Livonian language

līvõ kēļ
Native to Latvia
Region Livonian Coast
Ethnicity Livonian people
Extinct 2013[1]
Second language:
~40 B1 or up
~210 A1–A2[2]
Official status
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
ISO 639-3 liv
Glottolog livv1244[4]

Livonian (līvõ kēļ or rāndakēļ) belongs to the Finnic branch of the Uralic languages. It is a moribund language, with its last native speaker having died in 2013.[1][5] 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 erroneously announced that Viktors Bertholds, who died on 28 February 2009, was the last native speaker who started the Latvian-language school as a monolingual.[6] Some other Livonians recently argued, though, that there are some native speakers left,[7] including Viktors Bertholds' cousin, Grizelda Kristiņa. Kristiņa died in 2013.[1] 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.[8]

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

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.

Speakers of Livonian in the twenty-first century

Viktors Bertholds (July 10, 1921 – February 28, 2009),[9][10] 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. Though it was reported that he was the last native speaker of the language, Livonians themselves claimed that there are more native speakers still alive, albeit very few.[11]

As reported in the Estonian newspaper Eesti Päevaleht,[12] Viktors Bertholds 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, Bertholds, unlike most Livonian men, managed to avoid being mobilized in the armies of either occupation force by hiding in the woods. After the war, Bertholds 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.

Bertholds' 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).

Supposedly the last native speaker of Livonian was Grizelda Kristiņa, née Bertholds, 1910–2013, since 1947 a resident of Canada. According to Valts Ernštreits, she spoke Livonian as well "as if she had stepped out of her home farm in a Livonian coastal village just yesterday".[13] She was also a member of the Bertholds family[14] and qualified as the last living native speaker of Livonian language of her generation. She died on June 2, 2013.[15]

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 nineteenth century, about 2,000 people still spoke Livonian; in 1852, the number of Livonians was 2,394 (Ariste 1981: 78). Various historical events have led to the near total language death of Livonian:

  • In the thirteenth century, speakers of Livonian numbered 30,000 (Schätzung Vääri, 1966).
  • The German invasion: around the year 1200, the Livonian Brothers of the Sword and the Teutonic knights conquered Livonia, leading to contention of rule of the area between these orders and the Archbishopric of Riga.
  • 1522: The introduction of the Reformation.
  • 1557: The Russian invasion.
  • 1558-1583: Livonian War. Russians, Swedes, Danes, Lithuanians and Poles fought over the area.
  • 1721: The Treaty of Nystad. Livonia and Courland became provinces of Tsarist Russia.
  • 1918: The founding of Latvia; the Livonian language re-blossomed.
  • World War II and Soviet Union: Marginalization of Livonian.
  • Declared extinct on the 6 of June 2013.

Language contacts with Latvians and Estonians

Livonian has for centuries been thoroughly influenced by Latvian in terms of grammar, phonology and word derivation etc. The dative case in Livonian, for example, is very unusual in a Finnic language.[16] There are about 2,000 Latvian and 200 German loanwords in Livonian and most of the German words were adopted through Latvian.[17] Latvian, however, was influenced by Livonian as well. Its regular syllable stress based on Livonian is very unusual in a Baltic language. In both languages the letter h is silent, unlike other Finnic and Baltic languages. Especially as of the end of the nineteenth century there was a great deal of contact 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 worked in the summer in Kurzeme Livonian villages. As a result, a knowledge of Estonian spread among those Livonians and words of Estonian origin also came into Livonian. (Ariste 1981: 79) There are about 800 Estonian loanwords in Livonian, most of which were borrowed from the Saaremaa dialect.[18]

Common phrases

  • Hello! – Tēriņtš!
  • Enjoy your meal! – 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


  1. ^ a b c David Charter (2013-06-05). "Death of a language: last ever speaker of Livonian passes away aged 103". The Times. Retrieved 2013-12-01. 
  3. ^ Keeping Livonian - Latvia's Lesser Known Language - Alive, 17.06.2007 at
  4. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Liv". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  5. ^ "Obituary: Last Native Speaker of the Livonian Language Died Age 103". GeoCurrents. Retrieved 2013-12-01. 
  6. ^ (Estonian) Eesti Päevaleht "Suri viimane vanema põlve emakeelne liivlane" ("The last native speaker of Livonian from the older generation has died"), March 4, 2009.
  7. ^ "Latvia's tiny Livonian minority struggles to keep its language alive | Baltic States news & analytics". The Baltic Course. 2012-10-17. Retrieved 2013-12-01. 
  8. ^ Balodis, Pauls (August 2009). Wolfgang Ahrens, Sheila Embleton, André Lapierre (eds.), ed. "Proceedings of the 23rd International Congress of Onomastic Sciences" (PDF). 23rd International Congress of Onomastic Sciences. Toronto, Canada:  
  9. ^ Picture of V. Bertholds
  10. ^ Laakso, Johanna. "The last Livonian is dead". Tangyra. Retrieved 2009-06-09. 
  11. ^ "Latvia's tiny Livonian minority struggles to keep its language alive", Baltic Course, 6 June 2013 (retrieved 6 June 2013)
  12. ^ (Estonian) Eesti Päevaleht "Suri viimane vanema põlve emakeelne liivlane″ ("The last native speaker of Livonian from the older generation has died"), March 4, 2009.
  13. ^ Raimu Hanson. Teadusdoktor käib mööda liivi radu. Postimees, 09.12.2011. (Accessed December 9, 2011.)
  14. ^ Tapio Mäkeläinen (2010-03-19). "Maailma viimane emakeelne liivlane sai 100-aastaseks". FennoUgria. Retrieved 2011-04-01. 
  15. ^ David Charter (2013-06-05). "Death of a language: last ever speaker of Livonian passes away aged 103". The Times. Retrieved 2013-12-01. 
  16. ^ Gyula Décsy: Einführung in die finnisch-ugrische Sprachwissenschaft, page 81. Wiesbaden 1965
  17. ^ Gyula Décsy: Einführung in die finnisch-ugrische Sprachwissenschaft, page 82. Wiesbaden 1965
  18. ^ Gyula Décsy: Einführung in die finnisch-ugrische Sprachwissenschaft, page 83. Wiesbaden 1965


  • Mosley, Christopher (2002) Livonian, München: LINCOM EUROPA (English)
  • Fanny de Sivers. 2001. Parlons live – Une langue de la Baltique. Paris: L'Harmattan. ISBN 2-7475-1337-8. (French)
  • Paul Ariste 1981. Keelekontaktid. Tallinn: Valgus. [pt. 2.6. Kolme läänemere keele hääbumine lk. 76 - 82] (Estonian)
  • Lauri Kettunen. 1938. Livisches Wörterbuch : mit grammatischer Einleitung. Helsinki: Finno-Ugrian Society. (German)

External links

  • Virtual Livonia
  • Latvian-Livonian-English Phrase Book
  • Livonian language resources at Giellatekno
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