Volume 32, No. 2 - Summer 1986
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1986 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.


W. Lafayette, Ind.

When we discuss the significance of the Lithuanian language for linguistics, we invariably look to the past, to the attention it commanded during the formative period of linguistic science, namely, the period of historical comparative Indo-European linguistics. In this paper, my purpose is to go beyond that early period and to present more recent trends in linguistics in the United States in which data from Lithuanian has continued to play a part; and, to point out which aspects of Lithuanian are most pertinent to questions in linguistics that will continue to be investigated in the future.

For an appreciation of current developments in the field and their applications to Lithuanian, it is crucial to be aware of what preceded them. At the risk of repeating the obvious, I will summarize the relevant historical facts.

Lithuanian was enthusiastically and effectively used by certain scholars of the nineteenth century1 in clarifying two central issues in the linguistic theory of that time: a) the determination of the genetic relationship of the members of the Indo-European language family and b) the reconstruction of the structure of the hypothetical "parent" or proto-language for this group. A prominent role was assigned to Lithuanian in these endeavors because of its conservative language structure. Along with the "big three,' i.e., the classical languages — Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit, Lithuanian became renowned for its preservation of many of the archaic features which were being reconstructed for the proto-language. The unique difference between these aforementioned languages and Lithuanian, of course, was the fact that in the nineteenth century only Lithuanian remained a living, spoken, vital fountain of information for philological research. However, even later in the century, this unique dimension of Lithuanian was not fully utilized. When in the course of the refinement of the historical comparative method, it became necessary to come to grips with the irregularities of sound change and, for instance, certain classic laws were formulated for the Germanic languages by Grimm and Verner, the emphasis placed on Lithuanian remained on its inertness, on what it had not changed. Changes in the living, spoken language were all but ignored because there was no interest in the spoken language per se. That interest in linguistics came to be developed in the following, the twentieth century.

Once Ferdinand de Saussure, the founder of modern linguistics, changed the focus of linguistics from the historical approach to the study of the systematic structures of contemporary languages, interest in linguistics spread at an accelerated pace. In the United States, from the mid 1930's synchronic linguistics had become established as Leonard Bloomfields's structuralism (1933-1957).2 For lack of practical knowledge of the language, research on Lithuanian in this country did not reach significant proportions until the work of two linguists trained in American structuralism. These two are William R. Schmalstieg and his Lithuanian colleague, Antanas Klimas. Although the majority of the structural linguists of this period were immersed in refining synchronic theory, concentrating on two components of language structure: phonology (contrastive sounds) and morphology (meaningful minimal parts of words), Klimas and Schmalstieg put theory into practice in their descriptions of the Lithuanian language. As far as I am familiar with their individual works, my impression is that the greater part of it deals with historical problems.3 In this sense, they constitute a tangible link to their predecessors, for they applied the more sophisticated and scientific structural methodology to a host of questions in Baltic linguistics that had remained unsolved.

Some of W.R. Schmalstieg's earliest contributions were analyses of the historical Baltic vowel systems in this structural vein. He has also published investigations of Lithuanian nominal endings and has touched upon very original issues, such as similarities between Lithuanian and Tocharian. His contributions are and remain prolific, perhaps the most noteworthy of which are his volumes on Old Prussian. By the late 1950's A. Klimas was writing on various questions of Lithuanian linguistics and he remains quite active today. Some of his articles deal with etymological analysis; others with the vexing question of the precise relation of the Baltic and Slavic languages. Almost twenty years ago he filled in the gap due to the lack of a structural orientation on the part of linguists working in Soviet occupied Lithuania with a study on the phonemic inventory of contemporary Lithuanian presented in 1967 at the first conference on Baltic linguistics held in the United States,4 a conference organized by W.R. Schmalstieg. Both of these linguists furthered the cause of Lithuanian linguistics by consistently doing research in this area, despite other trends which by then had swept American theoretical linguistics. First and foremost among these trends was the impact of the transformational generative grammar school which was initiated by Noam Chomsky and was influential from 1957 to about 1977.

Since then, the field of historical linguistics itself has undergone innovations in two respects. The first was the restructuring of the traditionally accepted picture of Proto-Indo-European. The outcome was a streamlining or reduction of the once highly complicated system with its numerous inflectional categories. In this country, efforts of this type can be seen as early as 1958 with the publication of W.P. Lehmann's influential article "On earlier stages of the Indo-European nominal inflection" (Language 34, 179-202). Of interest to us is that once again Lithuanian data was used for the revised reconstruction of the parent language: in particular, the evidence of its system of verbs. As a consequence, this time the result was a very different product, almost the antithesis of the cumbersome structure created by the neogrammarians (19th century philologists) who had relied to an unwarranted degree on the classical languages. This time too the innovators and appreciators of our language were non-Lithuanians. The first, beginning with the 1950's, to reassess the previously unexplored or misdiagnosed contributions for Indo-European linguistics offered by the Baltic languages, and especially by Lithuanian, were the Slavic linguists: Ivanov, Toporov, Savchenko, and others. The first two named have presented a particularly diverse number of important studies in comparative linguistics which includes the areas of accentology, etymology and mythology. It was Ivanov's 1965 monograph which has played a crucial role in the reanalysis of the Proto-Indo-European verbal system and in which the importance of data from Lithuanian is stressed.5 The new tide in Lithuanian linguistics was aided by original contributions by linguists in the West, e.g. by W.P. Schmid.6

