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Lithuanian language

Lithuanian is the official language of Lithuania, spoken by about 4 million native Lithuanians. The Lithuanian name for the language is Lietuvių kalba.

In older literature on Baltic languages, "Lithuanian" can sometimes refer to Baltic Languages in general.



The Lithuanian language still retains much of the original sound system and morphological peculiarities of the prototypal Indo-European language and therefore is fascinating for linguistic study. Some reconstructions have even concluded that Lithuanian is the modern language which is most closely related to Proto-Indo-European (the speech of a Lithuanian peasant, for example, is probably the closest semblance you can get to the tongue spoken by the hypothetical Proto-Indo-European people). Some evidence suggests that the Baltic language group has existed, distinct from other Indo-European languages, since perhaps the 10th century BC. While the possession of many archaic features is undeniable, the exact manner by which the Baltic languages have developed from the Proto-Indo-European language is disputed.

The Eastern Baltic languages split from the Western Baltic ones (or, perhaps, from the hypothetic proto-Baltic language) between 400 and 600 AD. The differentiation between Lithuanian and Latvian started after 800, with a long period of being one language but different dialects. At a minimum, transitional dialects existed until the 14th or 15th century, and perhaps as late as the 17th century. As well, the 13th and 14th century occupation of the western part of the Daugava basin (almost coinciding with the territory of modern Latvia) by German Sword Brethren had a significant influence on the languages' independent development.

The earliest-known written Lithuanian text is a hymnal translation from 1545. Printed books exist from 1547, but the level of literacy among Lithuanians was low through the 18th century and books were not commonly available. In 1864, following the January Uprising, Mikhail Nikolayevich Muravyov, Governor General of Lithuania, instituted a complete ban on the use of the Latin alphabet and education and printed matter in Lithuanian. Books written using the Latin alphabet continued to be printed across the border in East Prussia and in the United States. Smuggled into the country despite stiff prison sentences, they helped fuel growing nationalist sentiment that finally led to the lifting of the ban in 1904.

Lithuanian has been the official language of Lithuania since 1918. During the Soviet period (see History of Lithuania), it was used in official affairs alongside Russian which, as the official language of the USSR, took precedence over Lithuanian.


Lithuanian is one of two living Baltic languages (along with Latvian). The Baltic languages form their own distinct branch of the Indo-European languages.

Geographic distribution

Lithuanian is spoken mainly in Lithuania. It is spoken also by native ethnic Lithuanians living in today's Belarus, Latvia, Poland, Russia. It is also spoken by emigrant communities in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Estonia, Britain, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Sweden, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, United Kingdom, Uruguay, USA, and Uzbekistan.

2,955,200 in Lithuania (including 3,460 Tatar) or about 80% of the population (1998) speak Lithuanian. The population total speaking Lithuanian for all countries is 4,000,000 (1993 UBS).

Official status

Lithuanian is the official language of Lithuania and an official language of the European Union.


The Lithuanian language has two main dialects: Aukshtaitish (Aukštaičių, Highland Lithuanian) and Zhemaitish (Samogitian, Žemaičių/Žemaitių, Lowland Lithuanian). See maps at [1].

Standard Lithuanian is based on Western Aukshtaitish. Intelligibility between Aukshtaitish and Zhemaitish is considered difficult by most Lithuanians. When a Western Lithuanian speaks with an Eastern Lithuanian, it is similar to if a Native New Yorker spoke to someone from the Arkansas countryside.



Lithuanian has 12 written vowels. In addition to the standard Roman letters, the ogonek accent is used to indicate long vowels, and is a historical relic of a time when these vowels were nasalized (as ogonek vowels are in modern Polish).

Majuscule A Ą E Ę Ė I Į Y O U Ų Ū
Minuscule a ą e ę ė i į y o u ų ū
IPA a ɛ ɛː i o u


Lithuanian uses 20 consonant characters, drawn from the Roman alphabet. In addition, the digraph "Ch" represents a velar fricative (IPA [x]); the pronunciation of other digraphs can be deduced from their component elements.

