Livonian language

Livonian language
līvõ kēļ
Spoken in Latvia
Region Livonian Coast
Ethnicity Livonian people
Native speakers About 30[1]  (date missing)
Language family
Language codes
ISO 639-3 liv

Livonian (līvõ kēļ or rāndakēļ) belongs to the Finnic branch of the Uralic languages. It is a nearly extinct language, with one of its last native speakers having died in February 2009.[2] It is closely related to Estonian. The native land of the Livonian people is Livonia, located in Latvia, in the north of the Kurzeme peninsula.

Some ethnic Livonians are learning or have learned the language in an attempt to revive it, but, as ethnic Livonians are a small minority, opportunities to use Livonian are limited. The Estonian newspaper Eesti Päevaleht announced that Viktors Bertholds, the last native speaker who started the Latvian-language school as a monolingual, died on 28 February 2009.[3] Some other Livonians recently argued, though, that there are some native speakers left,[4] including Viktor Berthold's cousin, Grizelda Kristiņa. An article published by the Foundation for Endangered Languages in 2007 stated that there were only 182 registered Livonians and a mere six native speakers. In a 2009 conference proceeding, it was mentioned that there could be "at best 10 living native" speakers of the language.[5]

The promotion of the Livonian language as a living language has been advanced mostly by Livonian Cultural Centre (Līvõ Kultūr Sidām), an organisation of mostly young Livonians. Livonian as a lesser used language in Latvia – along with Latgalian – is represented by the Latvian Bureau of Lesser Used Languages (LatBLUL), a national branch of the European Bureau of Lesser Used Languages (EBLUL).

As a second language, Livonian has about 20 speakers in Latvia.[6][7] However, the language is taught in universities in Latvia, Estonia and Finland, which constantly increases the pool of second-language speakers who do not constantly reside in Latvia.


Reported death of last native speaker

Viktor Berthold, one of the last Livonian speakers of the generation who learnt Livonian as first language in a Livonian-speaking family and community, died on February 28, 2009, ironically, the day of Kalevala (day of Finnish culture).

As reported in the Estonian newspaper "Eesti Päevaleht", Viktor Berthold was born in 1921 and probably belonged to the last generation of children who started their (Latvian-medium) primary school as Livonian monolinguals; only a few years later it was noted that Livonian parents had begun to speak Latvian with their children. During World War II, Berthold, unlike most Livonian men, managed to avoid being mobilized in the armies of either occupation force by hiding in the woods. After the war, Berthold worked in various professions and shared his knowledge of Livonian language with many field linguists; in the 1990s, he also taught Livonian in children’s summer camps.

Berthold's Livonian-speaking brother and wife died in the 1990s. In the early 2000s, many other prominent "last Livonians" also died, such as Poulin Klavin (1918–2001), keeper of many Livonian traditions and the last Livonian to reside permanently on the Courland coast, and Edgar Vaalgamaa (1912–2003), clergyman in Finland, translator of the New Testament and author of a book on the history and culture of the Livonians ("Valkoisen hiekan kansa", Jyväskylä 2001). Another member of the Berthold family: Grizelda Kristiņa (née Berthold) is still alive in Canada, as reported on the Estonian site Fenno-Ugria Asutus.[8] She qualifies as the last living native speaker of Livonian language of her generation.

The survival of the Livonian language now depends on young Livonians who learned Livonian in their childhood from grandparents or great-grandparents of the pre-war generations. There are not very many of them, but all in all, there are a few hundred ethnic Livonians in Latvia now who are interested in their Livonian roots. Some young Livonians not only sing folk-songs in Livonian but even strive at actively using Livonian in everyday communication. One such younger generation Livonian speaker is Julgī Stalte, who performs with the Livonian-Estonian World Music group Tuļļi Lum.



Livonian has 8 vowels:

Front Central Back
Close i /i/ õ /ɨ/ u /u/
Near-close ȯ /ʊ/
Mid e /ɛ/ [ə]1 o /o/
Open ä /æ/ a /ɑ/
  1. Unstressed /ɨ/ is realized as [ə].

All vowels can be long or short. Short vowels are written as indicated in the table; long vowels are written with an additional macron ("¯") over the letter, so, for example, [æː] = ǟ. The Livonian vowel system is notable for having a stød similar to Danish. As in other languages with this feature, it is thought to be a vestige of an earlier pitch accent.


Livonian has 23 consonants:

Labial Dental Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m /m/ n /n/ ņ /ɲ/ [ŋ]1
Plosive voiceless p /p/ t /t̪/ ț /c/ k /k/
voiced b /b/ d /d̪/ /ɟ/ g /ɡ/
Fricative voiceless f /f/ s /s/ š /ʃ/ h /h/
voiced v /v/ z /z/ ž /ʒ/
Trill r /r/ ŗ /rʲ/
Approximant Central j /j/
Lateral l /l/ ļ /ʎ/

/n/ becomes [ŋ] preceding /k/ or /ɡ/.


The Livonian alphabet is a hybrid which mixes Latvian and Estonian orthography.

A/a, Ā/ā, Ä/ä, Ǟ/ǟ, B/b, D/d, Ḑ/ḑ, E/e, Ē/ē, F/f, G/g, H/h, I/i, Ī/ī, J/j, K/k, L/l, Ļ/ļ, M/m, N/n, Ņ/ņ, O/o, Ō/ō, Ȯ/ȯ, Ȱ/ȱ, Õ/õ, Ȭ/ȭ, P/p, R/r, Ŗ/ŗ, S/s, Š/š, T/t, Ț/ț, U/u, Ū/ū, V/v, Z/z, Ž/ž



In the 19th century, about 2,000 people still spoke Livonian; in 1852, the number of Livonians was 2394 (Ariste 1981: 78). Various historical events have led to the near total language death of Livonian:

Language contacts with Latvians and Estonians

Livonian has been - for centuries - thoroughly influenced by Latvian in terms of grammar, phonology and word derivation etc. It is worthy of mention, that especially from the end of the 19th century on there were also many contacts with Estonians, namely, between (Kurzeme) Livonian fishers or mariners and the Estonians from Saaremaa or other islands. Many inhabitants of the islands of Western Estonia went to work in summer to the villages of the Kurzeme Livonians. As a result, the knowledge of Estonian spread among those Livonians and words of Estonian origin also came into Livonian. (Ariste 1981: 79)

Common phrases

  • Hello! – Tēriņtš!
  • Bon Appetit - Jõvvõ sīemnaigõ!
  • Good morning! - Jõvā ūomõg! / Jõvvõ ūomõgt!
  • Good day! - Jõvā pǟva! / Jõvvõ päuvõ!
  • Thank you! - Tienū!
  • Happy new year! - Vȯndzist Ūdāigastõ!
  • die - kȭlmä
  • one – ikš
  • two – kakš
  • three – kuolm
  • four – nēļa
  • five – vīž
  • six – kūž
  • seven – seis
  • eight – kōdõks
  • nine – īdõks
  • ten – kim

See also


  2. ^ extinct language
  3. ^ (Estonian)Eesti Päevaleht "Suri viimane vanema põlve emakeelne liivlane" ("The last native speaker of Livonian from the older generation has died"), March 4, 2009.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Balodis, Pauls (August 2009). "Personal Names of Livonian Origin in Latvia: Past and Present". In Wolfgang Ahrens, Sheila Embleton, André Lapierre (eds.) (PDF). Proceedings of the 23rd International Congress of Onomastic Sciences. 23rd International Congress of Onomastic Sciences. Toronto, Canada: York University. pp. 105–116. ISBN 978-1-55014-521-2. Retrieved 23 April 2011. 
  6. ^ UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger (Select « Country or area » : Latvia and then Livonian language in list.).
  7. ^ UNESCO link is dead;[dead link]
  8. ^ [1]


External links

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