Lithuanian and Latvian: how similar/different are they?

Discussion in 'Other Languages' started by AndrasBP, Jan 13, 2014.

  1. AndrasBP

    AndrasBP Senior Member

    Budapest, Hungary
    Hello there!

    I'd like to ask native Lithuanian and Latvian speakers about how they see the other language.

    For non-Baltic readers: Lithuanian and Latvian are two closely related languages, the only two of the Baltic branch of Indo-European languages. They are quite similar and share a great deal of vocabulary and grammar features, but not close enough to make conversation possible.
    I'm familiar with both, but I'm an outsider. It would be great if you could share stories, anecdotes, impressions, misunderstandings that are related to your neighbours' language.

    For instance, I've talked to several Latvians who seemed to have the impression that there are more Slavic (i.e. Russian-sounding) words in Lithuanian than in Latvian. (Many Lithuanians and Latvians are fluent in Russian.)
    In some cases, this impression is justified (the different-looking Latvian word may not be of Baltic origin, but is a German loanword):

    Lith. stalas / Ru. stol / Lat. galds (table)
    Lith. slyva / Ru. sliva / Lat. plūme (plum)
    Lith. vyšnia / Ru. vishn'a / Lat. ķirsis (cherry)
    Lith. knyga / Ru. kniga / Lat. grāmata (book)

    The Latvians who pointed out the examoles above were surprised that there are just as many examples of the opposite situation: the Latvian and Russian words are similar, but the Lithuanian one is totaly different:

    Lith. savaitė / Ru. nedel'a / Lat. nedēļa (week)
    Lith. metai / Ru. god / Lat. gads (year)
    Lith. dantis / Ru. zub / Lat. zobs (tooth)
    Lith. taika / Ru. mir / Lat. miers (peace)
    Lith. peilis / Ru. nozh / Lat. nazis (knife)
  2. akamaras New Member

    Dear AndrasBP,

    First of all, for both Latvians and Lithuanians national identity is a sensitive issue, so it is not difficult to hurt the feelings of people by trying to compare which language is more closely related to Russian. You should take into consideration that Lithuania was more heavily influenced by Slavs. A variant of Old Church Slavonic language (which is probably more related to Bulgarian that Russian) was the official language of Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Later on, Polish language became the official language of the state and by the beginning of XX century it was so widespread, that all the educated Lithuanians were speaking Polish. It is also heavily reflected in Lithuanian surnames, i.e. surnames beginning with -auskas are actually polonized or have Polish origin (as Polish surname -ski).
    Latvians, on the other hand, were probably more influenced by Germans. Therefore, it would not be surprising if Latvian vocabulary contained more words of German origin. Personally I always had the impression that Latvian language have more Slavic loan words, but this is probably a sort of "optical illusion": one doesn't think so much about their own language and tends to analyse foreign language more.

    Both Latvian and Lithuanian languages have dialects. For example, I am from the northern part of Lithuania which historically had a closer contact with Latvian speaking population. As a result, my dialect exhibits some phonetic features which are common in Latvian language, and I would not be surprised if we shared some common vocabulary. There is a good chance that I would be able to understand southern Latvian people much better that I do understand general Latvian language.

    Most anectodical situations I have encountered in Latvian language relates to their words having (sometimes) a completely different meaning. For example Lithuanian word briedis (moose) in Latvian is alnis (which sounds similar to Lithuanian elnias (deer)). A cat in Latvian is kakis, which in Lithuanian sounds like a word for "pooh". And when Latvians say they are ready (gatavs) in Lithuanian it means that they are drunk.
  3. ahvalj

