Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Baltic Languages: From Latgalian to Prussian

Since we're fascinated by the intricate ways that the world's many languages are connected, we occasionally like to take a closer look at a specific language family. In previous posts, we've explored the Celtic, Uralic, Slavic, Germanic, and Romance language families.

Today we'll be focusing on the Baltic language family, which contains four languages according to the Ethnologue. However, some linguists would argue that there are actually only two Baltic languages! Since it's such a small family, we'll just look at all four potential members individually, from largest to smallest.


Lithuanian is the largest Baltic language, with nearly 3 million native speakers. It is the sole official language of Lithuania, a small European country bordering the Baltic Sea.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this language is the fact that it has retained many linguistic features that other Indo-European languages have dropped over time, which leads linguists to believe that it may be the most conservative living Indo-European language. These unique traits make Lithuanian especially helpful to linguists who are trying to reconstruct the common ancestor of all Indo-European languages, which is called Proto-Indo-European (PIE).


Cape Kolka, Latvia
The second largest Baltic language is Latvian, which has about 1.5 million native speakers. It is the sole official language of Latvia, which is directly north of Lithuania along the Baltic Sea.

There are three main dialects of Latvian used in specific areas of the country. The Livonian dialect is used in the northwest, while the Middle dialect, which Standard Latvian is based on, is used in central and southwestern Latvia. In eastern Latvia, the High dialect is preferred. A standard form used in this area is known as Latgalian, which may or may not be a distinct language, depending on who you ask.


While the Ethnologue lists Latgalian as a language, some linguists argue that it is merely a dialect of Latvian, and therefore count only Lithuanian and Latvian as Baltic languages. In any case, Latgalian is a standardized variety that is protected by Latvia's laws. It is spoken by about 200,000 people in Latgale, the easternmost region of Latvia.


Our final potential Baltic language is Prussian, which is often known as Old Prussian in order to avoid confusion with German dialects such as Low Prussian and High Prussian. Prussian belongs to the Western branch of the Baltic languages, which are all considered to be extinct. However, while Prussian became extinct in the early 18th century, there have been recent efforts to revive it.

Today, there are approximately 50 speakers of the language in Poland, Lithuania, and Russia, though none of them are native speakers. The revival efforts have also led to some interesting projects, including a translation of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and attempts to create games, dictionaries, and music in the language.