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Lithuanian Language

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Lithuanian language mentioned as one of the languages of the participants of the Council of Constance in 1414–1418: Lingwa Lietowia (left) and Littowelch (right) in a 15th century Chronik des Konstanzer Konzils compiled by Ulrich of Richenthal

Lithuanian (lietuvių kalba) is an Eastern Baltic language belonging to the Baltic branch of the Indo-European language family.

Lithuanian is closely related to the neighbouring Latvian language, though the two languages are not mutually intelligible, both written in a Latin script. In some respects, some linguists consider it to be the most conservative of the existing Indo-European languages, retaining features of the Proto-Indo-European language that had disappeared through development from other descendant languages.

A little if its history...

Among Indo-European languages, Lithuanian is conservative in some aspects of its grammar and phonology, retaining archaic features otherwise found only in ancient languages such as Sanskrit (particularly its early form, Vedic Sanskrit) or Ancient Greek. For this reason, it is an important source for the reconstruction of the Proto-Indo-European language despite its late attestation (with the earliest texts dating only to c. 1500).

According to hydronyms of Baltic origin, the Baltic languages were spoken in a large area east of the Baltic Sea, and in ~1000 BC it had two linguistic units: western and eastern. 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 Lithuanian language originated from the Eastern Balts subgroup and remained nearly unchanged until ~1 AD, however in ~500 AD the language of the northern part of Eastern Balts was influenced by the Finnic languages, which fueled the development of changes from the language of the Southern Balts (see: Latgalian language, which developed into the Latvian language, and now-extinct Curonian, Semigallian, Selonian languages). The language of Southern Balts was less influenced by this process and retained its features which forms the Lithuanian language. According to glottochronological researches, the Eastern Baltic languages split from the Western Baltic ones between 400 and 600 AD.

The differentiation between Lithuanian and Latvian started after 800; 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. The German Sword Brethren occupied the western part of the Daugava basin, which resulted in colonization of the territory of modern Latvia (at the time it was called Terra Mariana) by Germans and had a significant influence on the language’s independent development due to Germanisation (see also: Baltic Germans and Baltic German nobility).

By studying place names of Lithuanian origin, linguist Jan Safarewicz made conclusions that the eastern boundaries of Lithuanian language used to be in the shape of zigzags through Grodno, Shchuchyn, Lida, Valozhyn, Svir, Braslaw. Such eastern boundaries partly coincides with the spread of Catholic and Orthodox faith, and should have existed at the time of the Christianization of Lithuania in 1387 and later. The Safarewicz’s eastern boundaries were moved even further to the south and east by other scientists following their researches (e.g. Мікалай Васілевіч Бірыла [be], Petras Gaučas, Jerzy Ochmański [pl], Aleksandras Vanagas, Zigmas Zinkevičius, and others).

The Proto-Balto-Slavic language branched off directly from Proto-Indo-European, then sub-branched into Proto-Baltic and Proto-Slavic. Proto-Baltic branched off into Proto-West Baltic and Proto-East Baltic.[7] Baltic languages passed through a Proto-Balto-Slavic stage, from which Baltic languages retain numerous exclusive and non-exclusive lexical, morphological, phonological and accentual isoglosses in common with the Slavic languages, which represent their closest living Indo-European relatives. Moreover, with Lithuanian being so archaic in phonology, Slavic words can often be deduced from Lithuanian by regular sound laws; for example, Lith. vilkas and Polish wilk ← PBSl. *wilkás (cf. PSl. *vьlkъ) ← PIE *wĺ̥kʷos, all meaning “wolf”.

Initially the Lithuanian language was a spoken language in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Duchy of Prussia, while the beginning of Lithuanian writing is possibly associated with the introduction of Christianity in Lithuania when Mindaugas was baptized and crowned as King of Lithuania in 1250-1251. It is believed that prayers were translated into local dialect of Lithuanian by Franciscan monks during the baptism of Mindaugas, however none of the writings has survived.

Although no writings in the Lithuanian language has survived from the 15th or earlier centuries,[20] the Lithuanian language (Latin: Lingwa Lietowia) was mentioned as one of the European languages of the participants of the Council of Constance in 1414–1418.

