Lithuanian Language vs.Russian Language
Because I work with people from all over the world who are trying to learn English, I often get asked by colleagues and just curious individuals how many languages I speak myself. The question is pretty straight forward, right? But when I say that I speak three languages – Lithuanian, English and Russian – the reactions I get lead to some very interesting revelations. First, no matter which order I list my languages in (believe me, I tried!), English gets either dismissed immediately (because, let’s face it, we are conversing in English!) or I get a compliment of how well I speak it, or a “yes yes, I was wondering where that accent is from” sort of comment. Lithuanian sometimes gets the attention it deserves, but most often, people take the Russian and run with it.
So is Lithuanian a Russian dialect?
But your first language is Russian, right?
Lithuanian and Russian, are they related languages? Because I think they sound the same, sorta…
I suppose, we all tend to draw on what is familiar to learn something new. A lot more people know where Russia is than Lithuania. Some have never even heard of the “tiny country that is the size of a pure amber drop”.
But have no fear, Ieva’s here. Today my mission to highlight some facts about Lithuanian language and to reassure you, that it is an independent language spoken by over 3 million people worldwide as well as give you some interesting facts.
Lithuanian is a Baltic language, not a Slavic one
The only two living languages in the Baltic branch are Lithuanian and Latvian. Old Prussian, which is a dead language, used to be part of this branch as well.
Due to historical circumstances, a lot of Lithuanians know or at least understand some Russian and in the Vilnius region, Polish as well. However, if you are a Russian or Polish (both Slavic langauges) or any other language speaker, you will not be able to understand Lithuanian if you hadn’t specifically studied it.
Lithuanian language peculiarities
Lithuanian is very old and is related to Sanskrit (which is a classical language of India), Latin and Greek. It has retained a lot of archaic elements:
- There are no articles in Lithuanian. If you hear a Lithuanian speaking English and using either no articles or adding “the” or “a” to every possible noun, now you know the reason.
- Therefore, relationships between words are ruled by changing the endings of nouns, adjectives and verbs. For example, take the word “child”. In Lithuanian it is “vaikas”. Here are some examples of how Lithuanian word “vaikas” is inflected:
- I am a child Aš esu vaikas
- This is my child’s book. Ši knyga yra mano vaiko.
- I am cooking for my child. Ruošiu valgyt savo vaikui.
- I see my child Aš matau savo vaiką…
and so on..
- There are two genders in Lithuanian – feminine and masculine. They can be determined from the word endings. -as, -is, -us usually denote masculine gender (laivas (ship), smelis (sand), dangus (sky)) and -a, -ė denote the feminine gender (knyga (book), saulė (sun)). No neutral gender, folks. Try to figure out what gender is the word “moon”.
- Even though, inflections can be killer, it is relatively easy to read in Lithuanian (once you know some words) – no need to change the sounds, it is all phonetic – you read what you see.
- Lithuanian has a Latin-based alphabet (yay, no need to learn a completely different alphabet!). Some letters have little “birdies” on top or under them to mark the length of the sound (in vowels) – ą,ę,ė,ū,ų – or a digraph (in consonants) – č, š,ž. These are completely different than a,e,u and c,s,z.
What’s up with Russian then?
Lithuania is a small country, which had to face many difficult decisions throughout history. It is an amazing thing that Lithuanian language has survived at all. Lithuania’s history is tightly connected with that of Poland and Russia, and the influences of these two languages are felt in Lithuanian. During the Soviet times, Russian was the official language of the Soviet Union, and although Lithuanians were able to keep education in Lithuanian, everything from street names to public announcements and media was very much influenced by the Russian language. That’s why many people in Lithuania still know it (although the younger generation no longer can boast of this).
Today Lithuanian is the only official language of Lithuania and one of the official languages of the European Union. Although old, just like any other language, it adapts to the needs of the modern society and grows with it.
Did you know?
- You can tell a woman’s marital status from her last name. If a woman’s last name has an ending -iene, it means she is married. For example, Kazlauskiene, Butkuviene, etc. If a woman is unmarried, the ending of her last name depends on the ending of her father’s name. For example, if a girl’s father’s last name is Kazlauskas, the girl’s name would add an -aite and she would be Kazlauskaite. If the father’s last name is Butkus, the girl would be Butkute. And the last name of Jonaitis would yield Jonaityte.
- In modern day Lithuania, though, some women have decided to have their last name neutral by dropping the ending and adding a simple -e to their last name. As a result, there are last names like Kazlauske, Butke and Jonaite. After all, it is nobody’s business if one is married or not, right?
- When you think about it, there are no real heavy swear words in Lithuanian. Phrases like “may thunder strike you” or “may you smoke a thousand pipes” do not quite have the same effect as some of the infamous swear words in other languages. So how do we get mad, you ask? Well, this is where the good old Russian comes to help. And boy does it take care of your emotions!
- Lithuania has a monument erected to book smugglers. Why, you ask? There was a ban on Lithuanian press imposed by Russia during the second half of the 19th century and people risked their freedom and lives to smuggle the books from Prussia, Lithuania Minor, and the USA, where they were printed, to Lithuania. It is thanks to these people that Lithuanian language did not meet its end like the Prussian language and that we are still able to read and write in Lithuanian.
- Last, but not least – Lithuanian language is very melodic and poetic. Singing is a huge part of Lithuanian culture (although I’d say dancing is right up there as well). People are proud of their heritage and have singing festivals, where Lithuanians from all over the world flock to the home country and share a good song and good company.
As you can see, language is tightly linked to one’s identity. It grounds us and forms our world view. And I think all of us want others to get an accurate glimpse of who we are as a people, especially when we are ambassadors of our own country.
Your turn! Have you ever had to face any linguistic or cultural misconceptions?