ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2014 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 60, No.3 - Fall 2014
Editor of this issue: Daiva Litvinskaitė

Letter Writing as a Social Practice:
Self-reference to Writing in Lithuanian Correspondence


AURELIJA TAAMOOŠIŪNAITĖ is a lecturer at the Department of Lithuanian Language at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania. Her research focuses on the history and development of written Lithuanian, with a special emphasis on the writings of “ordinary” Lithuanians during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The current article was written during a stay as a visiting scholar at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies in 2014. I would like to thank the Kone Foundation and Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies for providing me with financial support, working space and research assistance.

By approaching letter writing as vernacular literacy practice, this paper examines how twentieth-century ordinary Lithuanians organized their letter-writing practices and how these practices were embedded in their everyday lives. The analysis is based on the data that comes from the Database of Private Written Lithuanian Language, developed jointly by a team of researchers working in Lithuania and the U.S.A. The analysis reveals that for many ordinary Lithuanians, letter writing was often embedded within their everyday activities in terms of time, place, domain, participants, tools, and style. Even though letter writing was perceived by many writers as informal writing, references to “poor” handwriting point to the complex interrelationship between vernacular and institutional literacies: informal (vernacular) writing was affected by a formally imposed understanding of “good” and “proper” writing.


The development of the New Literacy Studies (NLS) since the 1980s has reshaped the understanding and the very notion of literacy. The "social turn" in literacy studies shifted the focus from "the consequences of literacy for society to the study of its uses by individuals and its functions in particular groups."1 Hence, literacy is no longer viewed as only the ability to read and to write; rather it is perceived as a social practice, i.e., reading and writing (and other) practices are strongly linked with social structures "in which they are embedded and which they help to shape."2

By focusing on social aspects of literacy practices and events, NLS draws a distinction between vernacular and institutional literacy practices. Vernacular literacy practices are voluntary and learned informally, whereas dominant literacy practices are formal and "defined in terms of the needs of institutions."3 In other words, vernacular literacy practices (such as diary writing or recipe writing) are related to our everyday lives, while institutional (such as filling out tax forms or writing a report) are related to formal settings, e.g., workplace, educational or government institutions. Although vernacular literacy is often associated with ordinary writing, which in turn is perceived as the writing of uneducated people,4 vernacular or everyday writing should rather be defined as the informal writing of all people independently of their education level,5 since people of any educational background are involved in vernacular writing activities. Vernacular or ordinary forms of writing, such as notes, diaries, letters, life histories and others,6 are strongly linked to everyday life: they help to organize life, personal communication, and leisure activities, as well as document life and regulate social participation.7 Therefore, the analysis of such forms of writing enables us to explore how people make sense of and incorporate literacy practices in their everyday lives, what role these practices play and how they shape everyday interactions between people.

Following these premises, the current study takes a closer look at one particular form of ordinary writing, namely, letter writing, to shed more light on twentieth-century literacy practices among ordinary Lithuanians. The main aim of this article is to approach letter writing as vernacular literacy practice and to analyze how, during the twentieth century, ordinary Lithuanians organized their letter-writing practices and how these practices were embedded in their everyday lives.

First, I briefly present the sociohistorical context of Lithuania during the twentieth century, with a special emphasis on literacy rates and the development of the educational system (the establishment of institutional literacy practices); then, I introduce the corpus, the approach and method of analysis; finally, I provide a detailed analysis of the corpus data.

Sociohistorical Context

For many ordinary Lithuanians, writing was not an everyday activity until the very end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. At the turn of the twentieth century, compared to Western Europe and neighboring countries, the literacy rate of Lithuanians was quite low. According to the census of 1897, only half the population, i.e., 48 percent of Lithuanians were able to read.8 Low literacy numbers were related to the sociopolitical and educational circumstances of the time. From 1864 to 1904, the Russian Imperial government banned the use of the Latin alphabet for Lithuanian publications and implemented the use of Cyrillic. The Russian language was introduced in official schools as the language of instruction, while the use of Lithuanian in schools and the public domain was suspended. Thus, education in Lithuanian was limited to illegal schools established in people's homes, where children were taught the basic skills of reading (and sometimes writing) in Lithuanian in the Latin script.

The first half of the twentieth century saw many sociopolitical changes in the region. The ban on Latin letters for Lithuanian was lifted in 1904; in 1906, the Lithuanian language was introduced as a subject in the curriculum of some schools.9 The declaration of independence in 1918 and the establishment of a new government allowed the nation to build its own nationally oriented educational system. In 1922, the Lithuanian language was declared the official language of the state and, with the exception of minority schools, it became the language of instruction in all schools.10 An important benchmark in the development of the Lithuanian educational system was the implementation of a law for obligatory primary education in 1928 (the law was passed in 1922). These educational changes had an impact on increasing literacy practices among ordinary Lithuanians. The Lithuanian census of 1923 indicates that 39.3 percent of Lithuanians over ten years of age were able to read and write, while 28.3 percent were able to read and sign their name.11 Thus, at least 67.7 percent of Lithuanians at that time had acquired some literacy skills; however, literacy rates among men were higher than among women. During the inter-war period, the government devoted special attention to adult education. The number of adult students and adult courses in the schools peaked during 1928-1929 and decreased slowly by the year 1939, indicating the decreasing need of this type of instruction.12 The data from a 1941 census indicates that only 5.9 percent of the inhabitants of Lithuania at that time were illiterate.13

