Baltic Online

Series Introduction

Virginija Vasiliauskiene, Lilita Zalkalns, and Jonathan Slocum

Baltic Peoples

The term 'Baltic' as a common name for Latvian, Lithuanian, and Old Prussian was first used by the German linguist Ferdinand Nesselman in 1845. This name was derived from the Baltic Sea. Lithuanian belongs to the Indo-European family, and is descended from the East Baltic branch. Only Lithuanian and Latvian have survived from this large family. The Baltic, the Slavic, and the Germanic languages have many common traits; there are even more similarities among the Baltic and Slavic languages. These similarities have given rise to various theories: some researchers claim there was a common Balto-Slavic stage after the break-up of the Proto-Indo-European, others consider them to have resulted from convergence.

Archaeological data show that a large part of northeastern Europe, approximately from Moscow to Berlin including the northen part of the Dniepr Basin, was Baltic-speaking territory during the 1st millennia B.C. and A.D. Slavs entered this area later. This territory was covered by near-impenetrable forests and was far from the major migration and more important trade routes. These factors facilitated the preservation of an extremely archaic language family.

Lithuanian Origins and Geographic Location

Lithuanians are first mentioned in historical sources at the beginning of the 11th century. The name "Lithuania" is mentioned for the first time in 1009 A.D. in the Quedlinburgh chronicles ("Annales Quedlinburgenses"), written in Latin as "Litua." A bit later, this name starts appearing in Russian chronicles (Russian "Litva"). From the end of the 12th century, Lithuania is mentioned frequently in source materials of Poland and Germany. The forms of the Slavic tradition (with root i instead of ie) became dominant in German (cf. "Litauen") and Latin (cf. "Lituania").

Researchers tend to localize the ethnographic Lithuanian teritory in the area between the Neris, Nemunas, and Merkys rivers. The name Zemaitish (from the word žẽmas 'low') was given to the territory in the central lowlands of present-day ethnographic Lithuania; it was also used later for the former Curonian lands that had been Lithuanianized, up to the Baltic Sea. The Curonian substratum had a particularly distinct influence on the formation of the current Samogitian (Zemaitish) dialect. In contrast to the Zemaitish, the Lithuanians who lived to the east were given the name Aukstaitish (from the word áukštas 'high'). The Lithuanian boundaries with both the West (Prussians and Yotvingians) and East Balts (Curonians, Semigallians, Selonians and Latgallians) were unstable. Some of those living in closer areas were Lithuanianized.

The West Baltic teritories were conquered by the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century. Lithuania, united under Mindaugas (1236-1263), stopped the German assault in the Baltic area; however, fierce battles continued between the Lithuanians and the Teutonic Order in this region for almost two hundred years. The union with Poland in 1386 was very important in breaking down the power of the Teutonic Knights. 1387 is considered the official date of adopting Christianity from Poland because, after King Mindaugas' death, Lithuanians had reverted to paganism.

Lithuanians had begun expanding to the East in the second half of the 12th century. A very large region of East Slavs, up to the Black Sea, was incorporated into the multinational Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The chancellory language of Lithuania was based on an Eastern Slavic language, which can be considered as the predecessor of Balatarusian.

After the Union of Lithuania and Poland in 1569, the Polish language became dominant in the Zeczpospolita (a common Polish-Lithuanian state). Russification in the 19th century was very strong in Lithuania, as Lithuanians were Roman Catholics. At the end of 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the reformation and standardization of Lithuanian was established.

Lithuanian Background

Lithuanian tribes on the left bank of the Nẽmunas were under German rule for about 700 years. In the beginning the largest Lithuanian river, the Nẽmunas, separated them from other Lithuanians. After that, government boundaries and religion began to separate them. In the year 1525 the Order of the Knights of the Cross was disbanded; its last grand master Albrecht accepted Protestantism and created the secular Prussian duchy. An attempt was made to incorporate the Lithuanians living there into the state, and to separate them from both the religious and the cultural point of view from the other Lithuanians who lived in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and who had remained Catholics. The Lithuanians living in these two areas even called themselves by different names: those in Lithuania Minor (i.e., in the Lithuanian lands of Prussia) called themselves lietùvninkai, and those in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania called themselves lietùviai.

