Today’s Opinion: April Fool’s joke hits target

POSTED: 04/4/11 12:10 PM

Of all the April Fool’s jokes that terrorized the globe on Friday, we thought one stood out.

Omrop Fryslân is the pride of what we’d call the native Frisians in the Netherlands. The Frisians have, apart from their Friesche Vlag dairy products one pride: their language. If you want to live in the province and find your way around in certain quarters we wish you good luck, because places like Boomsterhem and Tietjerksteradeel have taken their ethnic pride to the next level and shunned their Dutch names. It is officially Boarnsterhiem and Tytsjerksteradiel – a not too subtle way to tell foreigners they are not welcome there. Speak Frisian or bugger off.

The Frisians refer to their regional capital (Leeuwarden) as Ljouwert, though last time we looked the bureaucrats had not gone so far as to eradicate their Dutch spelled name from road signs.

Anyway, while outsiders seriously suspect that Frisians do not have a sense of humor, or that at least they could do with a bit more of it, we found two examples that played an April Fool’s joke on Frisian which is, by the way, a protected minority language.

The website Hallo Fryslan reported that Famila, a German supermarket chain, will establish a store in the capital Ljouwert (let’s stick to Frisian a bit here) where all indications will be written in the cherished minority speak. So shoppers would be confronted with Wolkom by Famila, instead of the Dutch Welkom bij Famila.

That does not sound like a real disaster yet, until you realize that the store has a special for blomkoal, or, worse, for húskepapier. A Dutch native speaker will figure out that blomkoal must be bloemkool (cauliflower), but húskepapier? That’s a tough sell to a shopper from Amsterdam who is in desperate need of toilet paper.

This rather tame joke played on the pride Frisians take in their language (calling Frisian a dialect is a sure way to put one’s life in danger over there) and it did not cause much of a storm.

But Omrop Fryslan, a regional radio station that broadcasts exclusively in the Frisian language hit a raw nerve when it announced on Friday that it would switch to Dutch. For a whole hour on Friday morning, the station indeed dropped Frisian and washed the ears of its most faithful listeners with the less than beloved Dutch language, before it announced that this was, after all, April Fool’s Day.

Many radio listeners were outraged, so this splendid joke proved once and for all that some Frisians indeed don’t have a sense of humor, while some others, at significant personal risk, have the balls to take the Mickey out of themselves and their audience.

To illustrate how sensitive Frisians are about their minority language, consider the following story.

The setting is an engagement party in the province of Drenthe. That’s also in the north, and these people also speak a dialect, but it’s different from Frisian and, more importantly, it is not a protected minority language. The same is valid for the third northern province of Groningen.

The fiancées are a girl from Drenthe and a young man from Friesland. The partygoers are split right down the middle as far as regional origin is concerned. Someone gets the unfortunate idea to ask everybody in the merry company to tell a joke. All goes well, until the following story is told.

The year is 754 A.D. and the place is what we now know as Dokkum. A man from Friesland and a man from the neighboring province of Groningen are having a heated argument.

“Gronings is a dialect and Frisian is a language,” the man from Friesland shouts.

“Not so fast,” the other guy says. “I think it is the other way around.”

This goes on for quite a while and then Bonifacius appears on the scene. The date is June 5, and it is Pentecost. Bonifacius, by then 80 years old and known as “the apostle of Germany and Friesland,” strikes the two men as someone with a lot of wisdom.

So they decide to put their dispute before him and take his answer as gospel. That didn’t work out too well, because when the men asked Bonifacius whether Gronings or Frisian was a language or a dialect, he famously answered, “Gentlemen, I am very sorry, but they are both a speech handicap.”  That was all the arguing men needed to join forces and to bash in the missionary’s head.

Half the partygoers fell over backwards laughing after hearing this joke – the family and friends of the girl from Drenthe. Her future father-in-law however got so red in his face that many feared he would have a heart attack, but instead he made an attempt to do some head bashing himself at the expense of the messenger. All this to say that some jokes are better than others and that it seems wise to think twice before using the Frisian language for target practice.

We have a whole year ahead of us to chew on Omrop Fryslân’s example and to come up with a variation that befits St. Maarten.


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