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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

How to recognize the Frisians by name?


This is one of the simplest things there is, once you've got the hang of it. 'A child can do the laundry' they say in Dutch. Which has nothing to do with a history of child labour, by the way. Understanding the logic of Frisian names is essential if you want to have a seamless hiking experience along the Frisia Coast Trail. Once you get it, a Frisian - or a Dutchman with Frisian roots, for that matter - is also easily recognizable by both his or her first and last name.

Below we will explain convincingly that Sake Saakstra from the hamlet of Saaksum is a very acceptable name in the northern coastal area of the Netherlands and - to a lesser extent - the region of Ostfriesland in northwest Germany. And, very importantly, that it is not something to make fun of.

Do not shout it from the rooftops, but it also applies to the people from the province of Groningen (more precisely, the Ommelanden region without the city of Groningen) east of the River Lauwers in the Netherlands.



Firstly, the first names


The variations are truly endless. And they are unpronounceable as well. Yes, the Frisian name-giving culture is actually very rich. You only need to think of the famous fashion model Doutzen Kroes (sounds like cow with the c replaced by d; dow-chún). Her name is the feminine version of Douwe (sounds like dow-wúh) which means dove. But also think of bizarre names like Djûke (sounds like ju-kúh). Say it quickly four times in a row and you think an express train is rushing by. Or Tsjitske (sounds like t-shit-skúh). Do not say it too loudly outside province Friesland, please. And Jitske (sounds like yeat-skúh). Or Sjoukje. Do not even bother to pronounce it.

The extension -ke normally indicates that it is a feminine name, not to enrage feminists, but -ke means 'little' or 'small.' This way, you can bend nearly every masculine name into a feminine name, and vice versa. For example, the author's first name is Hans. He is actually named after his grandmother, Hanske, thus 'little-Hans.' For the name Hans, the author has always been extremely grateful to his parents. Besides its horrendous beauty, he is especially thankful for not having been named after his grandfather. The author's younger brother has, and the poor man has to spell each syllable of his name to non-Frisians every day of his life, already for 45 years. His name is one of a kind, and giving it away here would mean we violate his privacy already.

But the ke-rule isn't always applicable. Take for example the Frisian name of the well-known international Dutch actress Famke Janssen. If you leave -ke out you haven't created with Fam a valid masculine first name. Quite the contrary. Famke means girl in Mid-Frisian language and fa[a]m is Mid-Frisian for an unmarried young woman. Another example is the feminine name Nynke (sounds like neen-kúh). Like Faam you will regret to have named your new-born son Nyn too.

Unless you have the same lazy strategy for raising your son as Johnny Cash explained in his song 'A boy named Sue' it's better to name your son Popke. This time despite the -ke in it it's a proper and cool masculine first name. A poppe means infant in Mid-Frisian. Therefore, strictly speaking, Popke means little-infant. Still cool and masculine. Or, alternatively, name your son Fokke (sounds like fuck-kúh). Again despite the -ke it's a masculine name again. The feminine name of Fokke is Fokje (sounds like fuck-yúh). When you think a Frisian is angry with you, it might be he is just greeting his wife Fokje somewhere behind you. Are you still with us? By the way, the trick that can be done with -ke at the end may also be done with -tsje at the end and sounds like chúh in church.

Anyway, the simple advice would be to consult a native of the north first before giving your newborn a name if you're get creative with Frisian first names.

To get a little more feeling with the bizarre first names, some more examples for you to practice:

  • Fiebe (fea-búh) or Fiebke (feab-kúh)

  • Jaldert (yall-dúrt) or Jaldertsje (yall-dúrt-chúh)

  • Djurre (jur-rúh)

  • Lus (luzz) or Luske (luzz-kúh)

  • Gosse (gozz-súh)

  • Oebele (oo-búh-lúh) or Oebeltsje (oo-búhl-chúh)

  • Iep (eap)

One last tip. Throw in an e at the end of the name. Mostly works. The Frisians love it. Just as the Zeeuwen or Zeelanders (i.e. the people from province Zeeland in the Netherlands) love to do with their town and village names.


