The Lithuanian Language

Giedrius Subačius


Due to their similar political situations 20th historical development in the 20th century, the three Baltic States - Estonia, Latvia and. Lithuania - are often treated as sisters, and referred to as Baltic countries. This name is even applied to the entire region. But professional linguists have always pointed out that this is not an appropriate designation. The term Balt was coined in the 19th century by the German linguist Ferdinand Nesselman to name one of the branches of the Indo-European languages spoken on the eastern shores of the  Baltic Sea. Linguists had already known Indo-European groups such as Germanic, Romance and Slavic; now they discovered another group of Indo-European languages, the Baltic languages. Since then, in linguistics, the term has been applied only in reference to the true Baltic languages: the living Lithuanian and Latvian languages, and dead languages such as Curonian, Semigallian, Selonian, Yotvingian and Galindan. For the Balts, the early 13th century was when they emerged from oblivion to enter European history and become permanent participants in it. This was the time when the two German orders, the Teutonic and the Livonian Order, first appeared on the territories inhabited by the Balts and slowly settled in the areas of the old Prussian and Latvian tribes. It was the time when the pre-Christian Lithuanian state emerged, capable of defending itself against the militant neighbouring orders. The present-day Lithuanian nation was formed mainly from the Lithuanian and Samogitian tribes, but included Semigallians, Curonians, Sudovians and Yotvingians. The Lithuanian state, which emerged in the middle of the 13th century, has retained to this day these lands as the core of its territory, although the history of Lithuanian statehood has been very volatile. In the 13th to the 16th centuries it stretched over large areas inhabited not only by Balts but also by Slavs. From the mid-16th century to the end of the 18th century it was in a union with Poland. From the end of the 18th century to the early 20th century the Russian Empire occupied it. From 1944 to 1990 it was occupied by the Soviet Union. Since 1990, Lithuania has again been a democratic independent republic, like Latvia and Estonia.

Lithuanians make up about 80 per cent of the population of Lithuania. This means that more than three million people (perhaps three and a half million) consider Lithuanian to be their mother tongue. It is spoken by the autochthon Lithuanian populations in some border areas of Poland and Belarus, and by numerous Lithuanian émigrés in other countries. The largest émigré groups are to be found in the United States.

People have long been curious to know what makes languages similar, and why people speak different languages in different countries. Linguistic similarity could be evidence of a tribal or national affinity, or even prove the place closest to God. For instance, during the Renaissance one similarity theory held that Lithuanian was simply a debased Latin, and we know that Latin was the most sacred language in the Catholic world. Genealogical studies of languages took on a scientific approach only in the 19th century. Traditionally, it was based on the history of sounds: that is, it was a history of the spoken language, which people learn in some mysterious way in early childhood without any apparent effort, as if the sounds of the language overwhelmed them like a swollen river.

Latvian is the only living language with sounds and endings similar to those of Lithuanian, but a Latvian and a Lithuanian who do not speak each other's tongue cannot communicate, unlike a Dane who can communicate with a Norwegian, an Italian who can communicate with a Spaniard, or a Ukrainian who can communicate with a Russian. A Lithuanian and a Latvian can only recognise a few words in each other's speech, and this is not enough to hold a conversation. Therefore, we can say that Lithuanian is a language that cannot be understood by a speaker of any other language who has not learnt it. More than that, even users of different Lithuanian dialects (such as Samogitians and Aukštaitians) cannot understand each other unless they communicate in standard Lithuanian, which they, have to learn.

Since the 19th century, when the similarity between Lithuanian and Sanskrit was discovered, Lithuanians have taken a particular pride in their mother tongue as the oldest living Indo-European language. To this day, to some Lithuanians their understanding of their nationality is based on their linguistic identity. It is no surprise then that they proudly quote the French linguist Antoine Meillet, who said, that anyone who wanted to hear old Indo-European should go and listen to a Lithuanian farmer. The 19th century maxim - the older the language the better - is still alive in Lithuania.

The history of sounds explains how the Lithuanian word sūnus and the German Sohn, English son, and Polish syn are not loanwords from one language to another, but have the same origin. The same is true of the Lithuanian duktė, German Tochter, English daughter, and Polish corka.

This genealogical history of sounds is like a biological science: tracing DNA sequences is like tracing and reconstructing sound sequences. Thus, we can say that throughout the centuries, the changes in Lithuanian "DNA sequences" have been less numerous than in other languages, and that is the reason why it is considered to be a very old language.

The social history of the Lithuanian language can be considered in the context of its relations and contacts with other languages. For a number of centuries, contacts were especially close with two living languages, German and Polish (in addition to Latin and the East Slavic written languages).

Lithuanian has come into contact also with Yiddish, Russian and other languages, but these contacts have left fewer traces.

Lithuanian culture in East Prussia was strongly influenced by German culture. From the 16th century until the middle of the 20th century, East Prussia produced a large number of Lithuanian books: translations of the Bible, psalm books, grammars, dictionaries and primers, including the first Lithuanian translation of the Bible (by Jonas Bretkūnas [Bretke] in around 1590-1602) and the first Lithuanian grammar (by Danielius Kleinas in 1653). In all of these activities, Lithuanian was in close contact with German. The first Lithuanian manuscript of the Bible was mostly a translation of Luther's translation; the second Lithuanian grammar was written and published in German (in 1654); a large number of psalms in the 16th century were translated from the German; and all or almost all of the bilingual dictionaries (there were no monolingual Lithuanian dictionaries) known since the 17th century were either German-Lithuanian or Lithuanian-German.