The second of the new developments in historical comparative linguistics also occurred in the latter half of this century. This was the application of principles from language typology to diachronic syntax. Both these areas, typology (classification of languages based on morphological criteria) and syntax, had been investigated in the formative period of historical linguistics. But whereas earlier typological classification had been based primarily on morphological elements, now there was a greater emphasis on syntactic criteria. Among the relevant questions here, two are particularly open to answers from research on the Lithuanian language. Before we turn to the specific applications for Lithuanian, some background information needs to be provided.

Syntactic typological theory is based on the discovery by Joseph Greenberg7 that the positional order of certain syntactic constructions was consistent and predictable in a language, since it was dependent on the regular order of the main verb of simple sentences in that language. This simply means that various types of constructions, such as prepositional phrases, modifier-noun constructions, adverbial phrases and others, were analyzed in various languages with the discovery that the position of designated governing elements in such constructions was harmonious with the position of the main verb. Concretely, then, if the verb stands before the direct object, the new theory predicted that nouns will also precede adjectives, while auxiliaries will precede verbal participles or infinitives. This is the case, say, in French, an SVO language. Yet the hypotheses that were advanced by Greenberg have not been conclusively proved to this day. For example, exceptions to the principle that in SVO languages nouns are followed by modifying adjectives can be found in both the English and Lithuanian languages. Nonetheless, the tenets of syntactic typology have been applied to historical questions. One of the most widely pursued has been the question of the original sentential position of the verb in Proto Indo-European. Was its normal (unmarked) position initial, medial or final? That is to say, did the major constituents of a sentence occur in the order Verb-Subject-Object or Subject-Verb-Object, or Subject-Object-Verb? Lithuanian obviously is in a unique position in respect to this issue because all these and a few other permutations of verb position still occur in it. The normal order of primary sentence constituents, namely, the order met most frequently in non-emphatic discourse, today is Subject-Verb-Object; but for highlighting (emphatic marking), SOV and OSV or OVS are used.


S-V-O: Naujokaitis parašė tris to dvitomio skyrius. 

S-O-V: Visur ir visada Naujokaitis didelę reikšmę teikė gimtajai kalbai. 

O-S-V: Skaitymo, rašybos įgūdžių formavimą jis sieja su vaiko mintj žadinančiu vaizdumu, kūrybiška pratybų sistema . . .

In narratives, on the other hand, VSO is highly favored.


V-S-O: Parašė tėviokas laišką j tą poną, paprašė Ramonėliui savaitės vestuvėms, davė jam ponas visą mėnesj.

Given these variations, it is no wonder that prominent scholars in this field, such as W.P. Lehmann and Paul Friedrich, have bemoaned the lack of data from Lithuanian and the other two Baltic languages.10 In the ten years since Friedrich's call for research in Baltic on these issues, some studies have been made,11 but much more needs to be done.

The second topic that has aroused a great deal of lively debate among linguists concerns the sequence of changes as languages move from one type to another. We are interested in ascertaining how much morphological erosion, loss of case suffixes, does a language undergo before the shift in verbal position follows; or does the verbal shift precede the reduction in case suffixes? It does not take any training in linguistics to immediately appreciate the fact that Lithuanian again is in an enviable position to shed light on this issue. Just consider all the noun and adjective class markers and case endings, all the suffixes for differentiating verb tense, the adverb and adjective comparative suffixes and so forth that have been preserved in the Lithuanian language. These have been lost centuries ago in most other Indo-European languages. This is precisely why Lithuanian has a far greater advantage in providing information on the question posed above than study of such phenomena in Italian or French, German or Dutch. And yet, more investigations are taking place in these and other languages simply because many more linguists are familiar with them. Heretofore, I have been outlining major trends in linguistics which in various degrees utilized Lithuanian. Without exception they had strong links to traditions in the past that had made use of the daughter language by relating it to its parent Proto-Indo-European. To describe this traditionally perceived bond one could invoke the maxim "Like mother, like daughter." But, the matter of morphological erosion mentioned in the preceding paragraph can be approached from a different perspective. It can be studied not as a means of shedding light on a point in historical linguistic reconstruction, but, very simply, for itself. It was William Labov who pointed out the urgency for documenting change in progress in languages.12 The daughter, the Lithuanian language, no longer needs to be analyzed primarily for what it has not changed. It is changing with the times, as is every living language in all times and places. Some of its dynamics and directions are general to all language change; others, e.g. in its morpho-syntax, have precious few parallels. One thing is clear. Empirical evidence needs to be gathered on what has slowly been changing in the Lithuanian language. Such material can then provide information on the very processes of language change in general. We are now in the position of being able to study changes in the various levels of the Lithuanian language. Once we have analyzed what is changing in Lithuanian, and how these changes occur, then we will be in a position to address the question of why such change is taking place and to generalize our answers. We will be in a position perhaps to contribute to the most important issue of language change today — the explanation for it.

