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Review of  Directions for Old Frisian Philology

Reviewer: Benjamin G Jones
Book Title: Directions for Old Frisian Philology
Book Author: Rolf H. Bremmer Jr. Stephen Laker Oebele Vries
Publisher: Rodopi
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Ling & Literature
Subject Language(s): Frisian, Old
Language Family(ies): Germanic
Issue Number: 26.3133

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


This collection follows in the footsteps of earlier volumes intended to present current research within the field of Old Frisian philology. Various interests within morphology, phonology, syntax, typology, corpus analysis, and socio-historical reconstruction are included in twenty-one papers by various contributors. “Directions for Old Frisian Philology” is intended for those pursuing new and further research into this branch of Germanic studies, assuming at least some small background in Germanic (if not specifically Old Frisian) philology on the part of the reader. The purpose of this volume is to outline avenues for this new research within Old Frisian based upon the application of new methodologies and exploration of presently unanswered questions within the field.

The first chapter in the volume, “The Orality of Old Frisian Law Texts” by Rolf H. Bremmer, Jr., closely examines legal texts written in Old Frisian to address the question of what portions of the texts, if any, predated their commitment to written form. To accomplish this, Bremmer utilizes the approach of Ong (2012) to identify features of the language that indicate a previous oral tradition. Bremmer goes on to consider various socio-cultural issues, including the introduction of literacy, in considering the extent to which oral traditions were introduced into the written laws. His conclusion is that different extents of primary orality in Old Frisian legal texts can be found through this new analysis.

Following Bremmer’s chapter is Kees Dekker’s “Old Frisian kede, kathene, keten: Latin Chains and Frisian Bondage.” In this paper, Dekker seeks to place the relative date in which Old Frisian adopted the word “chain” from Latin by considering first the various historical attestations of the word and how its representation changed over time. Dekker then takes his analysis further by comparing the different forms with knowledge regarding change in the various Germanic languages, especially Old English and Old Frisian, to come to a better understanding of when, historically, it should be understood that the word was borrowed relative to other Latin borrowings. Dekker’s conclusion is that a phonological evaluation joined to consideration of historical evidence can be of assistance in determining the relative time frame of lexical borrowing.

“Glimpses of the Hereafter in the Late-Medieval Thet Freske Riim” is the third paper, contributed by Concetta Giliberto. Here, Giliberto argues that a portion of Thet Freske Riim is part of a broader eschatological genre that was present in Europe during its composition. This is argued by comparing the passage in question to other examples of the genre, in particular references to travels through the afterlife and representations of hell. Giliberto’s conclusion is that the section of Thet Freske Riim examined should be considered as part of this larger genre.

Kurt Goblirsch provides the fourth chapter, entitled “Between Saxon, Franconian, and Danish: the Obstruents of Frisian.” Considering various sound shifts in the Germanic languages, Goblirsch posits that Old Frisian took part in shifts that showed affiliation with the Northwest Germanic group. The analysis is then extended diachronically, examining shifts in surrounding Germanic languages and how contact with various Frisian groups (leading eventually into West, East, and North Frisian) illustrate changes in linguistic affiliation. The conclusion drawn from this is that Modern Frisian has developed an obstruent system that has departed from its Anglo-Frisian roots through contact and pressure from other languages.

The fifth paper is Colin J. Grant’s “Two Aspects of Nominal Style in the Seventeen Statutes and Twenty-four Landlaws.” Grant uses a corpus-based approach in conjunction with theoretical approaches from Systemic Functional Linguistics in order to demonstrate how clause-initial position and semantic content can account for irregularities in the syntax of some passages. Grant’s conclusion is that continuation of research in this manner may lead to a better dating of these texts and analysis of their oral content.

The first paper to be presented in German, the sixth chapter, is Mirjam Marti Heinzle’s “Die schwachen Verben der dritten Klasse im Altfriesischen – eine Spurensuche.” Examined is the status of a third inflectional class of strong verbs whose loss is not well accounted for in Old Frisian. Through the examination of various verbs in multiple texts, Heinzle concludes that it is likely that the loss of this paradigm happened relatively early in Old Frisian.

