Ever wanted to travel back in time? Talk to a Lithuanian!

August 19, 2014 5:38 pm

freska“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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  • Brecht Savelkoul

    You say Lithuanian is the most archaic Indo-European language. Elsewhere though, I’ve seen people making similar claims about Ossetian. Have you got any ideas how they compare?

    • Reda

      Ossetians uses the Cyrillic alphabet also this language belongs to another group of languages- Scythians-Sarmatians. Thus, there is not so much to compare, except that Ossetians is also very old language, probably the only one, so to say, survived of these languages.

    • Dan, Lithuania

      I’me not sure Brecht if Ossetian you can match to ‘Indo-European’ language. Google: “he Ossetians or Ossetes (Ossetian: ир, ирæттæ, ir, irættæ; дигорæ, дигорæнттæ, digoræ, digorænttæ) are an Iranian ethnic group of the Caucasus Mountains, indigenous to the region known as Ossetia.[12][13][14] They speak Ossetic, an Iranian language of the Eastern branch of the Indo-European languages family, with most also fluent in Russian as a second language. The Ossetians are mostly Eastern Orthodox Christian, with a Muslim minority.” It’s a different branch of language at all.

  • ariopecaro

    What a fascinating blog post about , travel to Lithuania , I have always wanted to go and this has made me more determined to visit Lithuania..

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3QmxSWNkc4 Jim James Jones Jr.

    Lithuanians always say the following THREE things to foreigners:

    1. We are not Slavic, not Germanic and not Latins. Oh, and we are not Finnic either.
    2. We do not have mountains in Lithuania. So, no mountains.
    3. Our language is almost Sanskrit.
    5. We love basketball and our flag reflects that.
    7. We are the dumbest people in Europe, but only after Mexicans.
    10. Our people from Kaunas and Siauliai are veri stronk.
    14. Our neighbours are portugalians (Wilno) and horseheads (Riga).
    17. We hate Poles and Russians, because we used to occupy their lands.
    19. Belarusians are former Lithuanians who decided to become Slavs.
    23. We do not have anything else to brag about, so we just brag about the above four things.

  • Robertas Jucaitis

    Misatribution: the quote is not from Benjamin W. Dwight’s book Modern Philology, but from „Nouvelle géographie universelle, tome 5: L’Europe Scandinave et Russe“ (p.431) written by Élisée Reclus:
    “De toutes les langues d’Europe, le lithuanien, qui manque d’augmentatifs, est celle qui possède le plus de diminutifs affectueux et câlins; elle en a plus que l’espagnol ou l’italien, elle en a plus que le russe même et peut les multiplier presque à l’infini en les appliquant aux verbes et aux adverbes aussi bien qu’aux adjectifs et aux noms. (…)
    Si la valeur d’une nation dans l’ensemble de l’humanité devait se mesurer à la beauté de sa langue, les Samogitiens et les Litvines seraient au premier rang parmi les habitants de l’Europe; mais le peuple longtemps opprimé dos forêts du Neman n’est pas do ceux qui peuvent comparer leur part d’influence à celle qu’ont exercée les autres peuples civilisés
    du continent.”