    ahvalj Senior Member

    There is a comprehensive list of differences between Lithuanian and Latvian in the Lithuanian Wikipedia (ų_kalba). As to the vocabulary, since Baltic and Slavic languages are related, there are numerous cases when a certain word exists in both groups (e. g. "galva") or is present in some languages and modified or absent in others. Quite often the inherited word is too different for laypeople to perceive it as related (e. g. "zub" – "zobs" has a Lithuanian cognate "žambas" —źombos,_*žambas). In the above examples, the Lithuanian "stalas" is inherited, and "slyva", "vyšnia" and "knyga" are borrowed; among Latvian words "nedēļa" is borrowed and the rest are inherited or at least cannot be proved to be borrowings. There are even cases when an original Baltic word is partly influenced by its Slavic counterpart, e. g. Latvian "četri", "four" has replaced its etymological initial "c" (cp. "ceturtais", "fourth") with the Russian/Belarusian "č" (from "četyre"), in the Lithuanian "alavas", "tin" the second "a" comes from the Russian/Belarusian "olovo", cp. the inherited Latvian "alva".

    Speaking of the overall habit, the Lithuanian is considerably more archaic, but what constitutes the perceived character of the language is new in both Lithuanian and Latvian. Thus, Latvian has developed an initial stress, a staccato rhythm, has reduced many final vowels and is going to reduce the remaining ones, has modified the combinations of vowels + n/m in closed syllables (roka from *rankā), developed new sibilants (c, dz,
    č and dž, new š, ž from s' and z'). The literary Lithuanian has lost the ancient tones in unstressed syllables and the glottal stop, has developed the ubiquitous palatalization in consonants and the new sibilants či and dži, shifted the old long ā to o ("storas" from "*stāras"), developed new long a ("stalas") and æ ("senas"), shortened and modified the final acute vowels ("stalu" from "*staluo", cp. "tuo"). Both languages have created diphthongs uo (from *ō) and ie (from some ei {dievas/dievs} and ai {sniegas/sniegs}). I think neither language would have sounded familiar to a Baltic speaker of, say, two millennia ago.
  4. Maroseika Moderator

    Wasn't it actually Old Belorussian (проста мова, Ruthenian and other names are also used) actually? Old Church Slavonic infuenced Old Belorussian in too little extent to call it the variant of such.
    Lat. grāmata and Lith. gromata (letter) are from Russian (грамота - letter, document, from Greek γράμματα).
    Last edited by a moderator: May 12, 2015
  5. jakowo Senior Member

  6. Nellija Eva New Member

    I can probably understand half of the Lithuanian words, but that's not enough to actually understand context of what is being said.

    And to me Lithuanian doesn't sound similar to Russian at all. It might be sounding more similar to Ukrainian than Russian.

    It's the East-Latvia dialects that have most Russian-esque accent. In the Northern part Latvian sounds similar to Estonian. In Riga (especially among intelligence) the accent might be influenced by German language.
  7. ahvalj

    ahvalj Senior Member

    I have noticed that Lithuanian pronunciation greatly varies among individuals. In particular, women tend to palatalize consonants perceptibly less than men and usually have a more pronounced sing-song intonation, which indeed makes their speech similar to the Ukrainian language. Men working on the radio have a more neutral pronunciation with a moderate palatalization and intonations, but casual men calling to the radio (especially, as I have noticed, from Kaunas) sometimes sound totally Russian with their strongly palatalized consonants and a very flat intonation.

    Update. And, by the way, I find this latter variant of Lithuanian to be one the most pleasant languages I have heard: it possesses all the pleasant features of the Russian pronunciation while lacking its unpleasant moments, plus the words in Lithuanian often sound better. Alas, the Lithuanian literary norm is much less euphonic to my ears.
    Last edited: Apr 25, 2014
  8. AndrasBP

    AndrasBP Senior Member

    Budapest, Hungary
    Thank you very much for your interesting replies! Labai ačiū! Liels paldies! Спасибо большое!

    Two of my Hungarian friends, who don't know Russian and who have visited all three Baltic countries, said that Lithuanian sounded like Russian and Latvian like Estonian :) Indeed, the similar stress pattern of Latvian and Estonian (always on the first syllable) might make them sound similar even though they are unrelated. On the other hand, Lithuanian and Russian both have mobile stress. By the way, does anyone know if the fixed stress in Latvian is an influence from Estonian/Livonian or Baltic German, or both, or neither?