With the goal of consolidating Protestantism and extending its influence to neighboring countries, the government of the Grand Duchy of Prussia in the middle of the 16th century was very interested in the preparation and the publication of religious texts. The better educated and more talented pastors were empowered to prepare the most essential religious literature in the local languages. The work begun by the author of the first Lithuanian book, Martynas Mazvydas (Mosvidius), and his cousin Baltramiejus Vilentas, was continued at the end of the 16th century by Jonas Bretkunas. As a result of the quantity and quality of religious writings prepared by him, he became the most famous Lithuanian author in East Prussia. In addition to collections of hymns and sermons, he was the first to translate, in the course of 12 years, the entire Bible into Lithuanian.

The 17th century witnessed a continuation of this collective tradition of producing religious works in East Prussia, as well as linguistic works exemplified by the first Lithuanian grammar, published by Daniel Klein in 1653.

The 18th century was a time when Lithuanian culture and literature flourished in East Prussia. Here for the first time the pastor Mýkolas Mèrlinas began a linguistic program with other pastors on the kind of language to use with the common people. His followers began to gather and publish Lithuanian folklore and folk songs in their linguistic tracts, grammars and dictionaries. In the middle of the 18th century the first complete translation of the Bible into Lithuanian was published, new editions of hymns were prepared, even several grammars and dictionaries. The German poet Goethe was charmed by the beauty and the poetry of the Lithuanian folk songs published in linguistic works. The philosopher Immanuel Kant was persuaded to affirm the significance of the Lithuanian language and culture for East Prussia; he wrote the foreword to a Lithuanian grammar. When later, in the 19th century, the Lithuanian language became an object of unusual interest to Indo-Europeanists, they could rely partially on linguistic studies of the previous century. In East Prussia the first original belles-lettres work, The Seasons was written by Kristijõnas Doneláitis; this work belongs to the golden inheritance of world literature. When political conditions became unfavorable to Lithuanian culture in Lithuania Major, and when later they lost their statehood (1797), Prusssian Lithuanians published Lithuanian grammars and dictionaries, created belles-lettres, and investigated their language, folklore, and mythology.

Following an unsuccessful uprising against Tsarist Russia in 1863, Lithuanians were forbidden to use the Latin alphabet in their written documents. The Tsarist Russian government required that all Lithuanian publications be printed in the Cyrillic alphabet. Therefore during this complicated period books written with the Latin alphabet began to be published in East Prussia and delivered to Lithuania from there. The initiator and supporter of this work is thought to be the Samogitian bishop, Motiejus Valancius. Later activists of the Lithuanian revival used the path which he had prepared, organizing here the publication of the first Lithuanian newspapers. Almost two decades after the uprising, and with the advent of a new generation, plans for the restoration of the Lithuanian government began to be raised, but this time not on the basis of the Zeczpospolita (a common Polish-Lithuanian state), but on a national basis. However, on the basis of nationality, a significant portion of the cultural heritage, which in the course of several centuries had been created in the multinational Lithuanian grand duchy, was frequently rejected because it might have undergone foreign influence or was written in some language other than Lithuanian.

One of the most important signs of the national spring time in Eastern Europe was the revival of the native language and a promotion of its importance. Activists of the Lithuanian national revival in the first newspapers Ausra 'Dawn' (1883-1886) and Varpas 'Bell' also began to publish ideas about the revival of the Lithuanian language and the creation of a new standard language. In the language of the documents of that time there were many dialect forms and Polonisms. The most active segment of society was no longer satisfied with the tradition of the written language reaching back to the beginning of the 17th century, which reflected the epoch of a common Lithuanian and Polish state. The West Aukshtaitish dialect became the basis of the new standard language. This was close to the written language used in East Prussia. Having considerable influence on the choice of this dialect was the fact that this variant of the written language was the most thoroughly investigated and was described in the grammars by August Schleicher and Friedrich Kurschat.

Linguistic work to codify the norms of standard Lithuanian was initiated at the end of the 19th century and carried into the 20th by the linguists Kazìmieras Būgà and Jõnas Jablònskis, with their linguistic works and articles in the press, as well as by other Lithuanian cultural activists and writers who helped enrich the language. During this period, use was made not only of the living language, as by Jablònskis, but but also of developmental characteristics of the standard language, correct usage, and the specifics of different styles. An important contribution in this work was made by the Lithuanian Language Society and the journal Gimtóji kalbà 'Native Language'.