World War II and its aftermath posed new challenges to the Lithuanian nation and state. In 1944, Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union and became the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. Many Lithuanians fled the country to the West in order to avoid deportations and Soviet repression, while some did not escape this destiny. Therefore, in the aftermath of the war, part of the nation was dispersed to different parts of the world. Due to these separations, letter writing (especially after 1953 and later) became an important communication practice that helped to maintain family ties among Lithuanians. In Soviet Lithuania, the educational system, as well as all other sectors, was reorganized following Soviet norms. The schools were supposed to serve the needs of the totalitarian regime; therefore, pedagogical thought was impregnated with Marxist-communist ideology. During the Soviet period, the network of schools grew rapidly. In 1949, a law was passed that implemented a compulsory seven-year middle-school education, which was increased to eight years in 1959.14 On the one hand, general education during the Soviet period was free and accessible to anyone, while on the other hand, it was strongly affected by communist ideology. Official statistics indicate that in 1959, 98.5 percent of Lithuanians from nine to forty-nine years of age were literate, while 61 percent of the population over ten years of age had an elementary education or higher.15 Thus, throughout the twentieth century, Lithuanian literacy rates (the ability to read and write) constantly increased. Toward the second half of the twentieth century, writing as a skill was acquired by majority of ordinary Lithuanians.

Data and Approach

Data for the current study come from the Asmeninės lietuvių rašomosios kalbos duomenų bazė (Database of Private Written Lithuanian Language), which was compiled from 2008 to 2013 by a team of researchers working at the University of Illinois at Chicago and at the Institute of the Lithuanian Language, the Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania, and other institutions in Lithuania. From 2011 to 2013, the development of the Database was funded by the Research Council of Lithuania (Grant No. LIT-4-23). Since the end of 2013, the Database is freely accessible for scholarly use on-line at www.

The development of the Database aimed at collecting, digitizing, and making accessible an electronic database of private written Lithuanian as found in different types of egodocu-ments.17 The first edition of the Database, however, includes only letters. Currently, the Database provides access to 1,322 letters written by 195 authors: 89 females and 106 males. The time span of the letters covers the period from 1907 to 2010. The majority were written during the Soviet period, namely from 1945 to 1990. These letters comprise 78 percent of all letters in the Database.

The letters published in the Database have been obtained from private collections. This provides a unique opportunity to present data written by different layers of society, i.e., people of different social backgrounds, education, occupation, and exposure to writing. The Database includes letters written by both the barely literate and the highly educated and skilled to whom writing was a common everyday activity. Of the letters comprising the Database, 88 percent are of a personal nature, addressed to family members, friends and other close acquaintances in order to communicate, share information, maintain close ties with family or loved ones abroad (in emigration or back home). Therefore, the letters of the Database provide us with useful data for analyzing the vernacular literacy practices of Lithuanians during the twentieth century.

For the purpose of the current study, I decided to look at one aspect of letter writing, namely, self-reflections on letter writing practices. It is very common to find references within the letters to the writing itself, the author and the addressee, the time and place of the writing act, i.e., when, why, how, to whom, and by whom the letter was composed. Thus, on the one hand, a letter is a product of a literacy event; while, on the other hand, it is also a source that documents the writing. This twofold nature of a letter is especially valuable when applied in historical research when there are no opportunities to conduct interviews, make observations or apply other techniques usually employed in ethnographic studies on literacy.18 The limitations of a data-driven approach must be acknowledged, since it provides only a partial and limited view of literacy practices; but it is believed references found in the letters may nevertheless serve as a starting point when uncovering how, when, and why letters were produced and used, the role letter writing occupied in ordinary people's lives, and how it helped to shape their vernacular literacy practices. This study intends to contribute to previous ethnographic research on letter-writing practices among Lithuanians conducted by Daiva Markelis.19


A corpus of 1,322 letters has been compiled and an automatic search for the lexemes20 referring to "writing" has been processed using the corpus analysis toolkit AntConc. The search resulted in 8,073 concordance lines that were then manually checked to eliminate instances that did not refer to letter writing or to delete repetitions. Manual sorting resulted in 655 instances of references to writing in 458 letters. These concordance lines were then classified and analyzed according to several categories, relevant to literacy events.

Earlier studies on literacy distinguished several elements that are visible in literacy events, namely, participants, settings, artifacts, and activities.21 Participants refer to people involved in the production, interpretation or circulation of a particular text. Considering the formal features of a letter, the role of participant is assumed by the author or authors, the scribe, and one or several addressees (the intended readers). Settings refer to the "physical circumstances in which the interaction takes place,"22 e.g., the place or the surroundings in which the text is produced or where it circulates. Artifacts refer to "material tools and accessories"23 that are involved in the production and circulation of the text. In letter writing, these would include pen, paper, envelope, postmark, and other material tools. Activities refer to "actions performed by participants in the literacy events."24 In letter writing, these can involve writing, reading, dictating, reciting, discussing, reporting, and other activities.

Of these four elements employed by other researchers, in the current study I chose to focus in more detail only on certain aspects of the participants, settings, and artifacts. To be more precise, I was interested in looking at when, where, by whom, how, in what state, using what tools, and in what manner the letters were written and how these aspects are reflected within the selected letters. Therefore, the current analysis grasps only the following aspects of the aforementioned elements: time, place, and frequency of writing (settings); agency and mood (participants); tools employed and visual aspects of writing (artifacts).

Self-reference to Writing in Lithuanian Correspondence Setting: Time and Place

Time and place constitute an important part of the letter-writing act. The very existence of the letter is mainly due to the "spatial distance" between the writer and the addressee.25 Reference to time (the date of composition) is a part of the genre's conventions, and almost every letter (with a few exceptions) has a specific reference to the time (usually, day, month and year) when the letter was composed inserted at either the beginning or the end. Reference to time is important in written communication, since "there is a time lag between the writing and reading."26 Thus, a specific date helps establish a chronological and linear pattern of communication:

(1) Gavom nuo tavęs laišką 8 gruodžio ir tuojau rašom atgal
(E. B. 1981-12-10)27;
We received a letter from you on December 8th and are writing back immediately.
(2)  1935 metų 11 gruodžio rašytas laiškas nuo tėvelio ir mamytės
(V. R. 1935-12-11);
This letter was written on December 11th in the year 1935 from Father and Mother.