Initially, Latin and Church Slavonic were the main written (chancellery) languages of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, but in the late 17th century – 18th century the Church Slavonic language was replaced with Polish language.[20][24] Nevertheless, the Lithuanian language was a spoken language of the medieval Lithuanian rulers from the Gediminids dynasty and its cadet branches: Kęstutaičiai and Jagiellonian dynasties.It is known that Jogaila, being ethnic Lithuanian by the male-line, himself knew and spoke in the Lithuanian language with Vytautas the Great, his cousin from the Gediminids dynasty. Also, during the Christianization of Samogitia none of the clergy, who arrived to Samogitia with Jogaila, were able to communicate with the natives, therefore Jogaila himself taught the Samogitians about the Catholicism, thus he was able to communicate in the Samogitian dialect of the Lithuanian language. Soon afterwards Vytautas the Great wrote in his 11 March 1420 letter to Sigismund, Holy Roman Emperor, that the Lithuanians and Samogitians language is the same.

Use of Lithuanian language continued at the Lithuanian royal court after the deaths of Vytautas the Great (1430) and Jogaila (1434). For example, since the young Grand Duke Casimir IV Jagiellon was underage, the supreme control over the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was in the hands of the Lithuanian Council of Lords, presided by Jonas Goštautas, while Casimir IV Jagiellon was taught Lithuanian language and customs of Lithuania by appointed court officials. Casimir IV Jagiellon’s son Saint Casimir, who was subsequently announced as patron saint of Lithuania, was a polyglot and among other languages knew Lithuanian.

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. On 8 January 1547 the first Lithuanian book was printed – Catechism of Martynas Mažvydas.

At the royal court in Vilnius of Sigismund II Augustus, the last Grand Duke of Lithuania prior to the Union of Lublin, both Polish and Lithuanian were spoken equally widely.[28] In 1552 Sigismund II Augustus ordered that orders of the Magistrate of Vilnius be announced in Lithuanian, Polish, and Ruthenian. The same requirement was valid for the Magistrate of Kaunas.

In 1776–1790 about 1,000 copies of the first Catholic primer of the Lithuanian language – Mokslas skaitymo rašto lietuviško were issued annually, and its publishing continued until 1864, in total – over 15,000 copies were published.

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 printed in Lithuanian continued to be printed across the border in East Prussia and in the United States. Brought into the country by book smugglers (Lithuanian: knygnešiai) despite the threat of stiff prison sentences, 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 Aukštaitian dialect with some features of the eastern Prussian Lithuanians’ dialect spoken in Lithuania Minor. These dialects[clarification needed] 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 following the restoration of Lithuania’s statehood in 1918 as the 1922 Constitution of Lithuania (the first permanent Lithuanian constitution) recognized Lithuanian as the sole official language of the state and it was required to be used throughout the state.

In 1862–1944 the Lithuanian schools were completely banned in Lithuania Minor and the Lithuanian language was almost completely destroyed there. The Baltic origin place names retained their basis for centuries in Prussia but were Germanized (e.g. Tilžė – Tilsit, Labguva – Labiau, Vėluva – Wehliau, etc.), however after the annexation of Königsberg region into the Russian SFSR they were changed completely regardless of previous tradition (e.g. Tilsit – Sovetsk, Labiau – Polesk, Wehliau – Znamensk, etc.).

The Soviet occupation of Lithuania in 1940, German occupation of Lithuania in 1941 and eventually the Soviet re-occupation of Lithuania in 1944 led to the conversion of the independent Republic of Lithuania into the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic within the Soviet Union.[45] The Soviet authorities introduced and Lithuanian and Russian languages bilingualism.[45] The Russian language, which, as the official language of the USSR, took precedence over Lithuanian and the usage of Lithuanian was constantly being reduced, therefore the population and language was subject to intense Russification. Moreover, many Russian-speaking workers, specialists and higher education lecturers migrated to the Lithuanian SSR (fueled by the industrialization in the Soviet Union). Consequently, the Russian language came into force in the state institutions, Central Committee of the Communist Party of Lithuania (e.g. in 1948 there were 22.000 communists in the Lithuanian SSR and 80% of them were Russians), radio and television (e.g. 61–74% of broadcasts in the Lithuanian SSR were Russian in 1970). The Lithuanians passively resisted Russification by avoiding to speak Russian.

