The linguistic landscape of Ljouwert/Leeuwarden (the Netherlands)

Leeuwarden is the capital city of the province of Fryslân, the only officially bilingual province in the Netherlands. In Leeuwarden there is a lot of language on the streets. Mostly Dutch, Frisian and English. In Leeuwarden a variety of languages is spoken. Think of Dutch, Frisian, English, and a large number of migrant languages. In addition to this, the city has its own City Frisian dialect that differs from Standard Frisian. In line with Leeuwarden-Fryslân European Capital of Culture 2018 a lot of projects that involved language and multilingualism have been brought to live in the province. Because of that, there is a variety of language present outside of the more general linguistic landscapes of shopwindows, advertisement or traffic signs. A few of those I would like to highlight here, two years after being the Capital of Culture. One of these was the Sichtberens project, that worked towards more visibility for the Frisian language. With huge texts that were placed on top of buildings throughout the city centre, the Frisian language was implemented in a creative way into the lives of everyone who walks through Leeuwarden.

Throughout the city centre small texts like the one below can be found. They are presented in three languages. At the top it is Frisian, the middle is Dutch and the third is English. They all have to do with language and literature. These texts were painted on the street by Lân fan Taal (Land of Language) project in 2018 and are repainted where needed.

Picture 2. Lân fan Taal project street paintings.

The same goes for the following street painting that is in front of Obe, the local language experience centre. It says that language makes us human, in Frisian (taal makket ús ta mins), English (language makes us human) and Spanish (el lenguaje nos hace humanos).

Picture 3. The Oldehove square with the language makes us human painting

At the same square as where we see the language makes us human painting, we can see part of the song text of the song that was written for Leeuwarden-Fryslân European Capital of Culture 2018; ‘Seis oere thús’ (be home at six o’clock).  This song was written in Frisian but at this display small parts and sentences have been translated to both Dutch and English.


Picture 4. Entrance of a parking garage displaying a Frisian song.

All things presented in this blogpost where introduced in the scope of Leeuwarden-Fryslân European Capital of Culture 2018. It is therefore interesting to look at some of the cultural institutions present in Leeuwarden to see if they make the Frisian language visible as well. The institutions looked at were the pop venue Neushoorn, cultural centre the Blokhuispoort, the Fries Museum and the public library dbieb. Asides from the Fries Museum, the institutions do not use any Frisian in their signage. The Fries Museum uses the Frisian language in their exhibition signage, information signage, in the café and in brochures that can be taken into the exhibition. However, Frisian does not occur everywhere. Some of the information signage includes Frisian, mostly in combination with an icon. Others make use of only Dutch or Dutch and English. In the exhibition signage we mostly see Frisian in titles and in the brochures that can be taken into the exhibition. These brochures provide the information that is presented next to the exhibited (mostly in both Dutch and English) in Frisian. We could say that Frisian is used more in a symbolic way to show that there is another language present, not specifically to convey information.

Picture 5. Part of the information pillar in the Fries Museum.

At the pop podium Neushoorn and the cultural centre the Blokhuispoort English and Dutch are used interchangeably. In the library dbieb Dutch is used in all signage (Pictures 6 and 7).

What we can conclude from this is that Leeuwarden-Fryslân Cultural Capital of 2018 brought a lot of projects involving (Frisian) language into life and has maintained its place in the linguistic landscape in Leeuwarden. However, this has not spread to the several cultural institutions, keeping in mind the international outlook they have.

In short, much more Frisian signage is used in rural areas than in the urban spaces of the province. So, while walking around the streets of Ljouwert/Leeuwarden, one is lucky to spot any of the 3% of shop signs that are exclusively written in Frisian, or the 2% which combine Frisian and Dutch (Cenoz and Gorter 2006). The linguistic landscape of the province therefore does not really reflect the fact that Frisian is an official administrative language of the Netherlands, and that it is spoken by a majority of its inhabitants (Kuipers-Zandberg & Kircher 2020). Also, the presence of other languages is still very limited in both urban and rural spaces, although 12% of the population has a migrant background (18% in the capital).

By Sibrecht Veenstra

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