First Impressions Of The Lithuanian Language

I have long had intentions of learning about Lithuania, its culture, and its language, since that is an important part of my own heritage. This fall, I finally have plans to travel to Lithuania and start to connect with the culture that has been passed down from my immigrant great-grandparents to my to father, and down to me.

In preparation for that trip, I want to learn some basic Lithuanian. I don't expect to become fluent, but I do expect to learn the 10 most important things to survive in any language. And I don't want it to get in the way of my success with Italian this year.

So I've picked up a Lithuanian phrasebook and pocket dictionary, and I'm going to spend a little time learning basic Lithuanian. The first thing I did was what I always do with a new language — I took a look at the grammar and basic makeup of the language to get an idea of what's ahead.

The Lithuanian alphabet

The alphabet is a modified Latin alphabet, with decorated consonants to represent sounds typically formed by digraphs in English. Anyone with Esperanto experience will be immediately comfortable with these new characters, and there is nothing unusual about their sounds. (Č = ch. Š = sh. Ž = zh.) Also, Lithuanian uses the same convention as Slavic languages regarding the letter c, which is pronounced as a /ts sound.

There are 12 vowels: a, ą, e, ę, ė, i, į, y, o, u, ų, and ū. At first, that sounds utterly ridiculous, but it's actually not a big deal. After I learned about palatization, for instance, Russian's 10 vowels didn't seem so hard. Well, Lithuanian does have palatization, but it's not marked with the vowels. Instead, the nosinė vowels (those with the little tail) are long vowels. The tail is left over from a time when they used to be nasalized.

As I said, palatization does happen in Lithuanian. Any consonant followed by the short vowel i becomes palatized. And any vowel paired with an i becomes a dipthong, so that (for example) a combination such as eu would be prounouced as the separate vowels "eh" and "oo", but the combination iu is pronounced as the dipthong "yoo".

Lithuanian grammar

The Lithuanian language is the oldest Indo-European language still in use, and it has a reputation for being unnecessarily difficult, as it retains many of the original features of it's linguistic ancestors Latin and Sanskrit. With that reputation, I was expecting it to be quite a challenge. So it was nice to discover that it's actually not so bad.

There are only two genders — masculine and feminine — which is immediately comforting. And possessive do not reflect gender, so that's really easy, although Lithuanian does have the magical seventh possessive savo, which always refers to the subject of the sentence.

There are seven noun cases to decline, so that's a bit daunting. After learning Russian, and spending time studying Ukrainian and Polish, Lithuanian doesn't seem terribly difficult by comparison. But I can imagine how seven noun cases and two genders would likely be a big hurdle for anyone just learning.

Verb aspects work the same as Slavic languages, with root verbs being imperfective, and becoming perfective by addition of familiar-sounding prefixes.
Conjugation, however, is unfortunately more similar to European languages, with full conjugations for each verb tense, rather than the simple gender-based past tense.

Word order is typically subject-verb-object (SVO), although in practice it can be pretty free, as is typically the case in noun-declined languages. Words placed at the end of a sentence are understood to have more logical stress.

General impressions

Just reading a few basic phrases, I was able to recognize the many Slavic cognates, revealing Lithuanian's role as the parent of modern Slavic languages. It is easy to see the word draugas and be reminded of the Russian word друг (droog), meaning "friend". And the word diena sounds like день (dien') meaning "day". And the word prašom sounds like the Polish word proshe, meaning "please".

The verb eiti sounds similar the Russian идти to me, and has the same meaning. Furthermore, adding prefixes at-, iš-, and nu- modifies the meaning in the same ways as от-, из-, and на-, respectively. So to a certain extent, I don't find it to be particularly intimidating.

However, there are also a large number of stark differences. In spite of several things that could make learning easier, the majority of words bear no notable resemblance to words in languages that I currently know. And while pronunciation is somewhat consistent, there are no clear-cut rules about where the stress falls, making it important to hear words pronounced when learning them. And as with any language, there are several sound combinations that sound strange to my ear.

A new challenge?

On my post about the 10 most important things to know, to get by in any language, a commenter suggested that I put that advice to the test and report back on my experience. I've got a few months before the trip so that should be enough time for me to learn those basics without interfering too much with my Italian studies.

This seems like a good opportunity for that kind of experiment, so that's my plan. There is a small (but existent) Lithuanian community here in Chicago, including one of my coworkers, so I can make opportunities to test my retention of words and phrases, and pronunciation.

Probably the hardest part will be actually limiting myself to just the vocabulary in my 10 things. Fortunately, my ongoing Italian studies should keep that in check.


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Author: Yearlyglot
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  • Since you have experience with Russian, English, and Polish, you will have no trouble picking up Lithuanian, I think. Also, with Russian and English, you can survive really well, so you won't be totally lost if your Lithuanian fails you.I have been here (in Vilnius) for a year, and I think that the language has been fairly easy to pick up. For me, that is largely due to the fact that my brain already has a "map" for the cases, which was the most difficult thing for me to really understand totally in Russian. Lithuanian has lots of rules, but few exceptions so it's not so bad.Lithuania is a good country, overall. I am sure that you will have fun on your adventure! (I had so much fun here that I am staying)Sekmės!

