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The Baltic languages are a group of related languages belonging to the Indo-European language family and spoken mainly in areas extending east and southeast of the Baltic Seamarker in Northern Europe. The language group is sometimes divided into two sub-groups: Western Baltic, containing only extinct languages, and Eastern Baltic, containing both extinct and the two living languages in the group: Lithuanian (including both Standard Lithuanian and Samogitian) and Latvian (including both literary Latvian and Latgalian). While related, the Lithuanian, the Latvian, and particularly the Old Prussian vocabularies differ substantially from each other and are not mutually intelligible. The now-extinct Old Prussian language has been considered the most archaic of the Baltic languages .


Western Baltic languages †

Eastern Baltic languages

  • Latvian (~2 - 2.5 million speakers (~1.39 million native speakers, 0.5 - 1million ethnic Russian speakers, 0.15 million others)
    • Latgalian (150 thousand speakers; usually considered a dialect of Latvian)
  • Lithuanian (~3.9 million speakers)
    • Samogitian (~0.5 million speakers; usually considered a dialect of Lithuanian)
  • Old Curonian † (sometimes considered Western Baltic)
    • New Curonian (nearly extinct; status as Eastern / Western Baltic is disputed)
  • Selonian
  • Semigallian

(—Extinct language)

Geographic distribution

Distribution of the Baltic languages in the Baltic (simplified).
Speakers of modern Baltic languages are generally concentrated within the borders of Lithuaniamarker and Latviamarker, and in emigrant communities in the United Statesmarker, Canadamarker, Australia and former Sovietmarker states. Historically the languages were spoken over a larger area: West to the mouth of the Vistula river in present-day Polandmarker, at least as far East as the Dniepr river in present-day Belarusmarker, perhaps even to Moscowmarker, perhaps as far south as Kievmarker. Key evidence of Baltic language presence in these regions is found in hydronyms (names of bodies of water) in the regions that are characteristically Baltic. Use of hydronyms is generally accepted to determine the extent of these cultures' influence, but not the date of such influence. Historical expansion of the usage of Slavic languages in the South and East, and Germanic languages in the West reduced the geographic distribution of Baltic languages to a fraction of the area which they had formerly covered.

Prehistory and history

Although the various Baltic tribes were mentioned by ancient historians as early as 98 B.C., the first attestation of a Baltic language was in about 1350, with the creation of the Elbing Prussian Vocabulary, a German to Prussian translation dictionary. It is also believed that Baltic languages are among the most archaic of the remaining Indo-European languages, despite their late attestation. Lithuanian was first attested in a hymnal translation in 1545; the first printed book in Lithuanian, a Catechism by Martynas Mažvydas was published in 1547 in Königsbergmarker, Prussia (now Kaliningradmarker, Russia). Latvian appeared in a hymnal in 1530 and in a printed Catechism in 1585. One reason for the late attestation is that the Baltic peoples resisted Christianization longer than any other Europeans, which delayed the introduction of writing and isolated their languages from outside influence.

With the establishment of a Germanmarker state in Prussia, and the eradication or flight of much of the Baltic Prussian population in the 13th century, the remaining Prussians began to be assimilated, and by the end of the 17th century, the Prussian language had become extinct.

During the years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1795), official documents were written in Polish, Ruthenian and Latin, with Lithuanian being mostly an oral language, with small quantities of written documents.

After the Partitions of Poland, much of the Baltic lands were under the rule of the Russian Empiremarker, where the native languages were sometimes prohibited from being written down, or used publicly.

Relationship with other Indo-European languages

The Baltic languages are of particular interest to linguists because they retain many archaic features, which are believed to have been present in the early stages of the Proto-Indo-European language.

Linguists disagree regarding the relationship of the Baltic languages to other languages in the Indo-European family. Such relationships are discerned primarily by the comparative method, which seeks to reconstruct the chronology of the languages' divergence from each other in phonology and lexicon. Language kinship is generally determined by the identification of linguistic innovations that are held in common by two languages or groups.

Several of the extinct Baltic languages have a limited or nonexistent written record, their existence being known only from the records of ancient historians and personal or place names; all of the languages in the Baltic group (including the living ones) were first written down relatively late in their probable existence as distinct languages. These two factors combined with others have obscured the history of the Baltic languages, leading to a number of theories regarding their position in the Indo-European family.

The Baltic languages show closest relationship with the Slavic languages, and are commonly reconstructed to have passed through common Proto-Balto-Slavic stage, during which numerous Common Balto-Slavic lexical, phonological, morphological and accentological isoglosses developed. Comparative Balto-Slavic accentology is one of the most active branches of Indo-European studies nowadays, with numerous mysteries still waiting to be solved. Even the commonly accepted facts - such as Winter's law, identical reflexes of Proto-Indo-European syllabic sonorants or development of Balto-Slavic mobile paradigms - have many intricate problems in their formulations.

Most linguists agree however that Baltic languages do not represent a genetic node in Indo-European family. There are virtually no non-trivial isoglosses that connect Baltic languages with respect to Proto-Indo-European and leave Slavic languages aside; West and East Baltic languages seem to differ from each other as much as each of them differs from Proto-Slavic, and all major isoglosses that differ Slavic from Baltic that are usually mentioned are either Proto-Indo-European archaisms preserved in Baltic or later innovations in Slavic that occurred during Common Slavic period, and not some "Common Baltic" innovations. Thus, there was most likely no "Proto-Baltic" stage, and Baltic languages would thus represent an archaic remnant of former Balto-Slavic dialect continuum, the last Proto-Indo-European branch to finally split around 1500-1000 BCE.

See also

External links


  1. Though included among the Baltic states, the language of Estonia (the Estonian language) is a Finno-Ugric language and is not related to the Baltic languages, which are Indo-European.
  2. Gray, Russell D., and Clayton Atkinson. 2003. "Language-tree divergence times support Anatolian theory of Indo-European Origins," Nature 426 (27 November): 435-439.


  • Ernst Fraenkel, Die baltischen Sprachen, Carl Winter, Heidelberg, 1950;
  • Joseph Pashka, Proto Baltic and Baltic languages (1994)
  • Lituanus Linguistics Index (1955-2004) provides a number of articles on modern and archaic Baltic languages.
  • Mallory, J.P. (1991). In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth. New York: Thames and Hudson Ltd. ISBN 0-500-27616-1
  • Algirdas Girininkas. The monuments of the stone Age in the Historical Baltic region. In Baltų archeologija, N.1, 1994 (English summary, p. 22). ISSN 1392-0189
  • Algirdas Girininkas (1994). Origin of the Baltic culture. Summary. In Baltų kultūros ištakos, Vilnius, "Savastis", p. 259. ISBN 9986-420-00-8
  • Edmund Remys, General distinguishing features of various Indo-European languages and their relationship to Lithuanian. Berlin, New York: Indogermanische Forschungen, Vol. 112, 2007.

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