The death of a language

17 October 2013
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It is often said that every two weeks a language dies. But the statement belies a complex reality, in which languages are transformed, replaced or simply vanish along with their users. Giedrius Subacius on the fate of the Lithuanian language, among others.

Public discourse in Lithuania is full of trepidation over the fate of the Lithuanian language. A few motifs are particularly prescient: illiteracy (Dainius Numgaudis: “The fact that we are and will remain a Lithuanian-speaking country is undeniable. However, whether we will remain a Lithuanian-writing nation is a question which is currently provoking louder and louder discussions in Lithuania”1); lack of respect and love for the language and the imminent collapse of the language system (Irena Andrukaitiene: “Larger nations make us accept their linguistic systems, make us feel ashamed of being Lithuanians, of being Lithuania”2); borrowings (Romualdas Kriauciunas: “Some of the words that I have stumbled on include reglamentuojantis (imposing regulation), licencija (licence), kompetencijos (competencies), prioritetas (priority), autonomiskumas (autonomy), indikacija (indication), alternatyvus (alternative), konfidencialumas (confidentiality), profilaktika (prophylaxis)”3); the rules for writing foreign names, particularly in Lithuanian passports (George W. Bush or Dzordzas V. Busas).

Lithuanian flag. Photo: Vepar5. Source:Shutterstock

But will the Lithuanian language disappear? Well, it obviously will. When this will happen, however, is difficult to predict. No one knows the precise answer, which is probably a good thing because if anyone did know, it would mean that the language’s disappearance is immanent.

Linguists have developed various theories to describe the so-called death of a language. However, the French linguist Louis-Jean Calvet avoids the word death: after all, a language is not a living body, the death of which can be observed and recorded once certain biological functions cease. Calvet prefers disappearance and, though he does not always entirely escape the notion of the death of a language, he distinguishes between at least three types of language disappearance.4

The first is disappearance as a result of transformation. Languages change; in the long run, they become unrecognizable, and sometimes they acquire new names, thereby turning into other languages: this is how, for instance, Latin turned into Italian, French, Catalan, Romansh and so on. This type of disappearance is not, therefore, absolute. Indeed, we could look at the process the other way round and suggest that Latin is still spoken: it merely changed and was renamed. The language did not disappear but it did evolve considerably, and its varieties adopted new names.

The second type is the disappearance of language users. An example would be the Prussian language, which perished in the eighteenth century, when its last users died; or the Livonian language in Latvia, which has died only recently.

The third type is the replacement of a language, which usually occurs when a dominant language supplants a dominated one. The example of Latin proves useful here too: the fact that new languages evolved out of Latin rather than other languages previously used in the same territories (such as Etruscan, Gallic and so on), attests to the disappearance of these languages once they were absorbed and replaced by varieties of Latin.

Calvet’s three types of language disappearance are not rigid categories, but they are useful when thinking about the situation of a specific language, such as Lithuanian, in the global context. For instance, the disappearance of Lithuanian as a result of transformation may seem a distant prospect, although we should not forget that, in today’s world, full of planes and electronics, changes in languages are also more rapid than previously, when maps made no reference to Lithuania. When it comes to losing the speakers of the language, emigrants are subject to sharp disapproval, particularly those who are packing their bags just now. And the replacement of Lithuanian may well be discerned in its defeat by other languages, such as Russian previously or English more recently.

1. Transformation

Lithuanian has been changing, but less rapidly than many other Indo-European languages. Generally, when we speak about the archaic quality of the Lithuanian language, we usually mean the features that characterize both Lithuanian and its Baltic parent language rooted in the Proto-Indo-European language. Lithuanian is presumed to have appeared only during the fifth and sixth centuries AD. Over the centuries, Lithuanian has changed considerably, including with regard to dialect formation. Thus, the highland Lithuanians from Ignalina in the eastern part of the country find it difficult to communicate with the Samogitians (lowland Lithuanians) from Mosedis in the west, should standard Lithuanian not be available as an option. Still, even though we do not know about all the alterations that have taken place and even though we cannot know what our language was really called in the sixth, seventh or tenth centuries, we nonetheless seem to ignore these changes today when we project the name Lithuanian onto the language.