References to time often point to a specific day (as in 3 and 4) or even a specific time of day (as in 5 and 6) when the letter was written, for instance:
(3)    Šiandien sekmadienis, tai rašau laišką vėl (Eg. B. 1986-07-20);  Today is Sunday, therefore, I'm writing a letter again;
(4)    Didysis Penktadienis, nedirbu, tai ir laiko turiu parašyti keletą žodžių
(Z. D. 1987-04-17);
It is Good Friday, I am not working, so I have time to write a few words;
(5)    susiruošiau šį gražų prasidedančios vasaros rytą parašyti Jums
(J. B. 2003-06-07);
On this beautiful morning of the beginning of summer I got myself ready to write to you;
(6)    beveik 12 val. vakaro, nutariau aš Tau parašyti kelis žodžius
(Z. B-M. 1983-02-17);
At almost 12 o'clock in the evening, I decided to write you a few words.

Most letters include information on when the previous letter was received and when the reply was composed. Such information on the frequency of the flow of the letters helps to establish the circularity of communication, as well as serves as a point of reference for the content of both the initial letter and the reply:

(7)    Dalyte, kai rašai man laišką, parašyk, kad gavau, o jeigu negavai, parašyk, kad negavau, nes aš nežinau, apie ką vėl rašyti. Šito jūsų laiško negalėjau suprasti, ar gavot, ar negavot
(I. D. 1973-05-01);
Dalyte, when you write me a letter, [please] indicate that you have gotten [mine], and if you haven't, indicate that you haven't gotten it, because I do not know what to write about again. I could not understand from this letter of yours whether you have gotten [mine] or not.

Some writers choose to write an immediate answer, so as not to interfere with the regularity of the letter writing:

(8)    Šiandien ką tik atnešė laišką, tat rašau atsakymą, kad ilgai neužsitęstų
(E. D. 1967-07-05);
The letter just came today; therefore, I write a reply so that it would not take too long [to answer];
(9)    radau nuo jūsų laišką ir perskaitęs sėdau, sakau, parašysiu, nes kaip atidedi, tai ir lieka (I. D. 1975-05-09);
I found your letter and, after reading it, I sat down and said [to myself] "I'll write back," because once you put it aside, so it remains.

Others complain about a long silence or apologize for not writing due to illness, emotional stance, lack of time, or simply laziness. For some, the lack of writing skills affects the frequency of written communication, i.e., it is easier to do any other household activity than write a letter:

(10)    Mamai įprasta ilgai neparašyti, nes ji sakė: verčiau malkas skaldyti
(D. Š. 1961-10-11);
It's typical for mother to not write for a long time, for she has said: it's better to chop firewood.

Letter writing is often embedded within a variety of other everyday activities related to household, work, studies or military service. Some writers devote a special time for letter writing and prefer solitude, while others embed this activity within their everyday routine. Solitude and silence are frequently mentioned in soldiers' letters, for instance:

(11)    Visi išėjo į filmą klube, o aš kažkaip pasilikau rašyti laiškus
(J. Bl. 1982-03-02); 
Everyone left to watch a film at the club, and I somehow stayed to write letters;
(12)    Visa rota miega, o aš sėdžiu už stalo ir užrašinėju, kas išeina
(Eg. B. 1986-11-06); 
The whole platoon is sleeping, while I'm sitting at the desk and writing whatever comes out.

Letter writing is performed (although prohibited) in the midst of army duties, and the latter often affect the manner in which the letter is written and how it looks (as in 13). Additional duties or punishment follows if a soldier is caught writing a letter when on duty (as in 14):

(13)    Tik sėdėt negalima, tai rašau stovėdamas, todėl gal neįskaitysi. Rašyt taip pat negalima, bet načalnykai miega
(V. Ž. 1967-01-26);
Since sitting isn't allowed, I'm writing standing up; that's why you might not be able to read it. Writing isn't allowed, either, but the commanders are sleeping;
(14)    Na, bet baigsiu rašyt, nes jau ir trečiadienis. Pirmadienį gavau nariadą, kaip tik rašydamas laišką. Atėjo į kazarmę koma[n]dyrius po časti, tai paduoda komandą „[v]stat", o aš nestojau, bet rašiau toliau, na, tai mūs komandyrius ra[z] ir man nariaduką į kuknią, tai reikėjo visą parą dirbt.
(Č. P. 1955-11-06);
Well, I'll finish writing, since it's already Wednesday. On Monday I got put on KP for doing just that, writing a letter. A chief of the military unit came to the quarters and gave the order "stand up," and since I didn't stand, but kept on writing, well, [to punish me] our chief sent me to work in the kitchen, and I had to work there for an entire twenty-four hours.

Corpus data reveal that for many ordinary people letter writing is often embedded within their everyday routine activities, i.e., letters can be written while cooking (as in 15), attending classes (as in 16), watching TV (as in 17), listening to music or simply working:

(15)    ir aš, bekepdama vaflius, rašau Tau. Dabar yra 10 val. vakaro, mama sūrį raugia ir skalbia kartu; Bronė prie stalo sėdi; o močiutė, neseniai ranką nusilaužė - vienas rankos kaulas nulūžo. Ji siunčia Tau geradienių. [...] Ir taip, smulkiai žinai, ką mes dabar veikiame.
(B. 1983-03-07);
and, while making waffles, I'm writing to you. It's 10 o'clock at night at the moment, mother is making cheese and doing laundry at the same time; Bronė is sitting at the table; and grandmother recently broke an arm, one bone in her arm snapped. She sends you greetings. And so now you know in detail what we are doing at the moment.
(16)    Pirma paskaita - revizija. Tai - laiškų rašymo, dažymosi paskaita.
(A. M. 1981-06-10);
The first class is on auditing. It is a class for letter writing and putting on makeup;
(17)    Dirbu du darbus: rašau Tau ir žiūriu televizorių
(O. K. 200402-06);
I'm working two jobs - writing to you and watching TV.

