Frisian (varyingly Frysk, Frasch, "Fresk", or "Friisk") is a language spoken by a small ethnic group living in the northwestern part of Europe. In origin, the Frisian language is Germanic, the ancient Frisian community figuring prominantly in North European history. They were especially noted as traders and raiders during viking times.
Frisian consists of several dialects, which are very often mutually unintelligible. At their most basic, there are 3 dialectal divisions, West Frisian 'Frysk', Saterland Frisian 'Seeltersk', and North Frisian. The North Frisian language is however, further segmented into several additional strongly unique speech forms.
The northern dialects include Mainland dialects, Island Dialects, and the Heligoland dialect, Heligoland or 'Halund' also an island. There is such a strong difference between the island and mainland forms of the North Frisian language that it has been speculated that the mainland and insular areas may have been originally populated by two separate waves of ancient Frisian colonizers, these migrations occuring in entirely different eras.
Frisian is distinct from East Frisian Low Saxon (see below).
Most Frisian speakers live in the Netherlands, primarily in the province of Friesland (Fryslân in Frisian) where their number is about 440,000. In Germany, there are about 2,000 speakers of Frisian in the Saterland region of Lower Saxony, the Saterland's marshy fringe areas having long protected Frisian speech there from pressure by the surrounding Low German and High German languages.
In the Nordfriesland (Northern Frisia) region of the German province of Schleswig-Holstein, there are 10,000 Frisian speakers. While many of these Frisians live on the mainland, most are found on the islands, notably Sylt, Föhr, Amrum and Heligoland. The local corresponding Frisian dialects are still in use.
However, such classifications, where possible, are based on studies of the earliest written forms of languages, so in the case of Frisian and English, they do not take into account the centuries of drift of English away from Frisian norms. Thus the modern languages are completely unintelligible to each other.
Indeed, Frisian has itself been brought progressively closer to Dutch as a consequence of the political subordination of Friesland to the ethnic Dutch. The language as it was spoken in northern North Holland (formerly West Friesland) is now completely extinct, while a dialect of Dutch known as Stadtfries (City Frisian) has made massive gains within Friesland itself. Elsewhere in the former area of Frisian, Low Saxon has come to predominate, with dialects of East Frisian Low Saxon now known generically as "Frisian".
The earliest definite written examples of Frisian are from approximately the 9th century. A few examples of runic inscriptions from the region are probably older and possibly in the Frisian language. These runic writings however usually do not amount to more than single- or few-word inscriptions, and cannot be said to constitute literature as such. Actual Frisian writings appear a few centuries later, and are generally restricted to legalistic writings -- this the Old Frisian period.