ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2009 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 55, No.3 - Fall 2009
Editor of this issue: Gražina Slavėnas.

On the Origin of the Name of Lithuania


Tomas Baranauskas is on the staff of the History Institute in Vilnius and teaches at the Vilnius Pedagogical University. He is the author of Lietuvos valstybės ištakos (Vilnius: 2000) and mainains a web site

Lithuania’s name was first mentioned as Lituae (the genitive form of the Latin word Litua) in the entry for March 9, 1009 AD in the Annals of Quedlinburg recording the martyrdom of St. Bruno. Recently, a significant contribution to the question of the origin of the name of Lithuania has been made by Artūras Dubonis, who used historical evidence to support his hypothesis that the primary form of the Lithuanian ethnonym was leitis (the ethnonym leitis is still used in Latvia for “Lithuanian”) and that in some historical sources Lithuanians were called leičiai in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Tomas Baranauskas analyzes this theory as well as earlier historical and linguistic arguments on the origin of Lithuania’s name.

The name “Lithuania” (Lituae) is first mentioned in the entry for March 9, 1009 AD in the Annals of Quedlinburg recording the death of St. Bruno of Querfurt. Another reference, in the Chronicon Thietmari written by Bishop Thietmar of Merseburg, gives the date for the same death as February 14, 1009 without, however, mentioning the name of Lithuania. This latter date is likely more reliable because Thietmar of Merseburg was a relative and a fellow student of Bruno’s, had been an associate of Bruno’s father, and was very possibly the author of a lost book on Bruno.1

The news of the martyrdom of Bruno near the border of Lithuania, Prussia and Rus’ reached Germany (Saxony) through the court of Bolesław the Brave, the king of Poland. The king had arranged St. Bruno’s mission to the lands of the Yatvingians and later ransomed Bruno’s remains when the mission failed. Since at the time of the martyrdom Poland and Germany had been at war, it is believed that the news from Poland did not reach Germany until 1010, during peace negotiations with Poland. In these negotiations, King Heinrich II of Germany had been represented by Waltred, a relative of Bruno’s, who undoubtedly would have used the opportunity to inquire about the fate of his martyred relative.

The Slavic Form of Lithuania’s Name and its Origin

The fact that the name of Lithuania found its way into the chronicles through the mediation of Slavs, most likely Poles, also determined its written form: Lituae. In Latin, this is the genitive case (In Lithuanian, the genitive of Lietuva is Lietuvos), whereas its nominative case would be Litua. Since during the Middle Ages the sounds v and u were represented by the same letter, u, the above mentioned word must be read as Litva. Poles and other Slavs still use this form for the name of Lithuania (Litwa, Litva). Only Macedonians and Bosnians use Litvanija, while the Sorbs (western Slavs who settled in Lusatia, a region in the territory of Germany and Poland,) use Litawska.

The reason why Slavs use that form for Lithuania’s name is essentially obvious. The change of Liet- into Lit- is a regular change for Slavs who, in other cases as well, shifted the original diphthong ie (which developed from ei) into the vowel i (e.g., liepalipa ‘linden,’ lietiliti ‘to pour,’ žiemazima ‘winter,’ etc.). The explanation of why the suffix –uva (earlier -ava) shortened into –va in the Slavic languages is more complicated. Presently, linguists agree that this is due first to the reduction of a before v to the ultra-short reduced vowel ъ (the so called “yer”) and eventually to the loss of it (i.e., Litava changed into Litъva, and then simply into Litva). This is possible even though the earliest recorded forms of the name of Lithuania found in Slavic chronicles do not reflect such a development. The linguist K. Kuzavinis had earlier proposed another explanation. According to him, in the Lithuanian language itself there existed two forms of the name for Lithuania: Lietava and Lietva. He supported this hypothesis by the fact that similar forms are found in records of other Baltic toponyms (Skalva and Skalava, Jotva and Jotava, Latva and Latava) and river names (Gryžuva and Gryžva, Mituva and Mitva, Vaduva and Vadva).