Majuscule B C Č D F G H J K L M N P R S Š T V Z Ž
Minuscule b c č d f g h j k l m n p r s š t v z ž
IPA b ts ʧ d f g ɣ j k l m n p r s ʃ t ʋ z ʒ



  labial dental alveo-
alveolar alveo-
stops voiceless p t       k
voiced b d       g
fricatives voiceless f   s   ʃ x
voiced     z   ʒ ɣ
affricates voiced     ʣ   ʤ  
voiceless     ʦ   ʧ  
nasal m     n    
liquid lateral       l    
glide ʋ         j
rhotic trill       r    

All consonants (except /j/) have two forms: palatalized and non-palatalized.

(Adapted from


There are two possible ways to posit the Lithuanian vowel system. The traditional pattern has six long vowels and five short ones, with length as the distinctive feature:

long short long short
high i   u
mid     o
mid-low ɛː ɛ      
low      aː    a

(Adapted from

However, at least one researcher suggests that a tense vs. lax distinction may be the actual distinguishing feature, or at least equally important as length. Such a hypothesis yields the chart below, where 'long' and 'short' have been preserved to parallel the terminology used above.

long short long short
high ɪ ʊ
mid   ɔ
low æ ɛ ɑ

(Adapted from

Historical sound changes


The main article is the Lithuanian grammar.

The Lithuanian language is a highly inflected language where relationship between parts of speech and their roles in a sentence are expressed by numerous flexions.

There are two grammatical genders in Lithuanian - feminine and masculine. There is no neutral gender per se, however there are some forms which are derived from the historical neutral gender, notably attributive adjectives. It has a free, mobile stress and is also characterized by pitch accent. It has 5 noun and 3 adjective declensions and 3 verbal conjugations. All verbs have present, past, past iterative and future tenses of the indicative mood, subjunctive (or conditional) and imperative moods (both without distinction of tenses) and infinitive. These forms, except the infinitive, are conjugative, having 2 singular, 2 plural persons and the 3rd person form common both for plural and singular. Lithuanian has the richest participle system of all Indo-European languages, having participles derived from all tenses with distinct active and passive forms, and several gerund forms. Nouns and other declinable words are declined in seven cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, locative, and vocative. In older Lithuanian texts three additional varieties of the locative case are found: illative, adessive and allative. The most common is the illative, which still survives in the standard language in some idiomatic usages. The adessive and allative are nearly extinct.

The first prescriptive grammar book of Lithuanian was written in Latin by Daniel Klein and published in Königsberg in 1653.

The first scientific Compendium of Lithuanian language was published 1856/57 by August Schleicher, a professor at Prague University.


Lexical borrowings in the language

Purists strongly believe that foreign influence on their native language is a bad thing, and while the basic vocabulary of the Lithuanian language does not possess many loan words, there are some that are called senieji skoliniai (old loans) which were borrowed from the closest neighbours a long time ago. Such words include stiklas, "glass" (Slavic origin; cf. Russian "steklo"), muilas, "soap" (Slavic origin; cf. Russian "mylo"), gatvė, "street" ("gatwo", Slavic; "paved road", esp. in wetlands), spinta ("der Spint", German; a generic term for storage furniture, such as cupboard, wardrobe, bookcase, etc.). These words are not likely to be changed because of their ancienty. Other borrowed words are international words that can be found in many languages like telefonas, ciklas, schema etc. These words come from Latin or Ancient Greek and are not "dangerous" from the point of view of language purists (since those languages do not exist anymore). However, there are many words of foreign origin that have Lithuanian counterparts, and thus should not be used. Such words previously came from Russian in the past, but now that Lithuania has regained its independence in 1991, English is starting to have increasingly stronger influence over Lithuanian and many words have recently flooded the language (like dispenseris, hakeris or singlas). The influence of loan words is being discussed at present, but finding appropriate Lithuanian counterparts for these words is often a difficult job.

Writing system

Like many of the Indo-European languages, Lithuanian employs modified Roman script. It is comprised of 32 letters. Collation order presents one surprise: "Y" is moved to occur between I Ogonek (Į) and J.

a ą b c č d e ę ė f g h i į y j k l m n o p r s š t u ų ū v z ž

Acute, grave, and macron/tilde accents can be used to mark stress and vowel length. However, these are generally not written, except in dictionaries and where needed for clarity. In addition, the following digraphs are used, but are treated as sequences of two letters for collation purposes. It should be noted that the "Ch" digraph represents a velar fricative, while the others are straightforward compositions of their component letters.

Ch Dz Ie Uo
ch dz ie uo

See also

External links

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