    Sure, I meant the only two living members of the family.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 12, 2015
  9. ahvalj

    ahvalj Senior Member

    Original for Baltic languages is the mobile stress as in Lithuanian, but with tonal oppositions on both stressed and unstressed long syllables and with the glottal stop, as in Latvian (and western Lithuanian dialects), so the literary Lithuanian has preserved one aspect of the original accentual system, and the literary Latvian another. The localization of the stress on the first syllable characterizes the entire Latvian area, so it is most probably older than the German colonization and thus has to be ascribed to the Finnic influence. Prussian, with its heavy German superstrate, probably had the mobile stress until the end (as can be hypothesized from the placement of diacritics in the Late Medieval manuscripts). Interestingly, northern Russian dialects, which also arose on the Finnic substrate, show no signs of the stress shift to the first syllable and overall of any accentological peculiarities.
    Last edited: Apr 27, 2014
  10. Nellija Eva New Member

    Definitely from Livonians. Latvians are basically Balts mixed with Livonians.
  11. ahvalj

    ahvalj Senior Member

  12. Gavril Senior Member

    English, USA

    I recall reading that there are some Lithuanian (maybe also Latvian) dialects in which *tj and *dj never shifted to či and dži -- do you know if that's accurate?
  13. ahvalj

    ahvalj Senior Member

    Yes, the entire Samogitian area: this is actually the main difference of that dialectal group. Don't know about the Latvian: the literary language at least has *tj>*č>š and *dj>*dž>ž. Prussian, however, preserved tj/dj or t'/d' (median, maldian, medione).
  14. Nellija Eva New Member

    Latgalians have all of those sounds.
  15. ahvalj

    ahvalj Senior Member

    The Latgalian t' and d' are new. The question was about the ancient combinations tj and dj, reflexes of which can be seen e. g. in the Genitive Plural of some declension types of nouns: Lithuanian continues these consonant combinations as palatalized č and (bitėbičių, briedisbriedžių), while Latvian as (hard) š and ž (bitebišu, briedisbriežu), both from proto-Baltic *bitjē — *bitjōn and *breidjas — *breidjōn. Latgalian shares its reflexes with Latvian: bitebišu, brīdsbrīžu (Leikuma L · 2003 · Latgalīšu volūda. 1 — — pp. 12 & 15 for the alternation tables).

    I would name two more common features of Latvian and Estonian: a very strong pitch accent (original in Latvian but secondary in Estonian) and the overall staccato rhythm (original but reinforced by the apocope in Estonian and secondary in Latvian).

    Lithuanian in principle has pitch accent as well, but it is so imperceptible for a foreigner that despite my 25 year long attempts I still am not able to distinguish between acuted and circumflected simple vowels (and in the diphthongs I perceive not the pitch but only the distinct articulation of the first and second elements). Also, frequent palatalized consonants, no chopped rhythm and the overall East Slavic feeling, which is much less perceptible in Latvian (but not in Latgalian) and totally absent in Estonian. The latter language sometimes sounds almost extraterrestrial to me, especially when spoken by women.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 12, 2015
  16. Christo Tamarin

    Christo Tamarin Senior Member

    Bulgarian and Serbian, eg, are two different Slavic languages. However, a dialectal continuum between them existed in the near past (up to 19th century). Bulgarian and Serbian split during the recent ten centuries.

    What about Lithuanian and Latvian? Of course, Lithuanian and Latvian are two diferent Baltic languages.

    Q1. Was there a dialectal continuum between them?

    Q2. Could you assess the time they split?
  17. ahvalj

    ahvalj Senior Member

    The dialects laid to the ground of the literary Lithuanian and Latvian were two poles of the East Baltic continuum: most other idioms (Samogitian, later Curonian etc.) can be regarded as intermediate between them in one or another aspect. In particular, Lithuanian is the only Baltic language that continues the IE palatovelars as š and ž, whereas other Baltic dialects (including the extinct West Baltic) show s and z, the only exception being the extinct dialect (East Galindian) that left traces in the hydronymy around Moscow (e. g. *Mažājī>Mozhaya, cp. Lithuanian mažoji "the small one") and the borrowings to Baltic-Finnic (e. g. Finnish hampaa-/hammas from žambas "tooth"this, however, may be the evidence of a common Baltic stage before the changes š>s and ž>z).

