Someone recently asked a great question about oer versus oan in Frisian. On their face, these two little prepositions start off simply enough:
Oer literally translates as "over." Pronounce it with the long "oo" in "moon" and with a slight schwa before the final -r. [OOuhr]
Oan literally translates as "on." pronounce it with the "oh" in boat and a with a slight schwa before the final -n. [OHuhn]
Before we go any further, here is a quote directly from Pieter Tiersma's "Frisian Reference Grammar" (p. 94): "Prepositions often have a wide variety of meanings which are difficult to categorize succinctly." That's something of an understatement! Today, I'm going to look at some more subtle uses of oer and oan and share a visceral hunch about the differences in use... but remember that I'm not a native speaker. This post gets very esoteric and subjective and may not turn out to be especially useful to others studying the language! O.K., disclaimer over. Now...
Let's start with oer and some examples from Tiersma's book, as I think these just may get to the heart of the matter. We can say oer de brêge ("over the bridge") the same way we'd use that phrase in English, and we can also say someone is talking about a subject: hy prate oer syn bernetiid ("he talks about his childhood"). But the question is, why use oer specifically here?
Tiersma notes another meaning of oer that might subtly be of assistance: oer in oere means "in an hour/within an hour." Notice that our first, most literal translation ("over") is no longer helpful. Here is another example from his book: foar de tsjerke oer meaning "in front of the church." Again, why oer specifically?
This is just my personal theory, a feeling I got from looking through phrases. When you think of a church, the building often has a definite yard, sometimes marked by a very solid brick fence. There is a certain "inside consecrated grounds" vibe to it. My suspicion is that oer in its more subtle forms is a bit, well, "grabby" and "possessive"--to try to quantify a feeling. With some subtle uses of oer, the subject is very definitely within its purview. Here's another example to try to get at this visceral sense: mei in boat oerhelje, meaning to bring to the other side by boat. Those involved are landing on and becoming a part of the other shore. From Tiersma again: hja helle my oer om op de FNP te stimmen... "she convinced me to vote for the Frisian National Party." The "om ___ te___" is a clause, so don't worry about it too much here... but the sentence itself shows that feeling of oer taking something or someone into its grasp.
Some subtle variations of oan, on the other hand, do not quite have that "keeping things within its clutches" feel... there seems to be more of a "touching upon" or flowing vibe to it. Again, these are very esoteric impressions! I warned you, right?
...oan te sjen... "look at"... looking at something does not take it into your grasp. But when we talk about a subject, prate oer, perhaps we can say that we are drawing a perimeter about it. We are holding and grasping onto a topic while we speak of it.
Ik tink oan dy. - "I think about you / I remember you."
It giet oan! - "It's on! / It's happening!"
Dêr't neat fan oan is, komt ek gjin praat fan - loosely, if you don't give hints or indications about something, no one can talk about it.
Ik bin no wol oan kofje ta! - "I really need coffee now!" Another understatement after this lesson. A more word-for-word translation would look like: "I am now really on coffee!" That ta at the end was a whole other lesson. But with the oan, there's that sense of flowing and movement... not of having something within grasp as of yet.
I really need coffee now!