On Lithuanian, the forgotten root

Intro

Nestled against the Baltic Sea between Latvia, Belarus, Poland and a sliver of Russia that seems to have got away, Lithuania is a country with a rich and complex history. There has been much turmoil in this small country of only three million over the centuries, and so much in the 19th and 20th centuries, that it’s a marvel the language has survived. Yet survived it has, and when you know more you’ll understand it’s cultural and historic importance to all of humanity.

Country

Lithuania gained independence from the USSR in 1990 after over 40 years of Sovietisation that was continuous since WW2, but truthfully has been going on for 100s of years. The small population has many expatriates throughout Europe (and the world) and they have brought Lithuanian cuisine which has its own unique take on what one might think of as classical Eastern European food. Lithuania is a fairly flat country. There are no mountains but there are many forests that make it exceptionally green in summer and winter-wonderland-like in the snowy winters.

The Trails of the Lithuanian Language

Attribution: Vaidas V, under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The Lithuanian language is one of the most conservative modern European languages, being historically important for this reason and key in the academic reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European. The Eastern Baltic languages may have split off from Western Baltic as early as 600AD and dialects existed from at least as early as the 14th century. The earliest existing example of written Lithuanian is a prayer from the early 1500s. A little known fact about Lithuania is that it’s territory once spread to the Black Sea; in the 15th century as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth extended even further and lasted from 1569 to 1795. During this period Lithuanian faded from use amongst the nobility and was not used in official documentation, due to the increasing Polonization of the region. The Lithuanian language survived largely due to the peasant population and the Western nobility.

Lithuania was ruled by the Russian Empire from 1795 to 1918. Russification and Polonization continued throughout this period (punctuated by the rise of Napoleon and two failed uprisings) and the Lithuanian language was subjugated. The occupying powers banned publication of Lithuanian texts and official documentation was all in Polish or Russian. At some point Lithuanian was even banned in schools.

A national movement, started in the 19th century and known as the Lithuanian National Revival, kick-started the re-ignition of the Lithuanian language amongst the people (and intellectuals). In 1918 (during WW1) Lithuania finally declared independence but much of the country was annexed, including the capital Vilnius, soon after by Poland in 1920. The country was again split in 1939, with Germany occupying the Klaipeda region. The Soviet Union invaded in September 1939 and annexed all of Lithuania until it’s total overrun by Germany in 1941.

The Soviet defeat of German forces in 1944 once again returned Lithuania to Russian rule and the continuation of the Russification of the past 100+ years, until independence in 1990. During this period Russian was taught at schools and most Lithuanians that were of high school age in 1990 can speak Russian.

Despite this tortured history the Lithuanian language has persisted and not been corrupted by the influence of all the invaders. It is therefore not only one of the most important European languages but one of the most amazing; despite generations of occupiers attempting to surpress and supersede Lithuanian it has remained largely unchanged and shares similarities with other ancient languages such as Sanskrit and Greek. Not totally unlike a Rosetta Stone of languages, Lithuanian still provides a window into our past by showing us something of our European ancestry.

And that’s just one of the reasons I’d like to learn it.

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