The Lithuanian language belongs to the Indo-European family of languagesJonas Jablonskis(1860-1930) and together with Latvian constitutes the extant Baltic group of languages.

Hydronyms of Baltic origin have been found by linguists far to the east of present-day Lithuania and Latvia, namely, in the upper and central parts of the Dnieper basin, in the upper reaches of the Volga, and in the Oka basin. Even in the environs of scientists have found several hundred toponyms of Baltic origin. It is assumed that isolated Baltic islets existed in the east up to the 13th century. Thus, Balto-Slavic links are of very old standing. Common features between the Lithuanian language and the Russian and Byelorussian languages corroborate the above inference.

The western border areas of Lithuania and Latvia show traces of toponyms of Finnish origin, which gave rise to the opinion that these places may have been once inhabited by Baltic Finns. In general, the Balts had contacts with Finnish tribes at the dawn of history, well before Christ. The Fins learned land and animal husbandry from Baltic tribes which is shown by Finnish words denoting cereals, rye, ram, goose, etc. lent from respective Baltic words. The Baltic marti (daughter-in-law) is also a loan-word in Finnish; apparently, the links may have been rather close…

Long before our era Old Baltic branched off into separate dialects of which there were two groups: the western and the eastern. The latter comprised Lithuanian and Latvian as well as the eventually extinct Curonian, Selonian and Semigallian languages which we know of only from occasional references in historical sources. Lithuanian and Latvian began to branch off into separate languages approximately in the 7th century. A. D. Lithuanian developed two main dialects, namely, Zemaiciu (Samogitian) spoken by western Lithuanians, and Aukstaiciu (Highlander) spoken by southern, eastern and northern Lithuanians. Both main dialects have a wealth of preserved the old sounds and forms.

Old Prussian, belonging to the western Baltic group and spoken by ancient Prussians who lived on the Baltic to south-west of the Lithuanian lands (former East-Prussian territory), was still a living language in the late 17th century. The lands of the ancient Prussian tribes had been seized by the Tectonic Knights as far back as the 13th century; part of the original Prussians were exterminated and the remaining part, which was enslaved and formed into a nation, became assimilated in the course of fierce germination. Old Prussian died away, and hardly half a dozen written texts, e. g. three catechisms translated into Old Prussian and printed in the 16th century and two small dictionaries in manuscript, have reached our days.

The Lithuanians had no written language of their own for a rather long period of time, up to the mid-16th century. After the rise of the Lithuanian state all foreign correspondence with West-Europe countries was conducted in Latvia. For internal use within the state served Old Byelorussian which was at the time. Mid-14th century, forming from western dialects of old Slavonic. In the course of the 15th and 16th centuries there accumulated a rather extensive literature in the Old Byelorussian language, viz., state documents, collections of laws. Chronicles, 16th-century Lithuanian Statutes, various polemic literature, books of enlightenment character, etc. Vilnius became quite an important centre of books printing in the 16th century.

With the introduction of Christianity in the 14th and 15th centuries the Lithuanian language and culture were faced with the ever increasing danger of pollination. The Polish nobility and gentry tried in every way possible to force the Polish language, alphabet and customs upon Lithuania. The Lithuanian nobility and gentry were gradually adopting the Polish language and customs. Eventually they began to look upon their Lithuanian origin as a disgrace and called themselves „gentle lituanus natione polonus” (people of Lithuanian stock, Poles by nationality). In mouth of the privileged the word „Lithuanian” was a mere geographic term without any national designation. The nobility and gentry did not speak Lithuanian, they despised the Lithuanian language and customs. The catholic Church was a particularly zealous polonizer for very few priests spoke Lithuanian. Only the peasantry and the petty unprivileged gentry spoke Lithuanian. The alienation of the ruling circles and the privileged gentry from the vernacular, from popular traditions and the people’s culture was a genuine tragedy for the Lithuanian nation as it set back the development of the Lithuanian national culture for the period of several centuries. As a result, Lithuanian literature and book printing were rather late in developing and developed at a very slow rate.

The spread of the Reformation in Lithuania in the 16th century initiated the appearance of the first Lithuanian book. Martynas Mazvydas Catechismvsa Prasty Szadey (Catechism) , printed in Königsberg, East Prussia, in 1547. The book was not only a catechism but also, in the words of its title page,

2a teacher for reading and singing Christian songs printed in a new manner and meant for young people”. The book contains the first ABC, a primer, rudiments of reading in Lithuanian, samples of syllabification and the first grammatical terms. It was soon followed by other religious books; these were printed in Lithuania herself.

