I’m back to reading Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy, and on page 73 he says “in Lithuania, which for so long had been dominated by the Poles, a national language was also developed during the latter half of the nineteenth century (just to spite the Poles it was based on the Czech alphabet) and a native literature began to appear.” On first glance this Pole-spiting business looks like one of those wacky linguistic legends—for one thing, the Lithuanian alphabet has ogoneks beneath its nasal vowels, just like Polish (though they call them nosinė)—but it’s true they use hacheks on their consonants like Czech. Anybody know if there’s any truth to this rumor?


  1. A similar statement is made in Timothy Snyder’s Reconstruction of Nations, and I’m inclined to believe it, since the book further comments on how Lithuanian national activists had worked with and taken as an example Czech national activists.
    At that time, they had many similarities (Czechs trying to come out from under the shadow of the Germans, Lithuanians likewise from the Russians and Poles).
    However, it goes further, stating that initially Poles borrowed from Czech orthography, but while Czechs began using hacheks and whatnot, the Poles maintained the Old Czech orthography of “cz” for “ch” and so on.
    That does explain the hacheks, but where the ogoneks came from, I couldn’t say.

  2. michael farris says

    Also, the ogoneks may have been markers of nasalization at one time, but in the modern language IIRC they’re one of the ways long vowels are marked. That is, nasalization disappeared but the formerly nasalized vowels are long.

  3. Figes is probably referring to Norman Davies’s God’s Playground: A History of Poland Volume 2 (“1795 to the Present”), page 70, which speaks of “the establishment of a Lithuanian orthography which, to spite the Poles, was based on the Czech alphabet.” As far as I can see, no further references are given.
    This essay by Tomas Venclova,Native Realm Revisited:
    Mickiewicz’s Lithuania and Mickiewicz in Lithuania
    , might also be of interest. It documents the attempts of the 19th century author and nationalist Daukantas to establish a literature in Lithuanian: “His ambition was to resurrect the language and to create a distinct sense of Lithuanian identity based on linguistic criteria, and he proceeded towards this goal almost single-handedly: to generate the impression that there were many Lithuanian authors, he produced books under several pseudonyms. Most of these books remained unprinted, but they were read, copied and discussed.”
    Later, Venclova writes:
    “This semantic and ideological shift [in Lithuanian] occurred after Mickiewicz’s death – to be precise, after the uprising of 1863, when social developments in the eastern half of the former Commonwealth resulted in the birth of the Lithuanian-speaking educated strata of peasant origin. It conducted a linguistic revolution, analogous to simultaneous revolutions in Czech or Finnish lands: a standardized language was forged out of many peasant dialects, and a new community of writers and readers in the Lithuanian language crystallized. Repressive reality led to the over-semantization of the language phenomenon. Lithuanian, which had already been described by Mickiewicz and many others as the oldest language of the continent, the relic of the ancient Indo-European period and the vessel of vaguely defined spiritual truths, obtained a mythical prestige: it referred to the lost sacral world of harmony and freedom – to put it otherwise, that world was still present in the language, if only in an embryonic form. Moreover, following Daukantas’s example, Lithuanian intellectuals interpreted the social conflict between peasants and upper classes primarily as a language conflict. Language had to give a clear-cut, legible contour to the identity of the Lithuanian people. According to the old Romantic belief, it was declared the most decisive and hierarchically the highest element of that identity: contamination of the language signified impending annihilation of the group and its culture. Language was hypostatized: it took the place of the individual, it could be victimized and even martyred. The rights of language substituted for civic rights, hence the tendency for linguistic purism, usually directed against Polish borrowings, syntactical patterns and even orthography. (One may add that even Lithuanian versification became a sort of ideological construct: Mickiewicz’s syllabic poems were translated employing syllabotonic, that is, emphatically non-Polish verse).”

  4. A good article, except for the Indo-European fallacy. As we know, Lithuanian is the farthest outlier of the Dravidian languages.
    The Russian musical nationalists of the “kuchka” (Musorgsky et al) were primarily pro-French and anti-German, and secondarily anti-Polish. They had hopes for the Czechs, but Smetena angered Balakirev somehow and they decided that the Czechs were too Germanized.
    Balakirev was easily angered, and the nationalist/ Germanist split among the Russian composers was largely his doing.

