Volume 30, No.3 - Fall 1984
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1984 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.


ANTANAS KLIMAS The University of Rochester

There are about 5,000 languages in the world.1 Some are used by about one billion people (e.g., Chinese), some are spoken by only a few thousand people (e.g., many languages in Africa, Australia, New Guinea, Siberia, in the Amazon jungles of South America).2 No matter what kind of language it is, each language will have some basic features, like the following:

A. All languages have a sound system which consists, basically, of a certain balance of consonants and vowels, or of consonantal and vocalic sounds (phonemes).3 There are no languages which would have only consonants and no vowels, or vice versa. After all, languages consist of basically a string or series of sounds that "stream out" or "sound off" from a speaker's mouth.4

B. All languages are linear, i.e., one sound follows another; there are no languages where sounds, several sounds, are co-produced as one sound.5 In other words, language/speech is horizontal, not vertical, in terms of time-perimeter.

C. In addition to sounds, all languages have other meaningful units: words, phrases, sentences. In other words, in all the languages6 of the world the existing sounds are combined into certain longer/larger units.

in many languages, all kinds of sounds that are neither pure vowels nor pure consonants. E.g., in English, such sounds as b d g p t k are always considered as consonants , a e i o u are always vowels, but r f l y w v are different. They have some of the characteristic features of both kinds. However, we will not go into the detailed discussion here.

D. Nothing is "wild" or "disorderly" in any of the world's languages. Their sound systems (i.e., their phonological structures), their form systems (i.e., their morphological structures), their syntax and lexicon are strictly governed by definite rules or laws.7

E. Last but not least, most of the words in all the languages are completely arbitrary, i.e., they have nothing inherent, nothing specific of the object they signify. For example, when we say four in English or keturi in Lithuanian, neither word has anything specific that would necessarily refer to the (cardinal numeral) '4.' Or there is nothing that by itself suggests or indicates a kind of building when one says house in English or namas in Lithuanian.8

These five universal features found in every and all languages in the world will suffice here. Various schools of linguistics advocate listing other universals while other schools dispute some of them; some schools of linguistics refuse to recognize any linguistic universals. In this connection one should perhaps mention one more common feature for all languages. Namely, all languages have changed in the course of time; however, since some people argue that everything in human society changes, then this would perhaps not be language-specific.9

In addition to these general linguistic universals, individual language families have developed some specific features of their own, which can be observed — to a larger or lesser degree — in all of their daughter languages. If one now turns specifically to the Indo-European language family, the very largest in the world10 and the best-investigated one, one could find several unique features. Many linguists consider the synthetic character, or nature, of the Indo-European language family as its most characteristic feature. In simplest terms it means that here the original, primordial roots, words, suffixes, prefixes, endings are synthetized, fused into one form without any possibility of "taking them apart again." E.g., if one reconstructs the Lithuanian word vilkas 'wolf' all the way back to Early Proto-Indo-European, one may arrive at one root such as *welk-which may have meant something like our modern "dragging/to drag/the doing of the dragging," etc. Later a suffix was added, something like -o/e- which earlier may have been some kind of a pronoun, signifying perhaps something like 'he/that one/this one.' Even later in the development of Proto-Indo-European, another "word" was added, the one which we later started to call 'the ending,' something of this nature: -es/-os/-s. Thus, we may have had the following sequence of the development:

I. *welk- > II. *welk- + o/e- > III. *welk- + o/e + es. 

Each of these "elements," or, originally, roots or words, had had a separate meaning. But when a Lithuanian now says vilkas, he just uses the entire words as basic unit to signify that kind of a wild animal, without thinking that the present ending -as also signifies: 'masculine' + 'singular' + 'nominative' + 'subject/ etc. That is the basis of this kind of synthesis.11 Later many modern Indo-European languages lost some of these additions, or replaced them with other structures. On the other hand, they may have added other elements, such as articles (the, or a/an in English; der, die, das in German, etc., etc.).

