ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2012 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 58, No.1 - Spring 2012
Editor of this issue: Laimonas Briedis

Lietuvà, Lithuania, and Chaucer’s Lettow


ALFRED BAMMESBERGER, Professor Emeritus of English Linguistics at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, Germany, has a life-long interest in Baltic Studies, particularly Lithuanian.

The medial consonant -th- in the word Lithuania requires an explanation. In Middle English, we find the form Lettow in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The word used in Modern English is based on Latin Lituania. It is therefore most likely that -th- in Lithuania is due to a secondary development. The replacement of -t- by -th- may be seen in the context of learned spellings: words written with ‘th’ acquired an appearance of higher learning, and in many cases the spelling ‘th’ led to a change in pronunciation because ‘th’ in English orthography regularly represents an interdental spirant. Lithuania belongs to the, by no means small, number of words exhibiting this kind of learned influence in their pronunciation.

1. Lituanus, our journal’s name, is a Latin word in the masculine gender for an inhabitant of Lithuania: Lituanus is evidently built on Latin Litua by means of the productive suffix -(a)nus. The form Litua is first found in the Annales Quedlinburgenses under the year 1009. The Latin text reads as follows: 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. (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.) Lituae is the Latin genitive of Litua. The form Litua is due to Slavic transmission and represents the first documentation of what ultimately appears in Lithuanian as Lietuvà; a suggestion about the etymology of Lietuvà will be submitted in Paragraph 12.

2. Within the morphological rules of Latin, Lituanus for an inhabitant of Litua is regularly shaped on the basis of the country’s name. Romanus (~ Roma), Abellanus (~ Abella), Nolanus (~ Nola), Spartanus (~ Sparta), Gallicanus (~ Gallicus), and Dominicanus (~ Dominicus) are a few examples of formations in -(a)nus drawn from substantival stems.

3. Lituanus, in turn, is the basis for a further formation: Lituania. Corresponding nouns are: Gallia (~ Gallus), Germania (~ Germanus), Graecia (~ Graecus). Historically, the Latin formations are based on adjectives that describe qualities: regius (~ rex, king), patrius (~ pater, father), and so on. They were substantivized in the feminine and developed considerable productivity.

4. In French, Lituanie is quite regular in representing this Latin word. Litauen in German can also be accounted for on the basis of Litua (1); Litauer, as an inhabitant’s name, has the same suffix as Deutscher, Amerikaner, Engländer. In English too, *Lituania could readily be expected, but the words Lithuania and Lithuanian exhibit a medial -th-; this unexpected feature will be dealt with in the following paragraphs.

5. Before going any further, it should be stressed that in Middle English a form corresponding to what we would expect on the basis of our historical documentation is, in fact, found. The poet Geoffrey Chaucer was active in the last decades of the fourteenth century and died in 1400. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are a sequence of individual tales told by members of a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury. The work is unfinished. One narrator in the Canterbury Tales is the Knight, who is described in the prologue to the famous frame tale as a very distinguished person. He has excellent manners and has been active in numerous battles. In this context, we find the following line: “In Lettow hadde he reysed and in Ruce,” which clearly means “He had made military expeditions in Lithuania and in Russia.”

6. Whether Chaucer had more than a very murky idea about where Lettow was is not our issue. The point is that he was evidently familiar with a form of the country’s name that is quite similar to the Lithuanian Letuva (with long /e:/), the precursor of modern Lietuvà (See Paragraph 12). There is no linear and phonologically regular continuation of Chaucer’s Lettow in English, which would probably have led to *Lettaw.

7. The medial -th- in “Lithuania” (instead of -t-, as in *Lituania) clearly requires an explanation. Within the system of English phonology, the word Lithuania is noteworthy because the -th- is voiceless. We observe otherwise that intervocalic -th-, in words like either, clothing, soothing, teething, mother, father, breather and bather, is voiced. In initial position, th- is usually voiceless, e.g., think, thunder, thorn, thatch, thumb, thing, and thimble. We can deduce a rule according to which th was originally voiceless, remained so in initial position, but was voiced in intervocalic position. In function words, however, th in initial position is voiced: the, then, this, or that. Further complications, like the opposition between (voiceless) teeth and (voiced) teethe (‘to grow teeth’), are not immediately relevant in our context.

8. It is of interest, however, to point out that intervocalic voiceless -th- is by no means rare in Modern English. An incomplete list of examples, chosen more or less at random, includes the following: pathos, pathetic, ether, Ithaca, gothic, sympathy, method, parenthesis, catholic, Catherine, etc. Further observation leads to the conclusion that the pronunciation with voiceless intervocalic -th- is not very old. In the case of Lithuania’s name in English, we can be certain that the pronunciation with voiceless intervocalic -th- arose in relatively recent times. Lithuania belongs to a group of words that share this development. A short discussion of some items may now be submitted.

9. Of particular interest in our context is the word author, because we have rather unambiguous information based on the word’s history. “Author” is a word borrowed into English in medieval times. The immediate ancestor is Old French autor, which led to Modern French auteur. The noun goes back to Latin auctor, an agent-noun based on augere, to make to grow, originate, promote, increase. The spelling “author” was at first a scribal variant of autor, and ultimately, “author” led to the pronunciation with voiceless -th-.

10. The background of this development lies certainly in the Renaissance revival of learning and above all in the renewed interest in Classical Greek. It is well known that in Greek we distinguish between tau (the regular letter for ‘t’) and theta (the letter for the interdental spirant, ‘th’). In borrowed words, both could be taken over by ‘t’, and both could be pronounced as a regular ‘t’. A case in point is the word for throne. The word was borrowed in the thirteenth century; the immediate source is French trone, even nowadays pronounced with initial t-. At a much later period, the influence of the ultimately underlying Greek thrónos “seat” led to the learned spelling “throne,” and ultimately, initial th- brought about the pronunciation with the interdental spirant. In most cases of the kind, ‘th,’ which either represented a Greek theta, or was assumed to do so, is voiceless. Relevant instances include:

English method as well as thesis, theory, theme and theatre, with th- in initial position.

The secondarily inserted -h- is also found in “Gothic” (in contrast to German Gotisch) and influenced the pronunciation. The letter -h- was also inserted in “Thames” and “thyme,” but in these cases, ‘t’, not ‘th’, is still the regular pronunciation.

11. It is probable that the pronunciation Lithuania (with voiceless interdental spirant) does not go back much further than the year 1800. Chaucer’s Lettow, on the other hand, clearly represents the form found for the first time in history in the Annales Quedlinburgenses one thousand years ago. The form “Lithuania” is probably learned; perhaps Lituania received an -h- on the theory that it was similar to such words as “throne” and “thesis.”

12. With regard to the etymological derivation of Lietuvà, the following suggestion is mainly concerned with details of Lithuanian word formation. If we assume a basic element *li:-, which may be found in Lithuanian lýti rain,” then it is possible to posit a formation in *-tu- in the shape *li:-tu-. In its turn, this stem could function as the basis for the so-called vrddhi-formation, specific to Indo-European languages: *li:-e-tuw-a: would regularly account for the form Lietuvà in Modern Lithuanian. If the basic meaning of *li: was in the area of “moist” or “watery”, then the derived substantive could signify a “watery place.”

A facsimile of a page from
Sebastian Münster atlas “Cosmographia universalis.”
First edition 1544.