“Are we in Fryslân yet?”

On the (in-)visibility of Frisian in the linguistic landscape of the northern Netherlands

Helga Kuipers-Zandberg and Ruth Kircher

(Mercator European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning)

Driving through the northern Netherlands, you might find yourself practically unaware of the rich multilingual situation in the province of Fryslân. Entering and exiting towns, you might see their Frisian names on some town signs but not on others – and when you do see the Frisian names, they will sometimes be above the Dutch names and sometimes below them, depending on which municipality you are currently driving through. Coming into Fryslân by train, the Frisian language is even more obscured as the names of train stations are indicated almost exclusively in Dutch. This might lead visitors to wonder: “are we in Fryslân yet?”

And visitors might continue to ponder this question even as they walk through the streets of Frisian municipalities because there is also great variability with regard to the use of Frisian on other kinds of public signage, for example on and in shops. Overall, much more Frisian signage is used in rural areas than in urban spaces (Edelman 2014; Trincheri 2015). Thus, if you are walking around the streets of the provincial capital of Ljouwert (Dutch: Leeuwarden), you are lucky if you spot any of the only 3% of shop signs that were found to be unilingually Frisian, or the mere 2% which combine Frisian and Dutch (Cenoz and Gorter 2006). However, even in smaller towns and villages, there is more Dutch than Frisian public signage, and most bilingual signs are in fact Dutch-English rather than Dutch-Frisian (Trincheri 2015). The linguistic landscape of Fryslân therefore doesn’t really reflect the fact that Frisian is an official administrative language of the Netherlands, and that it is spoken by around 420,000 people (Province of Fryslân 2015).

But why does it matter whether minority languages like Frisian are part of their local linguistic landscape? Well, the linguistic landscape – that is, ‘[t]he language of public road signs, advertising billboards, street names, place names, commercial shop signs, and public signs on government buildings’ (Landry and Bourhis 1997: 25) – fulfils two key functions. Firstly, of course, it informs people of the linguistic characteristics and territorial limits of the region they are in – but secondly, it also serves an important symbolic function because ‘the absence or presence of one’s own language on public signs has an effect on how one feels as a member of a language group within a bilingual or multilingual setting’ (Landry and Bourhis 1997: 24–25). 

So how do the Frisians themselves feel about the language’s place in the linguistic landscape? To find out about this, and other issues, we recently examined the Frisian data that were collected as part of the Erasmus+ project LangUp, in which Mercator participated along with several other countries  (www.lang-up.eu). Based on these data, we analysed the objective compared to the subjective ethnolinguistic vitality of Frisian (full details can be found in our new open-access article, Kuipers-Zandberg and Kircher 2020). Regarding the linguistic landscape, which is one of the factors that contribute to a language’s ethnolinguistic vitality, we found the following:

The participants (15 Frisian speakers between 22 and 62, who all provided rich qualitative data in response to a questionnaire) were aware of local campaigns to promote the language in public spaces (such as the innovative Praat mar Frysk [Let’s speak Frisian] by Afûk: www.praatmarfrysk.nl) and they knew about efforts to organise visible language-related activities. However, despite such efforts, none of the participants felt that Frisian is particularly present in the linguistic landscape of the province. It was described as ‘hast net sichtber op strjitte’ [barely visible in the streets]. Moreover, the participants were well aware of the aforementioned regional differences with regard to the linguistic landscape, with Frisian being even less visible in urban areas than in rural regions. The participants clearly indicated a desire for an increase of Frisian in the linguistic landscape, illustrated for instance by one commenting: ‘Ik soe wol graach mear Frysk sjen op strjitte, sa as twatalige strjitnammeboerden en yn winkels’ [I would like to see more Frisian in the streets, like bilingual street and shop signs], and another saying ‘it soe aardich wêze as bedriuwen of restaurants oanjaan soene dat hjin dêr Fryske prate kinne’ [it would be nice if companies or restaurants would indicate that one can speak Frisian there]. 

These comments already point to some opportunities to increase language visibility. We certainly agree that it would be helpful for the future maintenance of Frisian in Fryslân if further efforts were made to show the value of the language in the province by increasing its presence in the linguistic landscape. Comparisons with other bi-/multilingual regions could provide useful insights into what works and what doesn’t work in this regard. So we’re wondering: What is the linguistic landscape like in your area (where you are from or where you live now)? Do you have any success stories to tell when it comes to minority languages or multilingualism on signage – or any words of warning? Please tell us in the comments section below!


Cenoz, J. & Gorter, D. (2006). Linguistic landscape and minority languages. International Journal of Multilingualism, 3(1), 67-80. doi: 10.1080/14790710608668386 

Edelman, L. (2014). The presence of minority languages in linguistic landscapes in Amsterdam and Friesland (the Netherlands). International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 228, 7–28. doi: 10.1515/ijsl-2014-0003

Kuipers-Zandberg, H. & Kircher, R. (2020). The objective and subjective ethnolinguistic vitality of West Frisian: Promotion and perception of a minority language in the Netherlands. Sustainable Multilingualism, 17, 1-25. doi: https://doi.org/10.2478/sm-2020-0011

Landry, R. & Bourhis, R.Y. (1997). Linguistic landscape and ethnolinguistic vitality. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 16, 23–49. doi: 10.1177/0261927X970161002

Province of Fryslân [Provinsje Fryslân]. (2015). De Fryske Taalatlas 2015: Fryske taal yn byld [The Frisian Language Atlas 2015: Frisian language envisioned]. Leeuwarden: Province of Fryslân. 

Trincheri, M. (2015). Linguistic Landscape in Fryslân: a comparison between Ljouwert and Jorwert. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/11616885/Linguistic_landscape_in_Fryslân_a_comparison_between_Leeuwarden_and_Jorwert


Helga Kuipers-Zandberg is a researcher at the Mercator European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning, which is part of the Fryske Akademy in Leeuwarden (Netherlands), and she recently also started working on Frisian language policy at the Province of Fryslân. Her work is in the field of sociolinguistics and applied linguistics, and she focuses on minority languages, language planning, and European language policies, with a particular interest in minority languages in the linguistic landscape.

Ruth Kircher is a researcher at the Mercator European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning, which is part of the Fryske Akademy in Leeuwarden (Netherlands). As a sociolinguist with a specialisation in societal multilingualism and language contact situations, her work focuses especially on language attitudes, ideologies, and practices as well as language policy and planning. Ruth has a particularly strong interest in these issues with regard to autochthonous and migrant minorities. This is Ruth’s website and you can also find her on Twitter: @ruth_kircher


3 thoughts on ““Are we in Fryslân yet?”

  1. Thank you for this very important article. This is a huge problem, one I noticed as a foreigner visiting twice now from the United States. Visibility is essential for any sort of human right, which includes language rights. If you never see yourself reflected, you feel like you don’t belong. You feel as if there is no space for you. And that is a terrible message to send to people. It is time to change that old message and build a better world.


  2. trochslien fan de universiteit om alles in’t Ingekst dwaan. Eerst jp eigen taal, dan de Hollanders en dan de wrald


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