Lastly, the last names


Now it becomes a bit more simple. So, hang in there for a while longer.

Any person with a surname in the Netherlands ending with -stra (whereby the a is pronounced as in aaarch; and do make a horrible face when pronouncing it), -ga or -(s)ma, is Frisian or has Frisian ancestors. The extensions -ga and -stra mean something like 'from the area/place'. The extension -(s)ma means 'the son of'. Do we have to explain to you what bitchma is?


It is a bit like recognizing the Dutch and the Flemings with the prefix ‘Van’ such as Van Halen, Van Morrisen, Van Nuys, Vanderbilt, Van Nostrand, Van Sand, Van Zandt, Vans of the wall, Van Winkle, Van Cortlands, Van Buren, Van Diesel, Van Burnt, Van der Woodsen, Van Damme, Vanguard, Vans, Vann Harl, Van der Decken, Van der Linde, etc. Popular in Hollywood movies and with rock stars, celebrities, company brands alike. Although of origin a middle-name prefix, Van is also becoming more and more a first name in itself in the United States. At least, we guess the name is not referring to a motorized vehicle. Crazy too, these Americans.

The Frisians can also bombard first names into surnames by adding the -(s)ma, -stra or -ga. And again vice versa. To give you an example.

The male first name Sake (sounds like saaa-kúh). Adding -stra makes the perfect surname Saakstra (sounds like saaa-ck-straaa). If he comes from the hamlet Saaksum in the province of Groningen then you would say Sake Saakstra from Saaksum (saaa-kúh saaa-ck-straaa út saaaksum). No, it is not the Somali language. Trust us. The same can occur with Age Aggema from Aegum.

Vries, De Vries, and Fries

There is a final complication with the surnames, though. Next to Jansen, the most common surname in the Netherlands is 'De Vries' which literally means 'The Frisian'. Both surnames have around 71,000 individuals that carry the name. This is curious since the Frisians only make up a miserable 3,8 percent of the total Dutch population of 17 million. Not very relevant you might say. Rightly so. When the Dutch Republic was seized -without much hassle by the way- by Napoleon, everyone who had no surname yet had to give or make up one. That was in 1811-1812. Most of them apparently called themselves 'The Frisian'? Including many outside the province of Friesland. Big question mark.

distribution De Vries - Database Surnames of the Netherlands, CBG

But they can't all have been Frisians unless the people of provinces Zeeland, Zuid Holland and Noord Holland were still aware that in the High Middle Ages their land was still known as West Frisia (check out our blog post The United Frisian Emirates and Black Peat to read more about the history of West Frisia). That would be building upon a very old tradition, by the way. It was after all Ubba the Frisian who led, together with the Viking warriors Halfden and Ivar the Boneless, hordes of heathen warriors ransacking England in the ninth century AD. He and his warriors had the Walcheren island in province Zeeland as their stronghold (read our blog post Island the Walcheren: once Sodom and Gomorrah of the North Sea).


A similar state of confusion we experience with the surname Fries (pronounced as freeze). Fries is a common name in Germany and Switzerland. To ease our mental situation, we dedicated an entire post to the surname Fries to explain its history. Check From Patriot to Insurgent: John Fries and the tax rebellions and A severe case of inattentional blindness: the Frisian tribe’s name.


We are side tracking. Point is, we are available for suggestions on the ‘De Vries’ name-giving matter.


By the way, even in the south of France people carry the (first!) name Jean-Fris or Frisa meaning 'the Frisian'. The story behind it is the Frisian warrior-saint named Saint Fris, and who is being venerated in several villages in southern France to this very day. Read our post Like Father, Unlike Son for more about this fascinating legend.


