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Definition: Lithuanian language from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Indo-European language spoken by the people of Lithuania, which through its geographical isolation has retained many ancient features of the Indo-European language family. It acquired a written form in the 16th century, using the Latin alphabet, and is currently spoken by some 3–4 million people.

Summary Article: LITHUANIAN
from Dictionary of Languages
3,500,000 SPEAKERS


Lithuanian is one of the BALTIC LANGUAGES (see map and table of numerals there). It has the distinction of being the language that has changed least over the several thousand years since proto-INDO-EUROPEAN began to split up into the dialects and languages now spoken in a wide swathe across Europe and southern Asia. Lithuanian is the official language of Lithuania, which was the first constituent republic of the Soviet Union to make good its escape from the collapsing superpower.

The Litva were already here, at the southeastern corner of the Baltic, in the 10th century. Their earlier history is really unknown, though archaeologists consider it likely that their ancestors had occupied the region for a long time: certainly a Baltic language influenced an early form of finnish and Estonian over two thousand years ago, suggesting that the two language groups were adjacent at that time.

In the 14th century the Grand Duchy of Lithuania had become the largest state in Europe, stretching all the way from the Baltic to the borders of the Khanate of Crimea. The country was still pagan, but on the marriage of Queen Jadwiga of Poland to Grand Duke Jagiello of Lithuania (in 1385) it became officially Catholic, almost the last European nation to adopt Christianity. It now formed part of a double Polish-Lithuanian state in which Polish became the ruling language (until very recently Polish was the majority language of the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius). When this state was broken up, in the 18th century, Lithuania was annexed by Russia and Russian was the new language of prestige. Lithuanian sank into the status of a peasant tongue. After rebellions in 1830, printing and teaching in Lithuanian were outlawed and many schools and Roman Catholic monasteries were closed. The German occupation of 1915–18 was equally oppressive.

Independent from 1918, Lithuania was once more seized by the Soviet Union in 1940, and suffered a second German occupation in 1941–4. The ethnic situation was complicated by mass deportations of Lithuanians to Siberia and Kazakhstan, and mass immigration of Russians. There was meanwhile considerable emigration of Lithuanian speakers to western Europe and America – in 1830 to 1910 these were mostly unskilled workers; in the 1940s they were refugees from Soviet occupation. Many rapidly assimilated to their new linguistic environment; others were ready to return as Lithuania declared its independence once more on 11 March 1990 and Russia ceased to dispute the position in September 1991.

The first Lithuanian printed text, a catechism, appeared in 1547. The first dictionary was printed in the 17th century. A more extensive publishing trade developed in the 19th century – and at this period there was already a vigorous press serving Lithuanian communities in the United States. As the nationalist movement flourished under Russian repression, Jonas Mačiulis (1862–1932), ‘prophet of the Lithuanian renaissance’, emerged as perhaps the greatest 19th-century poet.

Lithuanian vocabulary has striking points of similarity with the most ancient known Indo-European languages: ašis, Latin axis ‘axle’; avis, Latin ovis ‘sheep’; katras, Sanskrit kataras ‘which’. Lithuanian is a tonal language, as ancient Greek and Sanskrit were and as proto-Indo-European probably was. Nouns have seven cases. There are three numbers, singular, dual and plural. Verb forms, however, are much simpler and more regular than the usually reconstructed proto-Indo-European forms.

In modern literary Lithuanian there has been a concerted attempt to supersede the loanwords from German, Polish, Ukrainian and Belorussian that are found in early texts.

Dictionary of Languages © 1998 + 2004

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