When letter writing is embedded in other everyday activities, it is sometimes interrupted and therefore becomes a continuous activity that can stretch from several hours to even several days:

(18)    Dabar gyvenimas neblogas, tik kad visur komandos. Ir šį laiškutį rašau jau antra diena. Parašei keletą žodžių ir jau girdi „[v]zvod, strojtsia", na, tai ir meti, kad ir žodis nebaigtas, tik kepurę ant galvos ir jau rikiuotėj.
(Č. P. 1955-10-13);
Life is not bad now, just that there are so many commands around. I've been writing this letter for two days now, too. You write a couple of words and then hear "platoon, stand up," so, you drop it, even if you haven't finished the word, the hat goes on [your] head and [you're] already standing in line.

Letter writing, on the one hand, can be a one-time solitary sit-down activity; on the other hand, when embedded in home, school or work life, it can be a continuous process unbounded by time. The practice can also occur in a variety of different places: as evident from previous quotes, soldiers sometimes write letters at their posts; students compose their letters in classrooms (19); patients in a hospital bed (20); workers in factories or other workplaces (21); women while cooking in the kitchen; and others while traveling (22):

(19)    Tą laišką rašau Skirsnemunėje, mokykloje, vyksta lietuvių kalba
(a. V. B. 1981-12-07);
I am writing this letter in Skirsnemunė, in school, during Lithuanian language class;
(20)    Šis mano laiškas yra rašytas iš ligoninės, kurioje jau trečias mėnuo kaip randuosi.
(L. Bu. [no date]);
This letter of mine was written in a hospital, where I have found myself for three months now;
(21)    Mielasis Danučiuk, štai sėdžiu fabrike ir rašau Tau. Baisiai nuobodu, nes nėra ką veikti.
(J. R-J. 1954-06-02);
Dearest Danučiuk, here I am sitting in a factory and writing to you. It's really boring, because there is nothing to do;
(22)    atleisk už blogą raštą, nes rašau autobuse, važiuojant, užtai nelabai suskaitysi.
(Ef. U. [no date 5]);
Pardon the bad handwriting, I'm writing on a bus, while riding, that's why you won't be able to read it very well.

Thus, even though letter writing is often perceived as a solitary activity with a time and place devoted to its performance, the data of the current letter corpus supports the claim that literacy practices fit into a much broader sphere in people's everyday lives. Letter writing is not restricted just to home or the private domain28; rather, it overlaps and intersects with other domains, such as work, school or service.

Participants: Agency and Emotions

Letter writing involves not only the writer (scribe) or the author of the letter,29 but also an intended or several intended readers (addressees). The author (who signs the letter) and the reader (who is addressed at the beginning of the letter) are always indicated within the letter either by name or by relationship:

(23)    Aš, Simonas ir Agata Mažeikai, rašau kelis žodelius 1961 sausio mėnesio 13 dieną.[...] [S]udiev, Stasyte.
(S. M. 1961-01-13);
I, Simonas and Agata Mažeikai, write a few words on the 13 th of January, 1961. [...] Goodbye, Stasytė;
(24)    Sveikas, mūsų Mylimiausias Jonai, ir mes visi esam sveiki. [...] Su Dievu, mūsų mylimas Jonai, bučiuojam tave mes visi. K. - tavo tėvas
(K. Al. 1940-01-02);
Best of health to you, our beloved Jonas, and we all are healthy. [...] Goodbye, our beloved Jonas, we all send kisses. K. - your father.

Although first person ("I") narration prevails in the letters written after World War II by highly-schooled writers, collaborative letter writing practices (the collective "we") are evident in the letter corpus up until the end of the 1980s. Markelis has pointed out that, throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Lithuanian writing and reading practices "were collaborative activities and not the individual, solitary acts that we often assume them naturally to be."30 Lack of writing skills posed the necessity for many Lithuanians to turn for help to more literate neighbors, children or other family members.31 Therefore, among authors with less or no schooling, letter dictation was a common practice:

(25)    Tik viena bėda, kad nemoku rašyti. Turiu klausti Anelės parašyti laiškus, ba Albinukas mažai lietuviškai rašo.
(I. Dau. 1960-07-14);
The only problem is that I don't know how to write. I have to ask Anelė to write letters, because Albinukas doesn't write in Lithuanian much;
(26)    O Teresė, mano jauniausia duktė, gyvena su tėvais ir šį laišką ji rašo.
(S. M. 1961-07-31);
And Teresė, my youngest daughter, lives with her parents and writes this letter.

Eleven authors of the analyzed letters dictated their letters to others. Family involvement in letter writing is a common feature in the current letter corpus; thus, letters often contain not only the writer's "voice," but also the "voices" of other family members:

(27)    Vincelis, sėdėdamas šalia dabar, prašo jums perduoti geriausius linkėjimus
(A. K. 1986-04-12);
Vincas, who is sitting nearby at the moment, asks to send you [his] best wishes;
(28)    Dabar rašo Kęstutis. Sveikina Tave su gimimo diena.
(B. 198205-26);
Kęstutis is writing at the moment. He wishes you a happy birthday;
(29)    Sveik[i]nu vienu žodžiu ab[u]du: Stanislovą, savo mylim[ą] Brolį, ir Antaną, dėd[ę]. [...] Sveik[i]na Zos[ė] Stanislov[ą] ir Antaną, Viešpaties Dievo [prašo] sveikatos. Sve[i]kina gim[i]nės, pažįstami ir susiedai prašydam[i] geros sve[i]k[a]tos, pasiv[e]dimo.
(J. P. 191005-10);
I greet you both - my beloved brother Stanislovas and uncle Antanas - with one word. [...] Zosė also greets Stanislovas and Antanas, and asks the Lord for [good] health. All the relatives, acquaintances, and neighbors greet you, wishing you good health and luck.

