Lithuanian has a history of Polish and Russian influences, which delayed the development of a standardized Lithuanian language for many centuries. As a result, a standardized language did not emerge until the early 20th century.
Classification and Early History of the Lithuanian Language
The Lithuanian language is classified as a Baltic Language, part of the Indo-European language family. It is generally believed that ancestors of modern-day Lithuanians first arrived in the Baltic area around 2500 BC.
Like the closely-related Latvian language, Lithuanian is marked by its retention of archaic characteristics and its similarity to Slavic languages, two facts that have caused various disputes among modern linguists. A central issue has been the question of whether there once existed a Balto-Slavic language group, which then split into two separate subfamilies (Baltic and Slavic) around the 10th century BC.
Relationship Between Modern Latvian and Lithuanian
The Baltic language of Latvian and Lithuanian are closely related, although they are not mutually intelligible. Most linguists consider Lithuanian to be the more conservative of the two languages, as Latvian has undergone more developments throughout history.
There is no doubt that the Latvian and Lithuanian languages shared an early path of development, and it is believed that the two languages did not develop as distinct languages until circa 800 AD. Before this, it is likely that they were simply seen as two dialects of one single language.
Impact of the Polish-Lithuanian Union on the Lithuanian Language
In the 13th century, a loose confederation of Lithuanian tribes was formed to orchestrate a unified resistance in the face of invasion by Teutonic knights. This organization took place under the pagan chieftain Mindaugas who, after converting to Christianity, was crowned king of Lithuania by the authority of the Pope.
After Mindaugas’s assassination in 1263, future rulers took greater efforts to expand Lithuanian territory. Notably, Grand Duke Jogaila orchestrated a union with Poland by marrying the Polish queen Jadwiga in 1386. By 1447, due to the lack of a Lithuanian heir, the King of Poland came to rule Lithuania. Stronger ties between Poland and Lithuania were developed in response to threats of Russian invasion, resulting in the creation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita).
As a result of this union, Lithuania’s upper class came to adopt Polish customs and the language. This appropriation of the Polish language among the educated classes led to a significant delay in the development of a standardized Lithuanian literary language.
Early Written Lithuanian Language
Although it took centuries for a standardized version to develop, the first signs of written Lithuanian literary language can be found in the 16th century. Lithuanian translations of religious texts the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary, written in the southern Aukstaitijan dialect, are believed to date from circa 1503 to 1525.
Although printed Lithuanian language books existed after 1547, their numbers were small. Literacy rates were low among Lithuanians and, as already noted, the upper classes of Lithuanian society often adopted Polish as a literary language.
Russian Subjugation of the Lithuanian Language: 17th to Early 19th Century
In the early 1600s, Russia conquered Lithuania, resulting in major setbacks in the development of a standard Lithuanian language, written and spoken. From 1866 to 1904, the Lithuanian language was required to be written in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet.
Latin-script Lithuanian language books, however, were still smuggled into Lithuania from Germany. Due to increased nationalist sentiment and unrest among Lithuanians, the ban was lifted in 1904.
Lithuanian nationalists declared Lithuanian independence in 1918. After expelling Russian Bolshevik forces, a Lithuanian assembly was elected in April 1920 and Lithuania’s first constitution was approved by 1922, officially establishing Lithuania as an independent democratic republic.
World War II and After: Soviet Influence on the Lithuanian Language
In 1940, the Soviet Red Army invaded Lithuania, creating the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. The occupation in the years that followed again resulted in an increasing Russian influence on the Lithuanian language, especially noticeable in the great number of Russian language loan-words incorporated into Lithuanian during this time.
As was the case in Latvia, the deportation and persecution of many native Lithuanians resulted in a decreased Lithuanian population. In 1990, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare independence, and by 1991 the USSR had officially dissolved.
Modern Development of a Standard Lithuanian Language
Due to Lithuania’s historical ties with Poland and, later, Russia, the Lithuanian written language took a long time to develop a standardized form. Three primary dialects were in use throughout the 19th century, with no single one being widely accepted as a standard.
It was not until the first period of Lithuanian independence, from 1918 to 1940, that a standard Lithuanian language developed. Based on the West High dialect, this became the official language of independent Lithuania in 1918. It was standardized by the linguist Jonas Jablonskis, who published an influential Lithuanian grammar text based on this dialect in 1919.
Jablonskis’ text had an enormous impact, as it became the basis for Lithuanian language literary works and was also used in schools. Thanks to his work, Jablonskis is today considered the father of standard Lithuanian.
Modern Lithuanian Language and Dialects
The country of Lithuania has gained prominence in the past decade, joining international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the World Trade Organization. In 2004, Lithuania and fellow Baltic States Estonia and Latvia joined the European Union.
Modern Lithuanian is divided into two primary dialects within Lithuania: Shamaitish, also known as Low Lithuanian, and Aukshtaitish, also known as High Lithuanian. Low Lithuanian is spoken predominantly along the Baltic coast, while High Lithuanian is spoken in the northern, southern, and eastern areas of Lithuania.
Today, the Lithuanian language is spoken by approximately 3 million people in the Republic of Lithuania, were it serves as the official language.
Lithuanian Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Lietuviskai, Lietuvi, Litovskiy, Litewski, Litauische
Language Family: Indo-European, Baltic, Eastern.
Official Language of: Lithuania
Spoken by Approximately 4,000,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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