Volume 33, No.3 - Fall 1987
Editor of this issue: Vilius L. Dundzila
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1987 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

A. Sabaliauskas. Mes Baltai (We Balts).

Kaunas: Šviesa, 1986.

The goal of this charming little book is to make the results of contemporary linguistic investigations in the Baltic languages accessible to the general public. The first chapter, entitled "Our Fatherland is There Where the Birch Trees Grow," gives a short popular history of scholarly attempts to locate the homeland of the Indo-Europeans. The chapter begins with a brief description of Johann Friedrich Adelung's notion that the valleys of the Cashmir were not only the birthplace of the Indo-Europeans, but also the paradise in which the first human beings, Adam and Eve, lived. Sabaliauskas then notes that the Asian hypothesis began to lose ground when it was noticed that the cognate words for "wolf," Lithuanian vilkas, Latvian vilks, Old Prussian wilkis, Russian volk, Albanian ulk, Armenian gail, Latin lupus, Sanskrit vrokas, etc., seem to indicate a place where the forests are full of wolves, most likely Europe.

In addition, Sabaliauskas quotes the famous birch-tree argument (mentioned in the chapter with that title) seeming to prove that Europe was the homeland of the Indo-Europeans. He quotes further Vincas Krėvė-Mickevičius' course work written in Kiev: "From day to day the number of supporters of the Asian hypothesis is decreasing and one can consider it buried once and for all, having only historical significance, since today it would be difficult to find even a few linguists who would adhere to it." (Incidentally, although this was an excellent piece of work for a student, there is some question as to whether Krėvė was actually awarded a doctor's degree for it.) Nowadays most handbooks give the original Indo-European homeland as the middle and lower Danube basin and the northern shores of the Black Sea (p. 10). But as Sabaliauskas says, "Suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, the long buried Asian hypothesis arises again" (p. 13). He is referring, of course, to the new ideas of the two brilliant Soviet scholars Tamaz Gamkrelidze and Vyacheslav Ivanov who argue that the Indo-European homeland was located in the area between the southern Transcaucasus and northern Mesopotamia.

Chapter Two, entitled "The Balts — Relatives of the Slavs," begins with an explanation of August Schleicher's famous family tree outline of the relationships of the Indo-European languages, and then proceeds to Johannes Schmidt's wave theory. The famous German linguist August Leskien, trying to harmonize Schleicher's and Schmidt's notions, suggested that the Baltic, Slavic, and Germanic languages might have had a common period of existence independently of the other Indo-European languages. And Sabaliauskas brings up in this connection the very relevant question of what actually separates a dialect from a language.

"The Lakes and Rivers Search for Lithuania," Chapter Three, is an account of the attempts to establish the geographical borders of the original Balts on the basis of hydronyms. According to the most recent researches of the famous Russian scholars, Oleg Trubachov and Vladimir Toporov (A Linguistic Analysis of the Hydronyms of the Area Along the Upper Dnepr, Moscow, 1962), the northeastern borders of the Balts run along the upper basins of the Volga, Moscow, and Oka rivers and the southeastern border runs along the Sejm River. As Sabaliauskas remarks, sometimes the land itself talks to us with its place names (p. 27). For example, in Trubachov and Toporov's work the river name Lopanka, which can be connected with Lithuanian, Latvian, and Old Prussian hydronyms, is derived from a word cognate with Lithuanian lapė, ''fox." The river Lopanka flows into a river called the Ropša which is called by some Lisička (cf. Russian lisica, "fox"). In other words, people who called the river Lisička understood that the name Ropša was to be connected with a word from the Iranian languages meaning "fox." One can compare, e.g., Scythian raupāsa, "fox." And it was apparently in this place that the Balts, Slavs, and Iranians met.

Chapter Four contains an account of the origin of the names for the Balts. Although it has long been clear to everyone that the Lithuanians, Latvians, and Old Prussians are close relatives, still they did not have a common name for a long time (p. 29). The Lithuanian linguist Kazimieras Jaunius always used the word àisčiai, although apparently it was the German linguist K. Zeuss who first used the word in 1837. It isn't immediately clear where the word came from originally, but it was used by the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus in his work Germania, where he talked of the Aestiorum gentes and in all probability had the ancestors of the present day Balts in mind. The term "Baltic languages," however, was proposed in 1845 by the famous Königsberg university professor F. Nesselmann in his book on the Old Prussian language. Nesselmann had in mind the fact that all three languages are (or were) spoken on the shores of the Baltic Sea. The Latin term mare Balticum was first used in the second half of the eleventh century by Adam of Bremen in his history of the bishops of Hamburg. Probably Adam of Bremen had Latinized the Danish word baelt, "strait(s)." Perhaps, however, as V.N. Toporov thinks, the root bait-in Old Prussian originally meant "sea" and Adam of Bremen may have heard the word directly from the mouths of Old Prussian sailors and merchants (p. 32).

