Life Long Learning

The North Frisians in Germany

The North Frisians live on the west coast of Schleswig-Holstein – from the German-Danish border region in the north to the more southern town of Bredstedt (district of North Friesland). Also the islands Sylt, Föhr, Amrum and Helgoland (district of Pinneberg) and a number of small islands, the “Halligen” are part of the area where North Frisian is being spoken.

Foto: Momme Nommensen

Foto: Momme Nommensen

Foto: Momme Nommensen

Foto: Momme Nommensen










The historical area of settlement of the Frisians, a Germanic people, lies on the southern North Sea coast between the rivers Rhine and Weser. The Frisians were first mentioned in the year 12 BC, when the Roman commander Drusus concluded patron-client agreements with them.

In two waves in the eight and eleventh century Frisian groups moved to North Friesland. The Frisians lived in administrative units called “Harde” like they existed everywhere in the Danish kingdom. The borders between the different “Hardes” were mostly formed by wide and marshy glacial valleys.

The North Frisians never had a state of their own, but for a long time they could maintain their own political independence, for instance in the administration of justice and in the area of dike building and maintenance.

The landscape of North Friesland is mainly characterised by floods, of which the so-called “Mandränken” in the years 1362 and 1634 were the most severe. In the 17th and 18th century North Friesland experienced a period of economic prosperity; virtually the entire male population went on whale-hunt to Greenland and some of them became very wealthy because of whaling and seal hunting. The most important economic sectors in later centuries were mainly agriculture and later tourism.

The history of North Friesland is characterised by a feeling of regional identity, which also today is still very strong. The district of North Friesland as an administrative unit was established not until 1970. Until 1864 North Friesland was part of the Danish state, afterwards it belonged to Prussia and Germany. The place in the middle of German and Danish cast a shadow over the national-political development of North Friesland since the 19th century and made it difficult to establish Frisian structures of its own.


The Frisian language is the most important identity marker for the North Frisians. The language was included for protection under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

North Frisian (Friisk, Frasch) belongs together with the two other Frisian languages Sater-Frisian (East-Frisian) and West-Frisian to the Frisian language group within the West-Germanic languages. These are a branch of the Germanic group of the Indo-European language family. Sater-Frisian (East-Frisian) is spoken in the north-western part of Lower Saxony and West-Frisian is spoken in the north of the Netherlands.



Nowadays there are 9 dialects of North Frisian and about 8 000-10 000 active speakers. The dialects are divided into two groups: insular North Frisian and mainland North Frisian; the dialect spoken on the Halligen islands belongs to mainland North Frisian:

Insular North-Frisian

  • Sylt Frisian (Sölring)
  • Föhr-Amrum Frisian (Fering-Öömrang)
  • Helgoland Frisian (Halunder)

Mainland North Frisian

  • Wiedingharde Frisian
  • Bökingharde Frisian (including Mooring)
  • Karrharde Frisian
  • Nordergoesharde Frisian
  • Mittelgoesharde Frisian
  • Halligen Frisian
  • Südergoesharde Frisian (extinct since 1981)

The North Frisian dialects differ from standard German by a more extensive system of vowels and consonants. In all the dialects the consonants have an additional palatalization (produced with the tongue in a position in the mouth near the palate) uncommon for Germanic languages.

Language status:

Traditionally North Frisian is a spoken language, little written before the beginning of the 19th century. In view of the danger of extinction of the language, a tradition developed to preserve the North Frisian language. Nowadays every dialect has its own orthography, grammar and vocabulary, which can be considered relatively standardised. Frisian is mainly used in informal and social contexts, e.g. in the family, in communal activities etcetera, but also in some formal environments such as in education or in church. Officially there are about 8 000-10 000 speakers of North Frisian. Many linguists, however, estimate the number of speakers as much less. Precise surveys are not available. In the Red Book of Endangered Languages of UNESCO North Frisian is classified as “severely endangered”.

“Strongholds” of North Frisian are the municipalities of Risum-Lindholm on the mainland and in particular the west of the island of Föhr.



Legal situation

Since 1998 the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities also protects the Frisians. The constitution of Schleswig-Holstein provides protection and support for the Frisian minority since 1990.

The regional parliament of Schleswig-Holstein decided in 2004 to adopt an Act on the Promotion of Frisian in the Public Area (in Frisian: Friisk Gesäts; Gesäts fort stipen foont friisk önj e öfentlikhäid; in German: Friesengesetz; Gesetz zur Förderung des Friesischen im öffentlichen Raum). It provides the basis for bilingual signs in North Friesland and Helgoland, which is clearly visible. A number of municipalities have bilingual place name signs and the signs in North Frisian train stations are also bilingual. Also regional authorities like tax offices or police stations in North Friesland and in Helgoland have bilingual signposting. With this Act Frisian became the second official language in North Friesland and in Helgoland.