    Since the literary records of Baltic languages are very late, there is no way to estimate the divergence times. Obviously, West (e. g. Prussian) and East (e. g. Lithuanian and Latvian) Baltic split earlier than the two surviving languages. West Baltic has some particular similarities with Slavic, which suggests that the split into West and East Baltic may have been pretty ancient.

    Despite all this, the dialects from both branches in the Middle Ages remained rather close to each other, so that the less successful tribes were unproblematically assimilated to either Lithuanians (e. g. part of Prussians and Yotvingians, part of Curonians) or Latvians (another part of Curonians).
  18. ugnelakys New Member

    english - US
    Lithuanian and Latvian language is one out of oldest languages in Europe, may in the world too. They are similar to sanskrit. People, who like sansktit, like to study Lithuanian or Latvian too :). But Lithuanians don't understand Latvian language and Latvians don't understand Lithuanians, because many same words has different meanings, like estonian and suomi. So they talk to each other using English or Russian. Lithuanian history is related to Poland and Russia. Latvian history is related to Germany, Sweden and Russia.
  19. LiseR Member


    It's not the case of Latvian and Lithuanian. As far as I know, Bulgarian and Serbian are mutually inteligible, while Latvians and Lithuanians, in order to understand eachother, have to communicate in Russian or any other language they both speak.

    Well, I just think that Latvian has a bit more Russian loanwords, maybe also because in Latvia the % of the Russophone population is much higher, than in Lithuania.
    However, some might not like the fact that people make comparisons between Latvian and Russian.
    Last edited: Aug 7, 2014
  20. AndrasBP

    AndrasBP Senior Member

    Budapest, Hungary
    I don't think the high percentage of Russophones has anything to do with the number of Russian loanwords in Latvian. Most of these loanwords were borrowed
    well before the Soviet era, which is when the percentage of Russian speakers increased significantly. And yes, because of the present political situation and 20th c. history, it is very hard to talk about Latvian-Russian relations objectively, from a purely linguistic point of view. But educated Latvians and Lithuanians don't (can't) deny the fact that their languages are related to Russian and all other Slavic languages (and German, and Spanish, and Hindi :))
  21. ahvalj

    ahvalj Senior Member

    Lithuanian in the past had a considerable amount of Slavic borrowings, but most of them were cleaned from the literary language in the second half of the ninetienth century. There were even attempts to remove inherited words, like prašyti, which looked suspiciously similar to their Slavic counterparts. I have never heard, however, of a similar movement in Latvian, that's why it has all those četri, domāt, gatavs, dabūt, zvanīt pa telefonu, cena bez paketa, etc.

    Also, sometimes the Latvian words just sound similar to the Russian ones, making people suspect a borrowing even when the word is not, like e. g. roka, zobs, vesels, gads, skolnieks, skolniece etc.
    Last edited: Aug 9, 2014
  22. LiseR Member


    It's also wrong to think that Latvia is full of Russophobes, this seems a stereotype that some people in Russia love to spread - take for example only the Russian business in Latvia, the fact that many people have no problem in using Russian in everyday life, the fact that Latvia at Eurovision most of the times gave 12 points to Russia.
    Returning to the language part, I was trying to explain why for some people, Latvian seems to have more Russian words than Lithuanian. Maybe my explanation is wrong, since I'm not a linguist.