In a recent article12 we reiterated that Lithuanian is the most archaic, the most conservative of all living Indo-European languages. Nevertheless, it has changed a great deal too. In the following discussion we will briefly glance at features of Lithuanian, both old and new, which can be found only in Lithuanian; i.e., these are the unique features of Lithuanian.

I. Only Lithuanian, alone of all Indo-European languages, has developed a specific frequentative past tense.13 In other words, if you want to indicate a habitual, repeated action in the past, you take the so-called infinite stem and add a suffix -da(v)- plus the regular simple past tense endings. E.g., eiti 'to go:' ei + dav + au "I used to go;' valgyti 'to eat:' valgy + dav + au (=valgydavau) 'I used to eat,' etc. Here are some samples of this frequentative past tense in full:

eiti 'to go' valgyti 'to eat'
aš eidavau aš valgydavau
'I used to go,' etc. 'I used to eat,' etc.
tu eidavai tu valgydavai
jis eidavo jis valgydavo
mes eidavome mes valgydavome
jūs eidavote jūs valgydavote
ie eidavo jie valgydavo

The origin of this interesting development of Lithuanian has not been satisfactorily explained. There are various theories and hypotheses concerning its origin, but nobody knows for sure.14

II. Only Lithuanian has such a complicated participial system still in active use.15 All told, there are thirteen participles in Lithuanian.16 Since English has only two participles left, a reader who only knows this very simplified English system may have some difficulty even imagining the Lithuanian 13-participle system. We will illustrate this with some examples. Let us take such a simple Lithuanian verb as valgyti 'to eat' and derive all the 13 participles from it, illustrating them with sample sentences.

1. The present active participle. Derived from the 3rd person17 present tense: infin. valgyti 'to eat:' 3rd person pres. t. valgo; root of the latter: valg- plus -as/antis (masc.) = valgas/valgantis; fem.: valg + anti = valganti.18 Now, valgąs/valganti means, basically, "the eating one; the one who is (now) eating; the one who is (now) engaged in the action of eating." E.g., Visiems valgantiems reikia duoti kavos. 'All the ones who are eating should be given (served) coffee19 (Literally: 'To all eating necessary to give coffee'). In this sample sentence, the present active participle valgantiems is in dative plural masculine gender, and it is used as a noun, syntactically as an indirect object. 

2. The past active participle. Derived from the 3rd person, simple past tense: valgė '(he/she/they) ate:' valg + es (masc.), valg + iusi (fern.) = valgęs/valgiusi 'the one who has eaten.' English, of course, does not have the exact equivalent since there is no such participle in English. E.g., jis sakė, kad jis vakar valgęs šioje valgykloje. 'He said he ate (had eaten) in this restaurant yesterday.'20

3. The frequentative past active participle. Since, as we have elaborated above, only Lithuanian has developed a special frequentative past tense, then this particular participle is doubly unique: no other Indo-European language, dead or alive, had such a participle. This participle, just like the one above, is derived from the 3rd person of the frequentative past tense by adding exactly the same endings: -ęs, -(i)usi'.21 Thus valgydavo: valgydav + ęs = valgydavęs 'the one who used to eat' (masc.), valgydavusi 'the one who used to eat' (fem.). As it was explained in Footnote #20, this participle is primarily used in indirect speech: Jis sakė, jis dažnai valgydavęs šioje valgykloje 'He said he used to often eat in this restaurant.'

4. The future active participle. Derived from the 3rd person future tense. Thus: valgys 'will eat:' valgys + iąs = valgysiąs (masc.), valgysianti (fern.) 'one who will eat; one who will be eating.' E.g., )Jis sakė, jis viską valgysiąs. 'He said he would (will) eat everything.'

5. The present passive participle: valgomas, -a '(something) that is edible; (something) that is (being) eaten.'22 E.g., Sis vaisius nėra valgomas 'This fruit is not edible.'