  5. michael farris says

    “as we know, Lithuanian is the farthest outlier of the Dravidian languages.”
    And not Basque after all? I seem to remember that Lietuva is analysable as a word in basque with the morpheme divisions “li-e-tu-va”
    e-let us
    va-very foolish

  6. At the time of the Polish (or Polish-Lithuanian) uprising of 1863-5, most of the Lithuanian part of the former Commonwealth was known as the Northwestern Region in Russia and consisted of six provinces (губерний), of which two would later become part of Lithuania, and the rest, part of Belarus. M.N. Muraviev, the man who was in charge of suppressing the rebellion (earning himself the nickname, “hangman”), believed the driving force of the uprising, and thus the most dangerous element to Russian rule and public peace, were Polish-speaking Catholic landowners. On the contrary, he saw “Russian,” or, rather, Belarusian peasants, Greek Orthodox or Greek Catholic, as a support base. His program was that of de-Polonization, even to the point of land transfers from Polish nobles to Belarusian peasants. Lithuanian peasants were a special case. On the one hand, they, like Belarusians, were to some degree exploited by Polonized landowners. On the other hand, they were mostly Catholics and spoke a language that was neither Polish nor “Russian”. Muraviev probably thought of them as de-Russified Slavs or some such odd species so he allowed Lithuanian to be taught in some parts of ethnic Lithuania — in opposition to Polish — but he decreed that Lithuanian only use Cyrillic script (hence “book smugglers”). Thr ban must have also helped the “hypostatization” of the language, which was brutally victimized as it were by the ban on Latin.
    Muraviev’s idea of Russian and Lithuanian (to a lesser degree) as peasant, thus genuine languages, as opposed to Polish, the (adopted) language of the aristocracy, probably owes much to Daukantas.

  7. Oh by the way, if you’ve heard modern Lithuanian, you’ll probably agree it is intonationally and, perhaps, phonetically closer to Russian that to Polish — when all you can hear is speech but separate words, you may mistake Lithuanian for Russian. (Latvian is quite different.) Small wonder that Lithuanians opted, like Russians, for syllabotonic verse. (Russian poets tried Polish-style syllabic verse in the 17th and 18th century but abandoned it with Trediakovsky and Lomonosov in the mid-18th century. You may find examples of Russian tonic poems in the 20th century, but syllabic, hardly.) On the contrary, the Russian ear perceives spoken Polish (and some varieties of Ukrainian) as highly musical — a flowing melody of sorts — as opposed to the clipped, staccatoed, rhythmically ragged Russian speech. “Singing” Russian speech is a marker of a Ukrainian or Jewish-Ukrainian accent.

  8. Anti-Polish sentiment is structural in Gogol’s Taras Bulba and Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov (1873 version especially).

  9. a national language was also developed during the latter half of the nineteenth century (just to spite the Poles it was based on the Czech alphabet)
    Pet peeve alert: Is it just me or did the author confuse language with its writing system?
    As for the háčeks and ogoneks, I do vaguely remember a Czech involvement in the early years of Lithuanian national awakening. I would turn my eyes towards religion. In many Eastern European countries, the Protestants were the ones to start writing and printing books in the local languages and many of them were inspired by the Czechs. Besides Martinus Masvidius, does anyone know anything about the history of Lithuanian (counter-) reformation and printing?

  10. TNY: what’s important here is not general anti-Polish, anti-Cathloic sentiment (essential to Taras Bul’ba but not to BG) but specifically the notion — shared by some of the nascent Lithuanian intelligentsia and the Russian imperial government in the 19th century — that the Polonized gentry in the former Grandduchy of Lithuania was the root of all evil.

  11. I like the 1869 BG without the Polish Act better, so in that sense it’s not essential. I think it’s pretty central to the 1972 version, though.