  • Constitution of the Land of Schleswig-Holstein in the version of 13 June 1990, as changed by statute 2/2004 GVOBl. Schl.-H. S. 54 (Verfassung des Landes Schleswig-Holstein in der Fassung vom 13. Juni 1990, zuletzt geändert durch ein Gesetz 2/2004 GVOBl. Schl.-H. S. 54 – Auszug) (in German)
  • Act on the Promotion of Frisian in the Public Area (Gesetz zur Förderung des Friesischen im öffentlichen Raum / Gesäts fort stipen foont friisk önj e öfentlikhäid (Friesisch-Gesetz – FriesischG) Vom 13. Dezember 2004 (GVOBl. Schl.-H. 2004 S. 481))


The Interfrisian Council is the umbrella organisation that brings together the North Frisians and East Frisians in Germany with the West Frisians who are living in the Netherlands.

The two largest North Frisian associations are the North Frisian Association (Nordfriesische Verein e.V.) and the Friisk Foriining. They are umbrellas for several smaller local associations and groups. All the North Frisian organisations work together in the Frisian Council Section North. This is the main interlocutory partner for the Federal Republic of Germany, the Land of Schleswig-Holstein, the district of North Friesland and its municipalities. The local Frisian associations are highly committed to accomplishing a wide variety of cultural work. Next to language-related issues they also work on Frisian traditions and customs, and typical architecture, which foster Frisian history and are part of the Frisian identity.

Friesische Flagge

The „Nordfriisk Instituut“ in Bredstedt is very important for cultivating the Frisian language, culture and history, as it is the main scientific institute. It considers itself as building bridges between theory and practice, between science and laymen research. The institute is mainly active in the field of language, history and regional studies, both scientifically and journalistically. The institute has a specialised library and an archive, it publishes magazines and books in German and in Frisian, offers courses, lectures, conferences and working groups. The work is foremost covered by grants from the Land of Schleswig-Holstein and by circa 850 members of the Association of the Nordfriisk Instituut.


Quelle: Frasche Rädj

Quelle: Frasche Rädj

Like is the case for most linguistic minorities the teaching of and about its own language in schools and kindergartens is of great importance for the North Frisian minority. The North Frisians do not have a school system of their own. Instead Frisian is taught in public schools and in some schools of the Danish minority. An exception is the Danish private school in Risum – this is the only bilingual school where Danish, German and Frisian are also taught outside the language lessons. The school is an elementary / comprehensive school until 8th or 9th grade, and is one of the 46 schools of the Danish minority.

Generally Frisian is only taught in the third and fourth grade for two hours in the week, and on a voluntary basis.

Frisian can be studied at the universities of Kiel and Flensburg. Since 1950 there is the so-called North Frisian Dictionary Department (Nordfriesische Wörterbuchstelle) in Kiel, which is managed by the professor for Frisian, a position established in 1978. The Frisian department at Flensburg University mainly aims at training Frisian teachers; teaching and research take place in close cooperation with the Nordfriisk Instituut and the Ferring-Foundation.

General Frisian language courses for beginners and advanced students are offered by Frisian associations, community colleges, cultural groups and also privately. Each autumn “Friisk Foriining” offers the “Friisk Harfsthuuchschölj”: with courses and activities that are all taking place in Frisian for young and old. Furthermore the “Friisk Foriining” organises cultural and language travels to other minorities, like for examples a visit to the Sorbs in the surroundings of Bautzen or to the Welsh or to Cornwall.

According to Steensen (2010) the North Frisian language remains endangered, despite all the efforts. Some of the dialects will soon have faded away and Frisian will never again be the widespread common speech of a village, because the social fabric has totally changed. Nowadays Frisian is used in new situations, especially young people recognise its opportunities. As a traditional language that exists only in this region, and nowhere else in the world, it has the ability to continue characterising the identity of the people and to create a sense of regional belonging. (Steensen (2010) “Nordfriesland und die Friesen”, p. 30)


More information / links

The Frisian minority in Schleswig-Holstein (Landtag / parliament) (in German)

EUROMOSAIC, North Frisian in Germany

National Minorities / Minority- and Regional Languages in Germany, November 2012 (in German)

The Frisians in the German Minority Council

The Frisian Youth Association Rökefloose

Information about courses by Frisian associations, community colleges and cultural groups: (in German) (in German) (in German) (in German)