Appendix D: Lithuanian and the Slavic Languages

Antanas Klimas

There seems to be great confusion today in certain linguistic circles concerning the classification of the Baltic and Slavic languages. And not only in linguistic circles: The uninformed layman often considers Lithuanian to be one of the Slavic languages. He is usually less familiar with the term “Baltic” than he is with the term “Slavic,” and for a very simple reason: There are many times more people from the Slavic countries everywhere in the world than there are people from the two small Baltic countries of Lithuania and Latvia. Comparatively speaking, the number of Lithuanians and Latvians is so small that they are easily “added” to the great mass of Slavic people.

Certain other terms must have contributed to this confusion: Slavonic, Slovak, Slowenian. The first is used primarily by British and Canadian scholars instead of Slavic, which is generally used in the U. S. A. Slovak is the language of the Slovaks, cousins of the Czechs, and Slowenian is the language of the Slowenians, who live in the northern part of Yugoslavia.

The geographical closeness of the Balts and Slavs must have contributed to this opinion, so often heard in the English-speaking countries. Historical circumstances have definitely contributed to the widely held but erroneous belief that “Lithuanian is something like Russian or Polish, or at any rate something like Slavic.” It must be remembered that the ancient and powerful Lithuanian state of the Middle Ages was occupied by Tsarist Russia in 1795 and remained under that occupation for 123 years, i. e., until 1918. The Russian administration, in its zeal to Russianize the Lithuanians, even forbade the use of the name Lithuania and coined a new one: “Northwest country,” or “Northwest Province.” They went so far as to forbid between 1864  and 1904 the printing of Lithuanian books in the Latin alphabet, which had always been used by the Lithuanians. The Lithuanians refused to accept books printed in the Russian alphabet, and, under the threat of banishment to Siberia, they had their books and newspapers printed in East Prussia and smuggled them into Lithuania.

Thus when, in the 19th century, the comparative linguistics of the Indo-European languages was developed and made great strides, primarily through the work of German philologists, Lithuanian and Latvian were “rediscovered,” as it were, as very important languages in the Indo-European family. But at that time there was no Lithuanian state; there were no Lithuanian institutions of learning, no outstanding Lithuanian linguists who might have contributed so much to this great new field of learning.

All of these circumstances contributed their share to the unfortunate confusion in the classification of these languages.

The question of the classification of the Indo-European languages has had a strange fate in that sense, that it had not only been carried out in very different ways and with different methods in the course of history, but that also voices were raised again and again, which would declare the whole thing as insolvable. Nevertheless, efforts to do this never ceased, and, after the discovery of Tokharian and Hittite, a real history of the Indo-European languages was no longer possible, without one having worked out a clear idea of the closer relationship of the individual kindred languages and their prehistoric distribution.[1]

This question of the classification of the Indo-European languages was at times a much disputed and very heated issue among the European philologists of the 19th century. The argument has not subsided completely even today, since every scholar in the field has his own peculiar method of deciding the criteria of classification: One prefers to classify the languages primarily on phonetic principles, another will favor morphological development, a third will use lexical similarities and will take into account accentuation systems, geography, archeology and other criteria.

It is not the purpose of this brief article to discuss the whole history of the classification of the Baltic and Savic languages, but a few examples will be given here, simply to show the various methods and approaches.

In 1833, A. F. Pott counted five groups of Indo-European languages:

1. Old Indic, or Sariskrit
2. Medopersian (Iranian)
3. Greek and Latin
4. Lithuanian and Slavic
5. Germanic

At that time comparative Indo-European philology was just beginning to develop, and many languages were not even suspected of belonging to the Indo-European family.

In 1861, after many investigations and attempts, A. Schleicher decided upon this classification:

1. Asiatic or Aryan languages: Indic, Iranian, Armenian
2. Southwest European languages: Greek, Albanian, Italic, Celtic
3. North European languages: Slavic, Lithuanian, Germanic[2]

Perhaps the best example of the so-called “standard” or “accepted” classification can be found in an article by Paul Thieme in “Scientific American.”[3] He lists the basic groups as follows:

1. Teutonic
2. Romance
3. Celtic
4. Baltic
5. Slavonic
6. Albanian
7. Greek
8. Armenian
9. Iranian
10. Indic

Another linguist might perhaps add Tokhadan, Thraco-Phrygian, Illyrian and even Hittite, and might also place Indic and Iranian in a single group, Indo-Iranian.[4]

The question of pure classification alone has not been the only controversial issue; there have also been the questions of the interrelationships between the groups or branches of the whole Indo-European family, as well as between individual languages and even dialects: Which groups of languages first separated from the others in the course of history, which remained closed to one another and for how long.

