Languages in the Contact Zone: An Insight into the Origins of Baltic-Finnic Languages

by Krister SK Vasshus

The Baltic languages are considered to be archaic due to the the similarity of their features to the linguistic ancestor of the modern Indo-European (IE) languages: the Proto-Indo-European language. Lithuanian is thought to be the most conservative off all IE languages spoken today.

The history of the Baltic languages isn’t straightforward; the modern Latvian language has, in some sense, several ancestors, and it is unclear to what degree the Baltic branch is related to the Slavic branch of languages.

It is unknown whether the Finno-Ugric speakers or the Baltic speakers settled first in the Baltikum, but both language groups have been present for some 4000 years, according to archaeological, genetic, and linguistic findings. The Baltic languages were spoken in North-eastern Europe, roughly in the areas between Berlin and Moscow 2000 – 3000 years ago. When Slavic languages started spreading across Eastern Europe around the half of the 1st millennium  AD, it was at the expense of the Baltic and Finno-Ugric languages. Starting from the Viking age, there was also an expansion of Germanic influence, although not in the same manner as the Slavic expansion. Germanic influence came through Viking dominion, Hanseatic trade, and Teutonic dominion.

This situation, where four different groups of language have been meeting and mingling, resulted in some interesting language features. A good example is the initial stress pattern within the Latvian language, whereas other IE languages have a free stress pattern. The Latvian initial stress originates from a strong influence by the Livonian language, a Baltic-Finnic language that today has almost become extinct. The Livs, the ethnic group speaking this language, are now confined to the North-western part of the country. Finnic languages, like Livonian, have their stress on the first syllable, and for such a feature to be absorbed into a genetically different language, there must have been a large degree of contact. What this means is that Latvian at one point was spoken with a Livonian accent.  Why this has happened  is difficult to say. The Livs must have abandoned their native language at one point on such a large scale in favour of their neighbour’s language that their pronounciation became the norm of how Latvian should be pronounced.

Another example of how the language contact has manifested itself is the significant number of vocabulary of Germanic origin. These words come from several languages stretching  as far back as 3000 years ago, toup until the 19th century. In Latvian you find words such as stabs (pole), kungs (mister), zapte (jam), and bikses (trousers), which are all derived from Germanic words at various stages. Another interesting loan seems to be the verb runāt, ‘to speak’, which possibly is derived from the Germanic word for runes. A change from meaning ‘writing’ to ‘speaking’ must have taken place somewhere on the way from Germanic to Baltic. Even the word ‘Baltic’ can in all likelihood trace its origin back to an Old Danish word meaning either ‘belt’ or ‘strait’, referring to the shape of the Baltic gulf. According to Adam von Bremen, this gulf was indeed called Baltic by the inhabitants due to the similarity of its shape to a belt. But the gulf has many names. In Scandinavian, German, Finnish and Sami, the names of the gulf all literally mean ‘the eastern sea’. In Estonian it is called Läänemeri, meaning ‘the western sea’, whereas the old Russian name More Varjažskoe means ‘sea of the Varyags’. The Varyags are the Vikings who eventually settled in Novgorod and Kiev. In Latvian, the gulf has been called Lielā jūra, ‘the big sea’, as opposed to Mazā jūra, ‘the little sea’, referring to the Riga bay.

As mentioned, Latvian is a language with several “parents”. It became a distinct language in the 16th century as a development from the Latgalian language, which absorbed various features from other neighbouring Baltic languages. These languages were Curonian, Semigallian and Selonian, which were once separate languages that now have become  extinct.

These are just a few examples of how one of the languages in the Baltic region can be seen  a result of intense language contact between several languages over a long period of time. The examples still give a representative view of how a language develops, and how it is influenced by other languages.

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