Ethnolinguistic Nationalism in Fryslân
Harrison Boucher, Fall 2017
In studying the history of the Frisian minority in the Netherlands, it is important, as with the study of any such minority groups, to discuss the idea of nationalism and how it has affected that particular group. The idea of a national identity and its accompanying definition of who is and who is not included as part of the nation is crucial in understanding how the state views the minority group, and how the group sees itself in relation to the larger state. For this reason, it is necessary here to define nationalism as the term will be used in this essay, in order to determine how it is used by and against the Frisians of the Netherlands.
The nation, the unified group of people whom nationalism represents, has been defined in nearly countless ways since its origins in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. I like Walker Connor’s definition of a nation’s essence as, “a psychological bond that joins a people and differentiates it, in the subconscious conviction of its members, from all other people in a most vital way.”01)Walker Connor, “A Nation is a Nation, is a State, is an Ethnic Group, is a…,” in Nationalism, ed. John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994), 36. While this definition doesn’t get into the details of what those differentiations could be, it is important in that it defines the self-determination of a nation, although that alone is not enough to define any group of people as its own nation. Another key part of Connor’s definition is how he finds some common ground between the primordialist and modernist approaches to nationhood. After stating that many authorities no longer use the idea of shared blood as a factor in defining a nation, and that, despite this, nationalist rhetoric often calls upon a shared origin Connor writes, “what ultimately matters is not what is, but what people believe is. And a subconscious belief in the group’s separate origin and evolution is an important ingredient of national psychology.”02)Ibid., 37. While I agree with Connor’s stance on the psychology of nationalism, it still doesn’t necessarily define what differentiates one nation from another, merely that they are perceived to be different.
In order to give some of the more important examples of differences that define nations, it is helpful to look at those that Stalin provided. I will, however, preface this by writing that I do not agree with Stalin’s overall definition of a nation, specifically the requirements of a common territory and a common economic life. The former, I disagree with based on Connor’s notion of self-determination, since there are many immigrant communities and other diasporic people who still identify themselves as part of a single nation. In the example of the Frisians, this is clearly evidenced by the existence of Frisian organizations outside of Friesland that continued to promote the Frisian identity in Friesland and abroad.03)Frank Suurenbroek and Marlou Schrover, “A Separate Language, a Separate Identity? Organisations of Frisian Migrants in Amsterdam in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” Journal of Ethnic Migration Studies 31, no. 5 (September 2005): 991. The common economic life, as well, is irrelevant when viewed against other theories of nationalism. The characteristics I agree with, however, are important in defining oneself as part of a nation. In practice today, the most important of these characteristics seem to be the, “historically constituted, stable community of people,” and, “psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.”04)Joseph Stalin, “The Nation,” in Nationalism, ed. John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith (Oxford, Oxford University Press 1994), 20. Also important, especially in a European context, is the presence of a common language, which Stalin also includes in his definition of a nation.05)Ibid., 19. Ordinarily, I would not have thought of language as crucial to a national identity, but, as Max Weber wrote, “this linkage of the common language and ‘nation’ is of varying intensity; for it is very low in the United States.”06)Max Weber, “The Nation,” in Nationalism, ed. John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994), 20. I include the importance of language in my definition of nationalism, because it is the most important issue when discussing the situation of Frisian nationalism in the Netherlands.
As mentioned, the Frisian language is the strongest source of nationalism in Friesland (or Fryslân, as it’s called in West Frisian). The idea of a common language as central to national identity is demonstrated in Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. In summarizing his argument, Anderson wrote that, “the convergence of capitalism and print technology on the fatal diversity of human language created the possibility of a new form of imagined community, which in its basic morphology set the stage for the modern nation.”07)Benedict Anderson, “Imagined Communities,” in Nationalism, ed. John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994), 95. By this, Anderson means that a shared language became a way to create a national identity among the population that spoke it, and was used as a tool as well as a weapon to assimilate smaller, similar languages into the more widely spoken languages of more powerful nation-states.08)Ibid., 94-5. For these reasons, the Frisian struggle for language recognition can be seen as representative of a greater struggle for the recognition of the Frisian national identity.
