One often hears that Frisian is the closest language in the world to English. Along with the rhyme “Good butter and good cheese is good English and good Fries,” which is said to be the same sentence in both languages. (That’s the language name Fries, the Dutch name for Frisian, not the potato delicacy. Pronounced like freeze.) Anyway, the only cheese I put on my fries is parmesan.
But then if you get all enthusiastic like whoa cool baby, I’ll learn a new language with minimum effort!, your first look at a Frisian phrasebook can be shattering.
Ik hâld fan dy.
I love you.
Lokwinske mei dyn jirdei.
Ik ferstean net.
I don’t understand.
And you’re like, close to English my ass!!!11ien!! :smack:
The truth is that Modern Frisian is not mutually intelligible with Modern English, except in certain carefully selected phrases, like the quote in the first paragraph. Modern Frisian is actually a collection of three languages: West, North, and Saterland Frisian. It’s specifically West Frisian that is closest to English. Note that “closest” means “closest relative on the family tree,” which does not necessarily mean “mutually intelligible.”
Old English and Old Frisian *were *fairly mutually intelligible, but over the passage of 1,500 years they’ve diverged plenty. Together they form the Ingvaeonic subgroup of West Germanic on the Germanic family tree. The close relationship will be perfectly obvious to linguists who know how to analyze the underlying forms, who have studied Old English and proto-Germanic and are acquainted with the systematic sound shifts and other regular patterns of changes in the history of West Germanic.
Every so often a mutual-intelligibility gem swims into visibility of the lay person up from the murky depths of the North Sea that has drowned the land bridge that joined England to Frisia during the last glacial maximum. To ask “what time is it?” in West Friesland, you have to say “How late is it?” If you say “How late is it?” in English, you’ll be understood in Frisian. But the phrase is patterned after Dutch Hoe laat is het?, which is quite foreign to English ears despite its intelligibility.
Just compare the numbers in Old English and Old Frisian, versus the modern languages. This will give an idea of the mutual intelligibility of the old ones.
ME OE OF MWF
one an en ien
two twa twe twa
three thri thre trije
four feower fiuwer fjouwer
five fif fif fiif
six sex sex seis
seven seofon sigun sân
eight eahta achta acht
nine nig'on* nigun njoggen
ten tien tian tsien
*The marked g’ in OE nig’on means it is pronounced y: “niyon.”