In order to counteract the growing influence of the Reformation the Catholic Church, which up till then had used alien Latin and Polish, was forced to use Lithuanian and to print religious books in Lithuanian. The first Vilnius-printed books in Lithuanian were the Catechism (1595) and the Postilla (1599), both translated into Lithuanian by canon Mikalojus Dauksa.

The historical significance of the Postilla lies not in the sermons it contains but in its

„Prefatory Word to the Gentle Reader” in which Dauksa explains the paramount importance of the native tongue and voices his grief over the circumstance that the mother tongue is despised in Lithuania:

„Where could you find in the world a nation so dark and vile which not possess three innate things of its own, viz., its own land, customs and language?.. A nation lives not by the fertility of the soil, not by the diversity of garments, not by the pleasantness of the country, not by the strength of its towns and castles, but most of all by the preservation and usage of its own language which is the mainstay of a nation and enhances its qualities, its concord and brotherly love. The native tongue is the link of love, the mother of unity, the father of civic virtues, the guardian of the state… Do away with the language, and you will do away concord, unity and honesty whatsoever! Do away with the language, and you will put out the sun in the sky, you will throw the world into disarray, you will take away life and order!.. I say so not because I want to censure the know-ledge of foreign languages… My sole aim is to stigmatise the neglect, the contempt, nay, the outright rejection by us of our own Lithuanian language. God grant you come to reason and rise one day from that degradation!.. I for my part will be content of having, with this my modest booklet, initiated and awakened my people to love, keep and foster our mother tongue.”

The above Prefatory Word, a signal display of the anxiousness about the most precious possession of a nation – its language, shows that even in those times of alien influences there were people in Lithuania who understood the abnormality of the situation.

In 1629 there appeared the Lithuanian-Polish-Latin dictionary by Konstantinas Sirvydas. The first Lithuanian grammar, written in Latin by Daniel Klein, was printed in Königsberg in 1653. Many of the books published at the time stressed the importance of the native tongue and shoved concern for the spread of written Lithuanian. Unfortunately, these were but isolated instances which did not bring about a vigorous cultural development. Written Lithuanian got more and more burdened with Polonisms and few cared about its purity and improvement. The 18 th century can be called the age of impoverishment of written Lithuanian and of the decline of Lithuanian book publishing.

The spread of national liberation ideas, the formation of the consciousness of the Lithuanian national character and the rise of the Lithuanian intelligentsia brought about a gradual revival of the popular traditions of the Lithuanian language only in the 19th century. A galaxy of writers, such Dionizas Poska, Simonas Stanevicius, Simonas Daukantas, Motiejus Valancius, Antanas Baranauskas and others, were particularly prominent in this field abolition of serfdom in 1861 many Lithuanian intellectuals of peasants extraction began showing their concern for nationalism and the national language. And despite an ever growing tsarist oppression , in the course of which printing of Lithuanian books in Lithuanian (Latin) type was banned for four decades (1864 to 1904), the Lithuanian language experienced a kind of renaissance.

Lithuanian books and newspapers were printed abroad and then smuggled into Lithuania. People who had some education taught secretly peasant children the Lithuanian ABC as well as reading and writing.

Up to the last decades of the 19th century Lithuania had still no standard written language. From the appearance of the first Lithuanian books some writers wrote in various Zemaiciu, and others Aukstaiciu subdialects. Only at the very turn of the century could one notice the emergence of a common literary language based on the south-western Aukstaiciu subdialect . By that time Lithuania had linguists who were greatly concerned with standardising and fostering written Lithuanian. One of the most outstanding of the those linguists was Kazimieras Jaunius (1849-1908) who studied the links between the Baltic and other languages and had written a Lithuanian grammar. His pupil, Kazimieras Buga (1879-1924), the originator of the dictionary of present-day Lithuanian, had made signal contributions to other branches of linguistics, particularly to lexicology. Jonas Jablonskis (1860-1930), a particularly prolific and active fostered of written Lithuanian, is often referred to as the father of Lithuanian. His Lithuanian grammars, especially the third one, published in 1922, had a tremendous impact on the improvement of literary Lithuanian and on the preparation of standard textbooks for schools. Jablonskis wrote many articles dealing with practical linguistic problems. He trained a large number of scholars who engaged in Lithuanian linguistics and in the country’s cultural life and continued the work of their teacher.

Thus ultimately evolved a literary common to all Lithuanians. Spoken Lithuanian preserves still dialects and subdialects, but these are gradually levelled out under the impact of literary Lithuanian. Therefore, the collection of old linguistic material still extant among the people and valuable for linguistics is of paramount importance.

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© Samogitian Cultural Association Editorial Board, 1998.
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