walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

What Language did Grampa Speak, Revisited

By the time I was paying attention, in the early 70s, my paternal grandfather wasn't speaking very much: he'd had a series of strokes. He spoke English, definitely, and if I had given it any thought at all, I would have assumed he must have spoken Dutch because I knew he came from the Netherlands.

When I was a little older, my dad was telling stories about how we weren't _really_ Dutch, we were Frisian. What, precisely, that might have meant never developed into anything particular in my brain, at least.

When I was considerably older, my aunt went to visit her cousins in the Netherlands and then some years later, I went as well. The cousins do indeed live in Friesland and they do indeed speak some Fries/Frisian/Frysk, also Dutch, English and whatever other additional languages they learned along the way (French and German being fairly common). If you're thinking geez, well, yeah. I'm clearly a weak link in the chain.

On this most recent visit, however, I learned from A. that our mutual cousin J. (one of J.'s kids) told a story about how my grandfather's (and A.'s father's) family went to Germany for some years. Well, _that's_ a new development. I looked around in Tresoar's notarial records, and found a string of notarized debts by my great-grandfather (A.'s grandfather). My cousin D. told me that Aebe or Ybe (the ggfather in question) had "lost the farm to gambling" or something along those lines, and I did indeed find Aebe selling the farm in 1898, when my grandfather would have been 2 years old.

The next appearance of Aebe in the notarial records is 1907. So there is a plausible absence from Friesland for Aebe (and, one assumes, his family) that could be readily explained by emigration to Germany. But where in Germany? The story goes that Aebe learned to play violin (taught himself) and skipped out on farm work to practice and/or protect his hands. Once in Germany, he was running a pub or hostelry of some sort (with his wife doing all the hard work and raising the young family), playing the violin for the customers and generally having a good life. It's pretty easy to see this all coming to a crashing, er, halt in the global financial crisis of 1907, sending Aebe and his now somewhat older family back to Friesland where their extended family and kinship connections could provide assistance.

The day after I heard this story, I thought to ask A., "Where in Germany?", but the story did not include that detail. After all, it had been carefully concealed from younger generations in one family, preserved among cousins as a Don't Be Like Them tale. I immediately thought, I bet they went to Friesland in Germany (East Frisia), because that'd be an easier step than dealing with Hochdeutsch.

So the next step was to see if I could get any kind of access to the residence records that I know Germany has kept for a while. I did not think there had been any births/marriages/deaths while Aebe's family was in Germany, because I thought I had everyone accounted for in the Dutch Civil Registry. I have not succeeded thus far. I also took a look around Amazon for guides to doing German genealogy (so far, I haven't been that interested, because all the German connections were pretty distant in time and my tree). Then I started googling around. I found a guy in Iowa who is a specialist in migration from East Frisia to the United States and wrote him a letter (it'll go out in the mail on Monday), because it occurred to me that the timeline and history suggested that my grandfather and great-uncle may have emigrated not as a part of a Frisian group, but as part of the East Frisian migration (thus explaining why they didn't end up in Michigan).

And I found this in Google Books. Johnson's Universal Cyclopedia, a New Edition, Volume 3, pp 601-2. Under "Modern West Frisian".

"As to the dialects of the towns Leeuwarden, Bolsward, Sneek, Harlingen, Franeker, Dokkum, and of "Het Bildt" (the district along the northwestern coast of the province of Friesland), the name of "Platt-Frisian" (i.e. "Plattdeutsch"-Frisian, Low German Frisian), or "Town-Frisian" (Stadfriesch), is generally assigned: it ought to be said that the "Town-Frisian" is not to be counted among Frisian, the idiom of the towns in question being a Low Saxon dialect, which replaced the former Frisian language and kept only a comparatively small number of Frisian words and peculiarities."

The story so far: Grampa is born in 1896 in Achlum, Friesland, the Netherlands. He might speak Dutch. He might speak Frisian. He might speak whatever that cyclopedia is talking about. He might not speak at all, given my family history of late speech. Perhaps the family goes to Germany, perhaps to somewhere in East Frisia, where they then may well speak another form of Frisian or another form of Plattdeutsch. And then they come back, and in 1914, at 17 or 18, he comes to the United States.

No wonder he typed English when he wrote to his Dutch relatives back home in the 1970s.
Tags: genealogy

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.