Like the North Sea coast has always been a dangerous area, writing about the different dialects and languages is just as dangerous. Too many different languages is even against the will of gods. To make it a bit manageable we'll focus mainly on those areas that are covered by the Frisia Coast Trail.
The official languages of the four countries you walk through: In Belgium the three official languages are Dutch, French and German. In the Netherlands these are Dutch and Mid Frisian. In Germany there is one official language, namely German. Official minority languages of Germany are: Danish, Frisian (North-Frisian and Saterland Frisian), Romani and Sorbian (Upper- and Lower-Sorbian). Like Germany, Denmark has one official language, namely Danish. The three official minority language are German, Faroese and Greenlandic.
1. Low-Franconian & Low-Saxon languages
During stages 1-3 of the Frisia Coast Trail you walk through two different countries, namely Belgium and the Netherlands. All three stages are within the Low-Franconian language area.
Low-Franconian has several dialects spoken on three continents. The principal variants are Afrikaans (spoken in Namibia and in South Africa), Brabantic, Flemish (East- and West-Flemish), Hollandic, Limburgian, South Guelderish (also called Clevian) and Zeelandic. Flemish, Hollandic and Suriname-Dutch together form the official language Dutch. Dutch has an official status in Aruba, Curaçao, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sint Maarten, South Africa and in Suriname. Note that Limburgian is also considered a variant of High-German which depends on what the distinctive feature is in the definition.
The specific Low-Franconian dialects you'll be confronted with when hiking these stages are: Brabantic (or Brabants), West-Flemish (or Westvlaams), Hollandic (or Hollands) and Zeelandic (or Zeeuws). The border between the dialects West-Flemish and Zealandic is the river Eastern-Scheldt in the province Zeeland in the Netherlands.
One linguistic anomaly you'll come across during stage 3 of the trail is the region West-Friesland (or Westfriesland) within the province Noord Holland, where a 'creole' tongue is spoken which is a mixture of Hollandic-Low-Franconian and Old-Frisian. This is Westfries (and not be confused with Mid-Frisian spoken in the province Friesland in the Netherlands).
Starting with stage 5 means you enter the territory of the Low-Saxon language. Crossing the tiny river Lauwers marks this big transition. During stage 5 and 6 you hike in respectively the province Groningen in the Netherlands and region East Frisia (or Ostfriesland) in Germany. The Low-Saxon dialect spoken in both areas is called Gronings-Oostfreesk. This dialect differs from other Low-Saxon dialects because of the strong influence of the Old-Frisian language that was spoken in these areas until the high Middle Ages. Of course, Gronings and Oostfreesk differ from each other too, since each is influenced by a different lingua franca (Dutch and German).
During stage 7 you still hike in Low-Saxon language territory. The dialect variants of Low-Saxon spoken here are Northern Low-Saxon and Holsteinisch. Again, the lingua franca is German.
Stage 8, where the North-Frisian language still is spoken modestly too (see below), is where the Low-Saxon dialect Schleswigsch is spoken. In the border area with Denmark, Danish is also spoken and this is one of the official minority language of Germany. About 0,06 percent of the German population speaks Danish.
When crossing the border between Germany and Denmark at the start of stage 9 of the trail, you're still within Schleswigsch Low-Saxon language area, although the majority will speak Danish or Jutlandic dialect (see below).
2. Frisian language
During stage 4 and stage 8 of the Frisia Coast Trail you will be hiking in areas where the Frisian language is spoken. These are respectively the Frisian dialects Mid-Frisian (or Westerlauwersk Frysk) and North-Frisian (or Nordfriisk). There is also a very little patch of East-Frisian left in Germany: Saterland Frisian.