All these questions preoccupied the linguists for decades. Many theories were developed to explain these problems, of which we shall mention only a few. The Stammbau theory explained the growth and development of languages somewhat on the analogy of the organic growth of a tree, with language groups and individual languages and dialects splitting up and branching off from the mother language like a tree’s branches, some very early, some only recently. Another famous theory was the Wellen or Uebergang theory, under which languages spread away from a centrally located “Urheimat” into the peripheries, as waves in water spread from a central point of disturbance.

In all these great scholarly discussions, the question of the relationship between the Baltic and Slavic languages has always been a very heated issue. The Baltic languages are not very numerous: Lithuanian, Latvian, Old Prussian, Couronian and Jotwingian. Old Prussian has been dead since the 17th century, and only a few written monuments of it have been preserved. Very few traces are left of Couronian and Jotwingian. But, on the other hand, the Slavic languages are imposing if only by the sheer number of languages and the people speaking them:

1. East Slavic: Russian, White Russian, Ukrainian
2. West Slavic: Polish, Czech, Slovak, Wendish, Kashublan
3. South Slavic: Bulgarian, Slowenian, Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian

About 200,000,000 people speak the Slavic languages, while only about 6,000,000 speak the Baltic tongues.

But the number of its speakers does not determine the importance of a language as far as linguistic science is concerned. English, French and Spanish, for example, although they are spoken by many millions of people, are not very important for comparative Indo-European philology, while one can hardly do any serious work in this field without the help of Lithuanian. Nevertheless, the great numbers of Slavic-speaking people and the geographical closeness of the two groups in recent times have always furnished a great impetus to “attach” the Baltic languages to the gigantic neighbor, Slavic.[5]

So for a time German scholars used all kinds of terminology for these two separate groups of languages: Litauish, Slavisch, Litu-Slavisch, Lettu-Slavisch, etc. For a while the Baltic languages were also called “die aistischen Sprachen” — the Aistian languages, a term taken from Tacitus’ “Aestiorum gentes,” in his Germania. The term was introduced by the Lithuanian linguist K. Jaunius and was later used by Būga. The terms “Baltic languages” and “Baltic peoples” were proposed for the first time by Nesselmann in 1845.[6] He based them primarily on the Baltic Sea — Mare Balticum — the name of which is itself of uncertain origin; it may be Baltic, or it may be of Illyrian origin.[7] Since the beginning of the 20th century the term “baltische Sprachen” has been generally accepted in Germany and France, and it is now used practically everywhere.

It is not easy to describe briefly the relationship between the Baltic languages and the Slavic group.

The criteria of a closer relationship can be found only in positive common features of the languages concerned, common features which at the same time are deviations from the rest of the languages.[8]

What, then, are these features common to Baltic and Slavic? Do they warrant the assumption of any closer relationship between these two groups than between Lithuanian and the Germanic languages, say, or Lithuanian and Latin?

1. Indo European short a and short o have been combined into one sound in both groups: short o in the Slavic languages, but short a in Baltic. For example: Sl. “oko,” Lith. “akis” “eye.” Similar changes, however, took place in Indo-Iranian and in Germanic.

2. The ablative singular or the o-stems has taken over the functions of the genitive in both groups. But this is an independent and parallel development in the two groups, since in the other stem classes these two cases had already coalesced into one in primitive Indo-European.

3 . The half vowels (liquida sonans) “l” and “r” are both represented by “ur” and “ul” in the two groups, as well as by “u” and “ir.” But again, this is a change that has taken place in other Indo-European languages, and thus it offers no proof of a closer relationship between Slavic and Baltic.[9]

4. The so-called F. de Saussure Law: A syllable with an acute intonation that is preceded by a stressed syllable with a circumflex or a short intonation will take over the accent. This, however, must have happened in the very earliest stages of the development of the two groups, and according to van Wijk it could have developed independently in both.[10]

5. There are also similarities in syntax, but they are not important enough to warrant any assumption of a close relationship. Most of the “similarities” in colloquial use today, go back only a couple of hundred years, and they are simply borrowings, loan translations or adaptations and have nothing to do with the ancient development of the languages.

