August 19, 2014 5:38 pm
“Anyone wishing to hear how Indo-Europeans spoke should come and listen to a Lithuanian peasant.” – Antoine Meillet (1886-1936)
Now this is quite a statement to make and it might come as a bit of a surprise since Lithuania is a fairly small country, which has been on and off the world map for ages. Nevertheless, despite the numerous political and geographical changes, occupations and harsh cultural repressions, one thing remained quite constant – the Lithuanian language.
Lithuanian is indeed quite ancient. In fact, many linguists consider it to be the most archaic surviving Indo-European language. It belongs to the Baltic branch like Latvian (yes, we are not Slavs) and has close ties with Latin, Ancient Greek and Sanscrit, and is valuable while trying to reconstruct the Proto-Indo-European language.
Just have a look at these few examples:
The archaic aspect of the Lithuanian language is not restricted merely to these coincidences, one might say, Lithuanian has also preserved an elaborate grammatical structure.
It is a synthetic language, meaning that the relations in a sentence are expressed by word endings (opposite to an analytic language, like English, where the unbound morphemes and word order do the main job).
Lithuanian has 7 main cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, locative, and vocative) as well as illative which is dialectal and allative (reduced to adverbs). A noun, for example, has 5 declensions (different patterns of inflection). We decline other parts of speech as well.
If I haven’t scared you enough yet, I should also mention that Lithuanian has 13 participles, whereas English has 2. Let’s take a simple verb valgyti (‘to eat’) as an example:
valgąs — ‘the one who is eating’ (present active participle)
valgęs — ‘the one who ate; has eaten; was eating’ (past active participle)
valgydavęs — ‘the one who used to eat’ (frequentative past active participle)
valgysiąs — ‘the one who will be eating’ (future active participle)
valgomas — ‘something that is being eaten’ (present passive participle)
valgytas — ‘something that has been eaten’ (past passive participle)
valgysimas — ‘something which will be eaten’ (future passive participle)
valgant — ‘while eating’ (adverbial present active participle)
valgius — ‘after having eaten’ (adverbial past active participle)
valgydavus — ‘after having eaten repeatedly’ (adverbial frequentative past active participle)
valgysiant — ‘having to eat’ (adverbial future active participle)
valgydamas — ‘eating’ (special adverbial present active participle)
valgytinas — ‘something to be eaten’ (participle of necessity)
Of course, a person who would like to learn Lithuanian could easily do without most of them, but I think if one has at least a slightest interest in linguistics, it is rather more fascinating than exhausting to see how, just by adding different morphemes to a root, a single word can contain so much different information.
However, we do make our lives easier since we do not have articles like German, neither our tense system is that difficult. Pronunciation is fairly easy as well. We have 32 letters in our alphabet which is Latin based with some extra diacritical symbol additions, and words are read the way they are written (it is nothing like French, for example, where out of an 8 letter word you pronounce 3 letters in a way you would not expect them to sound).
Still, once in a cafeteria, where I heard two foreigners speaking Lithuanian to each other, for an obvious reason I couldn’t help myself approaching them and asking…why..?!
It might be because, after all, it is….a cute language.
As Benjamin W. Dwight, in the book Modern Philology, says: “Of all European languages, the Lithuanian has the greatest number of affectionate and diminutive terms, more than the Spanish or Italian, even more than Russian, and they can be multiplied almost indefinitely by adding them to verbs and adverbs as well as adjectives and nouns. If the value of a nation in the total sum humanity were to be measured by the beauty of its language, the Lithuanian ought to have the first place among the nations of Europe.”
In a nutshell, there are various theories on the origin and development of languages, and the scholarly work in this field resembles a never-ending story. In case of the Lithuanian language, the work is quite challenging since the first Lithuanian book was published only in 1547 (we insisted on hugging trees and worshipping sun and wind, so literacy along with Christianity came quite late). The language itself has been banned and looked down upon during various times but it persisted with the help of book smugglers, secret schools and folklore. I would say that the fact that, even having endured all these struggles, Lithuanian is thought to be the most conservative living Indo-European language proves that collective memory is a hell of a thing.
By Julija Televičiūtė
Graduate from Vilnius University, English Philology (BA)
Translation trainee at Lithuanian Unit
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