And so we have come full circle. We have seen that for approximately the first 100 years of linguistic science (1811-1916) when the historical approach reigned supreme, the significance of Lithuanian for this discipline hinged on its static aspect. It was based on material that had remained unchanged. In the mid-twentieth century, despite the virtual monopoly of synchronic linguistics, many important historical questions dealing with the Baltic languages continued to be raised or investigated anew by structural linguists in America and Europe. In the later part of this century, historical linguistics, with an emphasis on diachronic syntax, once again is among the leading areas of linguistic research. Even more ambitious is the current search for causes of language change. Lithuanian is a particularly apt instrument for researching the morpho-syntactical aspects of language change. In the 1980's, a host of other topics have been raised which necessitate interdisciplinary cooperation with psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists. In all these vital areas Lithuanian can and will provide many useful insights.


1 Details may be found in Noted Scholars of the Lithuanian Language, a retitled translation by W.R. Schmalstieg and Ruth Armentout of A. Sabaliauskas Žodžiai Atgyja (Vilnius: Vaga, 1967 and 1980). English version published jointly by Akademinės Skautijos Leidykla and Dept. of Slavic Languages, Pennsylvania State University, 1973.
2 For an explanation of structuralism and the influence of L. Bloomfield, consult any good history of linguistics such as R.H. Robins' A Short History of Linguistics, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968.
3 I make no attempt at presenting a bibliography of their works, neither in diachronic nor in synchronic linguistics. That would be a very worthwhile endeavor for some of their former or current students.
4 A. Klimas, "Some Attempts to Inventory Lithuanian Phonemes," in Baltic Linguistics, ed. by T. F. Magner and W.R. Schmalstieg, University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1970, 93-102.
5 Cf. review of Ivanov's 1965A monograph by V. Ambrazas in Baltistica III (1), 1967, 117-123. As regards, the system of the Lithuanian noun, the important work was achieved by Jonas Kazlauskas. See his book: Lietuvių Kalbos istorinė gramatika, Vilnius: Mintis, 1968.
6 See the article by A. Klimas for details on these developments and for mention of the credit due Antanas Salys for the nucleus of Schmid's ideas which Salys published in 1956. A. Klimas, "Iš užkampio į sostą (Baltų kalbų vieta indoeuropiečių kalbų šeimoje)" in Lituanistikos Instituto 1977 metų suvažiavimo darbai, ed. J.K. Rėklaitis, Chicago, 1979.
7 Joseph Greenberg, "Some Universals of Grammar with Particular Reference to the Order of Meaningful Elements," in Universals of Language, ed. idem, 2nd ed. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1966, 73-113.
8 These sentences have been taken from R. Vasiliauskas, "Pranas Naujokaitis" in Žmonės ir kalba, Vilnius: Mokslas, 1977, p. 166.
9 Taken from "Laiškas iš pragaro," in Lietuviškos pasakos, ed. Jonas Balys, Chicago, 1951, p. 95.
10 Paul Friedrich, Proto Indo-European Syntax, Journal of Indo-European Studies, Monograph No. 1, 1975. On p. 33, Friedrich writes "... I feel that more historical and comparative work on Baltic as a whole is needed before we can properly relate this fact to the OV hypothesis (curiously enough the OV partisans have ignored Baltic)." I want to point out that investigating this topic is not merely a matter of gathering statistics from Old Lithuanian on the relevant variables. The nature of many of the earliest texts as translations from foreign languages makes it necessary to carefully distill what is native syntax and what has been introduced during the course of translation.
11 For example, J.K. Rėklaitis, "The PIE Word Order Controversy and Word Order in Lithuanian" in Current Issues in Linguistic Theory, Volume 13: Papers from the 3rd International Conference on Historical Linguistics, ed. J. Peter Maher et al., Amsterdam: John Benjamins B.V., 1982, 369-385. Vytautas Ambrazas presented a paper entitled "Pozicinių modelių vaidmuo baltų kalbų sakinio sandaros rekonstrukcijai" at the fourth conference on Baltic Linguistics held in Riga in 1980. It should be published in Baltistica shortly.
12 For commentary on Labov's contributions and the potential in this area for Lithuanian linguistics, see Jules Levin, "Dynamic Linguistics and Baltic Historical Phonology," in General Linguistics Vo. 15, No. 3, 1975, 144-158.