Lietuva and Lietauka

According to the most widely accepted hypothesis, the name of Lithuania originated from a hydronym that is related to the verb lieti (to pour). The dominant hypothesis, proposed by Kuzavinis, relates the name of Lithuania to the small river Letauka or Lietauka, which he reconstructed as Lietava.2 This name has been confirmed through interviews with the few Lithuanians still living near the banks of this river. Near the river, in the village of Perelozai, there is a community of Russian Old Believers who may have contributed to the spread of the form Letauka. In addition, several other hydronyms related to the name of Lithuania have been found in the vicinity of Lietava. 

One must, however, note that the river Lietava is small (only 11 km in length). There are no archeological sites nearby, and there could hardly be any, since the area is very swampy. Even though the important early center Kernavė is just 30 km away, it is still a whole day’s journey by foot from the river. Thus it may be difficult to justify the conclusion that the name of Lithuania has been derived from the name of this small river.

Simas Karaliūnas noticed that the names of small rivers are sometimes derived from ethnonyms, the names of a people or ethnic group living there (e.g., Szwed near Slugocin, Poland; or the river Litwinka that flows into the Sidr, the left tributary of the river Biebrza in Poland). Artūras Dubonis points out a reference in 1511 to leičiai in the estate of Gegužinė-Perelozai on the banks of the Lietava – the name for true Lithuanians or “Lithuanians among Lithuanians” described below.

Lithuania – Could it Mean ‘Warrior band’?

Recently, significant contributions to the question of the origin of the name of Lithuania have been made in Dubonis’s study on leičiai 3 and in the analysis by Karaliūnas of all earlier hypotheses on the origin of the name of Lithuania.4 Nevertheless, there remain some controversial elements in those studies that need to be discussed in more detail.

Karaliūnas proposed the original hypothesis that the name of Lithuania is related to the German word leiten (to lead, to conduct). This word is reputed to be inherited from Proto-Indo-European and may have been used in the past in the Lithuanian language as well. According to him, the name of Lithuania originally meant “warrior band,” a meaning supposedly supported by historical sources.5 One must note here that, in fact, historical sources do not in any way support this strange conclusion. In Rus’ chronicles the collective noun Litva is used to describe Lithuanian warrior bands. So, wherever the word Litva appears in descriptions of military actions, Karaliūnas unpersuasively assumes the word to mean “band of warriors.” Such an explanation would be the same as using the sentence “Lithuanians sell cars” to conclude that the word Lithuanians means car salesmen and then using this to justify some further etymological conclusion. In other words, in the chronicles, Litva indeed meant “warrior band”, but only one consisting of Lithuanians. In the same chronicles, warrior bands constituted of other ethnic groups had other ethnonyms. (In this way, one might conclude that all ethnonyms originate from the word for bands of warriors!). Further doubt is cast on Karaliūnas’s conclusion by the fact that its linguistic reasoning is based mostly on data from Germanic languages.

Lietuva and Leičiai

Dubonis used historical evidence to support his hypothesis that the primary form of the Lithuanian ethnonym was leitis. Linguists had long known the development of the root liet- from *leit- (the ethnonym leitis, “Lithuanian,” is still used in Latvian). Dubonis showed that even in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Lithuanians were still called leičiai in some historical sources, while in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries this name was applied to a specific peasant stratum in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Especially telling is the message to the Conference of Lutsk in 1429 by Jan Steinkeller, a member of the Wrocław city council, in which he mentions Vytautas’s attempt to be crowned king of the Leičiai (konyng der Leytten).

Dubonis, however, did not provide his own etymology of the name of Lithuania. He only called Karaliūnas’s hypothesis promising because he was “looking for the origins of the name of Lithuania among people, not in water.” Nevertheless, one should look for the origins of the names of most Baltic lands precisely “in water” and not among the people. It suffices to mention the names of the regions Upytė or Upmala, for whose derivation no one would even think of looking anywhere other than in water: upė and upe mean “river” in Lithuanian and Latvian respectively.

