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Lithuanian Citations   Lithuanian Links   Select a New Language

Number of Speakers: Approximately 3.5 million

Key Dialects: High Lithuanian, Low Lithuanian

Geographical Center: Republic of Lithuania

Lithuanian is spoken by 3 million people (98 percent of the population in the Republic of Lithuania. Outside of Lithuania, it is widely spoken in Poland (70,000 speakers). It is one of two currently spoken Baltic languages, the other being Latvian. Approximately 3.5 million people speak Lithuanian as their first language. Of the approximately 800,000 Lithuanian speakers abroad, most live in the United States (650,000), and also in Brazil (40,000), Argentina (35,000), Canada (14,725), the United Kingdom (12,000), and Uruguay (10,000) (Grimes 1992)

Lithuanian is often called the most linguistically conservative Indo-European language; Lithuanian has retained many old grammatical forms that only have been attested in other long extinct Indo-European languages. However, like all languages, Lithuanian has undergone language change; the older, obsolete form of the language is called Old Lithuanian.

Lithuanian belongs to the Baltic branch of the Indo-European language family. The Baltic Branch consists of two groups: East Baltic, which consists of Latvian and Lithuanian, and West Baltic whose only attested member is Old Prussian, which has been extinct since about 1700. The closest relative of Lithuanian is Latvian. Latvian and Lithuanian have retained more ancient forms of the Indo European case forms than any other living Indo European languages.

Lithuanian has a number of dialects, some of which have recently been assimilated into others. The general tradition among linguists is to recognize two major dialects. The first is Aukshtaitish, also referred to as Aukshtaichiai or High Lithuanian. The second is Shamaitish, referred to variably as Samogitian, Zemaitish, Zemachiai, or Low Lithuanian. One scholar (Grimes 1992) lists Dzukish as one of the major dialects, but the majority of the other authors consider Dzukish a variant of Aukshtaitish. The two major dialects are further subdivided into several variants. The modern standard is based on the Southern sub-dialect of West Aukshtaitish (High Lithuanian). The earliest Lithuanian texts, however, are in Low Lithuanian.

Lithuanian uses a modified form of the Roman script. Diacritics are used to symbolize an important aspect of Lithuanian speech, namely "accent." Prior to adopting the Roman alphabet, there was limited use of the Cyrillic between 1864 and 1905.

Lithuanian has a pitch accent system; that is, the meaning of the word depends on the pitch of the vowel. A stressed vowel may have a rising pitch called circumflex, or a falling pitch called acute.

There are seven nominal cases in Lithuanian. There are two grammatical genders (masculine and feminine) and three numbers (singular, plural, and dual). The dual form is still used in some dialects, although it is no longer part of the standard language. Cases are indicated by endings on the noun.

Word order in the sentence is subject-verb-object, although some flexibility in word order is possible because of the rich case-marking system. Lithuanian has two sets of adverbs: one set is used when the subjects of the main and subordinate clause refer to the same person, the second set is used when the subjects of the main and subordinate clauses are different. This is called a switch-reference system.

Lithuanian has constitutional status as the official language of the Republic of Lithuania, where it is used in all spheres of activity and in everyday interaction. It has been used in schools since the early twentieth century. Between 1920 and 1940 a comprehensive system of education emerged with Lithuanian as the language of instruction. There is a wide range of publishing in Lithuanian, including scientific and technical texts, as well as periodicals. Two hundred and forty newspapers with a circulation of 4.5 million and forty-three magazines with a circulation of 2.6 million were published in 1990.

There are radio and television broadcasts in Lithuanian. Some programs for foreign countries are broadcast in English.

The succession of political events within the Baltic States has had direct consequences on its languages. Lithuania suffered the most from the "Russification" policy. From 1864 to 1904 printing and teaching in Lithuanian was forbidden, which had a strong impact on the development of the literary tradition in Lithuanian.

After 1904, the Lithuanian language entered a new phase of development. The nationalist spirit of nineteenth century Europe affected the Lithuanians and gave rise to a literature in Lithuanian. Despite the hostility of the tsarist regime toward publishing in non-Russian languages, the right to teach and print was granted. Until then, Lithuanian was not an official language, and official documents had been drawn up in Latin, Belarusian, Polish, or Russian. From 1918 to 1940, when Lithuania was an independent republic, about 7,100 books were written in Lithuanian. Significantly, the declaration of Lithuanian independence was written in Lithuanian, an act of political as well as linguistic liberation. During the period, the language of publications was not uniform but was basef on each author's local dialect.

Three literary varieties competed for recognition in the nineteenth century: a Samogitian or Low Lithuanian prose form, the East High Lithuanian poetic language, and the West High Lithuanian language. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, literary activities developed in the West High Lithuanian region. This resulted in the formation of a literary language.

Bright, W., ed. 1992. International Encyclopedia of Linguistics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dambriunas, L., et al. 1966. Introduction to Modern Lithuanian. New York: Franciscan Fathers Press.

Estonian Encyclopaedia Publishers, Latvian Encyclopaedia Publishers, and Lithuanian Encyclopaedia Publishers. 1991. The Baltic States: A Reference Book. Tallinn, Estonia: Tallinn Book Printers.

Grimes, B. F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Dallas, Texas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Linguistic Society of America. 1992. Directory of Programs in Linguistics in the United States and Canada. Washington, DC: Linguistic Society of America.

Lockwood, W. B. 1972. A Panorama of Indo European Languages. London: Hutchinson.

Ruhlen, M. 1987. A Guide to the World's Languages, Vol. 1: Classification. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Senn, A., ed. 1942. The Lithuanian Language: A Characterization. Chicago, Illinois: Lithuanian Cultural Institute.

Senn, A. 1944. Standard Lithuanian in the Making. Offprint from the Slavic and East European review, vol. XXII.

Tekoriene, D. 1990. Lithuanian Basic Grammar and Conversation. Kaunas, Lithuania: Spindulys.

Voegelin, C. F., and F. M. Voegelin. 1977. Classification and Index of the World's Languages. New York: Elsevier North Holland.

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