• linguanatolinapl


Richard Butterwick-Pawlikowski is Professor of Polish-Lithuanian History at University College London and Visiting Professor at the College of Europe. In 2014-20 he held the European Civilization Chair at the Natolin Campus. His most recent book is "The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth 1733-1795: Light and Flame", published by Yale University Press in 2020.

Heading east from Warsaw, after about a hundred kilometres we cross into lands that once belonged to

the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. During the fourteenth century this was Europe’s largest empire. Its rulers

were pagans, as were the fighters, foresters, farmers and followers of the Lithuanian heartlands. Their

spoken language was Lithuanian, an ancient offshoot of the Indo-European linguistic family, which has

preserved many archaic features. Its resemblances to ancient Sanskrit have long been noted by scholars.

The closest tongue to Lithuanian is Samogitian, still spoken in the western half of Lithuania. Is this a

dialect of Lithuanian, a product of a distinctive historical trajectory, or a separate language, which

branched off from proto-Baltic? Either way, it is much closer to standard Lithuanian than the other surviving

Baltic tongues – Latvian and Latgolan (the latter is spoken in the south-east of Latvia, and analogous

arguments contest its status as language or dialect). The other Baltic languages, which once spread over a

much larger area, are extinct. Some, like old Prussian, are known imperfectly from preserved lexicons;

others, like Yotvingian, have been reconstructed by linguists. The decisive factor in these tongues’ survival or disappearance was the impact of the crusading orders on the Baltic region. During the thirteenth century, they imposed Catholic Christianity by fire and sword. In the lands now in north-eastern Poland, the Teutonic Order dispossessed the Prussians, Yotvingians and other tribes. In the process, it all but

destroyed these peoples and their cultures; the last native-speakers probably died from the plague in the

early eighteenth century. Further north, the conquest of what is now Latvia and Estonia by the Livonian

branch of the Order left many more of the local Balticand Ugro-Finnic speaking peoples in place, albeit as

unfree serfs of German-speaking lords and bishops. Germanophone burghers also settled towns such as


The Lithuanians,

better protected by swamps and forests than their neighbours, were next in line. They resisted fiercely, although Samogitia sometimes disappeared into the jaws of the Teutonic Order. Crucial to the Lithuanians’ survival was their rulers’ ability to draw on the resources of Rus'. After the Tatars or Mongols had devastated these territories in the mid-thirteenth century, the rulers of Lithuania had taken most of the Ruthenian princely thrones. Junior members of the dynasty usually adopted the local faith, laws and customs. For, unlike Lithuanian, ruskii or Ruthenian (from which descend modern Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian) had since the end of the tenth century been a written language of high status. So the grand duke of Lithuania (velikii hospodar to his Ruthenian, Orthodox Christian subjects) employed scribes. He needed a chancellery to issue letters, charters and decrees in Ruthenian, Latin and German, as well as Old Church Slavonic.

Diplomacy intensified as the grand dukes confronted the geopolitical imperative of baptism.

The Lithuanian-speaking pagan lords were the most reluctant to be immersed in the Ruthenian-speaking

Orthodox world. The alternative was to accept Latinrite Roman Catholic Christianity. Rather than submit

to the Teutonic Order, Grand Duke Jogaila (Jagiełło) married the young heiress of neighbouring Poland,

whose king he became in 1386, inaugurating the union which evolved and endured until the third partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795. The long relationship encouraged the spread of the Polish language among the Lithuanian and Ruthenian elites. The social and cultural attractions of Polish grew as it became a language of literature and law during the sixteenth century, supplementing Latin. The law of the Grand Duchy, however, was still written in the language known to philologists as old Belarusian, but in its own context as Chancery Ruthenian. This was salted with Old Church Slavonic, Polish and Latin. It diverged so greatly from the ruskii spoken in Muscovy that the sixteenth-century statutes of the Grand Duchy later had to be translated into the (Great) Russian language. Lithuanian, in contrast, was only sporadically written down, mainly by Protestant Reformers aiming to bring the Word of God to the

common folk. Its usage contracted among Lithuanian nobles (more slowly in Samogitia), although it

remained essential for Catholic priests in the countryside. Despite this cultural osmosis, as well as

the shared institutions of the joint Commonwealth from 1569 onwards, Lithuanian political identity

proved tenacious.

Susi Radman, Old Horizons, Photograph, 2021.

The Grand Dukes encouraged migration into their lands, granting foreigners privileges even before1386. Their capital city of Vilnius (Vil'na or Vil'nia in ruskii, Wilna in German, Wilno in Polish, Vilne in

Yiddish) became a thriving emporium, with German, Ruthenian and Jewish quarters in the growing town

adjoining the court and Catholic cathedral (most of whose cosmopolitan chapter came from Poland). The

sixteenth century brought many Italian artists, medics and scholars. In contrast, most of the Scotsspeaking

settlers in the Grand Duchy were traders and artisans – they assimilated quite rapidly. Jews became especially numerous; Ashkenazim from Germany found security and autonomy in Lithuania

and Poland. They mostly spoke Yiddish, with Hebrew reserved for sacred purposes. Many fewer in number

were the Karaites, who still survive in small communities in Trakai and Vilnius. Originating from

the northern shores of the Black Sea, they professed an Islamic-influenced variant of Judaism without the

Torah. Muslim Tatars were settled on landed estates in return for military service. They lost their own

Turkic language, but they used Arabic script to write down sacred texts in Ruthenian or Polish.

Such was the polyglot Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Its society was diverse and generally peaceable, but far

from equal. Most people could communicate at different levels in more than one language (and

sometimes in several) depending on the circumstances. After the destruction of the Polish-

Lithuanian Commonwealth, rival modern nationalisms identified languages with nations and nation-states in more exclusive ways. Since the nineteenth century, Lithuanian has become a grammatically and lexically purified literary and legal language, as it has fought its way back, against the odds, at the expense of Polish and Russian. The Republic of Lithuania’s linguistic authorities now struggle to hold back the inundation of global English.