First Impressions Of The Lithuanian Language

avatarMille Larsen
6 mins read

I have long had intentions of learning about Lithuania, its culture, and its language, since that is an important part of my own heritage. This fall, I finally have plans to travel to Lithuania and start to connect with the culture that has been passed down from my immigrant great-grandparents to my to father, and down to me.

In preparation for that trip, I want to learn some basic Lithuanian. I don't expect to become fluent, but I do expect to learn the 10 most important things to survive in any language. And I don't want it to get in the way of my success with Italian this year.

So I've picked up a Lithuanian phrasebook and pocket dictionary, and I'm going to spend a little time learning basic Lithuanian. The first thing I did was what I always do with a new language — I took a look at the grammar and basic makeup of the language to get an idea of what's ahead.

Lithuanian language resources (update)

Just as a quick update for those of you who asked which resources I found most helpful for learning Lithuanian.

There isn't a lot available, but the courses and resources I think are absolutely essential are:

  1. Pimsleur (absolute best audio course I've used)
  2. Mondly (excellent app for learning Lithuanian)
  3. Preply or italki (both are great sites for finding Lithuanian teachers and conversation partners)

I wish I could add more to this list, but these are the most useful Lithuanian resources I've come across.

The Lithuanian alphabet

The alphabet is a modified Latin alphabet, with decorated consonants to represent sounds typically formed by digraphs in English. Anyone with Esperanto experience will be immediately comfortable with these new characters, and there is nothing unusual about their sounds. (Č = ch. Š = sh. Ž = zh.) Also, Lithuanian uses the same convention as Slavic languages regarding the letter c, which is pronounced as a /ts sound.

There are 12 vowels: a, ą, e, ę, ė, i, į, y, o, u, ų, and ū. At first, that sounds utterly ridiculous, but it's actually not a big deal. After I learned about palatization, for instance, Russian's 10 vowels didn't seem so hard. Well, Lithuanian does have palatization, but it's not marked with the vowels. Instead, the nosinė vowels (those with the little tail) are long vowels. The tail is left over from a time when they used to be nasalized.

As I said, palatization does happen in Lithuanian. Any consonant followed by the short vowel i becomes palatized. And any vowel paired with an i becomes a dipthong, so that (for example) a combination such as eu would be prounouced as the separate vowels "eh" and "oo", but the combination iu is pronounced as the dipthong "yoo".

Lithuanian grammar

The Lithuanian language is the oldest Indo-European language still in use, and it has a reputation for being unnecessarily difficult, as it retains many of the original features of it's linguistic ancestors Latin and Sanskrit. With that reputation, I was expecting it to be quite a challenge. So it was nice to discover that it's actually not so bad.

There are only two genders — masculine and feminine — which is immediately comforting. And possessive do not reflect gender, so that's really easy, although Lithuanian does have the magical seventh possessive savo, which always refers to the subject of the sentence.

There are seven noun cases to decline, so that's a bit daunting. After learning Russian, and spending time studying Ukrainian and Polish, Lithuanian doesn't seem terribly difficult by comparison. But I can imagine how seven noun cases and two genders would likely be a big hurdle for anyone just learning.

Verb aspects work the same as Slavic languages, with root verbs being imperfective, and becoming perfective by addition of familiar-sounding prefixes.
Conjugation, however, is unfortunately more similar to European languages, with full conjugations for each verb tense, rather than the simple gender-based past tense.

Word order is typically subject-verb-object (SVO), although in practice it can be pretty free, as is typically the case in noun-declined languages. Words placed at the end of a sentence are understood to have more logical stress.

General impressions

Just reading a few basic phrases, I was able to recognize the many Slavic cognates, revealing Lithuanian's role as the parent of modern Slavic languages. It is easy to see the word draugas and be reminded of the Russian word друг (droog), meaning "friend". And the word diena sounds like день (dien') meaning "day". And the word prašom sounds like the Polish word proshe, meaning "please".

The verb eiti sounds similar the Russian идти to me, and has the same meaning. Furthermore, adding prefixes at-, iš-, and nu- modifies the meaning in the same ways as от-, из-, and на-, respectively. So to a certain extent, I don't find it to be particularly intimidating.

However, there are also a large number of stark differences. In spite of several things that could make learning easier, the majority of words bear no notable resemblance to words in languages that I currently know. And while pronunciation is somewhat consistent, there are no clear-cut rules about where the stress falls, making it important to hear words pronounced when learning them. And as with any language, there are several sound combinations that sound strange to my ear.

A new challenge?

On my post about the 10 most important things to know, to get by in any language, a commenter suggested that I put that advice to the test and report back on my experience. I've got a few months before the trip so that should be enough time for me to learn those basics without interfering too much with my Italian studies.

This seems like a good opportunity for that kind of experiment, so that's my plan. There is a small (but existent) Lithuanian community here in Chicago, including one of my coworkers, so I can make opportunities to test my retention of words and phrases, and pronunciation.

Probably the hardest part will be actually limiting myself to just the vocabulary in my 10 things. Fortunately, my ongoing Italian studies should keep that in check.