The map of Balts lands (XIII century)




By Algirdas Sabaliauskas

Indo - European languages include such widely spoken languages as English, German, French, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Italian and a number of others. Today they are used by nearly two billion people, or almost one half of the world's population. It is perfectly clear that all these languages have developed from the same source. Bit where was that source? Where and when did our ancestors first speak that Proto - Indo - European language?


The first attempts to find answers to those questions were made in the middle of the 19th century within the framework of historical - comparative linguistics. While considering these problems, linguists must constantly have been made aware of the Latin phrase Ex orient lax (Light comes from the East). Asia to them was the cradle of our civilisation, while the great variety of the archaic languages of ancient India led them to believe that Proto - Indo - European must have been spoken somewhere in India. When the land could no longer sustain them, its speakers would take their possessions and hit the road in quest for a better life in other Asian, and later, European countries.Having adjusted themselves to the new living conditions and lost links with the old homeland, they subconsciously introduced changes in the language, borrowed new words from their neighbours and in this way gradually produced new Indo - European languages.

The German linguist August Schleicher (1821 - 1868), the writer of the first academic grammar book of the Lithuanian language, created what has become known as a tree theory. In his opinion, Proto - Indo - European can be linked to the trunk of a big tree. At first the tree split into two thick branches which in their turn continued to branch out producing the present variety of Indo - Europian languages. Proto - Indo - Europeans was so realistic to Schleicher that he wrote even a fable about a horse and a sheep in this first proto - language, which he reconstructed on the basis of the linguistic facts of the living Indo - European language.

Very soon, however, the theory of the Indian and Asian origin of the Indo - European languages met with strong criticiszm, which was based on such facts as the absence of common words for the camel, lion, tiger, elephant although these animals abound in that part of the world, and the presence of common words for the wolf and the birch. The latter fact induced the linguists to look for the Proto -Indo - European homeland in places where wolves roamed in birch groves and snow was a usual phenomenon, for Indo - Eoropean languages also have a common word for snow.

Thus, scholars turned their eyes to Europe. Some were for Scandinavia, others for Germany, but more and more linguists were inclined to think that the most likely place where they should be looking for the Proto - Indo - European homeland was around the lower and middle Danube or on the northern coast of the Black Sea.

It is a matter of interest that among the arguments which the proponents of the European hypothesis would offer was a fact that on the Baltic coast live Lithuanians who speak the most archaic of all the living Indo - European languages. They argued that the Lithuanians had managed to preserve the archaic elements of their language just because they had not travelled far from their original homeland.

At the time when everybody believed that the Asian hypothesis had been buried for ever, like a bolt from the blue came a new hypothesis put forward by Vjacheslav V.Ivanov, formerly Indo - European professor of Moscow University, at present a professor of California University, and Thomas V.Gamkrelidze, a Georgian academician. First proposed in a paper published by the two linguists, later their hypothesis was expounded in a two-volume book, The Indo - Eurpean Language and the Indo - Europeans, and published in Tbilisi in 1984. According to it, Proto - Indo - European was spoken between southern Transcaucasia and northern Mesopotamia not later that the 5th - 4th centuries BC.

But whether our ancestors really roamed the mountains of the Caucasus has yet to be proved. As is often the case, the hypothesis has its exponents and opponents.


At present there are about 300 millions Slavs on the world and a mere 5 million Balts. It is quite possible that in the past the number of these peoples was about equal. They have always been close relatives. But did they ever speak the same language?

August Schleisher maintained that one of the first two big branches of the Indo - European tree represented Germanic, i.e. what was to become the German, English, Swedish, Danish, Norvegian, Dutch and Icelandic languages, and Balto - Slavic. That means there was a time when the Balts and Slavs spoke the same language - Proto - Baltic - Slavic. Later, this proto language diverged into Lithuanian, Latvian, Old Prussian and a great number of Slavic languages. Today it is difficult to know exactly how it all happened, but there is no doubt that the Baltic and Slavic languages possess a lot of similarities. There are scalars, however, who maintain that these similarities have been produced due to the proximity of their land and the similarity of their living conditions. It is quite possible that in past the Balts and Slavs could even understand each other's language like Swedes and Norwegians or Czechs and Slovaks do today. Now the Balts and Slavs cannot understand each other since their languages have become too different. Linguists, however, do not consider them to be very different, for on the basis of certain phonetic regularities they can establish similarities between seemingly different words. Let us consider the Russian word ucho and the Lithuanian word ausis 'ear'. What do they have in common? Meaning? Yes, but there is something more to it. Linguists will tell you that the Russian u was derived from the older diphthong au, ch from s. The same regularities can be observed in the Russian suchoi and the Lithuanian sausas 'dry'.

The Lithuanian language has retained the old sounds while the Slavic languages have lost them. That us why in order to understand the development of Slavic languages, philologists often fall back upon Lithuanian.


There are only two living Baltic languages today - Lithuanian and Latvian. When did the third language - Prussian - die? The answer is simple. Before the First World War the Public Library of St Peterburg (now the Saltykov - Shchedrin Library) had a copy of a Prussian catechism, published in 1545, which contained the following hand-written note made in German about the year 1700:"This old Prussian language has now completely disappeared. The only old men who had lived on the Curonian Spit and still knew Prussian died in 1677, although there are still some like him".

At the beginning of the 18th century there might have been still a few Prussian families which spoke Prussian at home, but now this Baltic people is extinct. As evidence of their language, they left three printed catechisms, two manuscript glossaries, and a large number of placenames and personal names. Even the name of their own identity - Prussians - they passed down to the Germans who assimilated or killed them. The European state Preussen had nothing to do with the old Prussians except their land in which it was established.