6. The past passive participle: valgytas, -a '(something) that has been eaten.' E.g., Matyt, kad šios uogos buvo vaikų valgytos. 'Apparently these berries were eaten by the children.'

7. The future passive participle: valgysimas, -a '(something) that will be eaten; (something) to be eaten.'23

(8-13) There are also four undeclinable adverbial participles: present, past, frequentative past, and future. In addition to that, there is a special adverbial active participle, and a participle of necessity. To summarize:

valgąs — present active participle

valgęs — past active participle

valgydavęs — frequentative past active participle

valgysiąs — future active participle

valgomas — present passive participle

valgytas — past passive participle

valgysimas — future passive participle

valgant — adverbial present active participle

valgius — adverbial past active participle

valgydavus — adverbial frequentative past active participle

valgysiant — adverbial future active participle

valgydamas — special adverbial present active participle

valgytinas — participle of necessity

The approximate meanings:

valgąs — 'the one who is eating'

valgęs — 'the one who ate; has eaten; was eating'

valgydavęs — 'the one who used to eat'

valgysiąs — 'the one who will be eating'

valgomas — 'something that is being eaten'

valgytas — 'something that has been eaten'

valgysimas — 'something which will be eaten'

valgant — 'while eating'

valgius — 'after having eaten'

valgydavus — 'after having eaten repeatedly'

valgysiant — 'having to eat'

valgydamas — 'eating'

valgytinas — 'something to be eaten'24

III. Only Lithuanian has developed four functional locative cases, or four separate locative forms. In most of the other Indo-European languages, the locative case was given up rather early, replaced with some kind of a prepositional construction. In Lithuanian, on the other hand, this development went contrary to the general trend which by analogy was supposed to lead to more uniformity, to more simplification, to limiting of morphological parameters and to expanding of syntactical level. Thus, in addition to the inherited (Proto-j Indo-European locative case25 in -e (plural -se, earlier -su), Lithuanian has three additional locative forms. Let us take the word laukas 'field; outdoors,' and mark all four possible locatives:

1. The regular locative (=inessive): lauke 'in the field, on the field; outside'

2. the illative: laukan 'into the field; (to the) outside; out'

3. the adesive: laukop 'up to the field'

4. the directive: laukiep 'up and into the field'

One has to note here that in Standard (Literary) Lithuanian only the regular locative is used. The illative is used selectively and usually as an adverb of place, but in some dialects of Lithuanian, all four locatives are still in use.

IV. Only Lithuanian has completely levelled its adjectival and adverbial gradation. In other words, there are no irregular, or suppletive forms in the comparative and superlative forms in the Lithuanian adjective and adverbial systems. Just compare:

Positive Comparative Superlative
English good better best
Lithuanian geras geresnis geriausias

In other words, all the adjectives (and adverbs) are inflected (for the degrees of comparison) 100 percent uniformly: for the comparative, add the suffix -esnis (masc.) and for the superlative, add the suffix -iausias (masc.). This is, from the historical/diachronic point of view, just the opposite of point #3, above.26

V. Lithuanian has developed four different present tense conjugational patterns of the verb būti 'to be:'

(aš) esmi esu būnu būvu 'I am'
(tu) esi esi būni būvi 'thou art'
(jis) esti yra būna būva 'he is'
(mes) esame esame būname būvame 'we are'
(jūs) esate esate būnate būvate 'you are (pl)'
(jie) esti yra būna būva 'they are'

The first two patterns are really based on the ancient Indo-European root *es- 'to be,' and the last two are based on another Indo-European root *bheu-/*bhou-/*bhu-which also meant 'to be.' In the course of many centuries, even millennia, certain subtle semantic shifts have developed between these forms, and the normative, or school grammars of Lithuanian usually present only the second pattern, but all four are still used in various dialects and regions of Lithuanian. Although the form esm; 'I am' is at least 5,000 years old, it is exactly the same as in the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European. But the most mysterious form in the whole system is yra 'is/are.' Nobody can explain its origin, and some linguists surmise that yra is not even a verbal form as we understand it today, but a very ancient petrified noun, or, rather, an apellative word from those primordial times when no distinction was "felt" between what we today understand as a "noun" and a "verb."27