The following chapter comes from Jarich Hoekstra and Geart Tighchelaar. “kenna ~ kanna: the e/a- Variation in Old Frisian and Its Modern Frisian Reflexes” is concerned with modern differences found in the dialects of North Frisian that can, according to the authors, be attributed to variance found in allophonic variations that existed in Old Frisian. The changes in the distribution of this allophone resulted in differences for the Mainland and Island North Frisian dialects. The conclusion is somewhat more open-ended in that it highlights causes of the distribution of the allophone that require further work.

The eighth chapter in the volume, “Old Frisian Personal Pronouns: Morphology and Change,” is contributed by Stephen Howe. Howe examines the morphological complexity of pronouns and clitics in Old Frisian, dividing them into various classes that represent diachronic changes. Also considered is the role of phonology in reanalysis of these forms, as well as changes in number and gender distinction.

The second chapter written in German comes from Martin Joachim Kümmel, “Zur Rekonstruktion der altinselnordfriessischen Phonologie.” Kümmel walks through the development of the phonological inventory of Old Frisian, seeking to then understand and recreate the phonological inventory that would have been present in the establishment of Old Island North Frisian. Kümmel concludes that Old Island North Frisian contained distinctions in the inherited short vowels.

Stephen Laker provides the tenth chapter, “The Downfall of Dental Fricatives: Frisian Perspectives on a Wider Germanic Trend.” The paper begins with an overview of the development of fricatives in Proto-Germanic, leading into a discussion of dental fricatives in Old Frisian and its daughter languages. Special consideration is given to typological trends in such developments, particularly within the Germanic family. Based on the data, Laker concludes that the loss of the dental fricative was a result of language contact and diffused throughout the Germanic languages in a linear fashion.

“Glossing the Old Frisian Psalter: Pragmatics and Competence” is the eleventh paper, from Patrizia Lendinara. Lendinara examines the use of Old Frisian in glosses for various Psalms, given particular attention to the corpus methods involved in its analysis. The paper concludes that, given how the language was used, it is unlikely that the Psalter and its gloss was used for anything other than teaching purposes.

“Nae collatie metten principale. Ist sprachwissenschaftlich Erforschung altfriesischer Urkunden auch auf der Grundlage von Abschriften vertretbar?” comes from Henk D. Meijering. Here, the author addresses the issue of whether or not copies of Old Frisian texts can justifiably be used for linguistic research. Addressing concerns about the reliability of transcripts for linguistic research, Meijering proposes that their use is not a priori problematic and that they can still form a basis for linguistic research.

Robert Nedoma provides the thirteenth paper, “Voraltriesich –u im Nominativ und Akkusativ Singular der maskulinen a-Stämme.” Examining Old Frisian runes, Nedoma looks at how the morphology of masculine nouns changed over time, moving from an older version of the language into Old Frisian.

The fourteenth paper is Anne Tjerk Popkema’s “Old Frisian: a Legal Language in Principle.” Popkema approaches various legal documents written in both Old Frisian and Old Latin to consider if a division of domains can be established based on text-external features. After providing evidence, she concludes that Old Frisian served as the primary language of codifying laws domestically.

“Zur Endung runisch-altfriesisches –u and zur Entwicklung der Endung a-St. urgermanisches *-az” is the contribution of Roland Schuhmann. Like Nedoma, Schuhmann examines runic attestations of Old Frisian to determine diachronic changes. Schuhmann outlines how inflectional morphemes from Proto-Germanic morphed over time, reflecting new forms in the later West Germanic languages.

Chapter Sixteen, “Particle and Prefix Verbs: Insights from the History of Frisian and Other West Germanic Languages,” comes from Laura Catherine Smith. This chapter examines how prefix and particle verbs can be analyzed in Old English and Old Frisian in terms of their distributional qualities, including understanding of how these verb types take place in stranding and prepositional phrases. Smith then goes on to apply aspects of the Minimalist Program and her previous work (Biskup, Putnam and Smith 2011) to show how modern theory can be applied in study of Old Frisian. Smith concludes that further research into the syntax-phonology interface of Old Frisian will lead to more insights into how particle and prefix verbs function within Germanic languages.

Oscar Strik’s chapter, “Stability and Change in Strong Verb Inflection between Old and Early Modern Frisian,” looks to the phonology-morphology interface to examine changes in the inflections of Frisian verbs. This work is informed by other observations made of Germanic languages more generally, and presents the different strong verb classes that existed in Old Frisian. Strik concludes that Frisian has followed a common trend in the Germanic languages of losing strong inflection classes, but cautions that in order to understand such losses, including their mechanisms and reasons, requires further study.

