Baltic Language Branch

The Baltic branch of the Indo-European language family consists of a group of related languages that were spoken mainly in areas to the east and southeast of the Baltic Sea in Northern Europe. All Baltic languages are thought to have evolved from a common ancestral Proto-Baltic which itself is thought to have split from a common Proto-Balto-Slavic.

The Baltic languages are of particular interest to linguists because they retain many archaic features that are believed to have been present in the early stages of the Proto-Indo-European, the hypothetical ancestor of all Indo-European languages. It is believed that the Baltic peoples resisted Christianization longer than any other Europeans, thus delaying the introduction of writing and isolating their languages from outside influences. Of the two languages, Lithuanian is the more conservative, having retained more archaic grammatical forms than Latvian, especially in its sound system and noun morphology. These features have been attested only in extinct Indo-European languages.

The Baltic branch is sometimes divided into two sub-groups:

  • Western Baltic, containing only extinct languages
  • Eastern Baltic, containing both extinct and the only two surviving languages: Latvian and Lithuanian. Speakers of these languages are generally concentrated within the borders of Lithuania and Latvia, and in emigrant communities in the United States, Canada, Australia, as well as Eastern Europe and Russia.



The two living Baltic languages, Latvian and Lithuanian, enjoy official status in their respective countries.

  • Latvian
    Latvian is the official language of the Republic of Latvia, where it is spoken by about 1.4 million people. Latvian was given the status of the official state language in 1989, two years prior to the country’s independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. Latvian is also spoken in Australia, Belarus, Brazil, Canada, Estonia, Germany, Lithuania, New Zealand, Russia, Sweden, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and USA. Ethnologue estimates that about 1.5 million people worldwide claim Latvian as their primary language.
  • Lithuanian
    Lithuanian has been the official language of Lithuania since 1918. It is spoken in Lithuania by close to 3 million people of all ages in all public and personal domains. Between 1940 and 1990, Lithuanian co-existed alongside Russian, the dominant language of the country at the time. When Lithuania gained independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, a large number of publications in Lithuanian started to appear once again.. Besides Lithuania, it is also spoken in Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Canada, and the US. The worldwide population of Lithuanian speakers is estimated at around 3.1 million (Ethnologue).



Despite their small size, both Latvian and Lithuanian have several distinct dialects:

  • Latvian
    Despite the small size of the country, Latvian has several mutually intelligible regional dialects traditionally divided into two groups, namely:
    Low Latvian, or West Latvian, which includes two sub-dialects: Central and Tamian
    High Latvian, or East Latvian or Latgalian, which forms the basis for Standard Latvian.
  • Lithuanian
    Lithuanian is divided into two distinct dialect areas that do not have a high degree of mutual intelligibility:
    Aukštaitian (Highland Lithuanian) on which Standard Lithuanian is based
    Samogitian (Lowland Lithuanian).



Sound system

The sound systems of Latvian and Lithuanian share some common features:


  • Latvian has five vowels which can be short or long. Vowel length makes a difference in word meaning.
  • The Lithuanian vowel system is characterized by vowel length which makes a difference in word meaning. The traditional analysis posits 5 long and 5 short vowels.


  • Latvian has 27 consonants, some of which can be unpalatalized or palatalized. Palatalization makes a difference in word meaning.
  • Lithuanian has 23 consonant phonemes, i.e., sounds that distinguish word meaning. All consonants, except for the velars /k/, /g/, /x/, /ɣ/ can be unpalatalized or palatalized, i.e., pronounced with the blade of the tongue raised towards the roof of the mouth (hard palate). Palatalization distinguishes word meaning.


  • In Latvian stress always falls on the first syllable of a word. A unique characteristic of Latvian is that it has a pitch accent system, i.e., the meaning of a word depends on the pitch of the vowel. There are three pitches (or tones).
  • Lithuanian has a pitch accent system it is thought to have retained from Proto-Indo-European. The pitch of the vowel distinguishes the meaning of words. There are two pitches: a rising pitch and a falling pitch. Stress can fall on any syllable in a word.



Latvian and Lithuanian are highly inflected languages.



Gender, number and case are conflated into one ending.

  • There are two genders: masculine and feminine;
  • There are two numbers: singular and plural with some vestiges of the dual number.
  • There are seven or eight cases
  • There are three to declensions.
  • Adjectives agree with the nouns they modify in gender, number, and case.



Person, number and tense are conflated into one ending.

  • three persons: first, second, third;
  • two numbers: singular, plural;
  • three to five conjugations;
  • several simple and several compound tenses;
  • two aspects;
  • five moods
  • two voices



The basic vocabularies of Latvian and Lithuanian are quite different. They have not been significantly influenced by other languages. However, there are many words that were borrowed from other languages, such as Latin, Polish, Russian, and German. Since independence in 1991, English has replaced Russian as a source of borrowed words in both Latvian and Lithuanian.

Hello. Sveiks, sveikas Laba, labas
Good day. Labdien Labdien, laba diena
Good bye. Uz redzēšanos Viso gero
Please. Lūdzu. Prašau
Thank you. Paldies Dėkui, ačiū
Yes Taip.
No Ne
Man Vīrietis Vyras, žmogus
Woman Sieviete Moteris


Below are numerals 1-10 in Latvian and Lithuanian.




Baltic peoples resisted Christianization longer than any other Europeans, which delayed the introduction of writing and isolated their languages from outside influences. As a result, Latvian appeared in a hymnal only in 1530 and in a printed Catechism in 1585. Lithuanian was first attested in a hymnal translation only in 1545, and the first printed book in Lithuanian was published in 1547.

Lithuanian was mostly an oral vernacular during the years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1795). All official documents were written in Latin, Polish, or Belarusian. After the 18th-century Partitions of Poland by Prussia, Russia, and Habsburg Austria, most of the Baltic lands came under the rule of the Russian Empire, where the native languages were sometimes prohibited from being written.

Today, both Latvian and Lithuanian are written with adapted versions of the Latin alphabet. Both alphabets use diacritics instead of digraphs.

Latvian alphabet
A a Ā ā B b C c Č č D d E e Ē ē F f G g Ģ ģ
H h I i Ī ī J j K k Ķ ķ L l Ļ ļ M m N n Ņ ņ
O o P p R r S s Š š T t U u Ū ū V v Z z Ž ž
Lithuanian alphabet
A a
Ą ą
B b
C c
D d
Č č
E e
Ę ę
Ė ė
F f
G g
H h
I i
Į į
Y y
J j
K k
L l
M m
N n
O o
P p
R r
S s
Š š
T t
U u
Ų ų
Ū ū
V v
Z z
Ž ž

Below is Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Latvian and Lithuanian.

Pants 1.
Vis cilvēki piedzimst brīci un vienlīdzīigi sava pašcieņa un tiesības. Viņi ir apveltīt ar sapratu un sirdsapziņu, un viņiem jaizturas citam pret citu bralioas gara.
1 Straipsnis.
Visi žmonės gimsta laisvi ir lugūs savo orumu ir teisėmis. Jiems suteiktas protas ir sąžine ir jie turi elgtis vienas kito atžvilgiu kaip broliai.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.



Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Baltic languages?
Latvian and Lithuanian are considered to be Category II languages in terms of difficulty for native speakers of English.