This is similar to how the name of the English language has been persistently projected. Old English existed from the middle of the fifth century to the middle of the eleventh. Although old, it is known as English, suggesting the same English identity. The grammar and vocabulary of Beowulf, a poem in Old English, are radically different from those of contemporary English: Old English had many inflections and, structurally, it was more similar to Lithuanian than to contemporary English. Some etymologists argue that the vocabulary of contemporary English consists of approximately 99 per cent borrowings and only one per cent of inherited words. No native English speaker can understand Old English without special training. In effect, one can argue that Old English is a completely different language from contemporary English. Just as French evolved out of Latin, contemporary English evolved out of Old English. However, unlike in the case of the Latin-to-French transition, the name English has been retained. While for the French, the French language may serve as a symbol of a specific culture since the ninth century (the “beginning” of French is considered to be the year 813, when the Catholic Church acknowledged the existence of a local Romanic language distinct from Latin5), the English can pride themselves on a language that dates back the middle of the fifth century. The very retaining of the name suggests that English is “older” than French.

Linguists have surmised that after languages branch off from their parent-language, they retain traceable similarities with the latter only for a limited period of time, and for no longer than between five and seven thousand years. After this critical period, so many changes would have likely accumulated that a common origin would be impossible to prove. Everything changes: the lexis, grammar, phonological systems and so on. In the midst of this constant change, the name of a language – a single word representative of an entire linguistic corpus – is probably the easiest one to retain. Regardless of whether some disagree over which is more appropriate, kolonija or telkinys (“colony”), sliures or tapkes (“slippers”), biski or biski (“a bit”), all are united in their concern over the wellbeing of the language they call Lithuanian. And unless it loses its name, we have an important connective component for our culture. It is precisely the name that is loaded with symbolic power. The Lithuanian language is both a flag and an identity.

However radical the structural development of a language may be, identity will be tied to its name, not to specific changes. The nineteenth century saw very conscious efforts to “erase” the name of the Lithuanian language. For instance, on 16 May 1873, the Russian emperor Alexander II signed an ordinance allowing for the Samogitian language (lowland Lithuanian) to be taught (in the Russian alphabet) at the teachers’ seminary in the town of Panevezys. If the project to supplant the name Lithuanian with Samogitian had succeeded, the number of people who would have wanted to identify with the new name might have significantly decreased: for the majority of people from regions outside Samogitia in the western part of Lithuania, the Samogitian language could have meant an insurmountable identity barrier. And yet, although in Luxemburg, only about half of the population speak the Luxembourgish language, it is protected by law, and people tend to be proud of it. So though the functions and the spread of the language are limited, its name, the Luxembourgish language, has taken on a distinct hue and become deeply entangled with identity.

2. The extinction of language users

Probably the greatest fear is that of the extinction of native speakers of Lithuanian. Birth rates are undoubtedly a significant factor. The usual complaint, however, is not about the lack of offspring, but about the language users who emigrate. The Department of Statistics in Lithuania informs us via its website: “In Lithuania, the emigration rates per thousand people are the highest in the European Union. According to the official data, during the last 20 years, Lithuania has lost around 0.6 million residents through emigration.”

Emigration is not a new phenomenon. On the website of the Lithuanian Emigration Institute at Vytautas Magnus University (Kaunas), Daiva Dapkute writes, “in 1897, approximately 300,000 emigrants from Lithuania resided in various gubernatorial districts of the Russian empire; during 1897-1914, 74,000 more Lithuanians left for various cities of the Russian empire. […] During 1880-1914, the number of Lithuanians settling in the USA ranged from between 300,000 and 600,000.” The Lithuanian poet Vincas Kudirka (1858-1899) lamented how each village in Lithuania had lost at least one resident to America: some were escaping the Tsar’s army, others were escaping jail; “everyone” was leaving, the master and the servant, the tailor and the shoemaker.6 At the same time, 16,000 Lithuanian residents moved to England, Scotland and Canada. One should also consider the figures provided by the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuanian, which encompass not only emigration: “during the years 1940-1952 of Soviet occupation, Lithuania lost 780,922 of its citizens.” Of these, more than half repatriated or left Lithuania (but are they all emigrants?). During the period from 1850 up until the 1950s, Lithuania had already lost between 1.134 and 1.434 million people due to emigration and repatriation; importantly, the numbers do not include war and deportation losses. We do not know exactly how many army recruits and escapees from prisons, masters and servants, tailors and shoemakers left and who among those Kudirka mentions in his lament were speakers of Lithuanian, though I would guess that they comprised the vast majority.

The number of Lithuanians who have left with the current wave, 600,000, is reminiscent of the scale of emigration to America that took place previously. But recent emigration is different. Previously, having spent two weeks on a steamboat, a typical newcomer to America would never return to Lithuania, not even for a visit; a recent immigrant, on the other hand, comes back for holidays on a regular basis, brings children to cheer up their grandparents, flies over when necessary to deal with various matters, ranging from bureaucratic to health, and returns for good after retiring. According to the statistics, the remigration of Lithuanian citizens has started increasing, from 4100 to 14,000 per year in 2011, and to 17,300 per year in 2012. Emigration from Lithuania, meanwhile, has slowed down: the numbers dropped by almost 30 per cent, from 83,100 to 53,800 in 2011, and to 41,100 in 2012. Again, even though not all of these people are speakers of Lithuanian, the numbers nonetheless do chart at least approximately the movements of native Lithuanian speakers.