On 18 November 1988 the Supreme Soviet of the Lithuanian SSR restored Lithuanian as the official language of Lithuania due to pressure by Sąjūdis and Lithuanian society.

On 11 March 1990 the Act of the Re-Establishment of the State of Lithuania was passed by the Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania and Lithuanian was recognized as sole official language of Lithuania in the Provisional Basic Law (Lithuanian: Laikinasis Pagrindinis Įstatymas) and the Constitution of Lithuania, which was approved on 25 October 1992 during the Lithuanian constitutional referendum.


Lithuanian is one of two living Baltic languages, along with Latvian, and they constitute the eastern branch of Baltic languages family. An earlier Baltic language, Old Prussian, was extinct by the 18th century; the other Western Baltic languages, Curonian and Sudovian, became extinct earlier. Some theories, such as that of Jānis Endzelīns, considered that the Baltic languages form their own distinct branch of the family of Indo-European languages, and Endzelīns thought that the similarity between Baltic and Slavic was explicable through language contact. There is also an opinion that suggests the union of Baltic and Slavic languages into a distinct sub-family of Balto-Slavic languages amongst the Indo-European family of languages. Such an opinion was first represented by August Schleicher. Some supporters of the Baltic and Slavic languages unity even claim that Proto-Baltic branch did not exist, suggesting that Proto-Balto-Slavic split into three language groups: Eastern Baltic, Western Baltic and Proto-Slavic. Antoine Meillet and Jan Baudouin de Courtenay, on the contrary, believed that the similarity between the Slavic and Baltic languages was caused by independent parallel development, and the Proto-Balto-Slavic language did not exist


An attempt to reconcile the opposing stances was made by Jan Michał Rozwadowski. He proposed that the two language groups were indeed a unity after the division of Indo-European, but also suggested that after the two had divided into separate entities (Baltic and Slavic), they had posterior contact. The genetic kinship view is augmented by the fact that Proto-Balto-Slavic is easily reconstructible with important proofs in historic prosody. The alleged (or certain, as certain as historic linguistics can be) similarities due to contact are seen in such phenomena as the existence of definite adjectives formed by the addition of an inflected pronoun (descended from the same Proto-Indo-European pronoun), which exist in both Baltic and Slavic yet nowhere else in the Indo-European family (languages such as Albanian and the Germanic languages developed definite adjectives independently), and that are not reconstructible for Proto-Balto-Slavic, meaning that they most probably developed through language contact.

The Baltic hydronyms area stretches from the Vistula River in the west to the east of Moscow and from the Baltic Sea in the north to the south of Kyiv. Vladimir Toporov and Oleg Trubachyov (1961, 1962) studied Baltic hydronyms in the Russian and Ukrainian territory. Hydronyms and archeology analysis show that the Slavs started migrating to the Baltic areas east and north-east directions in the 6–7th centuries, before then, the Baltic and Slavic boundary was south of the Pripyat River. In the 1960s Vladimir Toporov and Vyacheslav Ivanov made the following conclusions about the relationship between the Baltic and Slavic languages: a) the Proto-Slavic language formed from the peripheral-type Baltic dialects; b) the Slavic linguistic type formed later from the structural model of the Baltic languages; c) the Slavic structural model is a result of a transformation of the structural model of the Baltic languages. These scholars’ theses do not contradict the Baltic and Slavic languages closeness and from a historical perspective specify the Baltic-Slavic languages evolution.

So, there are at least six points of view on the relationships between the Baltic and Slavic languages. However, with regard to the hypotheses associated with the “Balto-Slavic problem”, their certain distance from the comparative method and their focus, rather, on personal theoretical constructions, is noted.

