Soon there will no longer be a professor of Frisian language and culture. And that’s a bad thing, say scientists and writers

The last professor of Frisian opens the door to his home in Sauwerd, Groningen. Goffe Jensma (67), born in Kornhorn in Groningen, has always lived in the province. He sees the humor in the fact that it is precisely a genuine Groningen citizen like himself who stands up for the Frisian language and culture: “A Groningen citizen who is trying to save the Frisian. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.”

After fourteen years as a professor, Jensma retired last September as professor of Frisian language and literature. And thus the last professor of Frisian in the Netherlands has retired. For the University of Groningen (UG) does not appoint another professor as his successor, but an assistant professor – and he is only appointed two days a week.

That decision led to many protests in and outside Friesland. Seventy writers, scientists and administrators spoke out critically in an open letter to the RUG, which was asked parliamentary questions, and minister Hanke Bruins Slot (domestic and government relations, CDA) said he was “genuinely concerned” about the preservation of Frisian at University. Justifiable concerns, says Jensma, “because Frisian has a protected status as a second state language.”

With the appointment of a university lecturer instead of a full professor, RUG does not comply with the agreements with the province of Friesland, according to the subsidy contract held by NRC. Every year RUG receives 110,000 euros from the province for the preservation of Frisian at the university. A condition for this grant is that RUG hires a professor of Frisian.

Also read this opinion piece: Help, the hairdresser is killed

According to RUG, no suitable candidates could be found to succeed Jensma. But several organizations doubt that reading. For example, an open letter states that ‘several people are suitable to fill the chair’. There are at least ten suitable candidates in freestyle [de wetenschappelijke studie van de Friese taal- en letterkunde], says Arjen Dijkstra, director of the Frisian historical center Tresoar and co-initiator of the letter. “But not all of them have been contacted by RUG.” He talks about freestyle as a “small village” where everyone knows each other.

In addition, writes DING time, the independent advisory body for the Frisian language, after its own investigation in a letter to RUG, that there is an “unclean” employment procedure involving an “informal meeting”. The connections between Fryske Akademy, which conducts scientific research in the Frisian language, and RUG are said to be too close. The newly appointed assistant professor also works for the Fryske Akademy, while the dean of the art faculty at RUG is a member of the board of the Fryske Akademy. “It is very clear that there is a cross-pollination that we do not understand good governance places”, says Alex Riemersma, board member of DINGtiid. “But it’s obviously possible within the university and in the contract with the province.”

Not used

There are also people who have not applied for a professorship because they do not have the qualifications for it. But they would have done that if they had known it was an assistant professorship, says Riemersma: “They haven’t had that opportunity now.” RUG acknowledges that there was no separate application procedure for this position and that the employment of the university lecturer took place ‘in collaboration with the Fryske Akademy’.

Only RUG offers Frisian, which falls under the broader bachelor’s program Minorities & Multilingualism. In recent years, an average of five to fifteen students have studied Frisian each year. There are four in this academic year. Too little for an independent investigation, RUG believes. For this reason, and because Frisian is the second national language protected by two European treaties, the province and the national government subsidize each RUG with 110,000 euros per year.

Jensma has seen Frisian as a fully developed and independent study that takes on an increasingly less prominent role. He attributes this to “neoliberal policies” in various cabinets. First, the opportunity to do another study for free disappeared, then it became more difficult to choose Frisian as a minor, then Frisian had to become part of a wider and larger international study – which resulted in many more international students and teachers who were not interested in Frisian selected.

Year after year, Jensma saw fewer students. Because it became more difficult to read Frisian, he says. ‘It slowly snowed too Frisian in the international competition at RUG,’ says Jensma. “Frisian as an independent study is now finito.”

Many smaller studies have disappeared from Dutch universities in recent years, such as Finnish and Hungarian ones. But these languages ​​can still be studied in other countries. Frisian is only taught in Groningen. If RUG does not continue to make a serious effort to provide a good education, Jensma fears a ‘language euthanasia’ of Frisian.

Lack of money cannot be an argument, says Jensma, given the subsidies from the government and the province. “I find it surprising that the ministry and the province are not taking stronger action against the university.”

Earlier, in 2021, the province of Friesland warned RUG’s board in a critical letter – in Frisian – to start the succession after Jensma in good time and ensure that a “Folly-worthy and independent master frieze pieces” [volwaardige en zelfstandige master Fries] would come. According to the province, Frisian as part of the wider international educationno right” [geen recht] to Frisian’s position as a second state language. In the absence of a new professor, the province even threatened to award the grant for Frisian to another university. This step has not yet been taken. The province of Friesland does not answer important questions from NRC and says that he is ‘in good talks’ with RUG.

More beginners are needed

Frisian still plays an important role in society. In Friesland, almost 60 percent of the population speaks Frisian every day, according to 2019 research from the province of Friesland. Furthermore, Frisian speakers among young people are not significantly decreasing, and more than a quarter of non-Frisians in Friesland speak Frisian – the latter group has therefore learned it. “Frisian is less prominent in everyday life than in the 1950s, but the language is much more robust than, for example, Catalan or Welsh. The latter is only spoken by 30 percent of the Welsh,” says Jensma.

also read this opinion piece by Pier Bergsma on the Frisian language

Frisian society therefore has a great need for good Frisian speakers and Frisians. Friesland has a Frisian-language television station, two newspapers that regularly use Frisian, a historical archive and various Frisian research organizations. Furthermore, Frisian is the official language in most public institutions, and Frisian suspects are allowed to express themselves in Frisian in court. If the study in Frisian disappears from RUG, it will no longer be possible to study Frisian at university level.

“The Frisian language is now doing well in society, but there is a whole structure of Frisian studies around it, whose leader ensures academic anchoring,” says Dijkstra van Tresoar. “This anchoring is important to keep a program running, but also to get research funding. It kills you without a professor.”

RUG has not wanted to answer questions from NRC but says it is “like looking ahead” and is working on an “intermediate solution”. Dijkstra does not trust that. “Lavn is of no use to us, because the current directors will be gone in a few years,” says Dijkstra. “What we need are agreements.”

Jensma’s biggest fear is that Frisian will disappear completely as a study in the future. “The discussion must not only be about my inheritance, but especially about Frisian as a recognizable and independent education. So someone can take a Ph.D. from a bachelor’s and master’s degree and is thus trained to become a hairdresser.” Jensma otherwise fears that “Frisian will fall back to the status of a dialect”.

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