When I studied at Groningen University, my favourite module was Cultural Transfer and Minority Languages, a module led by Professors Petra Broomans and Jeanette den Toonder. We read novels, short stories and essays from migrant writers in Anglo- and Francophone Canada, translated Swedish stories dotted with Sami and Meänkieli words and phrases, and Canadian-Caribbean literature.
An interesting detail about the course was that students had the option to write their essays in Dutch, English, German, French, Finnish, and Swedish; an impressive reflection of the combined language skills of our lecturers.
I suppose my interest in minority languages started early. I grew up in Harlingen, a small town in the north of the Netherlands where Dutch is spoken alongside the Frisian language and the regional dialect of Harlingers.
The moment I learnt that the people around me who didn’t speak Frisian, didn’t necessarily speak Dutch either, still stands out in my mind:
Once, I must have been four or five years old, my next-door neighbours were looking after me for a couple of hours in the afternoon. When my mother came to collect me, she chatted with the man of the house while I was watching a cartoon about a dinosaur. It wasn’t long though, before snippets of their conversation started to pique my interest.
The neighbour told my mum there’d been a fire in a house. He’d fled outside in a panic, but his hand was still in the house! His hand (‘mien hân,’ he said, which is Frisian for ‘my hand’) was in the kitchen and he looked at it through a window in the door. He wanted to save his hand from the fire.
I forgot all about the cartoon and stared at him in awe while he talked. Of course he wanted his hand back! Who wouldn’t?
The neighbour told my mother he’d kicked in the kitchen window, climbed through it and cut his leg, but he managed to save his hand!
When Mum and I were back home, I immediately asked her about the hand. How had our neighbour lost it? Did he have an accident? And how had the doctors sewn it back on? With needle and thread, and didn’t that hurt?
My mother looked puzzled for a moment, but then she understood. ‘He wasn’t talking about his hand,’ she explained. ‘Our neigbours speak Harlingers. He was talking about his dog. In Harlingers, mien hôn means my dog!’
Hân and hôn. Two homophones. The first is Frisian, the second is Harlingers but both use the word ‘mien‘ for ‘my.’
At the end of the Cultural Transfer and Minority Languages module, I wrote an essay (in English) in which I compared the Frisian and Welsh efforts that are undertaken to keep the languages from becoming extinct. Later, when I picked up my novel again, I decided that most of the characters in it would be Welsh but living in London. I also couldn’t help but mention Saunders Lewis and have two of my characters move to Cardiff at the end of the book.
I’m currently working on my novel’s sequel, which has the working title: A Rose for Bethan, but in the future, I’d definitely like to write regional novels too.