ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2010 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 56, No.2 - Summer 2010
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas

Lithuania’s Millennium – the Linguist’s Viewpoint


ALFRED BAMMESBERGER, born in Munich in 1938, studied Comparative Linguistics at Munich University, receiving his Doctor of Philosophy in 1965 and Habilitation at Freiburg in 1972. He was a Professor of English Linguistics at the Catholic University of Eichstaett, retiring in 2006.

The millennium of the first written mention of Lithuania’s name is important. From the linguist’s viewpoint, however, it is far more important to stress the role Lithuania occupies in comparative Indo-European studies. The paper illustrates the wealth of information about Indo- European grammar that can be gleaned from studying Lithuanian.

1. In 2009, the first mention of Lithuania’s name in a written document one thousand years ago was duly noted. The Latin text in the so-called Annales Quedlinburgenses (edited by Giese, 2004) reads as follows for the year 1009: Sanctus Bruno, qui cognominatur Bonifacius, archepiscopus et monachus, xi. suae conversionis anno in confinio Rusciae et Lituae a paganis capite plexus cum suis xviii, vii. Id. Martii petiit coelas (quoted from Giese 527). 

A rather literal translation of this follows: ”The Holy Bruno, who has the byname Boniface, archbishop and monk, in the eleventh year of his conversion, in the border area of Russia and Lithuania, was killed by pagans and, together with his eighteen followers, strove to heaven on the seventh Ides of March.” According to this source, the death of the Holy Bruno occurred on 9 March 1009. In the literature, the saint is referred to as “Brun von Querfurt, Missionserzbischof, Märtyrer” (Engels 724). 

2. It is right and proper to celebrate the millennium of the first documentation of Lithuania’s name. One should not overrate the importance of the Quedlinburg Annals, however. It is possible that an earlier attestation will be found of a form that may represent Lietuva. Jonikas points out that Charlemagne (768-814) created his empire in the ninth century and obviously wanted to know what nations lived in the east of Europe and what their power was. His spies may have found out that Lithuanians lived in the area otherwise occupied by Slavs. This is realistic. Charlemagne’s spies allegedly mention Lithuania’s name for the first time. Pirmą kartą lietuvių vardą pamini vienas Karolio Didžiojo (768-814) žvalgas. Mat, kurdamas imperiją, Karolis Didysis norėjo žinoti, kokios tautos gyvena Europoje ir kokios jų jėgos. Tad jo agentai ir sužinojo, kad už slavų gyvena lietuviai. (Jonikas 47). Unfortunately, so far, no trace of Lithuania’s name has been found in sources concerning Charlemagne’s reign or the later ninth and the tenth centuries. Zinkevičius (7) thinks that Jonikas fell victim to some misunderstanding: “Gal koks nesusipratimas?“ We will therefore have to stick to the year 1009 as offering the name of Lithuania for the first time; see further Wojtecki (182) and Hellmann (1991).

3. From the linguist’s viewpoint, however, it must be stressed that Lithuania’s millennium is of relatively minor importance. If we concentrate on the language, then primarily two aspects have to be focussed on; namely, the history and the prehistory of Lithuanian. The documentation of the language is of fairly recent date. Texts are available from the early modern period only; these texts are related to the Reformation movement. We can also glean some information from onomastic material. As transmitted in the Annales Quedlinburgenses, Lithuania’s name, Litva, is likely to represent a Slavic pronunciation of what was at an early stage *Leituva. The diphthong ei was probably monophthongized to long e, and this vowel was perceived as i by speakers of Slavic. With regard to the etymology of Lithuania’s name, no precise indications can be offered, but it seems altogether likely that *Leituva belongs to a root *ley- ‘flow’ (of water) and represents a derivation in *-tuwa

4. This last observation already provides the transition to dealing with the prehistory of Lithuanian. In this respect, the language occupies a remarkable position. Together with Latvian and the now extinct Old Prussian, Lithuanian makes up the Baltic group of languages and belongs to the large family of related languages termed “Indo-European.” Although this is certainly not the occasion to give an in-depth account of Indo-European, a few observations may be provided in order to outline the truly unique position of Lithuanian. 