Sometimes, the presence of another writer or author is also mentioned:

(30)    Aš atėjau pas Juzę ir rašom abidvi (J. E. 1960-03-13);  I went to see Juzė, and we are writing together.

The collaborative nature of letters emphasizes the bonds that written communication intends to maintain between family members separated by large distances. Therefore, most collective letters are found among those written by and to emigrants or by and to soldiers serving in the army. Intended readers of such letters are also often not just one individual, but all the members of the family:

(31)    Miela Alfa, Adolfina, vyras ir vaikučiai! Šeštadienis, rugsėjo 29-toji diena. Rudens ryto saulė pakilo iš debesų... Pušys lingavo, ūžė nuo vėjo... Alyvų krūmo lapeliai, įsikibę į šakeles, taip pat drebėjo nuo vėjo... Prie lango stovėjo mano Pranas ir klausė radijo, o aš tuo metu triūsiau virtuvėje, skubėjau į darbą. Staiga sušuko jis: ,,Myle, eik čia! Jau atneša laišką." Greitai nubėgau pas jį ir žiūriu taip pat. Laiškininkas eina tiesiai į mūsų namus. Mano sūnus Jonelis pirmutinis išbėgo pro duris ir gavo du laišku; pagaliau iškėlęs juos rankutėje bėgo aplink namą kelis kartus ir šaukė: ,,Abu laiškai iš Amerikos. Mamyte, kantrybės, duok man atplėšti?" Vieną laišką plėšė vaikas, o kitą vyras. Aš gi stovėjau patenkinta ir kramčiau nudažytas lūpas. Vienas laiškas buvo iš Jūsų, o kitas iš Albertinos. Visi trys susiglaudę skaitėme garsiai...
(E. J. 1956-10-07);
Dear Alfa, Adolfina, husband and children! Saturday, the 29th of September. Autumn's morning sun rose from the clouds. Pine trees were swaying, murmuring from the wind... The leaves of the lilac tree, hanging on the branches, were also trembling from the wind. My Pranas was standing by the window and listening to the radio, and I was working in the kitchen at that moment; I was in a hurry to get to work. Suddenly, he shouted: "Myle, come here! [He] is bringing the letter." I ran quickly to him and looked too. The postman was coming straight to our house. My son Jonas was the first to run through the door, and he got two letters; finally, holding them up in his little hand he ran around the house several times shouting: "Both letters are from America. Mummy, patience, let me open them?" The child opened one letter, while [my] husband opened the other. I stood satisfied and chewed on my painted lips. One letter was from you, while the other was from Albertina. All three of us side-by-side read it aloud...

.The need to maintain family and friendship bonds allows letters to be read (often out loud) and shared with others:

(32)    Aš suprantu jūsų jausmus ir anaiptol nepykstu, kad jūs perskaitot vieni kitiems rašytus laiškus. Juk, taip pagalvojus, laiškai yra vienintelis būdas palaikyti ryšius.
(N. J. 1982-04-06);
I understand your feelings, and I am not at all angry that you read the letters to each other. When you think of it, letters are the only way to keep in touch, aren't they?

Thus, the circulation of the letter, especially the reading, is extended to the whole family circle. According to Markelis, collaborative letter-writing practices had several important meanings: they provided important information about the well-being of the authors, they "reaffirmed family solidarity,"32 and the very occasion of letter writing had a special place in people's lives.33

However, the act of writing or not writing a letter is often the result of a specific emotion, feeling, mood or state of mind. Emotions that inspire or guide letter writing are especially emphasized in love letters or letters exchanged between very close friends. The intimate nature of this kind of letter highlights the individual voice of the writer; letter writing becomes a solitary, personal, individual experience, and a practice that is shared between only two people:

(33)    Štai šio vakaro valandų bėgy aš kažkaip įsileidau į praeities gilųjį šaltinį, kuris iš pradžių sudarė man kažkaip blogą nuotaiką, norėjosi kažkur eiti, eiti... Bet staiga man bevartant knygą papuolė Tavo vakarykščias laiškelis, aš nieko nelaukdamas jį perskaičiau dar kartą ir ėmiausi rašyti Tau atsakymą.
(R. K. 1957-10-29);
So there you have it, as the evening hours ran by, I somehow sank into the deep well of the past, which at first somehow put me in a bad mood, I wanted to go, to go somewhere. But suddenly, while looking over a book, I came across your letter of yesterday. Without waiting, I read it once more and started to write you an answer;
(34)    Laiško pradžia beveik visada parodo supančią aplinką rašančiojo, išimtis tiktai tada, kai šitoji aplinka, žinoma, tarp jų. Tu gerai prisimeni pirmuosius mano laiškus; juose visada būdavo pasikeitimai, nes tada niekada nestovėjau vietoje ir supančioji aplinka nuolat keitėsi. Tiesa, kai kada ji pasikeisdavo ir pagal nuotaiką, o nuotaika - irgi supančioji aplinka. Ji gali būti gera ir bloga; tai turi reikšmės aprašymui, pasėkoje to galima aprašyti daugiau, tiksliau ir mažiau, paviršutiniškiau.
(A. D. 1956-08-30);
The beginning of a letter almost always indicates the writer's surroundings; the only exception, of course, is when the surroundings are shared. You remember my first letters very well; they were full of changes, because at that time I never stayed in one place, and the surroundings were changing cPlease, don't be angry at my sloppy writing, I am very absent-minded and distracted.onstantly. It is true that sometimes it would change according to mood, but the mood is also part of the surroundings. It can be good or bad, and this has an effect on the writing: as a result, one can write more and in greater detail, or less and superficially.