Mid-Frisian is spoken between the Lake IJssel and the river Lauwers in the Netherlands and therefor locally often referred to as Westerlauwersk Frysk (wf), meaning 'Frisian west of the river Lauwers'. Within the Mid-Frisian dialect several sub-dialects are being distinguished. The main relevant dialects are Clay-Frisian (or Klaaifrysk), Northern-Edge Frisian (or Noordhoeks), Southwestern-Edge Frisian (or Zuidwesthoeks) and Wood-Frisian (or Wâldfrysk). These four dialects are quite interchangeable and offer no problem for speakers to understand each other. This in contrary to the dialects of North-Frisian (see below). Here some words with comparison:
jûn (wf) - evening (en) - avond (ne) - Abend (de) - aften (da)
moarne (wf) - morning (en) - ochtend (ne) - Morgen (de) - morgen (da)
tsjerke (wf) - church (en) - kerk (ne) - Kirche (de) - kirke (da)
wiet (wf) - wet (en) - nat (ne) - nass (de) - våd (da)
wetter (wf) - water (en) - water (ne) - Wasser (de) - vand (da)
On the Wadden Sea islands Schiermonnikoog and Terschelling different dialects of Mid-Frisian are spoken. An example:
English: I - you - you - he / she / it - we - you - they
Mid-Frisian: ik - do - jo - hy / hja & sy / it - wy - jimme - sy
Schiermonnikoog: ik - dò - ji - hi / jò / et - wy - jimme - jà
Also the Mid-Frisian dialect of the town Hindeloopen in the southwest is a different dialect, among others because Old-Frisian words have been preserved better due to isolation and a stable population. It became also a secret language for traders from Hindeloopen. That itself might have been extra help for the survival of Old-Frisian. Other Mid-Frisians have a hard time to understand even a bit of Hindeloopen-Frisian (or Hylpers). Here some examples:
bòn (hy) - child (en) - bern (wf) - kind (ne) - Kind (de) - barn (da)
jitte (hy) - yet (en) - noch (wf) - nog (ne) - noch (de) - endnu (da)
jo (hy) - she (en) - hja/sy (wf) - zij (ne) - Sie (de) - de (da)
lik (hy) - little (en) - lyts (wf) - klein (ne) - klein (de) - lille (da)
tòk (hy) - fat (en) - tsjok (wf) - dik/vet (ne) - fett (de) - tyk (da)
There are two non-Frisian language anomalies you'll come across when hiking stage 4. The first is the 'creole' tongue Bildts in the north of the province Friesland. This is a mixture of the Frisian and Low-Franconian languages. It's spoken in the former Middle Sea reclaimed-land area since the beginning of the sixteenth century. Besides a different speech, people here are mostly catholic instead of protestant what's generally the case in the north of the Netherlands. Find here a dictionary of Bildts.
The second anomaly is spoken in the southeast of the province, namely Stellingwarfs. This is a Low-Saxon dialect strongly influenced by the Mid-Frisian language.
Saterland-Frisian (or Seeltersk) is spoken in northwest Germany in four villages. These are Strücklingen (or Strukelje), Ramsloh (or Roomelse), Sedelsberg (or Seedelsbierich) and Scharrel (or Schäddel). To avoid disappointment, in the town Friesoythe just south of Scharrel, no East-Frisian is spoken (neither in the town of Friesenheim near Strasbourg, France or Friesach in Austria, by the way). The Coast Trail doesn't pass through theses little villages, but the real freaks can make a detour.
Saterland-Frisian is the last remnant of East-Frisian which was spoken both in the province Groningen (Ommelanden) in the Netherlands and in the whole of the region Ostfriesland (East Frisia) in Germany until the fifteenth century. You hike through Groningen during stage 5 and Ostfriesland during stage 6 and where the Low-Saxon language (Gronings-Oostfreesk) has replaced East-Frisian. The reason Saterland-Frisian survived (longer) has to do with being an island within the impenetrable peat area. Their geographical isolation was complemented with social isolation since these villages stayed Catholic during the Reformation. And maybe also because it became a secret language in trade, comparable with Hindeloopen dialect within Mid-Frisian. It's sad, but Saterland-Frisian is at the brink of extinction. Only a few hundred to a thousand speakers are only left (2015). According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger severely endangered. So, it might justify the detour when you're in the hood.