Conclusion


All the foregoing is very normal for the people of the north living along the Wadden Sea coasts. The name-giving culture of the Frisians is as fluid as their water-rich land. So, do not start to smile or worse, when one presents himself with: "my name is Gjalt Gjaltsma, Juw Juwsma, Fokje Fokkema, Eise Eisinga, Riemer or Rimmer Riemersma, Herre Herrema, Gosse Goslinga, Eelke (Jelles) Eelkema, Tjitske Tjitsma, Sjoerd (Wiemer) Sjoerdsma, Hoyte van Hoytema, Jitske Jitsema, Aukje Aukema, Gale Galema or Popke Popkema." No, do not blink an eye! Otherwise hiking the Frisia Coast Trail turns out not only to be hell for just your legs and feet.


 

Note 1 - April 2024, the Bundestag ('parliament') in Germany adopted a law that restores the Frisian name-giving tradition. This means that after two centuries Frisians in Germany have the possibility again to derive their Nachname 'last name' from the first name of one of the parents. For example Ose, the daughter of Yfke and Tamme, can be named either Ose Yfkes or Ose Tammes. Or their son Hajo can be named either Hajo Yfkes or Hajo Tammes. Criterium for who is Frisian is everyone who feels himself Frisian.


This tradition also existed in the Netherlands with names like Jan Cornelisz. or Cornelis Jansz. meaning respectively Jan Cornelis' son and Cornelis Jan's son. Modern Dutch last names ending with -s or -sen are a reminder of this tradition. Tip to our ancestors would have been not to name your sons after yourself, like Jans Jansz. because it limits the richness of the name-giving. You're caught in a circle. Perhaps explaining why the last name Jansen is so common.


Note 2 - One of Flanders' most illustrious counts was Robrecht de Fries (1029/32-1093). He got his nickname 'the Frisian' because of the close ties with the county of West Frisia. Robrecht married the widow of the count of West Frisia, countess Gertrude of Saxony, and was regent of his stepson count Dirk V (1052-1091) of West Frisia. West Frisia that would to become Province Holland and West-Friesland and lay the power basis for the Dutch Republic in the early modern period.


Yet another historic figure was Rainers lo Frison, also written as lo Frizos and meaning 'the Frisian' too. He was a crusader in the thirteenth century and functioned as the sword of the Roman Catholic Church to slay the heretic Cathars.


Note 3 - If you like to give your child a really old Frisian name, find here an inventory of the names of Frisians written in runic inscriptions (viz. Anglo-Frisian runes). They date between the sixth and the ninth century: ᚢᚱᚫ (Uræ), ᚪᛁᛒ (Aib), ᚻᚪᛒᚢᚳᚢ (Habuku), ᚻᚪᛞᚪ (Hada), ᚫᛈᚪ (Æpa), ᚹᛖᛚᚪᛞᚢ (Weladu), ᛋᛣᚪᚾᛟᛗᛟᛞᚢ (Skanomodu), ᚪᛞᚢᛡIᛋᛚᚢ (Adujislu), ᛡIᛋᚢᚻIᛞᚢ (Jisuhidu), ᚹIᛗᛟᛥ (Wimœd), ᛏᚢᛞᚪ (Tuda), ᚫᚻᚫ (Æhæ) and ᚩᚳᚪ (Oka) (Looijenga 2003). If you want to turn a personal name into a family name by extending it with one of the three typical Frisian suffixes -ga, -ma or -sma, use successively the graphs -ᚷᚪ, -ᛗᚪ or -ᛋᛗᚪ.


For more ancient Frisian names check our post A Collection of Frisian Forenames of the First Millennium.




Suggested music

Johnny Cash, A Boy Named Sue (1969)


Further reading

Looijenga, T., Texts and Contexts of the Oldest Runic Inscriptions (2003)

Meertens Instituut, Nederlandse voornamenbank (website)

Schaar, van der J., Woordenboek van voornamen (1964)

Veenstra, H.F.J., Fan van Friesland. Voornaam-generator (website)

Vorname.com, Friesische Vornamen (website)


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