A particular emotion is often mentioned as the main reason to finish (or not write) a letter; it also affects its content and style:

(35)    Tuo ir baigsiu, nes kai pradėjau skaudžiai rašyti, visai sugedo nuotaika
(B. J. R. 1972-06-02);
I will end with this, because when I started writing about painful things, my mood was completely ruined;
(36)    Nepyk, kad nesklandžiai rašau, aš labai išsiblaškiusi, pasimetusi
(L. Bl. 1981-06-23);
Please, don't be angry at my sloppy writing, I am very absent-minded and distracted.

Thus, letter writing as a social practice is both a collaborative and an individual experience. The voice of the individual "I" is shaped by his or her inner feelings, which affect (inspire or not inspire) letter writing in different ways, while collaborative writing does not highlight the emotional experiences of an individual writer as much as it emphasizes the importance of communication. Therefore, the very fact of writing and receiving a letter is far more significant than who actually writes it down on paper:

(37)    Jeigu negali pati parašyti, tai tegul sūnus katras parašo keletą žodelių.
(V. Kaz. 1977-10-01);
If you can't write yourself, let one of your sons write a few words;
(38)    Aš pat[s] sergu, tai mano žmona rašo jums kelis žodelius
(S. M. 1959-08-10);
I'm ill, so my wife is writing you a few words.

In non-collaborative writing, the importance is shifted to the specific person from whom the letter is expected:

(39)    Atleisk, Irute, jei ką ne taip parašiau. Laukiu. Rašyk, viską viską.
(E. U. 1964-08-15);
Forgive me, Irutė, if I have written something poorly. I am waiting. Write everything, everything;
(40)    Danučiuk, rašyk, kur žadi praleisti atostogas, rašyk daug daug apie save, apie namiškius; Niliuką, Tėvelį, Mamytę, Tetą ir apie visus pažįstamus.
(V. G-J. 1956-03-02);
Danučiuk, write about where you plan to spend your holidays, write a lot, a lot about yourself, your family, Niliukas, Father, Mother, Aunt, and about all our acquaintances.

Family letters dominate the corpus (they comprise 59 percent of all letters). This dominance could be accidental (the corpus does not aim for a balanced number of different letter genres), but it more likely reflects the importance family letters occupied in Lithuanian lives throughout the twentieth century. Letter writing emerged among ordinary Lithuanians at the turn of the twentieth century as a practice that helped to maintain family bonds with those members who were separated by distance due to increasing emigration,34 and this practice was maintained throughout the twentieth century due to the sociopolitical changes in post-World War II Lithuania discussed above. This allows us to claim carefully that twentieth century Lithuanian letter writing practices evolved and were shaped largely by maintaining written communication between family members, i.e., by writing family letters.

Artifacts: Tools and "Poor" Writing

Artifacts, such as pen and paper, are often mentioned in the letters, especially when there is a need to apologize for poor or unclear handwriting. Such apologies are very common throughout the corpus. They often appear as formulaic or stable expressions, repeated from one letter to another, somewhat as a necessary composition element, and are usually expressed at the end of the letter. Most often, the pen, the nib, or the paper are blamed for unclear and unaesthetic handwriting:

(41)    Rašau tušinuku. Braižas baisus. Norisi suplėšyti laišką
(N. An. 1986-11-17);
I am writing with a ballpoint pen. The handwriting is terrible. I want to tear the letter up;
(42)    Dovanokite, kad neaiškiai parašiau. Mat, mano parkeris netikęs
(M. J. 1960-04-03);
Forgive me for the unclear writing. It is because my fountain pen is worthless;
(43)    aš baigiu rašyti, nesupykte ant munęs, blogas rašymas muno ir prasta plunksna ir popieris.
(A. P. 1930-05-25);
I'm finishing writing, please don't be angry with me, my handwriting is poor, and the nib and the paper too.

These apologies indicate that aesthetic value of the letter is important, especially for clarity and mutual understanding. Writing is an act of identity35; handwriting visually reflects the personality of the scribe and shapes his or her "written" identity. Remarks about untidy and illegible handwriting indicate the quality of handwriting is important for the addressee as well:

(44)    Atsiminiau. Viena pastaba. Pradėjai bjauriai rašyti, atvirai sakau. Kol laikas, tvarkykis.
(J. Bl. 1981-11-07);
I've remembered. One remark. You've started writing abominably, I'm telling you this frankly. Do something about it while there is still time.

Markelis indicates that for many Lithuanian immigrants and their children in the first half of the twentieth century good writing was first and foremost related to beautiful and neat handwriting.36 At the end of the nineteenth century, penmanship was an obligatory subject taught in the so-called "people's schools"37; it was kept in primary (and upper level) school programs throughout the first half of the twentieth century in Lithuania.38 In Soviet primary schools, attention was also given to neat handwriting (teaching a class on penmanship or integrating penmanship into Lithuanian language classes), as pupils learned how to write with a nib pen.39 Relying on their school practices, letter writers associated "good writing" with a certain type of tool: a nib (fountain) pen, rather than a ballpoint pen, which, according to them, ruined their handwriting:

(45) Rašau su nauju parkeriu, pirktu Puškine. Jau su tuo tušiniu, matai, visai pagadinau raštą. Nuo dabar vėl nusprendžiau rašyti su parkeriu, bet jau sunku bus ištaisyti raštą.
(L. Bl. 1981-08-22);
I am writing with a new nib pen that I bought in Puškinas. As you can see, with that ballpoint pen I've already completely ruined my handwriting. From now on, I've decided to write only with a nib pen, but now it will be difficult to correct [my] handwriting.