The vitality of languages is probably best registered by, the webpage of the Ethnologue group, whose aim is to catalogue all living languages in the world. The seventeenth edition of Ethnologue (2013)7 lists 7105 (seven thousand one hundred and five!) living languages. However, 188 of them (2.6 per cent) are considered very weak and are technically dormant. They have no native speakers and are only included among living languages because people do still learn them. It may seem amazing that there are so many languages in the world, and the number seems to be growing. The sixteenth edition of Ethnologue (2009) lists 6909 languages, the fifteenth (2005) only 6912 and the fourteenth (2000) a mere 6809. That’s 300 more languages over the past 13 years. Earlier still, in 1987, Bernard Comrie estimated the world to be speaking only around 4000 languages,8 which would mean that during the last 26 years the body of languages has grown by 3000, even if, obviously, the growth in the number is to be attributed to “discovery” – the identification rather than emergence or formation of new languages.

This is not to say that languages do not disappear; they do, but it seems that languages are newly identified at a greater rate than the disappearing ones are registered. Today, it is often said that every two weeks a language dies: amounting to 26 languages a year. The data that Ethnologue has collected since 1950 do not confirm this though: according to it, during the last 63 years, only 377 languages have disappeared, averaging six languages per year. But history, the recording of facts, is one thing. Predictions are another issue altogether. Thus, for instance, the UNESCO atlas that charts endangered languages predicts that if nothing is done by the end of the twenty-first century, around half of the languages now alive will have died, approximately 3,500 in total.9 The prediction coincides with the aforementioned formula of one language every two weeks. For 3,500 languages to disappear over 90 years, the average rate should be 39 languages per year, or one language every nine days. At least for now, this rate is not even close to being realized, unless one envisions the numbers rising astronomically by the end of the century. However, the prediction will undoubtedly be revised over the next 90 years and, who knows, maybe even very significantly.

What of Lithuanian in the group of 7105 languages? There are around 7 billion people in the world; thus we could say that, on average, one language has a million speakers. Of course, average numbers say hardly anything about the condition of a particular language, but one may contend that a million speakers, by way of being is an estimated average for a given language, should be considered normal. Estonian with its one million speakers would therefore hit the mark precisely, but is surpassed by Lithuanian by three times.

Ethnologue uses a complex system of calculation based on more than ten criteria to estimate the vitality of a language and predict the likelihood of its disappearance. It groups languages into five major categories according to the level of language vitality: 1) 682 institutional languages; 2) 1534 developing languages, 3) 2502 vigorous languages; 4) 1481 endangered languages; 5) 906 dying languages. Obviously, Lithuanian, as well as Latvian and Estonian, is included among the 682 most vigorous institutional languages of the world. According to most criteria, Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian belong to the group of the most vigorous, thus, least endangered languages, the main two criteria being the number of language users and the number and nature of the functions for which the language is used, as well as the transmission of the language to new generations. Taking into consideration the number of users alone, Lithuanian is one of the 393 (5.5 per cent) biggest world languages. In terms of language functions and their maturity, it is one of only 100 (0.7 per cent) best established world languages, of which six are considered international languages, followed by 94 strong languages used in the educational system and media and governmental institutions. It is obvious that Lithuanian is not considered as endangered and cannot be grouped with the languages expected to disappear within the next 100 years.

One of my students, Krutika Rajendra Doundkar, who is of Indian descent, wrote a course paper on her native Marathi language, the official language of two Indian states, Maharashtra and Goa, and one of the 23 official languages of India. It has numerous dialects, but in various regions of Maharashtra the majority of people speak standard Marathi. According to Doundkar’s sources, in 2001 there were 72 million registered Marathi speakers; it is the nineteenth language in the world according to the number of speakers (Ethnologue ranks it as the fourteenth). I was surprised by Doundkar’s statement that the majority of Marathi people are anxious about the fact that their language is dying. Obviously, fear is a mind killer, and we are not alone in this.