Dialectal Varieties

In the Compendium Grammaticae Lithvanicae, published in 1673, three dialects of the Lithuanian language are distinguished: Samogitian dialect (Latin: Samogitiae) of Samogitia, Royal Lithuania (Latin: Lithvaniae Regalis) and Ducal Lithuania (Latin: Lithvaniae Ducalis). The Ducal Lithuanian language is described as pure (Latin: Pura), half-Samogitian (Latin: SemiSamogitizans) and having elements of the Curonian language (Latin: Curonizans). Authors of the Compendium Grammaticae Lithvanicae singled out that the Lithuanians of the Vilnius Region (Latin: in tractu Vilnensi) tend to speak harshly, almost like Austrians, Bavarians and others speak German in Germany.

Due to the historical circumstances of Lithuania, the Lithuanian language speakers territory was divided into Lithuania proper and Lithuania Minor, therefore in the 16th-17th centuries three regional variants of the common language emerged. Lithuanians in the Lithuania Minor spoke Western Aukštaitian dialect with specifics of Įsrutis and Ragainė environs (e.g. works of Martynas Mažvydas, Jonas Bretkūnas, Jonas Rėza, and Daniel Klein’s Grammatica Litvanica). The other two regional variants of the common language were formed in Lithuania proper: middle, which was based on the specifics of the Duchy of Samogitia (e.g. works of Mikalojus Daukša, Merkelis Petkevičius, Steponas Jaugelis‑Telega, Samuelis Boguslavas Chylinskis, and Mikołaj Rej’s Lithuanian postil), and eastern, based on the specifics of Eastern Aukštaitians, living in Vilnius and its region (e.g. works of Konstantinas Sirvydas, Jonas Jaknavičius, and Robert Bellarmine’s catechism). The development of the Lithuanian language in Lithuania Minor, especially in the 18th century, was successful due to many publications and research. In contrary, the development of the Lithuanian language in Lithuania proper was obstructed due to the Polonization of the Lithuanian nobility, especially in the 18th century, and it was being influenced by the Samogitian dialect. The Lithuanian-speaking population was also dramatically decreased by the Great Northern War plague outbreak in 1700–1721 which killed 49% of residents in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1/3 residents in Lithuania proper and up to 1/2 residents in Samogitia) and 53% of residents in Lithuania Minor (more than 90% of the deceased were Prussian Lithuanians).

As a result of decrease of the usage of the spoken Lithuanian language in the eastern part of Lithuania proper, in the 19th century it was suggested to create a standardized Lithuanian language based on the Samogitian dialect. Nevertheless, it was not accomplished because everyone offered their Samogitian subdialects and the Eastern and Western Aukštaitians offered their Aukštaitian subdialects.

In the second half of the 19th century, when the Lithuanian National Revival intensified and the preparations to publish a Lithuanian periodical press was taking place, the mostly south-western Aukštaitian revival writers did not use the 19th century Lithuanian language of Lithuania Minor as it was largely Germanized. Instead, they used a more pure Lithuanian language which has been described by August Schleicher and Friedrich Kurschat and this way the written language of Lithuania Minor was transferred to the resurgent Lithuania. The most famous standardizer of the Lithuanian language Jonas Jablonskis established the south-western Aukštaitian dialect, including the Eastern dialect of Lithuania Minor, as the basis of the standardized Lithuanian language in the 20th century, which led to him being nicknamed as the father of the standardized Lithuanian language.

Currently, the Lithuanian language is divided into two dialects: Aukštaitian (Highland Lithuanian), and Samogitian (Lowland Lithuanian). There are significant differences between standard Lithuanian and Samogitian and these are often described as separate languages. The modern Samogitian dialect formed in the 13th–16th centuries under the influence of the Curonian language. Lithuanian dialects are closely connected with ethnographical regions of Lithuania. Even nowadays Aukštaitians and Samogitians can have considerable difficulties understanding each other if they speak with their dialects and not the standard Lithuanian language, which is mandatory to learn in the Lithuanian education system.

Dialects are divided into subdialects. Both dialects have three subdialects. Samogitian is divided into West, North and South; Aukštaitian into West (Suvalkiečiai), South (Dzūkai) and East.

→ Lithuanian Grammar

Ref.: Britannica, Encyclopeadya of Languages, Wikipedia...
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