Vilniaus Universitetas

Lithuanian Language Courses

Lithuanian Language Course

The Lithuanian language

Dear Students of the Lithuanian Language,

You may be wondering what our language is like. It is a language spoken by about 4 million people and not included on the list of the 100 most spoken languages. One of our foreign students once said 'You‘re a small nation, which is why you have such a biiiig language'. And there are a number of reasons for that.

First of all, Lithuanian is a very old language. It is related to Sanskrit (a classical language of India) Latin and Ancient Greek. It is the oldest surviving Indo-European language, which has preserved the most phonetical and morphological aspects of the proto-language which many other European languages come from. It is very important to the field of Indo-European language studies, which carries out research on the origin, development, similarities and differences of Indo-European languages. Scientists of different nationalities in this field use Lithuanian as their language of communication at their conferences!

Melodic and pleasant to the ear, Lithuanian may appear to be a real mind bender because of its conservative character. It doesn’t have articles – the connections between words are expressed by declining the endings. We have 5 noun declensions, with 7 singular and plural cases in each declension. We decline other parts of the language as well. However, for example, our tense system is simple in comparison, and learning to read Lithuanian is not difficult. Essentially it is read as it is written, one just has to know the sound of each letter. In this respect, Lithuanian is much more modern than for instance English or French. The strange signs on some of the Latin letters are not just simply for decoration: the letters ą, ę, į, ų, ū, č, š, ž stand for totally different sounds than the letters a, e, i, u, c, s, z.

We often have to explain to foreigners that “No, Lithuanian is not a Slavic language, it’s a Baltic language”. Most of the inhabitants of Lithuania know or at least understand Russian due to historical and political circumstances, while in the Vilnius region Polish is another language widely spoken or understood, however neither Russians, Poles or any other person who has not specifically studied Lithuanian will understand it. The only surviving living language close to Lithuanian is Latvian, which is also a Baltic language, however we cannot be understood even by who we often refer to lightheartedly as our Baltic “brothers”. Estonians, who are often mistakenly referred to as Baltic, speak a Finno-Ungric language, and not an Indo-European language, so it is not worth looking for similarities between Estonian and Lithuanian.
Lithuanian is special because of that fact that it survived at all. It could have very well disappeared in the margins of history for all times from the language map of Europe, just like Lithuania itself from the geographic and political face of the earth. Often it was forced to make a decision to “be or not to be”.

The grand dukes and nobles of Lithuania spoke Lithuanian during the Middle Ages (though Lithuanian was not even an official state language). When we joined together with Poland in forming a union (1569-1795), the elite of Lithuania had essentially adopted Polish language and culture. With Lithuania in the fold of the Russian Empire (1795-1914), there were particularly drastic measures carried out against Lithuanian language after the 1863 Uprising: Lithuanian schools were closed, and a ban on the use of Latin characters for use in publishing Lithuanian works was begun, and which lasted for a number of decades (one could only use Cyrillic for writing Lithuanian, and keep in mind that Cyrillic was for Slavic languages). For those who wanted to hear how the ancient Indo-Europeans spoke, famous 19th century French linguist A. Meillet encouraged his colleagues to travel to listen to the language of Lithuanian peasants, and whose language, in a little corner of Russian, had its days numbered, which was thought at the time.

Lithuanian, which was held in low regard during the times of Polanization and later Russification, and found a safe haven in the homes of serfs and simple village inhabitants. The foundation for the creation of a standard Lithuanian language, which was fully standardised only at the beginning of the 20th century, was laid during this period of large-scale oppression and active cultural resistance.

During the short period of Lithuanian independence (1918-1941), Lithuanian was provided with all the conditions to thrive. However the golden age for our language and culture did not last long – it was cut short by the beginning of World War II and the occupations. The Russification of public life was very strong when Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union.
Today Lithuanian is the only official state language of the Republic of Lithuania (and from 2004 one of the official languages of the European Union), protected by special institutions and defended by the Law on Language. Though very archaic, it serves all the needs of contemporary Lithuanian society. Lithuanian is a beautiful combination of old and new, an ancient language with a modern wardrobe.

So do you want to get a taste of it and try it out yourself? We hope that our courses will be useful and fun for you. Good luck!

On behalf of the Department of Lithuanian Studies,
Inga Hilbig

Did you know that…

…the Dictionary of Lithuanian took 100 years to complete?
The dictionary, which published its final volumes in 2002 (there is also an internet version) is comprised of 20 total volumes, over 20,000 pages and about 500,000 entries.

... the oldest layer of the Lithuanian vocabulary is an Indo-European lexicon that is over 5,000 years old?
Lithuanian words such as vyras (man), šuo (dog), avis (sheep), dūmas (smoke), pirštas (finger) and other cognates in Sanskrit (the classical ancient Induism language of Indians) are markedly similar!

... it is often easy to recognise loan words in Lithuanian?
universitetas (university)
kompiuteris (computer)
kokteilis (cocktail)
futbolas (football)
opera (opera)
baras (bar)
gitara (guitar)
želė (jelly)

... we have created a number of equivalents for foreign words?
verslininkas (businessman)
krepšinis (basketball)
mėsainis (hamburger)
naršyklė (browser)
spausdintuvas (printer)
skaitmeninis (digital)
tarptautinis (international)
žiniasklaida (media)

...many popular Lithuanian names are linked with nature?
Eglė (fir-tree)
Rūta (rue-flower)
Rasa (dew)
Aušra (dawn)
Linas (flax)
Gintaras (amber)

Do you recognise the Lithuanised versions of the names of famous people?
Frydrichas Nyčė (Friedrich Nietzsche)
Viljamas Šekspyras (William Shakespeare)
Bridžita Bordo (Brigitte Bardot)
Klaudija Šifer (Claudia Schiffer)
Džordžas Bušas (George Bush)

... that marital status can often be determined by one‘s last name?
Generally married women choose to take their husbands‘ last name. The ending ienė is then added to this last name: Butkuvienė, Kubilienė, Kazlauskienė, Jonaitienė. The endings of the last names of unmarried women variate depending the endings of their father‘s last name: Butkus – Butkutė, Kubilius – Kubiliūtė, Kazlauskas – Kazlauskaitė, Jonaitis – Jonaitytė.

... the first Lithuanian book came out only in the middle of the 16th century?
It was Martynas Mažvydas’ Catechism, which appeared in 1547.

... Lithuania is the only country that has erected a monument to book smugglers?
During the time of the ban on Latin characters in printing (1863–1904), these people, who were called book carriers, risked their freedom and even lives to transport Lithuanian books printed in Lithuania Minor in Eastern Prussia to Lithuania.

... many students like learning our language?
I like the sound of Lithuanian – it burbles like a small river. Sit near the Vilnia River in Vilnius, and you can listen both to the water and Lithuanian.
(Andrew, Australia)

This language is like the chirping of birds – beautiful, but not easy to imitate.
(Anna, Poland)

Lithuanian is beautiful, old and interesting. It‘s difficult, but easier than Finnish!
(Sarah, US)

Lithuanian really shows its feminine gender – it‘s beautiful, soft, but sometimes very difficult to understand. It has character! (note: the speaker uses word play, basing it on the fact that lietuvių kalba (Lithuanian language) has a feminine ending)
(Jozef, Czech Republic)

Lithuanian is poetry and mathematics all in one.
(Volodia, France)

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