Volume 29, No.4 - Winter 1983
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1983 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.


The University of Rochester

In Lituanus ("The Letters and Sounds of Lithuanian", volume VI (1959), No. 1, pp. 21-24), we outlined the basic principles of Lithuanian orthography, i.e., the orthography of Standard Literary Lithuanian. At that time we presented it as a given, an established fact, not even mentioning its origin, its traditions, its standardization, etc.

As a matter of fact, the orthography of Standard Literary Lithuanian has developed much faster than, let us say, the accepted orthography of other European languages, such as German, Italian, French, etc. For the latter three languages, it took several centuries, going back to some Latin patterns of the late Middle Ages, until a conventional, standard — more or less uniform — orthography was developed. Although the Lithuanian literary tradition is about 500 years old, the standard orthography of Lithuanian was finally shaped, under a great pressure and need, in the last half of the 19th century.1 One of the great pressures to develop a uniform writing system for Lithuanian was the infamous Tsarist Russian prohibition2 to print books in Lithuanian (=Latin) alphabet which is unique in history and which lasted 40 years: 1864-1904. Lithuanian books, newspapers, journals, brochures, pamphlets as well as prayer books and hymnals — in Lithuanian/Latin alphabet — were printed by the thousands in East Prussia, which was then part of the German Empire. Then they were smuggled3 into that part of Lithuania which was under the Tsarist Russian occupation. Every Lithuanian writer, editor, publisher, every printer and "book carrier"4 felt a definite need of an accepted, standard, uniform spelling.5 Finally, from all this as well as Lithuanian books and periodicals published in the United States, there emerged the basic type of the Standard Literary Lithuanian orthography which, with minor adjustments, remained in use until now.6

During the independent years of the reestablished Lithuania (1918-1940), where the question of the standardized orthography came under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, the orthography regulated, in principle, by Professor Jonas Jablonskis,7 was made universal. Some minor adjustments were made in the late twenties and early thirties.

In the middle thirties, the Lithuanian Ministry of Education established a special Commission whose task it was to prepare and propose the "final version" of the Lithuanian standard orthography. This commission worked for several years and, just before the Second World War, it was ready to publish and promulgate the new orthography.8 Basically, this reform aimed at considerably reducing the number of the diacritic signs used in Lithuanian orthography.9 However, the Second World War started in 1939, then came the Soviet (The first: 1940-1941; the second: 1944-) and German (1941-1944) occupations, and this worthwhile project was completely disregarded and forgotten.

Since World War II, in Soviet-ruled Lithuania, the basic inherited Lithuanian orthography was kept, with only some "adjustments" to Communist/Soviet/Russian ideology; e.g., some religious terms are written with small (=lower case) initial letters, but, on the other hand, many terms from the Communist/Soviet/Russian "Pantheon" are capitalized.10 Naturally, this practice has not been followed by Lithuanian publications appearing outside of the Soviet orbit.

It was only in the last decade, in the seventies, under the auspices of the Institute of Lithuanian Language and Literature of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences, that certain changes were accepted and promulgated.11 Since these changes, or reforms, were expected and practical as well, the Lithuanian Communities in the West, generally speaking, accepted them, too.12

These were the most important changes:

1. The letter 'j' shall be written in three old, inherited Lithuanian words instead of where, formerly 'i' was written.13 These three words are: bjaurus 'ugly, vile, repulsive'. (It was written biaurus — before the reform); pjauti 'to cut (of hay/to mow' (Formerly written piauti); spjauti 'to spit' (Formerly — spiauti). The most important derivatives of bjaurus 'ugly' are:

bjaurėtis — to be disgusted 
— to besmirch; to denigrate 
— ugliness, nastiness, vileness 
— something ugly; monster 
— to grow bad; to grow nasty 
— to get disgusted 
— to turn bad (suddenly).14

Of course, in any form, derived from any of these words, the 'j' will be written as well. E.g. bjauroti 'to besmirch' (=infinitive).

present tense: aš bjauroju — 'I besmirch', past tense: aš bjaurojau 'I besmirched', etc. etc.