VI. Lithuanian has three different forms of the infinitive: in -ti, -te, and -tų. For examples: eiti, eite, eitų 'to go.' Historically (or diachronically) the first form (eiti) is an old dative case since most of the infinitives in various Indo-European languages were really abstract nouns. The second form (eite) was, possibly, an old vocative, although its origin is not as clear as that of the first one in -ti. The third form (eitų) is really an old supinum, and its origin is connected with the desiderative, or subjunctive mood.28 Again, I hasten to add, that in school/prescriptive/normative grammars of Lithuanian, only the first form in -ti is given. All these three types of the infinitive have developed very special usages, but this is not the place to talk about that.

VII. In Standard Lithuanian, which distinguishes on the stressed syllable three types of intonation,29 the unstressed syllables, both preceding and following the stressed syllable, will always carry the so-called falling or circumflex intonation, if the syllable is long, and the so-called short intonation if the syllable is short. For examples (the stressed syllable is in italics):

láimė : pàláimiñtì : laĩmìngaĩ : laĩmiñgàsìs

kàimas : kaĩmnė : kaĩmnàs : kaĩmnst : kaĩmýnìškàs

móktì : móktõjõ : mõktõjáutì : mõktõjãvìmàs

This is one of the things that is rather difficult to learn and imitate, if one is not a native speaker. It gives spoken Lithuanian a certain semi-melodious "lilt" that is almost impossible to describe.30 In some Lithuanian dialects this "proportional distribution of dichotomous intonation" is quite different.

VIII. Of the spoken (or living) Indo-European languages, only Lithuanian can lay a claim to have preserved several words or forms exactly as they are reconstructed for the distant proto-language, i.e., Proto-Indo-European. The most suitable example for this unusual tenacity is the Lithuanian noun sūnus 'son.' For Proto-Indo-European this word is usually reconstructed as *sunus. Now, if the first -u- in the reconstructed form was long, and if the main stress fell on the second syllable, then we would have a 100 percent correspondence. Unfortunately, we cannot establish those facts firmly. However, sound for sound, or phoneme for phoneme, the Lithuanian sūnus is a remarkable relic, a really precious antique par excellenne. The same could be said for Lithuanian esmi "I am" and a few other words. Some Lithuanian words preserved almost like the reconstructed proto-language31 are the following: penki, penketas, penkeri 'five;' esti 'is;' dūmai 'smoke;' trys, treji, trejetas 'three' and many others.

IX. Only in Lithuanian all the basic possessive adjectives and possessive pronouns have fallen together: they are both expressed by the same form, namely genitive (like in Latin eius):

adjective pronoun
mano my mine
tavo thy thine
jo his his
jos her hers
mūsų our ours
jūsų your yours (pl)
their theirs

E.g., Mano stalas yra naujas 'My table is new' and Tas stalas yra mano 'That table is mine.'

This is one feature of Lithuanian which is more uniform, more generalized, more "analytical" than in any other Indo-European language, living or dead. One could almost say that this is like with point #4 (=adjective/adverb gradation): it has been carried to extremes of analogy, in the direction of total uniformity.33

One could find several more unique features of Lithuanian, like the rather well-preserved dual,34 the fully developed system of the definite adjectives, the fact that, basically, Lithuanian has preserved the only Proto-Euro-pean sibilant (s) in all positions (cf. Proto-Indo-European *sousos 'dry' and Lithuanian sausas 'id.'); the fact that the

Lithuanian hydronyms are the most archaic, the most "Indo-European" of all the other languages; the fact that only Lithuanian has preserved the stress/intonation differences in all positions, etc. But some of these features, at least partially, may be found in some other Indo-European languages, or dialects. In that sense they could not be considered as 100 percent unique features of Lithuanian. Therefore, we chose to stop after listing nine unique features.