6. Finally, there are a number of lexical similarities between these groups, but there are also so many important and ancient differences that this “list” of common words does not prove anything; such lists could be made up for many groupings of Indo-European languages. Let us consider a few examples: Old Church Slavic “rąką” Lithuanian “ranka” (hand), but Old Church Slavic “bogu,” Lithuanian “dievas” (God), Old Church Slavic “vetuchu,” Lithuanian “senas” (old), etc. Most of these examples would show that Lithuanian, Old Prussian and Latvian have in many cases preserved a more archaic form, which is completely different from the Slavic form.

As we have just seen, the similarities are not enough to warrant the assumption that Baltic and Slavic are more closely related than Baltic and Germanic, say, or Italic and Greek. Thus there is no reason whatsoever to use the misleading and erroneous term Balto-Slavic! Only Baltic and Slavic, as two separate and independent groups of Indo-European, should be used.[11]

There is no point in trying to list all the differences between the two groups: they are too numerous. We will mention just a few:

1. There exists in Lithuanian a sigmatic future tense, of which there is practically nothing left in the Slavic languages.

2. Lithuanian has verbal aspects, like the Slavic languages, but they play no role in the formation of grammatical tenses, while they are very important in the Slavic languages.

3. The Baltic borrowings from the Slavic languages are of a fairly recent origin. This shows that for a long time after the separation of these two groups from the common Indo-European mother language they had very little contact with each other.

4. Some very important words, such as “eleven,” “twelve,” are quite similar in Baltic and Germanic but are formed entirely differently in Baltic and Slavic.

5. There is a much greater differentiation between the Baltic languages themselves; until recently the Slavic languages could be mutually understood, and to a certain extent this is true even now.

This is why it is understandable that an ancestor of Lithuanian and ancestor of a Russian or a Pole could never understand each other, even as far back as 3,000 years ago, since even then the differences between the two groups were already too great.

From LITUANUS, Dec. 1959.

Dr. Antanas Klimas, author of numerous articles, completed his graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where he was an instructor in German. Currently he is an assistant professor of German at the University of Rochester, N. Y.

  1. Walter Porzig, Die Gliederung des indogermanischen Sprachgebiets, Heidelberg, 1954, p. 9.
  2. A. Schleicher, Compendium der vergleichenden Grammatik der idg. Sprachen, 1861, pp. 4 ff.
  3. Paul Thieme, "The Indo-European Language," in "Scientific American," 199 (1958), No. 4, pp. 63 ff.
  4. Cf. my article "Lithuanian and Indo-European," in "Lituanus," 1957 No. 4. pp. 14 ff. The reason why Tokharian, Illyrian, Thraco-Phrygian and Hittite are not listed in Paul Thieme's article is that he enumerated only the living languages.
  5. There are many examples of this kind of "attachment" of numerically small groups to their gigantic neighbors. Let us mention here only one, a particularly flagrant instance since it occurs in what purports to be a "student's manual!" The book is: Robert F. Spencer, An Ethno-Atlas (A Student's Manual of Tribal, Linguistic and Racial Groupings), Wm. C. Brown Company, Dubuque, Iowa, 1956. In it the name of the Lithuanians is not even mentioned, though all the small tribes of Africa are there. The same treatment is given in the linguistic maps -- the Baltic languages are not even mentioned; they have been "incorporated" into the mass of Slavic languages, yet a small group of Basques in northern Spain is shown! One asks oneself if this is simply an "oversight," ignorance, or something else?
  6. In Nesselmann, Sprache der alten Preussen, 1845, pp. 28 ff.
  7. Cf. Ernst Fraenkel, Die baltischen Sprachen, Heidelberg, 1950, pp. 19 ff.
  8. A. Laskien, Die Deklination des Slavisch-Litauischen und des Germanischen, Leipzig, 1876, p. vii.
  9. Cf. also the linguistic changes in the Baltic and the Germanic languages. See "Lithuanian and the Germanic Languages," in "Lituanus," Vol. 4 (1958), No. 2, p. 45.
  10. Cf. Ernst Fraenkel, op. cit., p. 80.
  11. Cf. "Lithuanian and Latvian are Baltic languages; they go back, together with Old Prussian and some other dead languages to a common mother-language which, just like Slavic, is of Indo-European origin." Wijk, Les Langues Slaves, 2nd edition, Gravenhage, 1956, p. 3. Cf. also A. Senn, "On the Degree of Kinship Between Slavic and Baltic," "Slavonic and East European Review," XX (1941), pp. 251-265.


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