  23. Holger2014 Senior Member

    Hello, labdien, laba diena! Some questions regarding the 'dialect continuum' between Latvia and Lithuania (if you can call it that way): Is the dialect (or language) of Latgale somewhere 'in between' Latvian and Lithuanian? Is it difficult for Latvians from Riga to understand someone from, say, Rezekne in Latgale? And are people from Rezekne, or Daugavpils, for that matter, able to understand Lithuanian due to the proximity of their languages?
  24. ahvalj

    ahvalj Senior Member

    Wikipedia articles about Latgalian in Latvian, Lithuanian and to a lesser extent in English contain comparative tables. Basically, Latgalian has a number of forms that are closer to Lithuanian, but this can be found between any related contiguous languages. Latgalian is peculiar in that it has experienced a profound vowel shift (somewhat similar to that in the extinct Prussian, though most probably not related) and has developed an opposition of plain/palatalized consonants (like Lithuanian). The pitch accent acustically is closer to the Latvian model. The articulation varies among speakers: on the Latvian radio Latgalian programs some people speak pretty close to the Latvian pattern, while some others (including the male presenter and one of the female presenters, all with local names and surnames) sound as if they were Russians speaking Latvian (strong palatalization and Russian intonations).
  25. Holger2014 Senior Member

    Thank you, paldies! Latgalian (if that's the correct English spelling) does seem to have experienced a vowel shift that seems to distinguish it quite a lot from both (Standard) Latvian and Lithuanian:
    - Latvian & Lithuanian "laba" - Latgalian: "loba"
    - Latvian & Lithuanian "diena" - Latgalian: "dîna"
  26. AndrasBP

    AndrasBP Senior Member

    Budapest, Hungary
    Being fluent in Lithuanian and familiar with standard Latvian, I doubt that Latgalian is understandable to Lithuanians.
    I have never heard spoken Latgalian, but judging from Latgalian texts on Wikipedia, it is clear that while Latgalian may be closer to Lithuanian in some aspects, it's still pretty distant from Lithuanian and much closer to standard Latvian, although the vowel differences probably make it sound weird to the untrained Latvian ear.
  27. ahvalj

    ahvalj Senior Member

  28. hargh New Member

    Hello, I am Latvian who has learned Lithuanian at quite high level.
    First I have to say that if Latvian or Lithuanian is completely new to the second Baltic language, than it would be almost impossible to have dialog between those two. They would be able to say hallo to each other, but after that it would be very hard. Written language is much easier in the beginning. After I started to study Lithuanian I was able to read some texts in Lithuanian quite fast. I think that biggest problem for Latvian is the Lithuanian pitch accents, which can make some Lithuanian spoken words unrecognizable even if Latvian could definitely understand that word in written form. Of course when you get used to Lithuanian accent it becomes much easier.
    In my opinion I would say that about 60 % of Latvian and Lithuanian words have some common roots. It is possible to get some basic understanding of Lithuanian in short period of time, but if you want to speak correctly, than it would take a lot of time.
    There are some words in Latgalian language who is more similar to Lithuanian for example:
    latviski latgaliski lietuviski
    apkārt apleik aplink
    lejup zamyn žemyn
    iekšā vydā viduj(e)
    vienmēr vysod visad(a)
    ikdienas- kasdīnys- kasdienis
    viņš jis jis
    viņa jei ji
    un i ir
    jauniete, meitene mārga mergina, merga
    ģimene saime šeima
    dzimtene tāvaine tėvynė
    priekšnieks viersinīks viršininkas
    austrumi reiti rytai
    rietumi vokori vakarai

    auksts solts šalta
    posts vuorgi vargas
    rinda aiļa eilė
    kļūda klaida klaida
    lappuse puslopa puslapis
    galotne viersyune viršūnė
    stabs stulps stulpas

    I think its little bit easier for Latgalian to learn Lithuanian, but they still need to put a lot of effort.

    If we compare mutual intelligibility between Baltic languages (Latvian and Lithuanian) and mutual intelligibility between Slavic languages (for example Russian and Serbian) than I would say that Slavic languages are more similar than Baltic languages.
  29. AndrasBP

    AndrasBP Senior Member

    Budapest, Hungary
    Thank you, ahvalj, for the radio links, it's very interesting. Latgalian sounds like an over-palatalized Latvian with shifted vowels.

    Thank you, hargh, your glossary is really interesting.