The eighteenth paper comes from Johanneke Systema and is titled “Codex Unia: Edition and Reconstruction of a Lost Old Frisian Manuscript.” The paper begins by outlining the history of the creation of the Codex Unia, as well as challenges in deciphering how the Codex should be viewed in terms of the order of its contents. The paper then goes on to present and discuss a new, digital version that allows for viewing the Codex in different formats to facilitate new analyses of the text.

Chapter Nineteen is Michiel de Vaan’s “Dutch eiland ‘island’: Inherited or Borrowed?” De Vaan considers the problematic etymology of ‘island’ in many of the Germanic languages, and seeks to clarify whether the Dutch word is a borrowing from Frisian. Reconstructions of various forms that would support either a Dutch-internal root or a borrowing from Frisian are presented and reviewed. Additionally, manuscripts are consulted to assist in placing the historical context of the words and in determining whether different compounds required in the reconstructions are present. While de Vaan concedes that it is not entirely clear which is the case, the more complicated reconstructions required to show that ‘eiland’ is native to Dutch cause him to prefer the Frisian-origin hypothesis.

Arjen P. Versloot and Elzbieta Adamczyk contribute Chapter Twenty, “Corpus Size and Composition: Evidence from the Inflectional Morphology of Nouns in Old English and Old Frisian.” The authors carefully lay out their methods in building their corpora, and then test to what extent variation in (1) corpus size and (2) genre of the corpus impact the ability to compare languages such as Old English and Old Frisian. After presenting their analysis, the authors conclude that while genre can greatly impact the use of corpora for comparative study, the corpora they constructed do allow for reliable assessments of genre-independent features (such as morphology).

The final chapter comes from Oebele Vries: “Thet is ac londriucht. Landrechte und Landrecht im mittelalterlichen Friesland.” Vries examines the semantic use and interpretation of ‘londriucht’ in various Old Frisian documents, especially those of the Middle Ages. After reviewing the data, Vries concludes that current entries in dictionaries of Old Frisian do not yet contain all of the possible meanings.


As stated in the introduction, the purpose of this volume is to present research in Old Frisian philology while also demonstrating the possible directions into which the field can move. If we infer from this that the volume is intended for an audience of new scholars, it succeeds in this by presenting a general overview of current research questions, a number of different methods, and several linguistic theories that can shed new light on Old Frisian. For many of the chapters this culminates in the author(s) suggesting future research questions based on issues that still remain to be addressed or fully explored, both empirical and theoretical in nature.

It should be noted that the organization of the volume may frustrate some users. The chapters are arranged alphabetically by the names of the authors, not by their related content. In some instances, this breaks the overall flow of the volume. For example, the separation of Nedoma’s and Schuhmann’s chapters (which are nearly adjacent as is) is especially jarring, considering the strong relationship between these studies, which that is not as strong as their relationships to the intervening chapter by Popkema. Organizing the chapters by thematic content would improve the flow between the papers as well as improve the volume’s use as a general reference. Considering that the introduction outlines the chapters based not on their order but rather their content, the decision to present the papers alphabetically is puzzling.

While the papers have their individual weaknesses and strengths, the overall content of “Directions for Old Frisian Philology” is quite good. The breadth of approaches detailed in its pages gives the impression not only of a field that is growing, but one in which the participants are passionate about their work. Many chapters contain their own appendix, allowing for a more detailed exploration of the analyses that have been presented, and a number of the studies establish not only how they fit into the context of Old Frisian studies but also how they connect with broader studies of Germanic philology. As such, this volume can also serve as an introduction to Frisian for those who study related languages and are looking to expand their research.


Biskup, Peter, Michael Putnam and Laura C. Smith. 2011. “German Particle and Prefix Verbs at the Syntax-Phonology Interface.” Leuvense Bijdragen 97, 106-35.

Ong, Walter. 2012. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, 3rd edn. London: Routledge.
Ben Jones received his BA in Linguistics from the University of Southern Maine and is currently working on his MA in Linguistic Theory and Typology at the University of Kentucky. His research interests include dialectology, language documentation and revitalization, and geolinguistics. The goals of his research include determining how population dispersion has affected language variation both in terms of speaker perception and production.