Clearly, even though letter writing was more or less limited to the private domain of Lithuanian lives and was an informal form of written communication, frequent apologies for "poor" handwriting and references to inappropriate pens indicate that scribes' vernacular literacy practices were to some extent shaped by institutional literacies: the understanding of "good" and "proper" writing and the use of the "right" pen was instilled by formal education. References to the norms, i.e., formally acquired literacy practices, are evident in apologies for language mistakes:

(46) atleisk už rašymą ir klaidas. Taip išėjo – pilnai rašybos neišmokau.
(J. Me. 2004-06-25);
Forgive me for the handwriting and the mistakes. That’s how it is – I haven’t fully learned how to spell;
(47) tai ir baigsiu rašyti, atsiprašysi[u] už bjaurų raštą ir klaidas, ba labai jau šlykščiai rašau.
(Z. B-M. 1982-12-01);
So I’ll finish writing and apologize for the ugly handwriting and the mistakes, since my writing is very disgusting;
(48) Nežinau, kaip Tu ir „išslebizavosi“ mano „raštus“. Jau klaidų, tai ir pats nebenusituokiu, kiek čia pasitaikys visokių: ir loginių, ir „morfologinių“, ir visokių kitų, bet aš norėčiau, kad Tu jas pastebėtum ir pasakytum, kur silpniausia mano vieta, nes aš savąją, gimtąją kalbą vertinu ir kiek sugebėdamas nenoriu jos dergti.
(V. G. 1954-11-13);
I don’t know how you will “sound out” my “writings.” And mistakes, even I don’t realize myself how many of them are going to end up here: logical, “morphological,” and all kinds of others, but I want you to note them and tell me what my weakest point is, because I appreciate my own mother tongue and, as much as I can, I don’t want to corrupt it.

It is important to note that apologies for language mistakes are not as frequent as apologies for poor or unclear handwriting (the former comprise only 15 percent of all apologies). They usually appear in the letters written by highly schooled and literate scribes who had the most exposure to formal education and who were the most familiar with spelling and punctuation norms. These apologies, on the one hand, point to the lack of confidence in the scribes' normative writing skills. On the other hand, the very nature of the private letter does not oblige these scribes to write in perfect language, so they might not feel the pressure and obligation to follow formal spelling, punctuation or grammar rules in their vernacular writing, as if it was not "real" writing.40

In the letters written by Lithuanian emigrants, especially those who were born outside of Lithuania, apologies for writing mistakes are related to weaker Lithuanian language skills:

(49) Atleisk man, jei esu padaręs klaidų. Aš dar nelabai pripratęs lietuviškai rašyti.
(K. L. 1947-08-03);
Forgive me if I’ve made mistakes. I am still not used to writing in Lithuanian;
(50) Atsiprašau už mano raštą. Aš lietuviškai negirdžiu, tai yra man labai sunku atsiminti, kaip rašyti, sakinius gerai negaliu sudėti. Ar tu, Broleli, gali mano laiškus suskaityti?
(Z. S. 1989-02-22);
Forgive me for my writing. I don’t hear any Lithuanian, so it’s hard to remember how to write, and I can’t put sentences together well. Are you, brother, able to understand my letters?;
(51) Dovanokit, jeigu nelabai gerai lietuviškai rašau, bet aš galvoju, kad galėsit išskaityti, ką aš parašiau.
(R. B. 1993-09-07);
Forgive me if I don’t write very well in Lithuanian, but I think you’ll be able to understand what I wrote.

It is important to note that these apologies don't emphasize language norms (spelling, punctuation rules), as much as the importance of understanding, i.e., they apologize for their language only because it might be difficult to understand the content of the message, and not because the language does not comply with written standards and norms.

However, poor writing is not always a result of using unsuitable tools or the lack of knowledge of spelling and grammar rules. Some writers blame their health or old age for unclear or chaotic writing:

(52)    Sudie, dovanok, kad gal nevykusiai parašiau, nes jau jaučiasi metų našta
(J. Ban. 2002-02-11);
Goodbye, and forgive me if I didn't write well, for I am feeling the burden of the years;
(53)    Sirgau labai ir dabar menka sveikata: akis labai silpnėj[a], jau sunku rašyti
(E. I. 1965-08-05);
I was very sick, and now my health is poor: one eye has gotten very weak, it is difficult to write now.

Others do not perceive themselves as good or skilled writers, and this affects, in their opinion, the content, style, penmanship, and the clarity of the letter:

(54)    Atsiprašau, kad tiek visokių niekų primalevojau, kad mokėčiau rašyti gerai, tai daugiau parašyčiau.
(S. P. 1922-05-27);
I apologize that I have blathered so much nonsense, if I knew how to write well, I would write more;
(55) Tamstos raštą labai gerai galiu suprasti ir paskaityti. [...] Dovanok, kad aš prastai rašau, nes geriau nemoku, jeigu negali paskaityti, tai duok man žinoti.
(E. K. 1939-04-18);
I can understand and read your handwriting very well. [...] Forgive me that I write poorly, I don't know how to write better. If you can't read [it], please let me know.

Hamilton and Barton emphasize that vernacular literacies are "subject to the social pressures of the family and other social groups and are regulated by them."41 In other words, even though letter writing (as any other vernacular writing) is informal, self-generated, and voluntary, it is still restricted, regulated, and bound by certain family or pen-pal expectations and norms. Apologies or remarks regarding "poor" or "unclear" handwriting in our data corpus emphasize that this social pressure is felt on both ends of the communication channel. References to writing norms and mistakes, the use of proper writing tools, understandable, neat, and "clear" writing, on the one hand, point to the pressure that institutional literacies have on letter writing, on the other hand, they also emphasize the pressure exerted by the "letter community," i.e., the letter has to meet the expectations of both the author and the reader.