The most important derivatives of pjauti (to cut, to mow') are:

pjautynės — killing(s); massacre 
— cutter; (hay) mower) reaper 
— to egg on (to fight, etc.) 
pjūklas —
pjūtis — harvest 
pjuvenos —
— cross-section 
— ray harvesting (season) 
— hay harvesting (season)

The most important derivatives of spjauti 'to spit' are:

spjaudyti — to spit (repeatedly) 
— to spit at; to denigrate 
— sputum; spit (noun) 
spjaudykla —
spjovimas —

2. Generally speaking, the Lithuanian future tense form is derived from the infinitive.15 It does, normally, keep the same root vowel as well as the same stress. But there are some exceptions in the 3rd person.16 Until now, this was not uniformly used, even in school grammars. The new regulations will be as follows: if the infinitive root has ū (=long u) or y (=long i), then the 3rd person shall have u (=short u) and i (=short i) respectively. E.g.,

Infinitive                     3rd person future tense

būti 'to be':                  bus 'will be'
'to perish':             žus 'will perish'
'to heal':                gis 'will heal'
'to rain':                  lis 'will rain', etc., etc.

However, these are two exceptions to this uniform rule:

siūti 'to saw':               siūs 'will saw' 
vyti 'to chase':             vys 'will chase'17

3. As in so many languages, there are almost always some problems: what to do, for example, with those short compound words which are made up of two formerly separate words.18 The basic rule now is this: if any of the two original words is shortened in the process of compounding, write them together, as one word. E.g.,

dusyk 'twice,' from du sykius 'two times' 
'perhaps', from gali būti 'it can be', etc.

If, however, even with a new, different meaning (="compounded meaning", or idiomatic meaning), two or more words remain as they were, i.e., not shortened, then they shall be written separately:

iš tikrųjų 'really' (literally: 'from real things')
be galo
'endless(ly)' (literally: 'without end').

4. There were also some changes made in the traditional Lithuanian punctuation, but they are, really, only very minor changes. Generally, a little more freedom is left here than it was the case previously — for individual authors, editors and such. In school grammars, however, a rather uniform punctuation will still be required.19

5. It is interesting to note that, in this same general area, no final decision was made about the writing (or: spelling) of non-Lithuanian proper names. This has always been a somewhat thorny problem for Lithuanian orthography. The basic reason is simple: Lithuanian has always been a highly inflected language. Thus, any foreign word borrowed into Lithuanian, has to be marked by case endings.20

E.g., E. football,

London = Lith.


(-e; -ai)

Thus, several hundred foreign names, which have been in use in Lithuanian for centuries, have been completely adapted to the Lithuanian phonological (=sound) and morphological (=form) systems. One can really say, they have been completely "Lithuanianized": Londonas, Dublinas, Madridas, Bostonas, and many many more. These, without any doubt, will remain in Lithuanian just as in English we find: Munich (German: München), Moscow (Russian: Moskva), Cologne (German: Köln), Warsaw (Polish: Warszawa), etc. But, of course, English does not have to "worry" about any endings.

Since Russian uses a different alphabet (i.e., Russian, or Cyrillic), in Russian all the foreign proper names must be written, more or less, according to pronunciation, as it can be rendered by this Russian/Cyrillic alphabet. Lithuanian, having always used Latin alphabet, is reluctant to do that. Apparently, the practical rule in Lithuania is now this: in everyday usage, use the Lithuanian "phonetic" equivalent. In scientific, scholarly writings, use the original or, at least, note the original in parentheses. E.g.,

Meillet (Fr.)
Nixon (E.)
Byron (E.)
Leeds (E.)
Schmidt (G.)


