Occupied Languages: The Story of Lithuanian

Lithuanian castle

How does a small country weather the tumultuous history of Europe while maintaining its culture, identity and language? How does it navigate through wars, occupation, annexations and the commotion of the 20th and 21st centuries while continuing to evolve as a society?

Lithuania is a small, Northern European country on the Baltic Sea, known as one of the Baltic republics together with Latvia and Estonia. It counts a little over 3 million people with 600,000 living abroad.

The history of Lithuania is not very different from that of other communities caught in the power struggle that ravaged and shaped the European panorama over the centuries. What is unique, in my opinion, is how Lithuania managed to resist and come back with its own identity and language basically intact in the 20th century.

To understand the resilience of the Lithuanian language, we need take a brief look at this country’s turbulent history.

Lithuania can trace its own distinct, separate identity, back many centuries. Its first settlers were old Indo-European peoples that, due to geographic isolation, were able to keep their traditions and language relatively unchanged. These first Baltic tribes arrived around 3,000 BC and organized themselves into a state, which resulted in the creation of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy in the 13th century. The Grand Duchy lasted until the 16th century when Lithuania united with Poland.

Here begins the influence of foreign powers on Lithuania and its language. For two centuries, Lithuania and Poland formed a commonwealth and Lithuania went through a renaissance of the arts, culture and language. During this time period, language use came to be defined by class: the Polish language was predominant among the nobility while Lithuanian remained in use by the peasants.

The Lithuanian language took another blow during Russian Imperial Rule (1795-1918) when its use was basically banned in favor of Russian. Printed material could only be in Russian and schooling was conducted in Russian.

During the Russian rule, a powerful national revival movement started. What’s interesting in this chapter of Lithuanian history is that the rebel Polish-speaking nobility needed the help of the Lithuanian-speaking peasants to fight the Russians. As the rebels became more and more influential politically, the Lithuanian language returned as the national language and helped the Lithuanian people identify themselves again as an ethnicity speaking the same language.

In 1940, Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union and became an occupied country with an occupied language. Lithuanian was not banned, fortunately, but Russian was the de facto language of innovation — all novelties, news and education came to Lithuanians through Russian. But Lithuanians did not abandon their language or their dream of becoming a small, independent country again. Indeed, they were the first country to declare their independence from the USSR in 1990.

Today, Lithuanian (along with Latvian) is one of the closest living languages to Proto Indo European — the “mother” language from which all Indo European languages derive. Remarkably, Lithuanian is as close to this original language as Latin, Old Greek or Sanskrit. In contrast, languages like French, English and German have undergone many more changes throughout the centuries. That’s why you will hear that Lithuanian is an “old” or “conservative” language.

What I admire about this story is how Lithuanians managed to preserve their language and cultural identity in the face of great adversity. They never relinquished their dreams of freedom or allowed their language to be extinguished by occupying forces.

Newly independent, Lithuanians found a way to adapt to a world that had changed dramatically during their many occupations, reinventing themselves as a republic and a free people. In the same way, they managed to adapt their language to a new, open world. Translators were trained in English and other source languages instead of Russian. The Language Academy invented terms in Lithuanian to avoid importing loads of English or foreign words. New Lithuanian terminology was born almost overnight. 

For a language that was not accustomed to change and the “deformations” that it can bring, Lithuanian’s pace of adaption to modern times is remarkable. Some find this exciting, others worrisome. The debate will surely continue for some time. I look forward to seeing what the future holds for one of the world’s most resilient languages.



I'd like to extend special thanks to Lithuanian oncologist Jurgita Carbone who contributed to this blog post.


Subscribe to this blog

RSS feed

About this blog

Smart, fun and useful. Acclaro shares news and tips on translation, localization, language, global business and culture.


software cost tips technology & localization industry language entertainment southeast asia arabic website marketing mobile acclaro languages of the world acclaro localization and translation services acclaro world language map world language map arts sports & culture europe eastern europe africa french international business north america latin america middle east swedish asia german chinese documents case study localization retail quality transcreation spanish south america italian english ecard networking portuguese romance languages japanese staffing technology machine translation cost savings acclaro games language apps elearning localization multimedia translation multimedia localization elearning translation training translation ecommerce localization bitcoin cryptocurrency global ecommerce bitcoin regulation bitcoin exchanges china chinese translation chinese localization beijing localization cantonese and mandarin translations translation for business in china business translation in chinese top retail markets in the world new retail openings retail markets acclaro black friday cyber monday cyber week cyber monday woche single’s day bachelor’s day holiday shopping online borderfree doorbuster sales global holiday ecommerce healthcare initiative spanish healthcare cuidadodesalud.gov mt case study mobile apps mobile app translation app store optimization aso mobile app thai translation ecommerce in asia valentine’s day valentines in japan valentines in south korea chinese valentine’s day singles day translation project fitbit visualiq gibson mardi gras food localization globalization consulting localization staffing localization recruiting startups global scalability international ecommerce international payment international order fulfillment global online shopping acclaro april fool’s stories usaapril fool’s stories germany april fool’s stories ecommerce ecommerce design wine translation marketing translation english remains the dominant language in the united states but almost one in five americans speaks a language other than english at home. are you missing out on customers who are more comfortable doing business in languages other than english? read on to learn how your company can profit from translation within the united states. translation myths translation mistakes international translation misconceptions translation errors translation process translating startups marketing translations translation marketing international social media qa quality assurance quality translations global apps app localization app translation app store translation global startups international app launch press release translation international press release global pr global press release press release localization kontax translate news international marketing video localization video translation video translation agency brazil brazilian portuguese english-to-portuguese translation boston translation services boston web translation boston translation agency global branding international branding global brand evaluation lithuanian translation lithuanian language translation adapt to lithuanian translators translation ecommerce in india business travel business travel apps international banking financial services translation marketing transcreation international copywriting website translation website localization japanese translation english-to-japanese translation japanese translation services translation solutions web localization mobile app localization iphone 6 glocal global brands translation services translation agency translation partner global content marketing localization world business case for translation