Baltic languages

Northern Europe
Linguistic Classification: Indo-European
ISO 639-2 and 639-5: bat

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 Sea 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). The range of Eastern Balts reached to the Ural mountains.[1][2][3] While related, the Lithuanian, the Latvian, and particularly the Old Prussian vocabularies differ substantially from one another and are not mutually intelligible. The now-extinct Old Prussian language has been considered the most archaic of the Baltic languages{[4]}.


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, but has its own ISO 639-3 code ltg)
  • 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
  • Golyad'- Голядь †

(—Extinct language)

Geographic distribution

Speakers of modern Baltic languages [5] are generally concentrated within the borders of Lithuania and Latvia, and in emigrant communities in the United States, Canada, Australia and states of the former Soviet Union. Historically the languages were spoken over a larger area: West to the mouth of the Vistula river in present-day Poland, at least as far East as the Dniepr river in present-day Belarus, perhaps even to Moscow, perhaps as far south as Kiev. 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

Indo-European topics
Indo-European languages (list)
Albanian · Armenian · Baltic
Celtic · Germanic · Greek
Indo-Iranian (Indo-Aryan, Iranian)
Italic · Slavic   extinct: Anatolian · Paleo-Balkan (Dacian,
Phrygian, Thracian· Tocharian
Proto-Indo-European language
Vocabulary · Phonology · Sound laws · Ablaut · Root · Noun · Verb
Indo-European language-speaking peoples
Europe: Balts · Slavs · Albanians · Italics · Celts · Germanic peoples · Greeks · Paleo-Balkans (Illyrians · Thracians · Dacians· Asia: Anatolians (Hittites, Luwians)  · Armenians  · Indo-Iranians (Iranians · Indo-Aryans)  · Tocharians  
Homeland · Society · Religion
Indo-European studies

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 Königsberg, Prussia (now Kaliningrad, 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 German 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, most of the Baltic lands were under the rule of the Russian Empire, 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 the closest relationship with the Slavic languages, and are commonly reconstructed to have passed through a common Proto-Balto-Slavic stage, during which numerous Common Balto-Slavic lexical, phonological, morphological and accentological isoglosses developed.[6][7][8] 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 the Baltic languages do not represent a genetic node in the Indo-European family. There are virtually no non-trivial isoglosses that connect the Baltic languages to Proto-Indo-European and leave the 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 differentiate Slavic from Baltic that are usually mentioned are either Proto-Indo-European archaisms preserved in Baltic or later innovations in Slavic that occurred during the Common Slavic period, and not some "Common Baltic" innovations. Thus, there was most likely no "Proto-Baltic" stage, and the Baltic languages would thus represent an archaic remnant of the former Balto-Slavic dialect continuum, the last Proto-Indo-European branch to finally split, some theorize around 1500-1000 BCE. The Fatyanovo-Balanovo culture remains, hydronyms such as the Oka river, and Baltic loanwords in Finno-Ugric add relevant dating evidence.[9] [10] Examples of such Baltic loanwords into Finno-Ugric are: East Baltic Lithuanian žalgas "pole" > North Saami čuolggu "lever", Finnish salko "pole", or Lithuanian šaras "fodder" > Mordvinian śora "grain".

See also


  1. Marija Gimbutas 1963. The Balts. London : Thames and Hudson, Ancient peoples and places 33.
  2. J. P. Mallory, "Fatyanovo-Balanovo Culture", Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997
  3. David W. Anthony, "The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World", Princeton University Press, 2007
  4. Ringe, D., Warnow, T., Taylor, A., 2002. Indo-European and computational cladistics. Trans. Philos. Soc. 100, 59–129.
  5. 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.
  6. Szemerényi, Oswald (1957). . Kratylos 2: 97–123. 
  7. Beekes, Robert S. P. (1995). . Amsterdam: John Benjamins. p. 22. . 
  8. Gray, Russell D., and Clayton Atkinson. 2003. "Language-tree divergence times support Anatolian theory of Indo-European Origins," Nature 426 (27 November): 435-439.
  9. Thomsen V. 1890 Berøringer mellem de finske og de baltiske ( litauisk-lettiske ) Sprog. 4to. pp. 72-104. København.
  10. Kalima, J. 1936 Uber die indoiranischen und baltischen Lehnwörter der ostseefinnischen Sprachen. In Festschrift für H.Hirt. Bd. II, pp. 52-75. Heidelberg.


  • Ernst Fraenkel (1950) Die baltischen Sprachen, Carl Winter, Heidelberg, 1950
  • Joseph Pashka (1950) Proto Baltic and Baltic languages
  • 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 ISBN 0-500-27616-1
  • Algirdas Girininkas (1994) "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" ISBN 9986-420-00-8"; p. 259
  • Edmund Remys (2007) "General distinguishing features of various Indo-European languages and their relationship to Lithuanian", in: Indogermanische Forschungen; Vol. 112. Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter