Revival of Livonian Language in Latvia

OGMIOS Newsletter # 10 : Winter - 31 December 1998 - look:

[Excerpts from programme in the ‘Ear for Language’ series, Estonian Radio 1st Programme 1530 GMT 21st September 1998, Presenter Mari Tarand. The Editor thanks Chris Moseley for translating this and bringing it to our notice. ]

Livonian, also known as Liv, is a Finno-Ugric Language spoken on the Baltic coast of Latvia.

[Presenter]...There are these 15, about 15, old people who have come up now and again for discussion recently, also in our press, and who belong to the so-called first stage of the Livonian movement. They are the singers of the `Livlist’ ensemble, the grandparents of the young Livonians living today, however many they may be.

One generation - actually even two generations - have been missed out, so the current instigators of the Livonian movement are young people in their twenties. And what is most interesting is that no-one has forced them to do this - they have been doing it of their own volition. No outsider has come up with the suggestion - the Ministry of Culture, or, say, another other institution, to say “let’s get the Livonian cause going”; they have done this themselves - this is what is the most essential fact about this, that all these young Livonians are self-motivated.

They learned the Livonian language later; Latvian has always been their first language, and because there has been a 50-year break in the speaking and active use of Livonian, and these young people have learned it only later, it is very difficult to speak a language that is lacking the new words that have come up over the past 50 years. And yet they are able to teach this language on Livonian language courses at the annual Livonian camps. These are held on the Livonian coast, and that is where the little Livonians go, the youngest ones, who are going to school, and they are taught the Livonian language by Livonians themselves, and of course by people who speak Livonian.

What is especially remarkable is that a Livonian textbook has been prepared by Kersti Boiko, who teaches at the University of Latvia. It is designed to be taught in ten lessons, with a vocabulary of 800 words. Now that this textbook has appeared in print, it is a really big step forward, as it may well make it really possible to intensify the `re-Livonianization’ process, so that the young people who are now learning it will really get a grasp of Livonian. Of course this also means that the rebirth of the Livonians is a reality, and the process will continue.

[Presenter] Let’s talk a bit more about these pioneers who are promoting the Livonian cause. One more important thing is that up till now there has been talk of folklore, and we have records of songs in Livonian, some of which is due to Peter Damberg...

But now a collection of Livonian poetry has been published and printed.

[Boiko] These are young enthusiasts who have taken on themselves the promotion of Livonian culture and the Livonian cause. One must mention first of all Valt Ernstreit, who has graduated from Tartu University this spring, and who is the editor of the anthology of Livonian poetry... [Inaudible passage] There has also been a travelling exhibition of Livonian art put together, with a whole room devoted to Aivar Damberg, showing his graphic works. And these were extremely interesting, and really attracted attention among the Finns, for example. I also know that a committee meeting of the new Society of Friends of Livonians has taken place, and they are planning the biggest Livonian event ever, to take place next summer, when 60 years will have passed since the building of their People’s House, built with the help of the Livonians’ sister nations, which was opened just before the war. Nine years ago people from Estonia attended its reinauguration, now under the blue, black and white flag, so that is also a celebration for next summer.

The Society of Friends of Livonia was set up actually on 1st August, during the Livonian festival. The Livonian festival is the annual event that is held on the Livonian coast, and since next year it will be the 60th anniversary of the building of the Livonian House, the committee of the Society of Friends of Livonia took the decision to have a really proper celebration of the event. Thus the idea came about of inviting the three presidents, and it was also mooted that a sort of seminar may be held, a cultural seminar on the Livonian coast, and the more people that intend to come to it, then of course the better the activities will be. This means that we are taking the Livonian movement on our shoulders, and the more supporters there are, the better it will be for the reawakening of the people.

[Presenter] I turn now to one person who has advanced the study and promotion and reawakening of Livonian culture, with great strides forward in Latvia, Professor Mati Hint, to comment. Mati Hint, ever since you were a student you have been running Livonian courses, studying the Livonian language, visiting the Livonian coast, going there with your own students. You have lived with it in your heart.

[Hint] First of all, not all my Livonian teachers have vanished. There are still eight to twelve Livonian people left who have taught me the Livonian language, and we have Professor Eduard Vaari, with whom I have been many times to the Livonian coast. Fortunately he is still alive. To tell the truth , I have been feeling guilty for quite a while my active pursuing of the Livonian cause has been put aside, because of my activities for the Estonian cause, and even now I have head of the Estonian language department here, and I have to keep up with that - though I have not forgotten Livonian language or the cause.

But if we are talking about a rebirth of Livonian, as it were, then my greatest concern is that it seems to prepare ground for the mood that everything is OK if eight people over 80 years of age still speak the language, and that this is the right time for a rebirth. It prepares the ground for the mood that Estonians would be OK if there were only 260,000 of them left, which is the population of Iceland, or 360,000 people, as on Malta. Independent nations and people live on very happily. That was the tone of one leading article in the `Postimees’ newspaper. No way can I agree that the physical disappearance of a people, or the sharp decline in a population, is not a death threat to a language and culture.

In this sense, talking now very optimistically about the rebirth of Livonians, the Livonian idea, and the Livonian culture and language is misleading, to put it mildly.

The fact that there is so much excitement around the Livonian cause really pleases me extremely much. I remember from my own university days, when old people used to say that Livonian is a dog’s language and a cows’ language - these times are gone for good.

And so the time is gone when the younger generation learned Livonian as their first language, a mother-tongue, a natural mother tongue, but now they are learning Livonian in conditions where they have already acquired a different language as their mother tongue. They are learning Livonian consciously, as a foreign language - their mother tongue as a foreign language, and that is not really the same thing. The basis of pronunciation is not the same any more , it is no longer as natural as a first mother tongue. For that reason, I emphasize, we are very glad here about the liveliness and the positive results that the Livonian cause is now experiencing, but to talk of a rebirth - well, if it’s stimulating, it’s very good, but if it is lulling, along the lines that there is nothing to fear, as we Estonians have nothing to fear, that’s the opposite, and quite bad.

[Presenter] So there is still plenty to think about, isn’t there? And so there is still the opportunity to take part in one cultural development. I remind you that you can read more about the Livonian festival that took place in Riga in next Friday’s issue of `Sirp’ newspaper.