoken on radio stations. This revival has come as a reaction against the uniformity of standard Dutch, an assertion of local identity, rather like Welsh, Irish, or Catalan.

There is a price to pay for too much regional chauvinism. At least all Frisians are educated in Dutch. But the Catalans are so keen to defend their language that Castillian Spanish is often neglected; some even prefer to learn English. As a result, Barcelona is in danger of becoming a more provincial city than it should be, isolated in a linguistic fog.

My paternal grandfather spoke Frisian at home. But he moved to Amsterdam to study theology, a common intellectual pursuit among gifted provincials. My father does not speak a word of Frisian. All that is left of our Frisian heritage is our name; a perverse pride in the fact that twelve hundred years ago Frisians murdered an eighty-year-old English priest named Boniface who had no business converting natives to the Roman faith; and the…

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