5. Indo-European as the protolanguage of the separate daughter languages is reconstructed on the basis of structural agreements between Indic, Iranian, Armenian, Greek, Italic, Celtic, Germanic, Baltic, and Slavic, to name just the major branches of the family. The reconstruction methodology was developed at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, many refinements were worked out when two extinct branches, namely Anatolian and Tocharian, became available for scholarly research. Some of the separate Indo-European languages are available from a very early period, like Hittite and Vedic Sanskrit. In some instances, we have documentation for well over three thousand years, as in the case of Greek: the earliest documents in the Mycenaean archives go back to perhaps 1500 B.C., and the language is still alive nowadays in the shape of Modern Greek. 

6. At first sight, the impact of Lithuanian on Indo-European studies could appear rather minor in this historical context. If we first concentrate on a verb like Lithuanian vèsti ‘to lead’, then we can give the following paradigmatic forms:

Present Preterite Future
Singular 1st person vedù vedžiaũ vèsiu
2nd person vedì vedeĩ vèsi
3rd person vẽda vẽdė vès
Plural 1st person vẽdame vẽdėme vèsime
2nd person vẽdate vẽdėte vèsite
3rd person vẽda vẽdė vès

The infinitive vèsti ‘to lead’ points back to a ti-stem derived from the root IE *wedh- ‘to lead’: in a starting-point *wedh-ti-, the dentals were assimilated, and *wetti- led to vèsti in Lithuanian by regular sound change. The present tense of vèsti belongs to the so-called thematic type. In this category, the person markers followed a verbal stem consisting of root + thematic vowel. The analysis is clearly available in first person plural vedame, because this form is to be analyzed as the root ved- + thematic vowel –a- (going back to IE –o-) + the person marker –me. Apart from further interesting points, at least two facts must be mentioned here. First, the thematic vowel was originally –e- in some forms, but in Lithuanian, –a- was generalized. What is particularly noteworthy is the peculiarity that for the third person only one form is available, which functions for both the singular and plural. This is actually to be observed in all verbal forms of Lithuanian. The preterite and the future are largely due to innovations in Baltic, but of course there were starting points available in Indo-European on which these innovations are based. The verbal system of Lithuanian differs considerably from what we traditionally reconstruct for Proto-Indo-European. If we just look at the complex verbal system of Greek and Indic, then Lithuanian does not seem to preserve many original traits. 

It is not easy to give an explanation for this peculiarity. 

7. The situation changes dramatically as soon as we consider nominal morphology. For a noun like vil̃kas ‘wolf’, Lithuanian distinguishes seven cases in active use. Of the three numbers, the dual (meaning ‘two entities’) is rather rare. For this reason only singular and plural will be quoted. The substantive vil̃kas ‘wolf’ goes back to a reconstructed form Indo-European *wlkwos (/l/ in interconsonantal position had the function of a vowel), which has cognates in a number of individual IE languages, such as Sanskrit vrkas, Greek lúkos, Latin lupus, and English wolf

Singular Plural
Nominative vil̃kas vilkaĩ
Vocative vil̃ke vilkaĩ
Genitive vil̃ko vilkų
Dative vil̃kui vilkáms
Accusative vil̃ką vilkùs
Instrumental vilkù vilkaĩs
Locative vilkè vilkuosè 