1 This count is not definite. The main reason for this is the fact that linguists and anthropologists who are most interested in this problem, disagree on how to count languages. The origin, the relationship of some languages are obscure. Some languages are considered to be only dialects of larger groupments or "fully-pledged" languages. E.g., some linguists consider Sardinian as a separate language, others would consider Sardinian (only) as a dialect of Italian. There are many such unsolved cases.
2 Cf. C. F. and F. M. Voegelin, Classification and Index of the World's Languages, Elsevier, New York, 1977. (658 pages).
3 "Consonants" and "vowels" is the basic, or roughest division. There are,
4 At this point, the reader should be aware that we are talking here, primarily, of spoken, oral language, i.e., speech. The writing system is just an artificial way to use arbitrary signs to record some parts of the language. More than half of the languages spoken on this earth do not yet have their own writing or writing system.
5 By this we do not try to deny the claim of some experimental phoneticians who claim that each sound of a language/speech is a complicated cluster of certain sound features, generally known as distinctive features (DF).
6 This means all natural, normal human languages. It does not include artificial languages, particularly computer languages. This also does not include the so-called glossalalia, or "speaking in tongues." A different question, theoretically, is whether to count such languages as Esperanto, Volapuk as "normal" languages. For further details, please cf. Antanas Klimas, "English and Lithuanian: Two Candidates for the International Language," The English Record, vol. XVII (April 1969), pp. 61-70. This article was also reprinted in Lituanus, vol. 15 (1969), No. 3, pp. 25-34. Although many artificial languages have been created as international languages, none of them ever reached any practical importance, except for one: Esperanto. Esperanto is still expanding slowly, especially in Europe, Asia, and Africa. However, my personal opinion is that one of the natural languages (English, French, Spanish, Chinese . . .?) will become a true international language of cross-cultural communication. However, that language will never replace those 5,000 or so of the world's languages.
7 I would like to observe here that a normal native speaker of the language is usually not aware of these rules, or these laws. He/she just "says it so." Or "That's the way we would say it" is usually a normal answer if someone is asked about some intricacy of a particular language. These "rules" or "laws" or "underlying regulations" are in the so-called deep structure, or, in simpler terms, they are in the unconscious or subconscious mind of the speaker.
8 It is also true that all languages have words, expressions, phrases, sentences even which are really imitations of natural sounds. Cf. such English words as "to slurp," "to rustle,' "to moo," etc. Many years ago, some linguists had proposed a hypothesis that this kind of imitation gave the impetus for the origin of human speech. However, it cannot be proven. Generally speaking, we do not know how human speech/language originated. We can only surmise that it must have happened a very long time ago.
9 Cf. Antanas Klimas, "Some Unsolved Riddles of Lithuanian Linguistics," Lituanus, vol. 30 (1984), No. 1, pp. 70-81.
10 The Indo-European language family has about 2 billion speakers. Most of the North India languages are Indo-European; so are Pashtu in Afghanistan; further: Persian, Kurdish; Greek, Albanian, Armenian; all Slavic languages (Russian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian; Polish, Czech, Slovak; Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian . . .); all Romance (Italic) languages: Italian, Romanian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Provencal, Rheto-Romance, etc.); all Germanic languages (Icelandic, Swedish, Norwegian; German, English, Dutch, Yiddish, Flemish, Afrikaans, Pennsylvania Dutch, etc.), all Baltic languages (Latvian, Lithuanian, etc.); all Celtic languages (Irish, Welsh, Breton, etc.); and, of course all their colonial branches, as it were, in the Americas, in Australia, etc.
11 In other words, the native speaker does not really distinguish the stem, the ending, etc. For him, it has all been "synthetized" into one entity.