Concluding Remarks

A closer look at self-references to writing in a corpus of Lithuanian letters highlights how letter writing functioned during the twentieth century as vernacular literacy practice. The analysis of certain aspects of the settings, participants, and artifacts involved in letter writing reveals that for many ordinary people, letter writing was often embedded within their everyday activities in terms of time, place, domain (home, work or school), participants, tools, and style.

References to time and place within the letters show how letter writing was incorporated into other household, school, work, and leisure activities, such as cooking, attending classes, watching TV or traveling. Information on the exchange dates of letters helps to establish a chronological and cyclical pattern of communication that enabled an efficient and successful exchange of information. Letter writing was not only a one-time solitary activity, but often a continuous and time-unbounded practice that took place in variety of different settings beyond the home domain.

Lithuanian letter writing during the twentieth century evolved as both a collaborative and an individual literacy practice. The individual voice of the writer, as shaped by his or her inner emotions, prevailed in love letters or letters exchanged between very close friends, while collaborative writing was prominent in written communication among family members. Letter writing practices emerged among Lithuanians first and foremost as a collaborative activity that involved several family members in the writing and reading of a letter. These letters were often heteroglossic, since they contained the voices of several family members who participated in the letter-writing event. The intended readership of these letters also often extended beyond an individual reader. The dominance of family letters in the corpus reflects the sociohistorical and political circumstances of the twentieth century that resulted in family separations in terms of space. Among ordinary Lithuanians, letter writing as a vernacular literacy practice evolved and was shaped by these family letters.

References to poor writing in the current letter corpus highlighted the importance of the aesthetic value of writing, i.e., its visual aspect. The visual aspect's importance is tied to its ability to send the intended message to the addressee and to assure that the message is understood properly. This "norm" shared by letter writers helps to explain the frequent apologies for bad handwriting, whether it was caused by using improper tools (pen or paper), by health issues or by insufficient language skills. These apologies highlighted the overlap between vernacular and institutional literacy practices. Even though letter writing as such was not perceived by many as "real" writing (it was intended only for private use), it was nevertheless subject to written language norms; references to "bad" pens blamed for ruining the handwriting point to the overlap between vernacular and institutional literacies, since it was formal education that imposed the understanding of proper (hand)writing for Lithuanian letter writers.

1    Collins and Blot, Literacy and Literacies, 36.34 Cf. Tamošiūnaitė, "Raštingumo link," 59. 48
2    Barton and Hamilton, Local literacies, 6.
3    Barton, "Vernacular Writing," 110.
4    Papen and Barton, "What is the Anthropology of Writing," 10.
5    Gillen and Hall, "Edwardian Postcards," 170.
6    Barton, "Vernacular Writing," 110.
7    Ibid.
8    Merkys, Knygnešių laikai, 306. This census, however, did not gather any information on writing skills.
9    Karčiauskienė, Pradinio švietimo, 126-130; Karčiauskienė, "Pradinio mokymo," 34.
10    Zinkevičius, Bendrinės kalbos iškilimas, 213.
11    Lietuvos gyventojai, 104.
12    Tamošiūnaitė, Lietuvių bendrinės kalbos, 66.
13    "Baigtas," 8.
14    Matthews, Education in the Soviet Union, 25.
15    1959 metų visasąjunginio gyventojų surašymo duomenys, 28-29, 39.
16    The author would like to express her gratitude to the many people involved in the development of the project, especially the donors who contributed their letters to the Database. This is a long-term project, therefore, we urge anyone who would like to share their materials with us to not hesitate and contact us by e-mail at
17    The term egodocument refers to a text "in which an author writes about his or her own acts, thoughts and feelings," see Dekker, "Jacques Presser's Heritage," 14. Egodocument is an umbrella term for a variety of texts written in first-person narrative, for instance, autobiographies, diaries, memoirs, and personal letters.
18 Cf. Barton and Hamilton, Local Literacies, Markelis, "Every person like a letter."
19    See Markelis, Jurgis Acquires, "Talking Through Letters," "Every person like a letter."
20    In linguistics, the term lexeme refers to a vocabulary item, e.g., a word.
21    Hamilton, "Expanding the New Literacy Studies," 16; cf. Barton and Hall, "Introduction," 6-8.
22    Hamilton, "Expanding the New Literacy Studies," 16.
23    Ibid.
24    ilbid
25    Barton and Hall, "Introduction," 6.
26    Ibid.
27    Here and further references to the letters include the following information: the initials of the authors and the date the letter was written (or sent) in the following format: YYYY-MM-DD. Quotations from the letters are provided in normalized (Standard Lithuanian) spelling; all linguistic features (with the exception of phonetic features), however, have been retained as they appear in the original.
28    Cf. Barton and Hamilton, Local literacies, 9-10.
29    If the letter is dictated, the writer (the scribe) and the author (or several authors) are different persons.
30    Markelis, "Every person like a letter," 108.
31 Cf. Ibid.
32    Ibid., 112.
33    Ibid., 114.
34 Cf. Tamošiūnaitė, "Raštingumo link," 59. 48
35 Blommaert, Grassroots literacy, 85.
36    Markelis, "Every person like a letter," 115.
37    Karčiauskienė, Pradinio švietimo, 68-69.
38    Ibid., 29, 37.
39    Personal communication with a primary school teacher, Ona Sprainaitienė.
40 Cf. Barton and Hamilton, Local literacies, 255.
41 Barton and Hamilton, Local Literacies, 253.


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_______. "Talking Through Letters. Collaborative Writing in Early Lithuanian Immigrant Life," Lituanus, 50 (4), 2004.

_______. "'Every Person Like a Letter': The Importance of Correspondence in Lithuanian Immigrant Life." In Letters Across Borders. The Epistolary Practices of International Migrants. Edited by Bruce S. Elliott, David A. Gerber, Suzanne M. Sinke. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

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