The historical Oldehoofsterkerkhof square in Leeuwarden, the capital of the province of Friesland in the Netherlands, is a striking muddle of the weird and the wonderful.
Leeuwarden is a striking muddle of the weird and the wonderful
There is De Oldehove, the unfinished tower from the 16th Century that’s so crooked it leans further than Pisa’s. There is the dazzling Princessehof National Museum of Ceramics, a renovated stately house filled with Ming rarities and pieces by Picasso, but also once the childhood home of MC Escher, the 20th-Century graphic artist who created impossible dreamscapes of never-ending staircases and mind-tricking waterfalls. And there is Gemeentehuis, or City Hall, where the Dutch first heard of the legend of Grutte Pier, a giant pirate with superhuman strength who set out to kill anyone that wasn’t Frisian.
But arguably stranger than all of this is Lân fan taal (‘land of language’ in Frisian), a house dedicated to thousands of languages. A permanent addition to the square since January, the building has been erected as part of this year’s Leeuwarden-Friesland European Capital of Culture 2018 programme, presenting 6,720 languages, a comprehensive catalogue of world tongues, including Frisian, the province’s principal language. It’s appropriate, too; particularly because Leeuwarden – or Ljouwert, Liwwadden, Leewadden, Luwt, Leaward or Leoardia, as it has been variously called between the 11th to 19th Centuries – is known as the City of 100 Names.
Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, has been named the European Capital of Culture for 2018 (Credit: Mike MacEacheran)
“We’re trying to give life to languages, and there’s nowhere better to do so than in a place with its own unique linguistic history,” said Siart Smit, Lân fan taal programme director, as he strolled around the installation. “This is a bilingual province, speaking both Frisian and Dutch, and there are 128 nationalities living in Leeuwarden. So this story celebrates our diversity, but it also promotes multilingualism.”
That nearly half of the world’s languages are threatened with extinction is reason enough to explore Lân fan taal. All around this marvellous exhibit, wooden blocks inscribed with languages dangle from the ceiling in alphabetical order – a brief snapshot lists Swedish, Swabian, Suwawa, Suruí do Pará – most of which are unknown to the average visitor. Elsewhere, 84 neon signs in white, red, blue and green, showing how people use different words to express the same idea, suffuse the whole place with rainbow light.
We’re trying to give life to languages, and there’s nowhere better to do so than in a place with its own unique linguistic history
But while Lân fan taal’s remit is to promote dialectal understanding, Leeuwarden maintains a deep linguistic strangeness of its own creation: its very name has been in a state of flux since the 10th Century. Moreover, consult Guinness World Records and you’ll find Leeuwarden has 225 different variations, not just the 100 alluded to in its nickname. So how on Earth did this northern Frisian town come to have so many names?
To begin with, there is geography. Located in the remote north-western reaches of the country, Friesland is surrounded on three sides by tidal flats, wetlands and the Wadden Sea. The province became part of the modern kingdom of the Netherlands, created in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th Century when the rest of Europe rallied to defeat the French leader. But still today the Dutch think of Friesland as a country abroad. The gabled houses, meandering canals and ivy-strewn bicycle lanes are the same as elsewhere in the Netherlands, but life here is slower, the residents stereotyped as insular and buttoned-down. As I experienced throughout my time in the province, they are far less outspoken than their southern compatriots. Consider that Friesland is also the least-densely populated part of the country and that sense of seclusion was alone reason enough for the Franks, Dutch, Flemish, Saxons and Wallonians, among others, to move in. This cultural pollination meant Leeuwarden’s pronunciation and spelling soon began to change.
Lân fan taal presents a comprehensive catalogue of world tongues (Credit: Mike MacEacheran)
To learn more, I contacted city historian Henk Oly from Historical Centre Leeuwarden, who told me an explanation of the names was neither easy nor straightforward. Traditionally, he explained, Leeuwarden has a number of forms: Frisian (Ljouwerd), a Dutch equivalent (Leeuwarden), and two in the local dialect spoken in the city itself, also known as Liwwadders (Leewwadden and Liwwadden). To complicate matters, the city is known as Luwt in other parts of the province, while throughout the centuries scholars frequently Latinised the name to Leovardia. Add phonetic variants, most with orthographic consequences, and the possibilities explode.
“Before 1804, no official spelling existed, and everyone wrote more or less the way they used to pronounce the words,” Oly said. “You could write Ljouwerd or Ljouwert because the ‘d’ on the end of a word sounds like a ‘t’, for example. Or write Lyouwerd, Ljouwerd or Liouwerd, as they are also pronounced the exact same way. When you combine the variants, the potential is almost endless.”
There are more than 200 variations of the name ‘Leeuwarden’ dating back to the 11th Century (Credit: Mike MacEacheran)
Today, the 225-name, world-beating list is the legacy of 19th-Century record-keeper Wopke Eekhoff, the son of a silversmith who took up the job of city archivist in 1838. The first to be appointed to such a role in the Netherlands, he was charged with a clear agenda: to collect everything he could find on Leeuwarden’s history and curate a municipal art collection.
As Leeuwarden had accumulated dozens of monikers over the centuries – from 1500 to 1520, for instance, the spelling of the city’s name changed almost every two years – it was a complex situation at best. Yet Eekhoff would go on to tirelessly chronicle two 400-page volumes of city history, eventually drawing up a timeline from Livnvert in 1039 to Luweden in 1846.
Even today the names of Dutch towns and villages have never been officially standardised
By the end of the century, further changes arrived when both the Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen (Royal Dutch Academy of Science), in 1864, and Koninklijk Nederlands Aardrijkskundig Genootschap (Royal Dutch Society of Geography), in 1884, published the country’s first lists of place names, according to contemporary rules of orthography. Soon after, the Dutch and Frisian forms became the de-facto standards.
“Even today the names of Dutch towns and villages have never been officially standardised by the Netherlands’ government,” explained Oly, adding many of Eekhoff’s maps and reference works are still in use. “There are no rules, so since the early 20th Century, we’ve written Leeuwarden in Dutch and the Frisian government stick with Ljouwert as its official form.”
For today’s visitor, Leeuwarden’s coat of arms, imprinted on its flag and on government buildings, also represents a riddle. Depicting a golden lion rampant against a royal blue crest, the flag is crowned by an emerald- and ruby-studded coronet.
“Most people think ‘Leeu’ means lion and we are a ‘lion city’ because of the crest – but this isn’t correct,” tour guide Christina Volker told me while we explored the centre’s vibrant streets. “The name originally came from ‘Leeuw’ – meaning no wind – and ‘warden’ – meaning little hills – in Frisian. The city is built on three artificial dwelling mounds, which protect and shelter the area from the sea. That made it a peaceful place.”
Today, Leeuwarden holds the Guinness World Record for the most name variations (Credit: Mike MacEacheran)
For all that it was once quiet, Leeuwarden is embracing its latest buzz-worthy name: the European Capital of Culture. It is apparent in the queues at the Museum of Friesland and in the multiple views of the city in paint and print, first collected by Eekhoff and now on display in the Historical Centre Leeuwarden’s galleries.
In putting such rich linguistic history front and centre of this year-long cultural festival, it could be argued that Leeuwarden has come full circle. Only now, the Frisians are confident the world will get its name right.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Travel, Capital, Culture, Earth and Future, delivered to your inbox every Friday.