Various Frisian organizations, formed both within Friesland and throughout the Netherlands, as well as in Frisian populations around the world, including in the United States, campaigned during the twentieth century for higher degrees of Frisian autonomy.09)Suurenbroek and Schrover, “A Separate Language, a Separate Identity?,” 991. The most important victory thus far has been the recognition of Frisian as a second national language in the Netherlands.10)Goffe Jensma, “Minorities and Kinships: The Case of Ethnolinguistic Nationalism in Friesland,” in The Beloved Mothertongue: Ethnolinguistic Nationalism in Small Nations: Inventories and Reflections, ed. Petra Broomans, Goffe Jensma, Hans Vandevoorde, and Maarten Van Ginderachter (Leuven: Peeters, 2008), 75. The strength of the Frisian language in regards to forming a Frisian identity is evident in a poll conducted by Arno van der Zwet for an article he wrote about the national identity of the Frisian National Party, in which 100% of all participants ranked speaking and understanding Frisian as important or very important in order to be considered “truly Frisian.”11)Arno van der Zwet, “Operationalizing national identity: the cases of the Scottish National Party and Frisian National Party,” Nations and Nationalism 21, no. 1 (January 2015): 74. Ranked closely behind were, “To feel Frisian national identity,” “To respect Frisian political institutions and rules,” “To have Frisian ancestry,” and “To live in Friesland now.”12)Ibid. These definitions of the Frisian nation are all self-determined, and reference the common language, the historical, stable community of people, and common culture mentioned earlier as vital to developing a national identity.
Historical Overview of Minority Population
The history of the Frisians is at least as long as, if not longer than, that of their Dutch counterparts. The region that is known today as Friesland was first settled in around 400 B.C.E., when a Germanic tribe called the Frisians migrated there from the east.13)Frank E. Huggett, The Modern Netherlands (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971), 2. According to Frank E. Huggett, author of The Modern Netherlands, the Frisians were the first people to begin building up the marshy coastal region and constructing dikes to hold back the sea in order to make the region much more habitable, and allowing the population to grow.14)Ibid., 2-5. After Roman rule had collapsed in northern Europe, Frisia (as it was then called) was conquered by the Franks, and after the crowning of Charlemagne by the Pope, became part of the Holy Roman Empire.15)Ibid., 3-5. The pagan Frisians were initially very resistant in converting to Christianity, and it was only after a number of small wars and revolts that the country finally converted.
The Middle Ages were a very important time for Friesland. Prior to this period, Frisian territory had expanded greatly, and covered nearly the entire coast between the Weser River and modern Belgium. This country, referred to by modern historians as “Frisia,” or “Frisia Magna,” had its own written language, and was looked upon by members of the early Frisian Nationalist movement as a point of pride in their history.16)Jensma, “Minorities and Kinships,” 65. However, in 1498, with the installation of a Saxon central government, Dutch became the official written language in the administration, and by the nineteenth century, Frisian was hardly written at all.17)Ibid.
The trend of Dutch domination in the province intensified after Friesland joined the Union of Utrecht in 1579 when the Netherlands won their independence from Spain.18)Gerald Newton, The Netherlands: a Historical and Cultural Survey: 1795-1977 (London: Ernest Benn Limited, 1978), 27. With the influx of Dutch administrators to the province who could not and, more importantly, would not learn Frisian, the usefulness of Frisian as a written language had effectively ended. The arrival of these Dutch officials also altered the spoken language for a time, as a combination of Dutch and Frisian appeared, known as stadsfries, or “Town Frisian.” Stadsfries today, however, is only spoken in and around the city of Groningen.19)Ibid. Shortly after unification, Dutch became the official language of the Church in Friesland as well, effectively eliminating the use of Frisian in the public sphere.20)Ibid.
