Baltic languages

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The Baltic languages are a group of genetically-related languages spoken in the Northern Europe and belonging to the Indo-European language family.


Division and member languages

The Baltic language group is divided into two genetic sub-groups: Western Baltic, which now contains only extinct languages, and Eastern Baltic, which contains the living languages in the group. While related, the Lithuanian, the Latvian and particularly the Old Prussian vocabularies vary greatly from each other and are not mutually intelligible. The now extinct Old Prussian language is the most archaic.

Western Baltic languages

Eastern Baltic languages

(—Extinct language)

Geographic distribution

Note that although the term Baltic states is commonly used to refer collectively to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the Estonian language is a Uralic language, not shown to be related to Lithuanian, Latvian or any of the Indo-European languages.

Missing image
Distribution of the Baltic languages (11th - 12th century)

Speakers of modern Baltic languages are generally concentrated within the borders of Lithuania and Latvia, and in emigrant communities in the United States, Canada, Australia and former Soviet states. 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. Expansion of Slavic peoples in the South and East, and Germanic peoples in the West reduced the Baltic territory to a fraction of their former area.


The Indo-European tribes speaking the dialects that would become the Baltic languages probably settled in the area South of the Baltic coast in about the 13th Century B.C.E. and later migrated towards the coast where they met an indigenous population of subsistence fishermen and farmers speaking a Uralic language. This indigenous population was assimilated to varying degrees with the Baltic peoples. Divergence of the dialects into distinct languages probably occurred in the 1st millennium C.E.

Although the various Baltic tribes were mentioned by ancient historians as early as 98 B.C.E, 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. Lithuanian was first attested in a hymnal translation in 1545; the first printed book in Lithuanian, a Catechism by Martynas Mavydas was published in 1547. 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 relocation of much of the Baltic Prussian population in the 13th century, 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 of commoners.

After the Partitions of Poland, much 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.

While some linguists believe that the Baltic languages diverged from Proto-Indo-European separately from other language groups, others feel that the Baltic languages share a common ancestor tongue with either the Slavic languages or the Germanic languages, and should be classified as Balto-Slavic or Balto-Germanic respectively.

Close relationships have also been posited between the Baltic languages and geographically-distant Indo-European languages and groups such as Albanian, Dacian, and Thracian.

More recently, it has been suggested that the Baltic language group is itself an inappropriate grouping and that the West Baltic and East Baltic groups have differing lineages that converged later in their existences.

Samples of Baltic: Old Prussian, Latvian, Lithuanian compared to Slavic: Polish Language

See also

External links

Ethnologue Report on Baltic languages (


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