Returning to the European context as portrayed in Ethnologue, it is immediately obvious that there are only 284 living languages in Europe, in comparison to 2304 in Asia, 2146 in Africa, and 458 in South America. Papua New Guinea alone has three times as many living languages as all of Europe. And the situation of European languages is as follows: 1) 81 institutional languages; 2) 61 developing; 3) 45 vigorous; 4) 49 in trouble; 5) 48 dying. Again, Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian are categorized as institutional. A dying language is, for instance, the Karaim language, which had only 50 speakers in 2007, mostly in Trakai, near Vilnius. The disappearance of the Liv language in Latvia has not been registered yet, because the estimation is based on data from 2007, when one of its native speakers was still alive. Moreover, one should not forget that Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian are among the 23 official working languages of the European Union, while 261 European languages do not have this status.

The aforementioned UNESCO atlas notes that approximately 2500 languages are endangered. However, the estimation may seem biased. For instance, the Rusyn language is classified as endangered, though given the label vulnerable as opposed to a much stronger critically endangered; yet the developers of the language announced in Bratislava the establishment of the standard Rusyn language and the writing of its literature as recently as 27 January 1995. Thus, the language is on the rise, but UNESCO classifies the new born language as endangered. Also included in this group is the Luxembourgish language, despite the fact that only in the twentieth century did it acquire the status of a separate language as opposed to being seen as a mere dialect of German; it is now valued in Luxembourg as never before, and more and more publications are appearing in Luxembourgish. The Welsh language is also marked as vulnerable and Irish as definitely endangered, even though Irish is one of the 23 official languages of the European Union.
When thinking about the decline of languages, one should not forget an opposing phenomenon, namely, the recovery or even emergence of languages in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, for instance: Bosnian, Irish, Luxembourgish, Macedonian, Rusyn and Welsh. Not to mention the revival of Hebrew, which was literally raised from the dead, or even certain attempts to revive Prussian. So in the midst of EU integration, the decentralized tendency of creating and maintaining a variety of languages has asserted itself – since people want to differentiate themselves from others, to destandardize. Thus, along with Irish, Welsh or Rusyn, the voices of those supporting the revival of Latgalian, Voru and Kashubian languages are getting stronger.

The UNESCO atlas does not cover the growth of languages. This is its Achilles heel. Of course, UNESCO has a noble mission: the atlas is intended “to raise awareness about language endangerment and the need to safeguard the world’s linguistic diversity among policy-makers, speaker communities and the general public, and to be a tool to monitor the status of endangered languages and the trends in linguistic diversity at the global level”. Thus, the atlas simply wants to warn us.

3. Replacement of a language due to the domination of another

The fear of losing Lithuanian to the influences of other languages is not news either. The entire nineteenth century was tainted by it. At first, Polish was seen as the threat to Lithuanian; for instance, in 1843, Jurgis Ambraziejus Pabreza complained about the numerous smeers he suffered upon deciding to write his botany textbook in Samogitian as opposed to Polish. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the fear of Russian grew, especially after the implementation of Russification policies and the Lithuanian press ban (1864-1904). The pervasive threat of Russian was perceived during the Soviet period, too: “soon we will all speak Russian.” In my last year of high school, I told our teacher of Lithuanian that I was going to study Lithuanian too, and she snapped, “What are you talking about, you idiot? Go study medicine! See what’s left of me – were it not that I had a tailor as a husband, I would have no life at all!” At university, it was not us but the teachers and students of Russian who received all the privileges, such as smaller study groups or bigger scholarships.

Today, the Russian language has been forgiven for many things, and the label of the aggressor has been attached to English. Poet Ramute Skucaite is sad that Lithuanian, “protected for 50 years under the Soviets, has now, following independence, suddenly become unnecessary.”10 I personally heard the influential poet Justinas Marcinkevicius exclaim, “What is going on here? Gediminas Avenue11 is drowning in English!”

On the website, English ranks third in the world according to the number of native speakers, who total 335 million in 124 countries (Lithuania is not on the list at all). Chinese tops the table, with 1.197 billion native speakers and Spanish is second, with 406 million. However, English remains unique as a language, in that there are significantly more non-native speakers of English than native ones: 412 million claim English as their second language. The fact of the matter is that English has become a major global communication tool. But it is not the language of one of our more powerful neighbours, such as Poles, Russians or Germans, whose languages traditionally competed with Lithuanian in the territories where Lithuanian is used.

After the Soviet period, Lithuania opened up to the world, succeeded in expanding the Schengen borders and became a member of NATO and the EU. On 1 July 2013, Lithuania assumed the presidency of the European Council. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the international language of the European cultural elite was Latin. With the onset of neoclassicism, it was replaced by French, and now the global language is English. If we consider English as a competitor to Lithuanian and compare the dissemination and geographical as well as social functions of the two languages, we will be left with nothing. But if we choose to consider English as an international language, the command of which is necessary to chair the European Council, to dominate in the field of laser technologies or to buy an ice cream on a street of a town in Papua New Guinea, then we will be able to distribute rationally the various functions between Lithuanian and English, one being our native language, the other foreign, but useful. If someone learns English, this does not mean they forget Lithuanian.