As part of the Netherlands, despite the loss of their written language, the people of Friesland did very well until the second half of the eighteenth century. The province had a very commercialized economy, high literacy rates, and high level production and consumption of luxury goods.21)Jensma, “Minorities and Kinships,” 65. Within the Republic as well, Friesland had its own administration, jurisdiction and mint, and thus maintained a relatively high level of political autonomy and sovereignty.22)Ibid., 66. Unfortunately, after this point, Friesland lost much of its power as the Netherlands attempted to develop a sense of national unity, and the country’s economy, as well as its culture, became increasingly centered around Holland. It was at this time, during the nineteenth century, that Friesland became a quiet, rural province in the periphery of the Netherlands, which it largely remains today.23)Ibid., 64-6. After a worldwide agricultural crisis in 1878, huge numbers of Frisian emigrants left Friesland for America, the Dutch colonies, or even just the central provinces of the Netherlands.24)Ibid., 66. It was in this environment in which the Frisian Nationalist movement began to grow, and led the campaign to rescue the Frisian language, the most defining feature of what it means to be Frisian.25)Ibid., 67. The movement gradually met with successes, including the founding of the Frisian National Party in 1962 to represent Frisian interests in Dutch politics, and the introduction of Frisian into primary education beginning in the 1930’s (while secondary education in Frisian wasn’t introduced until 1993). However, the movement’s greatest success came in 1970, when Frisian was officially made the second language of the Netherlands, thereby receiving legal status recognized throughout the country.26)Ibid., 74-5.
Ethnolinguistic Nationalism in Fryslân
As has been explained in the earlier sections of this essay, the Frisians are a primarily linguistic minority, with most Frisians living in the province of Friesland (Fryslân) in the northeast of the Netherlands. Despite Frisia’s strength during the Middle Ages, the Frisian language, and with it, the Frisian national identity, began to disappear beginning in the sixteenth century with Friesland’s incorporation into the Netherlands. This trend did not begin to reverse until the mid-nineteenth century, when institutions such as The Society for Frisian Linguistics and Literature (Frysk Selskip foar Taal- en Skriftekennisse) were founded to preserve and promote the Frisian language.27)Jensma, “Minorities and Kinships,” 69. Similar societies cropped up throughout the early twentieth century, culminating with the founding of the Frisian National Party in 1962, which brought Frisian political concerns to the provincial, national, and eventually European levels.28)Frisian National Party, “Organization – contact,” FNP Fryslân, accessed December 15, 2017, http://www.fnp.frl/english/organization-and-members/. The greatest achievement of the so-called “Frisian Movement” was the nationwide legalization of Frisian as the second national language of the Netherlands in 1970, restoring the use of the language in the administration, as well as helping to ensure its survival in the future.29)Jensma, “Minorities and Kinships,” 75. It is the study of these efforts, as well as the trajectory of the use of Frisian and its protections in the Netherlands since 1970, that forms the core of this essay. In studying the history of the Frisians, I will demonstrate that the Frisian language is at the core of their national identity, and that with the acceptance of protective linguistic policies in the Netherlands, the future is bright for the Frisian minority there.
