Right now there are only two Baltic languages spoken in the world: Lithuanian and Latvian, but in the past there were plenty of others, such as: Galindian, Old Prussian, Yotvingian, Skalvian, Selonian, Semigallian. They became extinct during the course of history.
The Lithuanian language
Lithuanian is a very old language, which makes it particularly interesting to linguists. In fact, Lithuanian is considered to be the oldest surviving Indo-European language. It retains many archaic features, which are believed to have been present in the early stages of the Proto-Indo-European language.
What does that mean? Well, that Lithuanian is as archaic in many of its structures as Sanskrit, the classical Indian language, which also evolved from the Proto Indo-European language.
Lithuanian has over 3 million speakers worldwide, the majority of them, obviously, in Lithuania. However there are plenty of other countries with big Lithuanian communities. So, if you are in the UK, USA, Spain, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, France, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, Russia, Sweden or Uruguay you might want to try learning Lithuanian as well.
The Baltic language split
According to some glottochronological estimates, the Eastern Baltic languages split from the (now all extinct) Western Baltic ones between AD 400 and 600. The Greek geographer Ptolemy had already written of two Baltic tribe/nations by name, the Galindai and Sudinoi (Γαλίνδαι, Σουδινοί) in the 2nd century AD. The differentiation between Lithuanian and Latvian started after 800; and for a long period, they could be considered dialects of a single language. At a minimum, transitional dialects existed until the 14th or 15th century and perhaps as late as the 17th century. Also, the 13th- and 14th-century occupation of the western part of the Daugava basin (closely coinciding with the territory of modern Latvia) by the German Sword Brethren had a significant influence on the languages’ independent development.
The earliest surviving written Lithuanian text is a translation dating from about 1503–1525 of the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Nicene Creed written in the Southern Aukštaitian dialect. Printed books existed after 1547, but the level of literacy among Lithuanians was low through the 18th century, and books were not commonly available. In 1864, following the January Uprising, Mikhail Muravyov, the Russian Governor General of Lithuania, banned the language in education and publishing and barred use of the Latin alphabet altogether, although books in Lithuanian continued to be printed across the border in East Prussia and in the United States. They were brought into the country by book smugglers (Lithuanian: knygnešiai) despite the threat of stiff prison sentences, and they helped fuel a growing nationalist sentiment that finally led to the lifting of the ban in 1904.
Jonas Jablonskis (1860–1930) made significant contributions to the formation of the standard Lithuanian language. The conventions of written Lithuanian had been evolving during the 19th century, but Jablonskis, in the introduction to his Lietuviškos kalbos gramatika, was the first to formulate and expound the essential principles that were so indispensable to its later development. His proposal for Standard Lithuanian was based on his native Western Aukštaitijan dialect with some features of the eastern Prussian Lithuanians’ dialect spoken in Lithuania Minor. These dialects had preserved archaic phonetics mostly intact due to the influence of the neighbouring Old Prussian language, while the other dialects had experienced different phonetic shifts.
Lithuanian has been the official language of Lithuania since 1918. During the Soviet era, it was used in official discourse along with Russian, which, as the official language of the USSR, took precedence over Lithuanian.
The things about Lithuanian
An interesting fact is that many people around the world believe that the Lithuanian language is the same as Russian or that all Lithuanians speak Russian. Actually, the two languages are completely different, and you should never ask a Lithuanian person if Russian is the same as Lithuanian!
When you are learning Lithuanian don’t get upset about the mistakes you make, especially in grammar, it is definitely not the easiest language to learn! But the many s’s make it sound a little bit like a song.
Like with any language, parts of Lithuanian are rooted in the culture that evolved it, and learning it helps to understand culture and traditions. For example in Lithuanian, the sae verb for ‘to die’ is used for both bees and humans, while all other animals have use a different verb. Lithuania has a lot of respect for bees and values their importance.
Strangely, Lithuanian doesn’t seem to have many strong swear-words. When Lithuanians feel the need to curse, they tend o use either Russian or English swear-words.
Even such a small country as Lithuania has a few distinct dialects like: aukštaičių, žemaičių, suvalkiečių, and dzūkų. Actually the most difficult to understand is žemaičių, and even plenty of native Lithuanians often don’t understand it!
The Latvian language
Latvian is the second living Eastern Baltic language belonging to the Balto-Slavic branch of the Indo-European language family. It is the language of native Latvians, the official language of Latvia as well as one of the official languages of the European Union. There are about 1.3 million native Latvian speakers in Latvia and 100,000 abroad. About 80% of the population of Latvia, speak Latvian and about 62% used it as their primary language at home.
As a Baltic language, Latvian is most closely related to neighboring Lithuanian, but over the last few centuries they have moved apart. Latvian has followed a more rapid development. There are two other branches; Latgalian, and Kursenieki, which are mutually intelligible with Latvian, and there is some disagreement about whether they should be considered dialects or separate languages.
Latvian as a distinct language emerged over several centuries from the language spoken by the ancient Latgalian tribe assimilating the languages of other neighbouring Baltic tribes; Curonian, Semigallian, and Selonian, which resulted in these languages gradually losing their most distinct characteristics. This process of consolidation started in the 13th century after the Livonian Crusade and forced christianization. These tribes came under Livonian rule thus forming a unified political, economic and religious space.
