On earthworms, ‘mienskip’ and the importance of language (reblog)

REBLOG: Amber Nota, who is a PhD at our Department of Frisian Language and Culture, wrote this excitant blog entry at her project’s website (https://sites.google.com/site/multilimelo/blog). Happy to reblog!

“The disappearance of the earthworm will cause the loss of Frisian identity” is a sentence I would never have expected to start a blog post with. The claim was made this afternoon by PhD candidate Jeroen Onrust at the UCF autumn school. He investigates the effects that farming practices in Friesland have on the population of meadow birds. The UCF (University Campus Friesland) has brought PhD candidates from different research fields together with academics, business people, policy makers and other interested parties to talk about the societal relevance of their research.


Jeroen Onrust explains part of the relevance of his research to the people of Friesland as follows: meadow birds are a part of Frisian culture. Searching for eggs is a Thing with a capital T; the first egg of the year makes it to the newspapers without fail. The Frisian language also has over 600 words to do with meadow birds. As a cultural group, Frisians care about meadow birds. And what do the meadow birds care about? Worms. Due to modern farming practices, there are not enough worms. This means that if ‘we’ keep this up, there will be fewer and fewer meadow birds, until – possibly – there are none left. The loss of the meadow birds in Friesland will be a loss of part of Frisian culture. It will mean those words are no longer needed, leading to the loss of an aspect of the language; a loss of part of the Frisian identity.

A bold claim? Without doubt. But sometimes a bold claim is needed to get the message across. And sometimes bold claims get bold or even rash and harsh responses. In this case, the harsh response came from Bouwe de Boer, representative of the council of Leeuwarden: “Language loss is not very important to the people”.

We all have our areas of expertise. For Bouwe de Boer, this is energy and sustainability. For me, it is language. As such, I can say without the slightest doubt that language loss is not only important to the people, it can literally be a matter of life and death. Although I am grateful she is very much alive, if she had been dead, my first mentor in linguistics and expert on language loss in refugee situations, Monika Schmid, would currently be spinning in her grave. For now though, I will limit myself to opinions on language loss in Friesland.

My first reaction to de Boer’s claim was: “You confuse the people with society as a market place because you do not see how language loss, and research into (the prevention of) language loss could possibly result in products that can be marketed. I could tell you that in fact, this is possible.” However, de Boer’s responses to a later presentation by Abhigyan Singh proved me wrong; his statement does not stem from lack of regard for the people themselves. Instead, he simply does not appear to see how language could be important to people.

Abhigyan Singh researches local initiatives for sharing renewable energy in both the Netherlands and India. Whether that means a village in India sharing all its portable lights so that the kids can play football at night, or a Dutch neighbourhood all chipping in for shared solar panels doesn’t matter. It’s about local communities working together to fix a problem or improve their situation. For such initiatives in Friesland, the term mienskip – a specific sense of community – was used.

With its focus on energy, this project was right up Bouwe de Boer’s alley, and he loved it. He loved mienskip. But mister de Boer, when an Indian PhD candidate, in a room where English is spoken exclusively, feels the need to use the term mienskip to make sure the right meaning is conveyed, then perhaps language matters more than you think. What forms these small communities? What makes them different from other communities in the Netherlands? Why could Abhigyan Singh not just have used the word community? Because language is a part of what forms these communities. Language is part of identity. Group identity, personal identity. It allows people to identify with others, to build a group, and it allows them to distinguish themselves from others. Language helps us shape who were are. Loss of language therefore, IS loss of identity. And so I ask you, mister de Boer, if loss of language, loss of identity, does not matter to the people, then why did you feel the need to use the words oant sjen at the end of the day?

In my work on language in Friesland, I am in direct contact with “the people”. Frisian people. The exact people Bouwe de Boer was referring to. And the only thing I can say, based on my interactions with “the people”, is that he is wrong. I need people to participate in my research. To make time for me, to allow me and others on my team to come to their homes, take over their kitchen tables with our equipment and make recordings of them reading out nonsense sentences and stories about bunnies. And they don’t find this annoying, they don’t grumble. No, they are happy to be able to participate in my research, because they find the Frisian language to be important. They applaud me for researching it, because “it needs to be preserved”, “the more we know about it, the better”, “Frisian is an important part of my life”. Even when they know they are the wrong age for my participant groups, or from the wrong region, they still contact me. They email, they call me early in the morning while I’m trying to find my socks. They notice an interest in Frisian, and because they share that interest, they are happy and willing to invest their time and energy. They prove clearly that Bouwe de Boer was wrong: Language loss is very important to the people.