Meillet/Mejė (Meillet)
Nixon/Niksonas (Nixon)
Byron/Baironas (Byron)
Leeds/Lydsas (Leeds)
Schmidt/Šmitas (Schmidt)

How this thorny problem will be eventually solved, nobody can predict for sure. Clearly, the old loanwords (i.e. proper nouns, in this case) will remain as they have been used for a long time: Lith. Čiorčilis for E. Churchill, Lith. Šekspyras, for E. Shakespeare, etc., etc. The problem arises again with the huge flood of foreign (i.e., non-Lithuanian, in this case) technological terminology, etc. This question is still hotly debated in Lithuania and among the Lithuanians living abroad.21


1 For the most detailed description of these developments, cf. r. Petras Jonikas, Lietuvių bendrinės rašomosios kalbos kūrimasis antrojoje XIX a. pusėje (="The Formation of Written Standard Lithuanian in the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century"), Chicago, 1972.
2 Cf. the review of Forty Years of Darkness, Lituanus, vol. 22, No. 4 (1976), pp. 71-72.
3 On the book smuggling, cf. Forty Years of Darkness, see Footnote #2.
4 This is the specific name given to these hardy men who risked their freedom, even their life while carrying and distributing the forbidden books and newspapers. In Lithuanian knygnešys, from knyga 'book' and nešti 'to carry'.
5 The Lithuanians were not alone in this endeavour: Many Eastern and Central European nations were preoccupied with the establishment of uniform, general spelling systems for their respective languages.
6 Very important here was the fact that most of the editors and correspondents of the important Lithuanian periodicals such as Aušra ('Dawn') and Varpas ('Bell') were using the system of the long-established High West-South Lithuanian.
7 Professor Jonas Jablonskis also belonged to the group mentioned in Footnote #6. For a more detailed discussion see William R. Schmalstieg, "From Donelaitis to Jablonskis'. Lituanus, vol. 28, No. 1 (1982), pp. 70-92.
8 Only a few facts on this project were published in Lithuanian periodicals just before the Second World War, mainly in the quarterly Gimtoji kalba ("The Native Language").
9 For the detailed discussion of the diacritic signs, cf. 1) Antanas Klimas, "The Letters and Sounds of Lithuanian", Lituanus, op. cit., pp. 21-24. 2) Leonardas Dambriūnas, Antanas Klimas and William R. Schmalstieg. Introduction to Modern Lithuanian, Franciscan Fathers Press (=341 Highland Blvd. Brooklyn N.Y. 11207, U.S.A.), Brooklyn. 1st edition — 1966; 2nd edition — 1972; 3rd edition — 1980.
10 This, of course, is officially ordered for all the publications of any kind since all the publications are controlled by the regime.
11 Such things — in contemporary Lithuania — are announced by the "Lithuanian Cabinet" (of Ministers) in Vilnius.
12 For more details, see: Dabartinė lietuvių kalbos rašyba (="The Contemporary Orthography on Lithuanian") edited by Juozas Vaišnys, S.J. Lithuanian Cultural Council of the Lithuanian-American Community, Inc.). 1982.
13 The foremost Lithuanian linguist, Professor Kazimieras Būga, had pointed out that it is wrong to write biaurus, piauti, and spiauti, but he deferred to Jablonskis — "for the sake of unity".
14 One has to remember that the Lithuanian verbal system has 12 prefixes which, theoretically, can be used with any given verb. These prefixes are: ap-, at-, į-, iš-, nu-, pa-, par-, per-, pra-, pri-, su-, už-. However, with the verbs bjauroti and bjurti, only a few of these prefixes can be used: apibjauroti, išbjauroti, pribjauroti, pabjurti, prabjurti, subjurti.
15 See Introduction to Modern Lithuanian (mentioned in Footnote #9).
16 See Introduction, as in Footnote #9.
17 This was done in order not to confuse the 2rd person of the future tense of siūti (=siūs) and vyti (=vys) with the future tense form of the verb siusti 'to rage' (3rd person future: sius 'will rage') and visti 'to multiply oneself (3rd person future: vis 'will multiply itself).
18 English and German have some of these problems as well.
19 For example, it will still be required to set off all dependent (subordinate) clauses by commas, etc.
20 There are seven declensional cases in Lithuanian: Nominative, Genitive, Dative, Accusative, Instrumental, Locative, and Vocative — each with a different ending. Cf. also Introduction to Modern Lithuanian, op. cit.
21 Cf. the discussion of this problem in : Antanas Klimas, "Svetimųjų tikrinių vardų rašymas" (="The spelling of Foreign Proper Names") in the book Dabartinė lietuvių kalbos rašyba (cf. Footnote #12) pp. 47-56. Also: Introduction to Modern Lithuanian, op. cit., pp. 257-258.