The role of the Germans
The oldest known examples of written Latvian are from a 1530 translation of a hymn made by Nikolaus Ramm, a German pastor in Riga. The language first appeared in Western print in the mid-16th century with the reproduction of the Lord’s Prayer in Latvian in Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia universalis (1544), in Latin script, and oldest preserved book in Latvian is a 1585 Catholic catechism of Petrus Canisius currently located at the Uppsala University Library. The Lutheran pastor Gotthard Friedrich Stender was a founder of the Latvian secular literature. He wrote the first illustrated Latvian alphabet book (1787) and the first encyclopedia “The Book of High Wisdom of the World and Nature” (Augstas gudrības grāmata no pasaules un dabas; 1774), as well as grammar books and Latvian–German and German–Latvian dictionaries.
Until the 19th century, the Latvian written language was influenced by German Lutheran pastors and the German language, because the upper class of local society was formed by Baltic Germans. In the middle of the 19th century the First Latvian National Awakening was started, led by the “Young Latvians” who popularized the use of Latvian language. Participants in this movement laid the foundations for standard Latvian and also popularized the Latvianization of loan words. However, in the 1880s, when Czar Alexander III came into power, Russification started. During this period, some Latvian scholars suggested adopting Cyrillic for use in Latvian.
According to the 1897 Imperial Russian Census, there were 505,994 (75.1%) speakers of Latvian in the Governorate of Courland and 563,829 (43.4%) speakers of Latvian in the Governorate of Livonia, making Latvian-speakers the largest linguistic group in each of the governorates.
After the czar’s death, around the start of the 20th century, nationalist movements re-emerged. In 1908, Latvian linguists Kārlis Mīlenbahs and Jānis Endzelīns elaborated the modern Latvian alphabet, which slowly replaced the old orthography previously used. Another feature of the language, in common with its sister language Lithuanian, that was developed at that time is that proper names from other countries and languages are altered phonetically to fit the phonological system of Latvian, even if the original language also uses the Latin alphabet. Moreover, the names are modified to ensure that they have noun declension endings, declining like all other nouns. For example, a place such as Lecropt (a Scottish parish) is likely to become Lekropta; the Scottish village of Tillicoultry becomes Tilikutrija.
During the Soviet time (1940–1991), the policy of Russification greatly affected the Latvian language. Throughout this period, many Latvians and Latvia’s other ethnicities faced deportation and persecution. Massive immigration from the Soviet republics of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and others followed, largely as a result of Stalin’s plan to integrate Latvia and the other Baltic republics into the Soviet Union by means of Russian colonization. As a result, the proportion of the ethnic Latvian population within the total population was reduced from 80% in 1935 to 52% by 1989. In Soviet Latvia, most of the immigrants who settled in the country did not learn Latvian. According to the 2011 census Latvian was the language spoken at home by 62% of the country’s population.
Promoting the language
After the re-establishment of independence in 1991, a new policy of language education was introduced. The primary declared goal was the integration of all inhabitants into the environment of the official state language while protecting the languages of Latvia’s ethnic minorities.
Government-funded bilingual education was available in primary schools for ethnic minorities until 2019 when Parliament decided on educating only in Latvian. Minority schools are available for Russian, Yiddish, Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Estonian and Roma students. In these schools Latvian is taught as a second language in the initial stages too, as is officially declared, to encourage proficiency in that language, aiming at avoiding alienation from the Latvian-speaking linguistic majority and for the sake of facilitating academic and professional achievements. Since the mid-1990s, the government may pay a student’s tuition in public universities only provided that the instruction is in Latvian. Since 2004, the state mandates Latvian as the language of instruction in public secondary schools (Form 10–12) for at least 60% of class work (previously, a broad system of education in Russian existed).
The Official Language Law was adopted on 9 December 1999. Several regulatory acts associated with this law have been adopted. Observance of the law is monitored by the State Language Centre run by the Ministry of Justice.
There are several contests held annually to promote the correct use of Latvian. One of them is “Word of the year” (Gada vārds) organized by the Riga Latvian Society since 2003. It features categories such as the “Best word”, “Worst word”, “Best saying” and “Word salad”. In 2018 the word zibmaksājums (instant payment) won the category of “Best word” and influenceris (influencer) won the category of “Worst word”. The word pair of straumēt (stream) and straumēšana (streaming) were named the best words of 2017, while transporti as an unnecessary plural of the name for transport was chosen as the worst word of 2017.
Can Lithuanians easily understand Latvians or Latvians grasp what Lithuanians are talking about?
The answer is no. But these two languages do share some similarities and even some words. They are similar in the same way as Estonian and Finnish, Spanish and Portuguese, or maybe Danish and Swedish. But they are definitely two very distinct languages from the same family.
And don’t be surprised that Latvians will call Lithuanians – brothers and Lithuanian will call their northern neighbours back in the same way. These two small countries has not just some similar sounds, but a huge amount of shared history, and the traditions, culture and basketball that come with it!