Frisian fell out of common use as a written language beginning in 1498, when it was replaced by Dutch as the language of the provincial administration, a position that was strengthened with the joining together of the United Provinces in 1597,30)Ibid., 65-6. and later in the early nineteenth century during a period of intense centralization of the Dutch government.31)Suurenbroek and Schrover, “A Separate Language, a Separate Identity?,” 994. During the seventeenth century, there was only one notable Frisian writer, the poet Gysbert Japicx. His volume of poetry, the only published collection to be written entirely in Frisian during that period, was studied and celebrated by Frisian scholars of the nineteenth century and was a significant source of inspiration for the founding of the Frisian Language Society (Selskip) in 1844.32)Newton, The Netherlands: a Historical and Cultural Survey, 27. The Selskip drew most of its members from the Frisian countryside, unlike previous Dutch societies that studied Friesland in national and European contexts, which were predominantly made up of members of the educated elite. The Frisian Language Society, however, focused on the promotion and preservation of Frisian within Friesland, and this local emphasis spurred the politicization of Frisian ideals there.33)Jensma, “Minorities and Kinships,” 69. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, the Selskip was the preeminent source of Frisian national sentiment, encouraging first the broadening of Frisian literature and theater for the common people, and eventually the elevation of the language to a “higher literary level.”34)Suurenbroek and Schrover, “A Separate Language, a Separate Identity?,” 996. In 1908, the Selskip was joined by a Protestant society called The Christian Frisian Society, which was followed in 1917 by the Catholic Frisian Union. At the same time, the Young Frisian Community was formed, and reinvigorated the cause among the youth of Friesland, inspiring a new generation of Frisian writers.35)Jensma. “Minorities and Kinships,” 69. Inspired by the nationalist theory of Miroslav Hroch, Goffe Jensma wrote in “Minorities and Kinships: The Case of Ethnolinguistic Nationalism in Friesland,” that, “If…’The Frisian Literary Society of 1844’ had been the beginning of a process of politicizing the nationalist Frisian movement, the first decades of the twentieth century…changed it more or less into a mass movement.”36)Ibid., 70.
In the spirit of this “mass movement” of Frisian nationalism, Frisian societies began to appear outside of Friesland as well. During the later decades of the nineteenth century, Friesland experienced intense out-migration. Many Frisians moved to Amsterdam in Holland, or other wealthier provinces in the Netherlands, and many others left the country entirely, looking for better opportunities in the United States and Canada. These Frisians abroad also set up Frisian societies in their new communities, making it clear that Frisian language and culture were important to all Frisians, not only those living in Friesland.37)Suurenbroek and Schrover, “A Separate Language, a Separate Identity?,” 997. These societies united in 1905 under an umbrella organization called the Boun fen Fryske Selskippen bûten Fryslân (League for Frisian Societies outside of Friesland), known in short as the Bûtenboun. After collapsing in 1918 over religious and political differences between the groups, the Bûtenboun was reestablished in 1923 with neutrality in those regards incorporated in its regulations. The goal of the Bûtenboun was to organize and facilitate cooperation between the various Frisian societies abroad in order to effectively preserve and promote Frisian language and culture through such activities as annual Frisian days, theater performances, singing and writing contests, and writing or translating books into Frisian.38)Ibid. Frisian societies in Amsterdam were particularly important in supporting the creation of a unique Frisian identity as being distinct from the Dutch population surrounding them. In their article about such societies, Frank Suurenbroek and Marlou Schrover wrote that the nature of Frisian organizations outside of Friesland was determined primarily by developments within the Frisian Movement in Friesland itself, and that the goal of each of these societies was the preservation of the Frisian language, while the generation of a separate cultural identity was a result of the activities hosted by these societies.39)Ibid., 1002-3.
