Lithuanian language

Lithuanian is the official state language of Lithuania and is recognized as one of the official languages of the European Union. Lithuanian is a Baltic language, closely related to Latvian, although they are not mutually intelligible. It is written in a Latin alphabet. The Lithuanian language is often said to be the most conservative living Indo-European language, retaining many features of Proto-Indo-European now lost in other Indo-European languages.

Anyone wishing to hear how Indo-Europeans spoke should come and listen to a Lithuanian peasant.

—Antoine Meillet

Among Indo-European languages, Lithuanian is extraordinarily conservative, retaining many archaic features otherwise found only in ancient languages such as Sanskrit or Ancient Greek. For this reason, it is one of the most important sources in the reconstruction of the Proto-Indo-European language. The Proto-Balto-Slavic languages branched off directly from Proto-Indo-European, then branched into Proto-Baltic and Proto-Slavic. Baltic languages retain numerous lexical, morphological and phonological features common with the Slavic languages, which represent their closest living Indo-European relatives.


Distribution of the Baltic tribes, circa 1200 CE

The earliest surviving written Lithuanian text is a translation dating from about 1503–1525 of the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Nicene Creed written in the Southern Aukštaitian dialect. The first printed Lithuanian book was Catechismusa Prasty Szadei (“The Simple Words of Catechism”) written and published by Martynas Mažvydas in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad). Book was based on the Polish version of Martin Luther’s “Kleiner Katechismus”. This book shows characteristics of the Samogitian dialect of Lithuanian, with clearly visible Aukštaitian traits. It was printed at about the same time as the first books in neighboring nations’ languages: Polish in 1513, Belarusian in 1517, Estonian in 1535, and Latvian in 1585.


The oldest surviving manuscript in Lithuanian (around 1503), rewritten from 15th century original text

In 1864, following the January Uprising, Mikhail Muravyov, the Russian Governor General of Lithuania, banned the language in education and publishing and barred use of the Latin alphabet altogether, although books printed in Lithuanian continued to be printed across the border in East Prussia and in the United States. Brought into the country by book smugglers despite the threat of stiff prison sentences, they helped fuel a growing nationalist sentiment that finally led to the lifting of the ban in 1904.

Jonas Jablonskis (1860–1930) made significant contributions to the formation of the standard Lithuanian language. The conventions of written Lithuanian had been evolving during the 19th century, but Jablonskis, in the introduction to his “Lithuanian grammatics”, was the first to formulate and expound the essential principles that were so indispensable to its later development. His proposal for Standard Lithuanian was based on his native Western Aukštaitijan dialect. Lithuanian has been the official language of Lithuania since 1918.


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