köäre (sf) - karre (wf) - to choose (en) - wählen (de) - vælge (da) - kiezen (ne)
Speegel (sf) - spegel (wf) - mirror (en) - Spiegel (de)- spejl (da) - spiegel (ne)
Moanske (sf) - minsk (wf) - man/human (en) - Mensch (de) - mand (da) - mens (ne)
Dai (sf) - dei (wf) - day (en) - Tag (de) - dag (da) - dag (ne)
juun (sf) - tsjin (wf) - against (en) - gegen (de) - mod (da) - tegen (ne)
tjuusterch (sf) - tjuster (wf) - dark (en) - dunkel (de) - mørk (da) - donker (ne)
Find here a dictionary of Saterland-Frisian.
Hiking stage 8 you'll enter kreis Nordfriesland and thus the area where North-Frisian is spoken. North-Frisian deserves some additional attention for its complex and even more fragmented situation.
There are two main groups distinguished within this dialect of Frisian, namely Island North-Frisian and Mainland North-Frisian. But that is not all, within these main groups many more sub-dialects are spoken. And to be clear, speakers of these sub-dialects cannot understand each other (easy).
Not visible on the map, the dialect Fering on the island Föhr has three sub-dialects: West-land Fering, Southern-Fering and East-land Fering. Simular fragmentation is the case on the island Sylt. The local Frisian dialect Söl'ring is spoken on the middle and southern part. The northern part called List of the island is Danish speaking. The Norderstrand-Frisian spoken on the islands Pellworm, Nordstrand and Nordstrandischmoor died in AD 1634. Rungholt-Frisian died in AD1362 when nearly the whole island was swallowed by the sea. Read our blog post "How a town drowned overnight".
If you take all existing dialects together, including Heligolandic at the rock island Heligoland at the North Sea, you still have a staggering fifteen different dialects within North-Frisian, within an area of around 2,500 sq km. Lets give an idea about all the differences:
source A.G.H. Walker & O. Wilts
Three North-Frisian dialects and Mid-Frisian in a sentence:
'She stands at the door'
Bökingharde: Jü stoont bai e döör.
Föhr/Fering: Hat stäänt bi a dör.
Sylt/Söl'ring: Jü staant bi Düür.
West Frisian: Hja stiet by de doar.
How long still?
All North-Frisian dialects are at the brink of extinction. No zoos and no breeding programs possible to revitalize the language. Goesharde and Karrharde Frisian have stopped being a spoken language, although some speakers left. In total an estimated maximum of 10,000 people speak North-Frisian and -thus- according UNESCO severly endangered (2015). The fact the North-Frisian dialects are very different from each other doesn't help its survival.
3. Danish language
The single Danish dialect you will encounter when hiking the -final- stage 9 of Frisia Coast Trail is West-Southern Jutlandic. Though, you might also encouter German speaking Danes (see below)
Patchwork in a bottleneck
Linguistically the border area between Denmark and Germany is interesting. Several languages meet here, namely (Southern) Jutlandic, North-Frisian (in many dialects) and Schleswigsch Low-Saxon, and of course the linga francas Danish and German. That are three different families. An area where cultures have met and where the border between Denmark and Germany bounced up and down for centuries, with the river Eider for long being the median.
The (later to become) duchies Schleswig and Holstein were already an apple of discord between the Franks and the Danes in the early Middle Ages. After several wars in the nineteenth century Schleswig was ceded to Prussia in AD 1866. In the aftermath of the Great War and after a referendum in 1920, North Schleswig chose to become part of Denmark. This marks the border as it's today. Therefore, you have a German minority living in Denmark and Danish minority living in Germany, the latter specifically in and around the city of Flensburg. Between 15,000 - 20,000 Germans live in southern Denmark of which around 8,000 speak either German or Schleswigsch Low-Saxon.
The North-Frisians flipped sides during these wars as well. With the separation of North Schleswig from Germany in 1920, the outermost northern part of North Frisia was ceded to Denmark.