The efforts of all of these societies began to pay off beginning in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and especially after the Second World War. It is around that time that the provincial government in Friesland began increasingly supporting Frisian cultural initiatives and first advocated the Frisian language before the national government. Results of this early advocacy included the establishment of Frisian chairs at Dutch universities in 1930, the introduction of Frisian into primary education in 1937 (although it wouldn’t become compulsory until 1980), and the founding of the Fryske Akademy (Frisian Academy) in 1938.40)Jensma, “Minorities and Kinships,” 75. The Akedemy is still working today as one of the most active promoters of the Frisian language, but it performs other functions as well, including publishing West Frisian dictionaries, translations, and conducting historical and archeological research.41)Newton, The Netherlands: a Historical and Cultural Survey, 27. By far, however, the most important development of the Frisian Movement was the recognition of Frisian as the second official language in the Netherlands in 1970. Since this major milestone, the people of Friesland have been able to choose between Dutch and Frisian, street signs are posted in both languages, and courts are required to provide forms and interpreters for both languages as well.42)Suurenbroek and Schrover, “A Separate Language, a Separate Identity?,” 994. Alongside these requirements, Frisian was added as a subject in secondary education in 1993 (although not all schools actually offer it, and it’s only optional in the higher grades), and while its use is permitted in higher education, examples of this are extremely rare.43)Durk Gorter and Jasone Cenoz, “Multilingual education for European minority languages: The Basque Country and Friesland,” International Review of Education 57, no. 5-6 (2011): 661. Despite the situation in the schools, the trajectory of the Frisian language in Friesland is generally positive. While in 1967 the percentages are as follows for the Frisian population who could: understand (97%), read (69%), speak (85%), and write (11%) Frisian, by 2007 they had changed to: understand (94%), read (75%), speak (74%), write (26%).44)Ibid., 660. While this data shows that the ability to speak and understand Frisian has slightly decreased (likely due to the favoring of English as a second or third language in the increasingly globalized Netherlands), the ability of Frisians to read and write the language has increased significantly. Today, as in the past, all native Frisians can speak Dutch, although, of the roughly 650,000 people living in Friesland, approximately 350,000 speak Frisian as their first language.45)Ibid.
In addition to increased language protections, Frisians today also have a political party to voice their concerns at multiple levels of government. The Frisian National Party (FNP) was founded in 1962 to represent Frisian interests in the provincial government, and through it, the national government.46)Frisian National Party, “Organization – contact.” Currently, the FNP has about 1300 members, and has branches with representatives on the councils of 16 out of 24 municipalities in Fryslân, 4 seats out of 43 in the Frisian provincial government, and one seat through the Independent Senate Group in the Senate of the National Parliament.47)Ibid. According to its current political program, the FNP seeks to increase Frisian autonomy in making decisions about policies that affect the province. In regards to language and culture particularly, the FNP states that, “The further development of language and culture and everything distinctively Frisian will become a key task of the province.”48)Frisian National Party, “FNP program 2011-2015 for the Provincial Elections: “Fan mear nei better” From more to better,” FNP Fryslân, accessed December 15, 2017, http://www.fnp.frl/english/provincial-council/programme/. In pursuit of this goal, the FNP has stated their intent to: invest funding in a University Campus in the provincial capital of Leeuwarden (Ljouwert in West Frisian, Liwwadden in Stadsfries); set up a Centre for Friesian Language and Culture; develop trilingual education in Frisian, Dutch, and English; support Frisian sports such as ice skating, pole vaulting, kaatsen (a game similar to handball), and Frisian draught horses; promote Frisian through media, including the provincial public broadcaster Omrop Fryslân. Despite the Frisian identity’s centrality to these policies, the FNP has also stated that other cultures and lifestyles should be treated with hospitality and respect. However, they also maintain that, “New Frisians – people who come to live here – have to adapt to the mainstream culture here, but at the same (time) should be able to be themselves.”49)Ibid. While assimilationist in approach, in the grand scheme of nationalist theories, this is actually fairly inclusive, since anyone who comes to Friesland has the potential to become Frisian. Arno van der Zwet, who studied the national identity of the FNP found that their goal is to, “protect ‘Frisianness,’ not to exclude outsiders,” and that the language isn’t necessarily essential to becoming Frisian, since many Frisians can’t speak it either.50)van der Zwet, “Operationalising national identity,” 71. Despite some nationalist policies regarding who is Frisian, the party is more often considered a regionalist party in political discussion, since they desire increased autonomy within the Netherlands, but not actual independence.51)Jensma, “Minorities and Kinships,” 78. On a final note about the FNP, it is a founding member of the European Free Alliance, a party in the European Union made up of regional parties across Europe, including those of the Scots, Welsh, Catalans, Basques, and others. The party holds seven seats in the European Parliament, but none are held by the FNP.52)Frisian National Party, “Organization – contact.” Within the framework of the EU, the Netherlands has also signed and ratified the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages in 1998, officially recognizing Frisian as a native minority language and accepting the responsibility to promote and protect its cultural heritage. Since the minimum protections required by the Charter were already in place in the Netherlands, this move has been regarded as providing important moral support to Friesland, and the FNP intends to ensure that the Charter is upheld.53)Gorter and Cenoz, “Multilingual Education for European minority languages,” 665.