12 Cf. Footnote #9.
13 More on its possible origin, cf. my article cited in Footnote #9.
14 Cf. Footnote #9.
15 Generally speaking, from the lexical, semantic, morphological, and syntactic point of view, the participle is the most variagated, the most interesting part of speech. However, in most grammars, following the old classical Creek/Latin model, the participle is never given such an "exalted" status as a separate part of speech: it is usually considered a part of the verbal system. However, although, on the main, derived from some principal part of the verb, the participle can occur, or "act" as a verb, as an adjective, as a noun, as a pronoun and even as an adverb.
16 For the most schematic and full presentation of the Lithuanian participial system in English, cf. Leonardas Dambriūnas, Antanas Klimas and William R. Schmalstieg, Introduction to Modern Lithuanian, Brooklyn, (3rd edition) 1980, especially pp. 204-213; 268-272; 277-280; 348-355.
17 As it is well known, Lithuanian as well as all the other Baltic languages never distinguished the singular and the plural forms of the 3rd person. This is most probably very ancient, very archaic, going back to the pre-inflectional stage of Proto-Indo-European.
18 Both of these forms are used. For more details, cf. Introduction to Modern Lithuanian, op. cit.
19 For the declension of the participles, cf. Introduction to Modern Lithuanian, op. cit., spec. pp. 348-355.
20 I would like to point out here that the participle valgęs is used here in indirect speech. This is, again, one of the very archaic, very unique features of the Baltic languages: only in the Baltic languages are various participles used in indirect speech. This, in itself, is a very complicated problem, but this is not the place to elaborate on it.
21 Whether -us/ or -iusi is used in the feminine forms, depends on the phonetic nature of the root from which such forms are derived. For details, cf. Introduction, op. cit.
22 In order to save space, we will not elaborate on the derivation. For details, please consult the Introduction, op. cit.
23 There is no frequentative past passive participle. It has never been developed. This fact, among other things, also shows that the frequentative past tense developed rather late, perhaps between 700 AD and 1400 AD.
24 Like in many other related Indo-European languages, there are verbs which have never developed all these 13 "possible" participles. This concerns, particularly such verbs as the modal auxiliaries, etc.
25 Many linguists believe that the locative may have been the oldest, the most archaic case of the developing Proto-Indo-European case system.
26 This is an analogy carried to extremes. In other words, this is a complete regularization. Even Latvian, so closely related to Lithuanian, has some suppletive forms left.
27 Cf. Jonas Kazlauskas, Istorinė lietuvių kalbos gramatika, Vilnius, 1968.
28 The subjunctive mood in Standard Lithuanian is still in the process of establishment as a norm since, in various Lithuanian dialects, its forms differ considerably.
29 For more details cf. Introduction, op. cit.
30 By this, I do not mean that a non-native cannot learn it. It depends on many circumstances. I do know several non-native speakers of Lithuanian who have mastered this problem very well.
31 Since Proto-Indo-European, before it split into separate branches, is dated before or about 3,000 BC, then such Lithuanian words as sūnus, esmi could be considered to be about 5,000 old.
32 Cf. any good etymological dictionaries of any Indo-European languages, such as Buck (Indo-European), Fraenkel (Lithuanian), Onions (English), Skeat (English), Kluge (German), etc.
33 Some linguists consider this dichotomy a general characteristic of Lithuanian. On the one hand, Lithuanian has preserved the most complex nominal inflection, on the other — the Lithuanian verbal system is rather simple. However, even in this rather simple verbal system one finds the very complicated 13-participle participial system. And there are several such dichotomous features.
34 I would like to add that the dual is no longer considered 'part and parcel' of the Standard Literary Lithuanian. However, it is very much alive in several large dialect groups. Cf. also the Introduction to Modern Lithuanian, op. cit. see Index.