Francis Young

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Article published about the legendary origins of the Lithuanian language

Latin inscription on a coin of Sigismund II Augustus, Grand Duke of Lithuania (1555)

My article ‘Lingua semilatina: de fabulata origine linguae Lituanicae apud auctores saeculi sexti decimi’ (‘A semi-Latin language: on the legendary origin of the Lithuanian language according to 16th-century authors’) has just appeared in the Latin language journal Vox Latina, which is published by the University of Saarland. The article explores the myth that developed from the late Middle Ages onwards that the Lithuanian language was a debased form of Latin, since the Lithuanians were supposedly descended from Romans who went astray on their return from Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain. The myth is interesting because it reveals the extent to which late medieval and early modern Lithuanian scholars (and scholars of other nations with knowledge of Lithuanian) recognised the distinctive and archaic features of the Lithuanian language – even if their explanation for these features was the wrong one. In reality, the occasional superficial similarities between Lithuanian and Latin derive from the fact that both are conservative and inflected descendants of a proto-Indo-European language. Nevertheless, Lithuanian and Latin belong to quite separate Indo-European language families.

The myth of Lithuanian’s origins in Latin is historically significant because it was one reason why Lithuanian scholars avoided writing in their native tongue for a very long time. Lithuanian scholars tended to write in Latin not only because it was the universal scholarly language of Europe but also because they believed it was the ‘Classical form’ of their own native language, Lithuanian, which they believed was a form of Latin corrupted by Gothic. Educated Lithuanians’ reluctance to use their own language had a deleterious effect on the development of Lithuanian national identity, especially after the Union of Lublin (1569) when Polish was often used as a literary vernacular but very little was published in Lithuanian. By contrast, the discovery by 19th-century linguists that Lithuanian was an extraordinarily archaic survivor of early Indo-European languages – a sort of linguistic ‘living fossil’ – had significant consequences for Lithuanian aspirations to restored nationhood at a time when Lithuania was oppressed within the Russian Empire.

This is my first Latin language article.

One comment on “Article published about the legendary origins of the Lithuanian language

  1. Joan Abrams
    April 28, 2020

    Fascinating Francis. I remember how involved you were with all things Lithuanian when you were beginning your writing career….

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This entry was posted on April 27, 2020 by .