    By the way, is it very rare for Latvians to learn (or at least to be interested in) Lithuanian? What is the usual reaction of Lithuanians when you tell them you're Latvian?
    Last edited by a moderator: May 12, 2015
  30. hargh New Member

    Yes its rare. I know very few Latvians who have learned Lithuanian. Usually Latvians use English or Russian in order to communicate with Lithuanians.
    Usually Lithuanians are very friendly to me and also quite surprised. Some of them say that it sounds like I am from Samogitia (The region where dialect of Lithuanian language is spoken) There are also some who had sad to me that I am sounding little bit angry when speaking Lithuanian. I think that's because I am stressing words in a wrong way.
  31. Nellija Eva New Member

    I'm from Riga, and I can understand Latgalian very well. I would say the difference is not much bigger than for example difference between American English and the English spoken in Ireland.
  32. Holger2014 Senior Member

    Thank you, that is interesting. Listening to some of the Latgalian programs on Latvijas Radio my impression was that Latgalian sounded much more similar to Latvian than to Lithuanian but I wasn't quite sure...
  33. Jancis New Member

    I do not see anything sensitive in it! We are not looking at each other as the representatives of other nations, we are same folk. Most of native Latvians know Lithuanian as a dialect and we understand it perfectly but all fun kick in when we mix our dialects. By the way our nations has many of old stuff dialects . For example - Semigolian, Curic,Curric - livv(funny one) Latgolian (it is a language different from central latvian like Lithuanian),Semogitian, Selonian (hard to find in these days but still in use), Central Latvian - it is only few those whom I and my familly been using! In different parts of nation one word has different names and it is a very common thing in our languages specifically in Latvia.
    If you understand only the central Latvian I can safely say that one of your parents is not of nativ origin! This comparative table of translations can be usefull in capital but if you use it in province you can surelly throw out.
  34. CarmineCuor

    CarmineCuor New Member

    Lithuanian - Lithuania
    what saddens me, is that we don't learn latvian in schools, in my school we had german since the damn second grade, and english since fifth...i mean there aren;t a lot of baltic language speakers, so teaching it in schools would expand these numbers and sort of bring us closer : )
  35. Jancis New Member

    Both languages should be compulsory from primary school without any reservation and then only unversal languages such as English and German. Pretty much Latvian private schools have taken over this tradition - need to lift in the national level which has already been recommended to govorment. The main opponents to this case is the Russian minority - who call it discrimination. although many Latvians underst lithuanian. It is easy becouse the Language is based on the same footing. Our Native people are very well aware that the Lithuanians are not the neighbors - they are our blood. For example, I approach the Lithuanian language as a dialect - and I can say hell I understand it without studying it. The main thing are - we need contact with each other more frequently and more freely Imagine! We are almost 6 million....
  36. CarmineCuor

    CarmineCuor New Member

    Lithuanian - Lithuania
    ^wow, because if i read somethin in latvian, i can get the idea what it is said, but if i hear the speaking i don't really get it, strange it doesn't work both ways:D
  37. Jancis New Member

    There's a little trick - if you take a look at the roots of the words in both languages, they are essentially the same, but I have noticed that some of the meaning of the words we use a little differently like mėsa(lit) - gaļa(lat) meat - (en), BUT in latvian there is a word "miesa" - it means human or animal flesh which is basically the same. There is another trick - even 50 years ago the Latvian language sounded firmly differently than now! Even now, yet much of it is preserved a LOT, lets take for example word rowan(eng) - pīlādzis(Lat) - šermukšnis(lit), but outside Riga we call it sermukšlis or sermūkšņa. There are still thousands of the similarities between our languages, as I have said, I believe that our languages are dialects, the same way as Latgolian and Samogitian or Curric ae.
    Yea ,frankly it is difficult to understand if I hear fast lithuanian frankly there are places in Latgole in Latvia where I myself can not understand their dialect when they are speaking quickly - it is the same betwen the Latvian and Lithuanian. Well hell, more often we must go to each other and not to be afraid to talk! By the way, we have much common celebrations so it is good reason to go.
  38. sysrqsysrq New Member


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