Only a few forms will be singled out in order to show the position of Lithuanian within the system of comparative Indo- European grammar. Perhaps the most interesting forms from the comparative angle are the nominative and the vocative of the singular, because they both represent the underlying forms with almost no changes. For the vocative we reconstruct an ending *-e, and this is immediately available in Lithuanian vilk-e. For the nominative we reconstruct a form ending in –os (compare Greek lukos), and this form is immediately available in Lithuanian –as (with the regular sound change of –o- > -a-). The accusative of the singular can be reconstructed as ending in *-om, leading to *-an in common Baltic and ultimately to -ą in Lithuanian (-ą shows that the –a was formerly nasalized). The nominative of the plural in –ai represents an innovation against the original ending IE –ōs (probably to be analyzed as consisting of the thematic vowel –o- followed by the plural marker –es, and *-o-es led to *-ōs by contraction); the Lithuanian ending –ai is reminiscent of Greek –oi in lúkoi ‘wolves’, but the development was certainly carried through independently and may have different motivations. A particularly interesting ending is that of the locative of the plural. We may assume that originally the marker for the locative of the plural was *-su, which would follow the thematic vowel –o-, but Sanskrit vrkesu already shows an innovation in this respect. In Lithuanian, the thematic vowel –o- > -a- was replaced by –uo-, which was the earlier form of –us in the accusative plural, and the marker for the locative of the singular, namely –e, replaced the final vowel of –su. The historical development of a form like vilkuosè is thus rather complex. 

8. In the field of syntax a number of observations can be submitted. With regard to word order, it is to be expected that Lithuanian allows a certain amount of flexibility because relationships obtaining between a given subject and its respective objects can be expressed by morphology. The strict word-order patterns of Modern English are not to be expected in Lithuanian. One special point about Lithuanian syntax may be mentioned here: A negated verb requires the genitive. We may say: aš esu namie ‘I am at home’. But the negation would be: manęs nėra ‘I am not (at home)’. Here, manęs is the genitive of ; literally, manęs nėra means something like ‘of me there is not’. We can say mes turime gerus draugus, and this means ‘we have good friends’. But if the verb of this clause is negated, then the object gerus draugus must be in the genitive: gerų draugų mes neturime ‘we don’t have (any) good friends’. A corresponding rule can be observed in Slavic languages like Russian. 

9. So far, it should have become clear that Lithuanian plays indeed a very important role in the reconstruction of Indo- European. One detail from the field of phonology may finally be mentioned here. Many years ago, Professor Antanas Klimas pointed out that Lithuanian is apparently unique among all Indo-European languages in preserving the phoneme /s/ in practically every possible position. The adjective saûsas ‘dry’ has /s/ in initial, medial, and final position. Lithuanian saûsas is etymologically related to English sear: the English word still has the /s-/ in initial position, but the medial /-s-/ underwent a number of changes becoming first voiced /-z-/ and then leading to /-r-/, and the final /-s/ was lost altogether. 

In the Greek cognate auos only the final /-s/ was preserved; in both initial and medial position, /s/ became first /h/ and was then largely, but not completely, lost. 

10. These rather isolated observations should indicate the outstanding role that Lithuanian plays in the field of comparative Indo-European linguistics. That the name Lietuva is first attested one thousand years ago is certainly noteworthy. But the archaic character of the language and, therefore, its importance in comparative studies, is not affected by any documentation of the name for the country or the speakers of the language.  


Engels, Odilo, Brun von Querfurt. Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, 1994, Band 2:724. 

Giese, Martina. Die Annales Quedlinburgenses. Hannover: Monumenta Germaniae historica. Scriptores rerum Germanicarum in usum scholarum separatum editi, 2004, 72. 

Hellmann, Manfred. „Litauen, Litauer.“ Lexikon des Mittelalters, 1991, 5:2011-2016. 

Jonikas, Petras. Lietuvių kalbos istorija. Chicago, 1992. 

Wojtecki, Dieter. „Slavica beim Annalisten von Quedlinburg.“ 1981. Zeitschrift für Ostforschung 30:161-194. 

Zinkevičius, Zigmas. Lietuvių kalbos istorija. II: Iki pirmųjų raštų. Vilnius: Mokslas, 1987