The name for the Prussians (Bruzi) was mentioned already in the middle of the ninth century and in the Old Russian chronicles the word Prusi is used. There are various etymologies for this name. The famous Lithuanian specialist in Old Prussian, Prof. Vytautas Mažiulis, has suggested a connection with Lithuanian praǔsti, "to wash," from which an appropriate hydronym was formed. Another important Lithuanian linguist, Simas Karaliūnas, has suggested a connection with the Lithuanian word prùsti, "grow well," and Latvian prausties, "to grow fat, to become big, strong." The word came to be applied, however, to the Germans who occupied the territory of the Prussian nation. Interestingly enough, the word prusak in Russian, Belorussian, and Polish came to denote not only a German, but also "the black cockroach."

The term Latvian is probably derived from a river name Leta or Lata, whereas the term for Lithuania (Lietuvà) is probably derived from some hydronym, cf. the small river Lietáuka which flows into the Neris (p. 37).

The next two chapters discuss respectively words borrowed from other languages into Lithuanian and words taken from Baltic into other languages. Some words from Lithuanian have passed to various other European languages, e.g., Belorussian dojlid and Polish doilid from the Lithuanian dailìdė, "carpenter." Likewise German wenter comes from the Lithuanian venteris, "fish-trap."

The following eight chapters are devoted chiefly to the Old Prussian language. Among the recent works about Old Prussian, Sabaliauskas mentions V.N. Toporov's Prussian Language (Prusskij jazyk), four volumes of which have already been published and which, when finished, will number seven or eight volumes. Sabaliauskas notes that Toporov has hunted down all the Old Prussian words he can find, no matter what the source may be, e.g., German, Polish, Cashubian dialectisms, Old Prussian personal and place names, in addition to the well known standard sources. This book is truly an encyclopedia of Old Prussian (p. 66).

The next chapter is devoted to a brief history of the Curonians and a description of what is surmised about their language. It is assumed, for example, that the Curonian language had the same assibilation of velars before front vowels that is characteristic of modern Latvian but, differently from Latvian, Curonian retained the nasal in the sequences an, en, in, and un. Thus the Latvian word for "amber" (dzintars) is said to come from Curonian because the native Latvian form should be dzītars, cf. Lithuanian gintaras. The famous Latvian linguist Jānis Endzelīns and the famous Lithuanian linguist Kazimieras Būga both thought that the Lithuanian word zuikis, "hare," was of Curonian origin.

The next chapter begins with an eleventh century Runic inscription which tells how Sigrid's husband Svein often sailed to Semigallia (p. 93). In addition, we are told that the Semigallians are mentioned in the Old Russian Laurentian Chronicle, where they are described as one of the nations which pays tribute to Kievan Russia. In the year 1200 the pope, in his support of the German knights, forbade any trade with the portus Semigallorum. Unfortunately, we know little of the Semigallian language. It seems that, like other Baltic languages, Semigallian had s and z where the Lithuanians have š and ž, cf. the place name Bersena which is to be compared with Lithuanian Béržėnai and the name for the tree béržas, Latvian bērzs, "birch." Endzelīns pointed out that in the territory originally inhabited by the Semigallians, Latvian dialects sometimes have an epenthetic vowel, cf. zirags, for standard Latvian zirgs, "horse," and varana or varina for standard Latvian vārna, "crow," etc. Somewhat similar phenomena are encountered in Lithuanian dialects in the territory formerly inhabited by the Curonians.

The following chapter is devoted to the Selonians, that Baltic nation which apparently was the first to disappear (p. 97). The northern Selonians were Latvianized and the southern Selonians were Lithuanianized. K. Būga wrote that the name of lake Zărasas is of Selonian origin. The Lithuanian linguist K. Kuzavinis suggested that the name of the Selonians was connected with a river name and was to be further related to the Lithuanian words selėti, "to flow," and salvėti, "to seep out, to flow slowly."

The final chapters of the book are devoted to the Latvian language. Sabaliauskas points out that there is a big difference between the history of the first Lithuanian and Latvian written documents (p. 100). The first Lithuanian books were written by Lithuanians who knew their native language very well, whereas the first Latvian books were written for the most part by German clergy who did not know Latvian well. An exception to this is perhaps George Mancelis, who, although a German, and for a time even the rector, or president, of the University of Tartu, knew Latvian quite well. In the latter's writings we read one of my favorite sayings about the German pastors, viz., when a certain Latvian peasant was asked about the content of a sermon delivered in broken Latvian, he shrugged his shoulders and said: "Who knows what that German cat is saying?" The German pastors were intent on Germanizing the Latvian population and even the Society of Friends of the Latvians in 1862 held a contest to discover ways of Germanizing the population. Fortunately, the more enlightened nations of the modern world no longer force their languages and cultures upon their smaller neighbors.

The book ends with several lessons in the Latvian language intended to show the Lithuanian reader some of the similarities between the two languages.

This book, like other popularizing works by the same author, is a delight to read. It is the kind of book which could arouse student interest and it would be a great service to the Baltic field if someone were to translate it into English.

William R. Schmalstieg
The Pennsylvania State University