Dabbling on the Livonian coast

united-kingdomOver the past few months, I’ve lost my way a bit when it comes to language learning. I’ve been jumping around from project to project like a madman, never really getting anywhere with anything. But I do love a good dabble, and although I’ve not really attained any sort of deep knowledge about any particular language or topic, the breadth of my knowledge has increased somewhat dramatically. I’ve learned the French word for ‘ticklish’, and the Scots Gaelic word for ‘digital’. I’ve even picked up a few things about levels of politeness in Japanese, and their frankly baffling array of personal pronouns. As part of this period of dabbling, I stumbled across something I’d never heard of before – Livonian.

Skärmavbild 2019-09-01 kl. 20.43.01
The Livonian flag

Livonian is a Finno-Ugric language closely related to Estonian which was spoken in and around the gulf of Riga in Latvia. There are varying reports, but it seems that the last native Livonian speaker – a woman named Grizelda Kristiņa – died in Canada in 2013, but since then it’s undergone a bit of a revival. According to the Livonian Institute (Lībiešu Institūts) at the University of Latvia, there are currently around 200 Livonian speakers at an A1-A2 level, and around 40 at the level of B1 and upwards. This may not seem like a hell of a lot, but it’s definitely a good start!

As you may know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, I’ve dabbled in both Estonian and Finnish (with vastly different degrees of success) so I did have a semi-decent grounding when it came to experimenting with the joys of Livonian. The first thing I noticed is that there aren’t many resources if you don’t already speak Latvian or Estonian – but there is one Facebook page I’ve been following called Līvõ Kēļ (which, incidentally, is just the name of the Livonian language in Livonian), which posts short phrases in Livonian with an illustration and both Latvian and English translation. If you’re a grammar nerd like me, this gives you enough to take away and dissect to see how the thing whole fits together.

If you’re only got experience within one specific language family (as I am with the Germanic languages), sometimes stepping outside that can be a bit of a culture shock (What do you mean there’s no declension of nouns in French?!) I have to say, compared to that… Livonian is something else altogether. Take, for example, the following sentence:

Skärmavbild 2019-09-01 kl. 20.31.24

Now, there’s no verb ‘to have’ in Livonian, as in the other Finno-Ugric languages I’ve studied (which, admittedly, is only two). In Finnish and Estonian, you take the adessive form of the personal pronoun (in this case ‘I’, which would be minulla and minul respectively) and use it with the verb ‘to be’ (olla and olema/olla respectively). Not so in Livonian, as Livonian only has eight grammatical cases and thus no adessive case; so Livonian takes the dative – minā becomes minnõn. This is coupled with the present tense, third person singular form of the verb vȱlda (‘to be’) – in other words, um. So if you look at it objectively and take into account what you know about what the different cases usually imply, the phrase minnõn um could easily mean ‘towards me is’, but in actuality it means ‘I have’. But that’s not the only unusual thing here – you may have noticed that we’re using the singular form of the verb to be, not the plural, even though we’re talking about three dogs. That’s because when counting in Livonian (and possibly also Finnish and Estonian), you use the partitive singular form of the noun you’re counting. So piņ (dog) becomes kuolm piņņõ (three dogs). Now, I hate the partitive case – I’ve never been able to wrap my head around what it’s for or when to use it, when all of these languages have an accusative and dative case. If any Finno-Ugric language experts out there feel like taking on the mammoth task of getting this information through my thicker than average skull, I would greatly appreciate it.

Skärmavbild 2019-09-01 kl. 20.51.41Aside from its rich history (which you can read more about in Deep Baltic‘s fascinating articles on the subject here and here) and beautiful sound, Livonian presents something of a challenge to the more linguistically minded among us. If you already speak Latvian or Estonian (or know your way around an Estonian-English/Latvian-English dictionary), the University of Tartu has a wonderful Livonian-Latvian-Estonian dictionary which could be of use if you want to explore this language further, though actually Wiktionary has a wealth of Livonian terms which might be enough to whet your appetite. I’ve written up some common Livonian phrases to the left, which I sourced from my good friend Wikipedia.

What do you think? Could you see yourself taking a dive into Livonian? I’m going to keep on dabbling, and you may see some more posts in the future about this gorgeous language (I mean, just look at those diacritics!) and there’ll more than likely be some little bits here and there on Twitter (@sprakskatan) if you want to keep up with the conversation! And stay tuned next month when we’ll be gearing up for Polyglot NaNoWriMo – hope to see you again then. And as always, thanks for reading.

– J.

NB: Map for cover photo taken from freeworldmaps.net.

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