Old Prussian is the beloved child of all Indo - European philologists, for it is very archaic and contains a large number of old Indo - European words and forms. It is, however, significantly different both from Lithuanian and Latvian. Had they met the famous leader of the Prussian resistance Herkus Mantas (killed in 1274) and his contemporary King Mindaugas of Lithuania (killed in 1263), would not have been able to understand each other's language.

It is thought that Old Prussian separated from Lithuanian and Latvian in the 4th-3rd centuries BC. The ancestors of the present-day Lithuanians and Latvians continued to speak the same language for almost a thousand years, at least they could easily understand each other. But gradually these languages began to diverge as well, acquiring new linguistic forms, Latvian in particular.


Scholars cannot agree when the forebears of Lithuanians and Latvians came into contact with the Baltic Finns, the ancestors of the present-day Finns and Estonians. Linguistic facts seem to suggest that their friendly relations back to very ancient times.

The Finnish linguist Lauri Hakulinen has estimated that Baltic loan words in Modern Standard Finnish account for 1.1 per cents, i.e. eleven words out of a thousand are of the Baltic origin. Some linguists, archaeologists in particular, maintain that the Balts and Finns became neighbours as early as the 2nd millennium BC. Others push that date forward to the very last centuries BC.

Judging from the level of civilisation reflected in the Finnish words of the Baltic origin, the Lithuanian linguist Kazimieras Buga (1879 - 1924) placed the first Finnish - Lithuanian contacts between the year 1000 and 500 BC.

Here are a few typical examples of Finnish words of Baltic origin:
Fin. ahingas harpoon, Est. ahinga cf. Lith. akstinas thorn, prick.
Fin. ansa loop, snare, Est. aas cf. Lith. asa.
Fin. hammas tooth, Est. hammas, cf. Lith. zambis wooden plough, Latv. zobs tooth.
Fin. heimo relative, relatives, Est. hoim, cf. Lith. seima, Latv. saime family.
Fin. keli road, cf. Lith. kelias.
Fin. kirves axe, Est. kirves, cf. Lith. kirvis.
Fin. morsian bride, Est. mors, cf. Lith. marti daughter-in-law.
Fin. paimen shepherd, cf. Lith. piemuo.
Fin. talkoot (collective) assistance, help, Est. talgug, cf. Lith. talka.

The semantics of Baltic loan words - the presence of terms of relationship, agriculture, animal husbandry, the absence of loan words denoting weaponry or discord - testifies to the friendly character of Baltic - Finnish relations.

Although Baltic - Finnish relations continue to interest Finnish, Estonian, Swedish and other scalars, the greatest contribution to these studies was made by the Danish linguist and philologist Vilhelm Thomsen in his book Relations between the Finnish and Baltic (Lithuanian - Latvian) Languages published in 1890. (Later, in Copenhagen in 1831, the book was published also in German).


One of the most important stimuli for the emergence of historical-comparative linguistics was the acquaintance of Europeans with Sanskrit, the old language of India. Europeans believed that a Sanskrit scholar could understand and be understood by a Lithuanian farmer.

In 1786, Wiliam Jones (1746-1794), an English Justice of the Supreme Court of Judicature in Calcutta, read a paper before the Asiatic Society, founded by himself, in which he proclaimed that Sanskrit, this "wonderfully structured old language of India" is derived from the same source as Greek, Latin, and perhaps even Gothic and Celtic. This was a very bold idea, which produced a veritable revolution in linguistics.

European scholars turned their attention to Sanskrit, and started with old European languages. They created precise methodology which enabled them to understand phonetic changes and distinguish original words from loans. They taught themselves through the comparison of related words in different languages to reconstruct the extinct forms, which were very often similar or even identical with Sanskrit forms.

Linguists believed that comparative linguistics without Sanskrit is like astronomy without mathematics.

It is not difficult therefore to imagine the surprise of the scholarly world when that learned that even in their time somewhere on the Nemunas River lived a people who spoke a language as archaic in many of its forms as Sanskrit itself. Although it was not exactly true that a professor of Sanskrit could talk to Lithuanian farmers in their language, coincidences between these two languages were truly amazing, for example:

Sanskrit sunus son - Lith. sunus;
Sanskrit viras man - Lith. vyras;
Sanskrit avis sheep - Lith. avis;
Sanskrit dhumas smoke - Lith. dumas;
Sanskrit padas sole - Lith. padas.

We can be safe in asserting that these Lihuanian words have not changes their forms for the last five thousand years.

The most prominent Eurpean linguists visited to Lithuania in order to learn this archaic language from the lips of Lithuanians themselves, which helped them to investigate the history of other Indo-European languages.

Today, there is no doubt that Lithuanian has retained many ancient Indo-European forms. It is hard to say whether it was due to the character of the Lithuanians or of geographic position that their language has changed so little in the course of several thousand years. Scholars often make references to the Lithuanian language when conducting research on the history of other languages.

No wonder that Lithuanian is taught and studied not only in this country or Latvia. There are specialists of Lithuanian in Germany, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, Italy, Switzerland, France, the USA and some other countries. The capital city of Lithuania - Vilnius - has become a world centre for Baltic studies.

The Lithuanian community in the United States of America founded the Department of the Lithuanian Language at Illinois State University in Chicago in 1984 in order to better know the culture and language of their parents and grandparents.

Because of its complex morphology and shifting stress, Lithuanian is not an easy language for foreigners to study. But increasingly more people want to learn it. Every summer, a group of people from abroad take a Lithuanian course at Vilnius University.

From the „Lithuania in the World”, 1996 No1.

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Samogitian Cultural Association Editorial Board, 1998.
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