While the Frisians of the Netherlands had historically lost their language rights to the Dutch government in Amsterdam, they have made huge strides in its revival over the course of the last 150 years. Because of the Frisian language’s defining position as central to the Frisian identity, numerous cultural and political organizations were founded in Friesland and beyond to promote and protect it. After decades of effort promoting the use of Frisian and a regional sense of “Frisianness,” these organizations began to see their goals achieved, culminating in the national legalization of the Frisian language in 1970. Since then, the language has made significant progress in the schools, and the ability to read and write in it, which had nearly disappeared centuries ago, is steadily increasing. Due to the emphasis on the Frisian language, Frisian societies cultivated a stronger sense of a cultural and national identity, allowing them to more effectively mobilize people and achieve these successes. With the adoption of protective policies at the provincial, national, and European levels, the Frisian language seems likely to survive. The Frisian minority in the Netherlands is an example of a minority group that has, for the most part, been successful in reclaiming its rights from the national government, and the role of language has been central to its history.
Frisian National Party. “FNP program 2011-2015 for the Provincial Elections: “Fan mear nei better” From more to better.” FNP Fryslân. Accessed December 15, 2017. http://www.fnp.frl/english/provincial-council/programme/.
Frisian National Party. “Organization – contact.” FNP Fryslân. Accessed December 15, 2017. http://www.fnp.frl/english/organization-and-members/.
Gorter, Durk, and Jasone Cenoz. “Multilingual education for European minority languages: The Basque Country and Friesland.” International Review of Education 57, no. 5-6 (2011): 651-666.
Huggett, Frank E. The Modern Netherlands. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971.
Jensma, Goffe. “Minorities and Kinships. The Case of Ethnolinguistic Nationalism in Friesland.” In The Beloved Mothertongue: Ethnolinguistic Nationalism in Small Nations: Inventories and Reflections, edited by Petra Broomans, Goffe Jensma, Hans Vandevoorde, and Maarten Van Ginderachter, 63-78. Leuven: Peeters, 2008.
Newton, Gerald. The Netherlands: a Historical and Cultural Survey: 1795-1977. London: Ernest Benn Limited, 1978.
Suurenbroek, Frank, and Marlou Schrover. “A Separate Language, a Separate Identity? Organisations of Frisian Migrants in Amsterdam in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 31, no. 5 (September 2005): 991-1005.
van der Zwet, Arno. “Operationalising national Identity: the cases of the Scottish National Party and Frisian National Party.” Nations and Nationalism 21, no. 1 (January 2015): 62-82.
References [ + ]
|01.||↑||Walker Connor, “A Nation is a Nation, is a State, is an Ethnic Group, is a…,” in Nationalism, ed. John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994), 36.|
|03.||↑||Frank Suurenbroek and Marlou Schrover, “A Separate Language, a Separate Identity? Organisations of Frisian Migrants in Amsterdam in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” Journal of Ethnic Migration Studies 31, no. 5 (September 2005): 991.|
|04.||↑||Joseph Stalin, “The Nation,” in Nationalism, ed. John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith (Oxford, Oxford University Press 1994), 20.|
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|07.||↑||Benedict Anderson, “Imagined Communities,” in Nationalism, ed. John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994), 95.|
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|46.||↑||Frisian National Party, “Organization – contact.”|
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|52.||↑||Frisian National Party, “Organization – contact.”|
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