A “KOPKE KOFJE” AND FRISIAN (February 7/97)

A Dutch Canadian spoke these words – “kopke kofje” – when we were conversing over a cup of coffee. “You say ‘cup of coffee’ and in Frisian it’s “kopke kofje’.” “They’re almost the same words.”

Yetzee (I’m spelling his name phonetically and I hope I’ve got it right) is a Frieslander who comes from Frisia, a coastal region of Holland. In Frisia, the natives speak a language different than Dutch and Yetzee was giving me a few lessons. As we talked, he pointed out that many Frisian and English words were similar. “Our language is closer to English than Dutch,” he said.

Before he moved to Ontario to live with his son, Yetzee and I had many conversations about his language. I was amazed to find that he was right. Many words in Frisian are surprisingly similar to their English equivalent. There’s an important reason of course, but before I discovered that reason, I made a list of English and Frisian words that were identical and similar in sound after conversations with Yetzee.

Before I met Yetzee I had heard about the Frisians from another Dutch Canadian friend “Their national characteristic is stubbornness,” the friend said. “They’re noted for it.”

Yetzee never showed any of that “national characteristic” of the Frisians. Like his people in Friesland, he is a farmer. The Frisians – some 30,000 [correction: this number should be 300,000] speak the language according to a 1984 survey – farm the lowland dyke and canal area of coastal Holland and they honour the cow. In the main Friesland towns of Leeuwarden, a large statue of a milk-laden cow indicates the Frieslander’s devotion to agriculture.

In the old days, however, the Frisians were raiders and fighters; this, I discovered, is why many Frisian words are similar to English words. Yetzee’s vocabulary is living proof that the Frisian tongue was one of several languages that formed the basis of English.

In the fifth century AD, Yetzee’s ancestors were among a wave of Jutes, Angles and Saxons who invaded England after the withdrawal of the Roman legions. There is still some dispute as to whether the Jutes who settled in Kent were from Denmark or Friesland, but there is little doubt about the Frisian influence on our language.

Compare some Frisian words I learned from Yetzee to the English counterpart and the similarity between the languages is evident. We say butter, the Frisians say butter; we say dream and boat, the Frisians say dream and boat. Word pairs with great similarity (and words that would naturally come to mind for a lifelong farmer like Yetzee) are corn-koarn, wheat-weet and sheep-skiep.

I regret I didn’t have longer to talk with Yetzee and add more words to my Frisian list. But I ‘lucked out” recently when I ran into a man who was also interested in Frisian. He has spent some time on a farm with Frisians and, noticing the similarities in language, had made his own list. Here are some of his English-Frisian word pairs:

Rain-rien; cow-ko; dung-dong; lamb-lam; bull-bolle; and ox-okse. Note again that these are words from a farming environment. It is farming mainly that the Frieslanders of Holland are noted for today. As for the Frisian legendary stubbornness, I never noticed this trait in Yetzee when we were having our kopke kofje.

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