  • That's kinda what I had figured. Seems that I should have no problem finding people over 30 who speak Russian, and people under 30 who speak English, but I'm still going to put in an effort to speak Lithuanian while I'm there, rather than falling back on English like a typical American tourist.Thanks!

  • Check out the 2 Lithuanian courses on this site: https://www.ikindalikelangua...
    They are made by Lyzazel (I think he's posted here before), a native, and they look quite good.Also, it is a common misconception that Lithuanian is the "oldest Indo-European language", but nothing makes it older than any other IE language, they all come from the same source, Proto-Indo-European. ;) Good luck with learning it though!I learned a bit of Latvian for fun several months ago, and it was very easy; Lithuanian should be too. For example, with Latvian, you can usually tell what conjugation a verb is by looking at it, and most verbs are conjugated regularly, and you can almost always tell the gender of a noun by looking at it, and just about all are declined regularly, so neither cases nor verbs should be a problem, in theory.

  • It's not the "oldest", just the oldest still in use.I'm already aware of Lyzazel's lessons, but thanks for the link -- maybe someone else reading this isn't!Yeah, I hear all the time about how hard it is, but it actually looks fairly straightforward... especially in comparison to other languages I've learned.

  • Hi! Thanks for your highly interesting blog. I especially liked the discussion of Russian verb declinations. However, I am not sure I agree with your picture of language history in this entry. Are Latin and Sanskrit really ancestors to Latvian, or not rather two other branches on the huge indoeuropean languagee tree? The same applies for the Slavic languages - Latvian may have some words common with Slavic languages from ancient times, but is it really the parent?
    (Sorry for the mixup of metafors.)

  • Frankly, I'm no expert on the history of any given language. I get most of those interesting details from books I happen to be reading, or from Wikipedia articles. And since this is a blog about learning to speak a language - and not one about learning any language's history - I just don't care to do a great deal of research to verify those tiny portions of sentences.I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in any argument over the correctness of the semantics of such claims. But I am pretty confident in the spirit of what I have said -- yes, Latin had a directly influential relationship on Lithuanian, at least in as much as Rome was the chief European power during the rise of the Lithuanian dynasty. And again, semantics aside, and point-by-point grammatical arguments notwithstanding, I am also quite confident in the fact that all of modern "slavic" countries were once subject to the rule of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.I'm a little perplexed at how Latvia and Latvian entered into this discussion. I'm left with the impression that you have a Latvian background, and perhaps a bit of pride, and you feel that these remarks have sleighted you in some way. That's just my assumption, based on your response... but if its correct, I think the problem is yours to work out, and is not a reflection of anything regarding my web site.

  • Hi,
    No, not latvian, Swedish. And I'm sorry. While trying to make a point I happened to substitute Lithuanian for Latvian. Well, well. Apologies.

  • Lithuanian is *not* a "parent" of any of the Slavic languages.

  • I've been interested in Lithuanian since I learned of its conservative form and proximity to PIE.1. "The Lithuanian language is the oldest Indo-European language still in use."I'm not sure what you mean by oldest. All current Indo-European languages still in use date back to Proto-Indoeuropean, and so all are the same age. Lithuanian does, however, conserve much more of the original PIE than other PIE descendants, and may be the most conservative of those descendants (the rather mobile stress that you mention is a feature PIE possessed, for example).In another sense, Lithuanian is younger. It split from Latvian at 800 AD, so in some sense that's the date of its birth. Compare that to English, which dates back to circa 450 AD.2. "it’s linguistic ancestors Latin and Sanskrit."Ancestors is the wrong word. They are sister languages, all developing from the same root. See the chart of PIE relationships here: https://upload.wikimedia.org...Ancestor would describe the relationship between, for example, French and Latin, or Hindi and Sanskrit, but that's not the relationship between Lithuanian and either Latin or Sanskrit. Rather, its ancestors are first Baltic, then further back, Balto-Slavic, and finally PIE itself.3. "But I am pretty confident in the spirit of what I have said -- yes, Latin had a directly influential relationship on Lithuanian, at least in as much as Rome was the chief European power during the rise of the Lithuanian dynasty."From Wikipedia:"The majority of the [Lithuanian] loan words were found to have been derived from the Polish, Belarussian, and German languages, with some evidence that these languages all acquired the words from contacts and trade with Prussia during the era of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania."So it doesn't seem Latin had much effect on the language.Moreover, the history of Lithuanian starts at about 1000 AD. The Kingdom of Lithuania starts at least two centuries after that. At that time 1. the Western Roman Empire, which was the Latin speaking half of the Empire, had already been gone for 7 centuries, 2. Vulgar Latin had already evolved into its daughter languages; and 3. the Eastern Roman Empire, though it still existed at this point--though in a much reduced form, had long since abandoned Latin in favor of Greek.4. "I am also quite confident in the fact that all of modern "slavic" countries were once subject to the rule of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.""All" is too strong--many were, however, including present-day Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and parts of Moldova, Poland and Russia. However, we should note missing from the list are the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Serbia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, all modern Slavic countries.

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