All In The Language Family: The Baltic Languages
Of all the language families on Earth, the Baltics are one of the smallest. Spoken in northeastern Europe in the region surrounding the Baltic sea, this family is a part of the larger Indo-European language family, and probably split off into its own branch around 1400 BCE.
Let’s take a look at which modern languages are part of this family, how many people speak them, how similar to each other they are and how to choose which to learn!
What Are The Baltic Languages?
The Baltic languages are a grouping of related languages, of which there are only two surviving members, Latvian and Lithuanian. The Baltic language family is technically broken into two parts: the Eastern Baltic languages (which Latvian and Lithuanian belong to) and the Western Baltic languages, which are all unfortunately now extinct.
These Western languages were Old Prussian, Galindian and Sudovian, but by the early 18th century they had all completely died out, thanks to population assimilation established by the German state in Prussia. Today there are only a few written records of Western Baltic languages still in existence.
How Many People Speak Baltic Languages?
In total, Baltic languages have around 5 million native speakers, mostly in Latvia and Lithuania. Lithuanian is the most spoken Baltic language with 2.8 million speakers in Lithuania, plus communities of speakers in the United States, United Kingdom, Brazil and Canada. Latvian has around 1.3 million speakers in Latvia and another 100,000 more across the United Kingdom, United States, Canada and Germany.
How Similar Are The Baltic Languages?
Since there are only two official living Baltic languages on Earth today, let’s give them a thorough comparison. Both Latvian and Lithuanian use the Latin alphabet, and have done since their first recorded appearance in the 16th century, so in that sense they are very similar.
There are also many grammatical similarities. Like many other Indo-European languages (particularly Romance and Germanic languages), Baltic languages have grammatical gender for nouns. These include masculine and feminine, and, in Lithuanian, also neuter. The Baltic languages heavily use grammatical case (like some Germanic and Slavic languages) as both Latvian and Lithuanian have seven cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, locative and vocative.
If we compare the sound systems of both Latvian and Lithuanian, we find a lot of overlap, but there are also some differences. Notably, Lithuanian has the relatively unusual sounds /ɕ/ and /ʑ/ in its inventory of consonant sounds, while Latvian doesn’t.
As Latvian and Lithuanian are so similar, does this mean speakers of each language can understand the other? There is a lot of crossover between the two in terms of vocabulary, and they share many cognates. For example, “fire” is ugnis in Lithuanian and uguns in Latvian, “bone” is kaulas in Lithuanian and kauls in Latvian, and “grass” is žolė in Lithuanian and zāle in Latvian.
That said, Lithuanian and Latvian speakers can’t have a seamless conversation by speaking their own languages at each other. This is because despite shared cognates, much of their vocabulary differs substantially. Each language has borrowed words from neighboring languages — but they don’t share these borrowed words with each other. Even words with the same root origin may have shifted meaning in one language, but not the other, resulting in false friends. In the end, these differences mean that much of the vocabulary is not mutually understandable.
Which Baltic Language Should You Learn?
If you’re dead set on learning a Baltic language, Lithuanian might be your best bet, as it has the larger number of native speakers and therefore has a (relatively) bigger cultural output. However, Latvian may be slightly easier if you’ve had no previous exposure to a Baltic language because of these factors:
- Word stress in Latvian always falls on the first syllable, meaning that you don’t have to learn a new stress pattern for each new word. By contrast, Lithuanian’s unpredictable stress must be learned independently for each new piece of vocabulary.
- Conjugation of verbs is simpler in Latvian. For example, past tense forms in Lithuanian are often irregular and must be learned separately, whereas in Latvian, they are often usually formed by adding the ending -ja.
So why is Latvian so much less complex? Because Lithuanian is the more conservative language in the Baltic family (and perhaps even in the greater Indo-European family), meaning that it has changed the least throughout history. It preserves a lot of older forms and irregularities that more innovative languages have done away with.
However, Lithuanian’s closeness to its ancestral roots actually make the language very attractive to some learners, as it is arguably the most unchanged modern Indo-European language, which is quite a fascinating idea! So, in the end, it really depends on your motives and interest as to which Baltic language you should learn. If you can’t decide, though, just flip a coin: You’ve only got two choices anyway!