At the time that Lithuania formed a commonwealth (federation) with Poland (1569 to 1795) and when it was occupied by the Russian Empire (1795 to 1914), the Lithuanian language in Lithuania proper was under the influence of the Polish language. In the middle Ages, Lithuanian dukes and gentry spoke Lithuanian; but during the Renaissance they switched to Polish. Gradually, Polish became the language of culture. It is for this reason that nowadays Lithuanians sometimes take more pride in their, older dukes, who spoke Lithuanian, and cannot fully accept the later ones who could not. The dominance of the Polish language meant the introduction and use of Polish letters: the digraphs sz and cz for š is and č respectively in modern Lithuanian, and the letters 1, z, i and s.

At the end of the 19th century, however, neither of the two written traditions (Prussian or Polish) would form the foundations of modern standard Lithuanian. The national movement wanted to standardize the language in such a way that it would be different from other languages in the area. The Lithuanians rejected the Polish letter 1, refused, to accept the German and Polish w, and replaced cz and sz with the Czech č and š. In the end, standard Lithuanian became established in Lithuania; while in East Prussia the language has disappeared, together with German, to give way to Russian in the newly emerged Kaliningrad Region. Still, some elements of the writing from East Prussia were transferred into standard Lithuanian, such as the letter ė, the use of the letters i and y, and the majority of the case endings.

It is interesting that these letters became an, integral part of the spelling at the same time as the, Lithuanian (or Latin) letters were prohibited by the Russian authorities. The late development of standard Lithuanian has been responsible for some of its modern features. For instance, ą, ę, į, ų, ė, č, š, ž, ū are relatively new additions to the Latin alphabet.

Modern though they are, all these additions to the Latin alphabet are a nuisance to foreigners. These diacritical marks, or accents, to them are like background noise in a recording of music, or a spot of fat on a clean tablecloth: an unavoidable nuisance, to be ignored in order to avoid irritation. Foreigners have to study long and hard to understand why in Lithuanian dictionaries the word cinikas (a cynic) comes before čekistas (a Chekist).

Another problem is that with the advent of the Internet the old Latin alphabet, which has been preserved and used in almost its original form by the English language, is seen as the most modem alphabet.

It is true that, in the last few years, the developers of universal fonts, Internet browsers and e-mail programs have made great efforts to show more respect to these letters, to make them convenient to use and safe against discrimination in any way.

Lithuanians are always pleasantly surprised and glad to meet a foreigner who has learnt some of their language and is familiar with their special letters. It is gratifying to hear a foreigner speaking Lithuanian, because that is not a skill commonly found beyond the country's borders, and Lithuanian has never been widely taught as a foreign language.

To a person who is familiar with old Indo-European languages such as Latin or Ancient Greek, Lithuanian grammar will come more easily than to a person who can speak modem "English, Spanish, Italian, French or German. Due to the old features of Lithuanian grammar, most foreign students find it a very difficult language to learn. It is frustrating to have to learn five declensions, each with seven cases, both in the singular and the plural. The very concept of an ending is difficult to grasp if a person speaks only English. Some learners are frustrated by the mobile stress in different forms of the same word, which sometimes outwits even the native speakers.

On the other hand, the late development of standard Lithuanian offers certain advantages to learners of it. Even native speakers believe that the pronunciation is almost entirely consistent with the spelling: that is, that the words are pronounced exactly as they are spelt. One letter usually corresponds to one sound. In this respect, Lithuanian is more modern than French or English, where the same letters do not always represent the same sound.

Due to the structural peculiarities of their language, Lithuanians themselves experience various difficulties in learning other ones. For example, they find it difficult to master the use of articles in English, German, Italian, and French, because in Lithuanian there are none. The concept is rendered by other means, such as definite or indefinite adjectives: The White House is Baltieji Rūmai: The word order in a Lithuanian sentence is quite free, and is a convenient means to express a variety of nuances. Therefore, when learning English or German, Lithuanians are inclined to 'improve' the syntactic constructions of these languages by 'liberating' the word order.

Everybody knows that Lithuanian has a variety of colourful swearwords: for example, rupūžė! (toad), rupūs miltai! (coarse flour), kad tave sutrauktų) (I wish you were contracted). But when a Lithuanian is truly angry, a foreigner may be surprised to hear Russian or English swearwords escaping his lips. In the speech of town dwellers, probably the most popular Lithuanian swearword is velnias! (Devil), but in a Catholic country the reasons for its being a swearword should be evident.

In contrast to Soviet times, the Lithuanian Constitution stipulates that "the Lithuanian language is the official language of the Republic of Lithuania.” This means that it must be used in all areas of public life. The country has a National Commission for the Lithuanian Language, responsible for monitoring and correcting the use of it. It even has the right to impose fines for certain mistakes in public advertisements. On the other hand, efforts are still being made to preserve the languages of minorities, Russian, Polish, Belarusian, etc.

What do Lithuanians think is the future of their language? Some believe that with the disappearance of Soviet unifying policies, the area of use of the language has expanded and they are happy about this. They are also aware of the dangers posed to the survival of the language by the country's integration into Europe. On the other hand, the number of Lithuanians learning foreign languages is constantly increasing, because everybody understands that Lithuanian alone is not sufficient for effective communication in the world.