  12. Isn’t Polish the only Slavic or Baltic language to preserve an older-style orthography with w=v, etc.? All the South Slavic Latin languages also use spellings closer to modern Czech.

  13. The Czech alphabet was apparently developed by Jan Hus.
    He was burned at the stake, a martyr for orthography. But all anyone ever talks about is Galileo, who was unharmed by the Inquisition.

  14. Isn’t Polish the only Slavic or Baltic language to preserve an older-style orthography with w=v
    Sorbian does so, too.

  15. The New Yorker, you’ll be wanting the heretic discussion.

  16. Coming in a little late here, with only a little bit to add from The History of the Lithuanian Language, which frustratingly does not have an index.
    The first book in Lithuanian was published in Prussia by Martynas Mažvydas (Martinus Masvidius mentioned by bulbul — Zinkevičius’ book has some of the history you seek) in 1547. As you’d expect from early printing, his orthography was not consistent. He spelled š as ʃch, ʃʃ, or ʃ and ž as ß or ʒ.
    The language in Lithuania Major (Vilnius) was more directly under Polish influence.
    In 1639, the “Visuotinis potvarkis” (Universal decree) was issued requiring the [German] clergy who spoke Lithuanian to prepare a grammar and dictionary. This was done by Danielius Kleinas, who probably spoke Lithuanian as his first language. He also knew Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, Polish, Czech, and French. This laid a solid foundation for the orthography. I cannot find an explicit statement, but perhaps this used the hachek, which as mentioned above was invented by Jan Hus in the 15th century (actually it was a dot at first) and used in Czech, Slovak, Slovene, Latvian, Lithuanian, and even sometimes Polish.
    In 1856, August Schleicher published his Litauische Grammatik. He chose an orthography which did not conflict with the one already in use in Lithuania Minor.
    In 1861, Jonas Juška published the first Lithuanian grammar in Russian occupied Lithuania. He initially followed Schleicher, but then introduced other dialect forms. He wanted to reform and normalize orthography: he tried to replace sz, cz, w, ł with š, č, v, l.
    After the revolts of 1831 and especially 1863, the Czarist General Mikhail Muraviev (mentioned above by Alexei) took steps to stop Polonization in Lithuania and replace it with Russification. He closed Polish schools and opened Russian ones. He imported Russians to replace deported rebels. And in particular he resolved to change the Lithuanian alphabet (then 300 years old) to Cyrillic, ostensibly because it was Polish. The books he had printed in Cyrillic and given away free were burned. He then banned printing in the Latin script. So books were printed abroad and brought in by the knygnešiai (book smugglers — again mentioned by Alexei). The ban was repealed in 1904. Of course the net effect was to increase Polish influence.
    The first national newspaper Aušra, during the period of nationalism at the end of the 19th century, tried unsuccessfully to introduce š and č.
    Attempts at orthographic standardization between the World Wars went too far in proposed reforms, such as ā, ē, ī, and ū for long vowels. This provoked enough popular backlash that the standardization failed completely.
    Stalinist Russia again attempted a vigorous Russification. So in some real sense Lithuanian language renaissance is only a couple decades old.
    So, while I do get a picture of changing influences and alliances with Poland, Germany, and Russia, I don’t see any point at which Czechia was a direct influence. It’s quite possible that the final victory of the pan-Slavic Latin orthography over the Polish one was motivated by anti-Polish sentiment and that Czech was mentioned explicitly in the debate. But it’s by no means a change made overnight out of spite.
    Oh, and yes, ogoneks do indicate etymological n’s. But it’s not as productive as in Slavic languages. It does not occur with m and it does not happen in all positions. The denasalization into just long vowels occurred mainly after the appearance of writing, in the 17th and 18th centuries. But it had started already before the first written texts, based on inconsistencies that appear throughout.

  17. Yeah, and Jogaila betrayed Zizka too. After all Zizka had done for him.

  18. To this anglophone ear, which could listen to East Slavic all day (though without understanding it), an hour of Polish (equally not understood) was a miserable experience in tedium spent on a bench at the doctor’s office — probably due to the consistent penultimate stress and lack of vowel reduction.

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