If you’re a fan of science fiction, you’ve most likely read a story or ten that has to do with time travel – it’s one of the most fascinating subjects in fiction. Some people find it annoying because it simultaneously creates incredible complexity into plots, often making them nearly impossible to understand. Others find it annoying because it is often used to explain away poor plotting decisions – after all, when the hero can simply nip back an hour in time and change everything, what’s the point?
Language is like a time machine, in a way. Not only does language capture the details of the past in written documents and other texts, but language itself can be a living, breathing embodiment of the past that can give us a vivid idea of the way things were long before our time. Lithuanian is a language that is one of the most interesting time-travelling languages in the world, because it’s possibly the most ‘conservative’ language in existence – meaning that if you want to know what the language people in Europe spoke thousands of years ago sounded like, just find someone who speaks Lithuanian.
Lithuanian is an oddball in many ways. Although it only shows up in written records relatively recently (around the beginning of the 16th Century) it’s a language that retains a great many of the archaic structures that other Indo-European languages have shed. That’s why we refer to it as a ‘conservative’ language – because it has resisted change so effectively over the centuries. This means that it’s similar to the languages people spoke in pre-history.
In fact, Lithuanian is even more unique – it’s one of two surviving members of the Baltic family of languages, along with Latvian. Even more interesting, despite being very closely linked and similar in many ways, Latvian and Lithuanian are not mutually intelligible at all. The most popular theory about this suggests that Baltic and Slavic languages merged a long, long time ago with the exception of Lithuanian and Latvian (and extinct members of the Baltic branch, like Old Prussian). And people wonder why I find languages and translation services such fascinating subjects.
Today, Lithuanian remains a fairly important language in Europe. Spoken by about three and a half million people in the world, it’s also one of the official languages of the European Union. But even if it didn’t have this economic and political clout it would remain an important language due to its unique status as the world’s Time Machine, showing us what things sounded like long before anyone thought to start writing things down.
If you’re every curious about the world before history started taking note of things, find some Lithuanian recordings and let your imagination roam – imagine you’re listening to someone thousands of years ago.
Image courtesy vintagehydrangeas.blogspot.com