Many complaints are voiced about words borrowed from English. Many seem to think that defending our language against them is the crucial mission in attempts to save Lithuanian. But words are not the layer of a language which is capable of unsettling its foundations. Languages have many, many words; for instance, we are proud that the great Lietuviu kalbos zodynas (Dictionary of the Lithuanian language), which consists of 20 volumes, hosts about half-a-million words. But if we leaf through the print edition, sometimes we would have to turn over numerous pages before finally coming across a Lithuanian word that we know or understand. The dictionary lists countless words that are or were once used in dialects and are often only to be found in old texts, that is, a lot of words which we have forgotten. Even if there is half-a-million of them in the dictionary, a well-read person usually makes use of about ten thousand, and everyday usage only requires some three thousand words. We only know approximately two per cent of the vocabulary contained in the Dictionary of the Lithuanian language, but this does not indicate that the Lithuanian language is dying: other languages exhibit analogous tendencies. As a rule, it is obvious that words come and go, while the language stays. Words are not bricks used to build the palace of a language; words are furniture. Though some pieces survive, if others are replaced, the building does not collapse as a result. The walls of a language-palace would collapse if the structures that support words melted away, such as phonological systems, inflexion or syntax.

We all know about penalties instituted for incorrect language, even though I have never heard anyone admitting to having paid a fine. Language control is linked to the idea of punishment, not profit. According to linguist Loreta Vaicekauskiene, “We manipulate Lithuanian society when we constantly speak about threats to the Lithuanian language.”12 People exercise caution when they speak to a linguist in Lithuania. And language is important not only as a symbol of identity, but also as a means of communication. A tool, which we want to use often and for a long time, must be comfortable. A native language is that which allows its users to communicate and express themselves with comfort and ease: speaking it is like sitting in one’s favourite armchair, while a learned foreign language might feel more like a stool that presses against one’s behind; the desire to eradicate loanwords might even scratch it.

Lithuanian is not dying, not according to any of the three types of language disappearance. It is not being explicitly transformed, which would take decades or centuries; nor has it lost its users or its structure through the pressure of competing with English. It is among the most vigorous languages both in Europe and worldwide; its decline is not predicted for the coming century – unless, of course, some unexpected force majeure comes into play, such as a world war, volcanic activity on the scale of the Toba supereruption, or a second Chicxulub asteroid.

It is too early for funeral rites.

  1. Dainius Numgaudis, "Lituanistinis svietimas: bendras reikalas" ("Lithuanian education is a common cause"), Draugas 16 March 2013, 3
  2. Irena Andrukaitiene, "Tauta prasideda nuo zodzio" ("A nation begins with a word"), Gimtoji kalba 3 (2013): 4
  3. Romualdas Kriauciunas, "Lietuviu kalba ir bezdzioniavimas" ("The Lithuanian language and apery"), Draugas 9 April 2013, 3
  4. Louis-Jean Calvet, Language Wars and Linguistic Politics, Oxford University Press, 1998, 100-10
  5. R. Anthony Lodge, French: From Dialect to Standard, London, Routledge, 1993, 92-4
  6. Vincas Kudirka, Rastai 2 ("Writings", vol. 2), edited by Aldona Vaitiekuniene, Vaga, 1990, 744
  7. M. Paul Lewis, Gary F. Simons and Charles D. Fennig (eds.), Ethnologue: Languages of the World 17th ed., SIL International, 2013. Web:
  8. Bernard Comrie, The World's Major Languages, Oxford University Press, 1987, 2
  9. Christopher Moseley (ed.), Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, 3rd ed., UNESCO Publishing, 2010,
  10. "Mokslininkai ispeja: lietuviu kalba jau po simtmecio isliks tik zodynuose" ("In 100 years Lithuanian will survive only in dictionaries, scholars warn"), Respublika, 25 February 2012
  11. A central avenue in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania [translator's note].
  12. Tomas Vaiseta, "Kalbininke L.Vaicekauskiene: 'Mes manipuliuojame visuomene, kai nuolat kalbame apie gresmes lietuviu kalbai'" ("Linguist Loreta Vaicekauskiene: 'We manipulate our society when we continually speak about threats to Lithuanian'"), 26 January 2011,

Published 17 October 2013

Original in Lithuanian
Translation by Kristina Aurylaite
First published in Kulturos barai 5/2013 (Lithuanian version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Kulturos barai
© Giedrius Subacius Eurozine


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