Immediately after World War I, a great misfortune befell Lithuanian linguistics. With the death of the outstanding Lithuanian linguist Kazìmieras Būgà, Lithuanian linguistic science collapsed. At the University of Kaunas there was no one to teach the linguistic disciplines, so Alfred Senn and Franz Brender were brought in from Switzerland. Not until 1930, when Prãnas Skar̃džius and Antãnas Salỹs had completed their studies in Germany and returned to Lithuania, was the the renaissance of Lithuanian linguistics to begin.

In 1923 Lithuania Minor was divided into two parts: the Klaĩpėda region fell to Lithuania, and East Prussia remained in German control. Lithuanians in the Klaĩpėda region always emphasized their language, cultural and religious differences from the rest of Lithuania, and did not call themselves Samogitians (žemaĩčiai) even though they were representatives of that dialect. Retaining the tradition of Lithuania Minor, they still used the Gothic script, especially in religious writings. They didn't want to hear anything about language reform and the replacement of traditional borrowings with Lithuanian words, processes that were taking place in the rest of Lithuania. For them, the greatest authorities in language were Frìdrichas Kuršáitis (F. Kurschat) and August Schleicher.

In the years before World War II, a great deal was accomplished in the Republic of Lithuania: terminology was created for various fields; separate language styles were established; orthography, vocabulary, accentuation, place names and family names were normalized; dialect data, data for a thesaurus-type dictionary, etc., were gathered. These activities later helped Lithuania hold out during the Soviet occupation and even in some instances to continue, for better or worse, work that had begun in earlier years, such as the publication of a large standard explanatory dictionary. Lithuania is now one of the states of the European Union.

Latvian Origins, Geographic Location, and Background

About the end of the first millenium A.D., the territory known today as Latvia was populated by four Baltic tribes: the Curonians in the west, the Semigallians in the south and the Selonians and Lettgallians in the central and eastern parts of the land. The Livs, a Finnish-Ugric tribe, lived on a stretch of land extending around the Bay of Riga and up into what today is southern Estonia.

Priests travelling with the Vikings from Scandinavia in the 9th and 10th centuries first introduced Christianity to the Baltic tribes populating the western and southern parts of present day Latvia. In the 10th and 11th centuries, Orthodox teachings, via Old Russian, were spread to the inhabitants living in the eastern and central parts. No written legacies of the languages spoken in this area during this period have been found, though archeologists speculate about the possibility that some type of runic writing system borrowed from the Scandinavians may have been used. Borrowed words in use today, which reflect this early Old Russian influence on the Latvian language, include for example baznīca 'church', grāmata 'book', svece 'candle', svēts 'holy', and zvans 'bell'.

The first written document in which Latvia is mentioned is in the Chronicle of Henry of Livonia (Henrici Chronikon Lyvoniae), written in Latin by Henricus Lettus in 1225/26, with a supplement in 1227. The chronicle tells the story of how the Augustinian monk Meinhard, together with crusaders and tradesmen from Germany, sailed up the river Daugava in 1196 to begin the christianization of the pagan Baltic tribes. Henricus Lettus, as his name implies, used the Latinate names of "Lettigallia" and "Lethia," derived from the Lettgallian tribe, to designate the territory of present-day Latvia. This root is still found in the older designation for the Latvian language as "Lettish," and in the German name for Latvia as "Lettland."

After a century of warfare the pagan tribes lost their independence, and by the end of the 13th century they were completely subjugated to the German-led Livonian Order and the Catholic Church. Over the next few centuries, major differences in tribal language and culture gradually disappeared, and by the 16th century the Semigallian and Lettgallian languages had formed the basis for a more or less unified spoken Latvian language.

The Livs, who lived along the Daugava and Gauja rivers and spoke a Finno-Ugric language, were the first to be quelled by the colonizing Germans. Their name was taken over as the name for Livonia, the German dominated confederation which fell in the 16th century and which roughly corresponds to Latvia and Estonia of today. About a hundred Livian speakers have survived to the present, and in the 20th century they lived mainly in the Curonian fishing villages on the coast of the Baltic Sea between Kolka and Mazirbe. The influence of Livian is found especially in the Tamnieku dialect, one of the three major dialects of modern Latvian. The other two dialects are High Latvian, which is spoken in the east, and Central Latvian, spoken in the area between Tamnieku to the west and High Latvian to the east.

In the 16th century, German-speaking clergymen began to translate hymnals, agendas, liturgies, prayerbooks and fragments of the Bible into the Latvian language. The oldest preserved printed texts are the Catholic Catechism (tr. 1585) and the Lutheran Handbook (Catechism, pericopes and psalm book, tr. 1586/87).

Because the clergymen were not native speakers and because they were bound by rigid translation conventions -- which dictated word to word translation of Christian texts in order to rule out the possibility of sacrilege -- the resulting Early Written Latvian (EWL) was quite different from the natural spoken language. EWL is characterized by an overabundance of German grammatical forms and constructions. A striking example of German influence from this period is the introduction of the conjunction un 'and' into written Latvian, a loan from German und.

Georgius Mancelius (1593-1654), the former dean of Tartu University and court priest, introduced extensive corrections to the earlier forms of EWL in his many publications, and is generally regarded as having set the groundwork for modern Latvian literary language. A milestone in the standardization of written Latvian was the translation of the Bible (published 1685-1694), which promoted the use of the Central Latvian dialect as the basis for standard Latvian. This Bible translation also indirectly provided for the use of the Central Latvian dialect as the basis for colloquial Latvian by the Latvian people, as this was the one standard work that was distributed to the major parishes as part of their inventory.

Along with the ideas of the Enlightenment, a new direction toward secular Latvian literature was introduced by another German clergyman, Gothard Friedrich Stender (1714-1796). Interest in the presumed simple and natural life of the "native peoples" and their folklore was expressed by German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), who published eleven Latvian folk songs in German translation in his two volume book Alte Volkslieder (Old Folk Songs, 1778-1779).

After the end of the Swedish-Polish war in 1629, the eastern region of Latvia, today called Latgale, was for a few hundred years under different administrative jurisdiction than the rest of Latvia (first Polish/Lithuanian, then Russian). This, coupled with the fact that the majority of Latgalians were Catholics as opposed to the Lutherans living in central and western Latvia, led to the development of a distinct spoken language or dialect and a different writing tradition. The first book in Latgalian, Evangelia toto anno (The Evangelical Year), was published in 1753. A heavy blow to the region's intellectual development was the ban on the use of the Latin alphabet between 1861 and 1904. By the forced use of the Cyrillic alphabet, the Russian administration hoped to convert the Latgalians to the Orthodox belief and turn them away from Roman Catholicism. However, the attempts to separate Latgale from the rest of Latvia and to eradicate its writing tradition were not successful. Today Latgalian is the main language spoken in Latgale, and the region's cultural development is supported by the European Union.

Parallel to the written tradition dominated by the Baltic Germans, the Latvian peasantry kept up its oral tradition of telling tales and singing folk songs. The first ethnic Latvian authors (i.e. whose first language was Latvian) were published in the early 19th century, and the beginnings of Modern Standard Latvian were established with the advent of the National Awakening in the 1850s. In the late 1860s, leading Latvian intellectuals discussed the necessity of recording their nation's folklore before the oral tradition was lost. Krišjānis Barons (1835-1923), a mathematician and astronomer turned folklorist, succeeded in collecting and systematizing almost a quarter of a million dainas (short folk songs), which were published in eight volumes between 1900 and 1915.

By the time Latvia's independence was declared in 1918, a fully functional Modern Standard Latvian (MSL) had developed in both written and spoken form. During the first period of Latvian independence (1918-1939), Latvian was the country's primary language, and continual attention was given to questions concerning orthography, style and terminology, as well as documentation and research of dialects, folklore, etc.

During the Soviet occupation of Latvia (1945-1991), the Latvian language had a secondary position, but the passing of the Latvian Language Law of 1989 and the renewal of Latvian independence in 1991 gave Latvian the status of the official State Language of Latvia. Today, the National Language Commission and the State Language Agency continues work in promoting the status of Latvian in Latvia, and advanced research in Latvian is carried out at the many higher education institutes including the Latvian Language Institute at the University of Latvia.

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