The proposition by Dubonis that the name of the peasant stratum leičiai is related to the ethnonym lietuvis (Lithuanian) received serious criticism from Zigmas Zinkevičius.6 Zinkevičius pointed out that according to accepted theory, “the diphthong ei in East Baltic languages would have shifted to ie if that syllable is stressed.” Thus, in the word leĩtis the diphthong ei should have shifted to ie, unless the stress had originally been on the last syllable. Indeed, it is hard to believe that flexion carried the stress in the form it is written today (leitìs). On the other hand, one should consider the fact that the two villages named Leičiaĩ in the Šiauliai and Vilnius regions have stressed endings according to the fourth accentuation paradigm in modern Lithuanian grammar. This indicates that the original form of the word leitis had most likely been leitỹs (with a rising intonation in the ending). In that case, according to Zinkevičius, the diphthong ei in the word leitys should have remained unchanged.

'Leitė': Flooding or Clayey River?

Zinkevičius also pointed out that the name of the Leičiai in the village names Leičiaĩ and Laĩčiai have rising intonation in their roots, whereas the words Lietuvà (Lithuania) (accusative: Líetuvą) and lietùviai (Lithuanians) have a descending intonation. Since intonation normally does not change, Zinkevičius concludes that these words are not related etymologically. This problem, however, is still not resolved and requires further study. Karaliūnas states that the name of Lithuania sometimes has a inflection with rising intonation (acc. Liẽtuvą). Moreover, rising intonation in the ending has been noted in one of the forms of the ethnonym lietùvislietuvỹs (gen. sing. liẽtuvio, acc. sing. Líetuvį).

On the one hand, Karaliūnas is inclined to identify leičiai with Lithuanians, but on the other he invokes “the argument of intonation” in order to criticize the hydronymic hypothesis of the origin of the name Lietuva. The adherents of the latter hypothesis had noticed the names of the river Leĩtė (and its tributary Leitãle), a tributary of the Rusnė, and of the river Leità (acc. sing. Leĩtą; similar forms: Leĩtupalis, Leitỹs) in the Šilutė region, a tributary of the Graumena, a time ago. Linguists consider these two names to be derivatives of the root leit-/liet- (lieti). But Karaliūnas pointed out that the names of these rivers have rising intonation and therefore cannot be related to the word líeti (to pour). More likely they are related to the word laĩtas “a piece of clay” (balt. *leĩta- “clay”), and they mean clayey (not flooding) river. Here the two different explanations provided by Karaliūnas and Zinkevičius agree with each other, since Zinkevičius relates the name of the peasant stratum leičiai precisely with the word laitas.7 More can be said here, however. The word leitis may not necessarily have originated directly from the word laitas. Here the mediation by the river name Leitė or Leita, which perhaps means “clayey river,” is also possible. Thus, leitis could be someone living near the river named Leitė. So, combining Zinkevičius’s and Karaliūnas’s arguments, we may be able to show a link between the hydronym Leitė and the ethnonyms leitis (leitỹs) and lietuvis (lietuvỹs).

From Clay to Lithuanian

All of the above shows that the names for Lithuania and Lithuanians may have originated this way: laĩtas (*leĩtas) “clay” – Leĩtė “ clayey river” – leitỹs “dweller near the river Leitė” – Leĩtava “Leičiai, or the land of the Leičiai” (a collective noun) – Lietava || Lietuvà “Leičiai, land of the Leičiai” (a collective noun) – Lietùvis || Lietuvỹs “inhabitant of Lithuania”. Let us discuss the last links in this chain some more.

Dubonis and Karaliūnas derive the name of Lithuania from the ethnonym leitis. The suffix -ava is used to form collective nouns as in brolis (‘brother’) – broliava (=broliai ‘brothers’), velnias (‘devil’) – velniava (=velniai ‘devils’). The same principle is used for leitisleitava (=leičiai). Thus, in the Rus’ chronicles the word Litva is used as a collective noun. And even in Lithuanian books of the sixteenth century, the word Lietuva sometimes refers not to Lithuania as a territory but to Lithuanians as well.8 Incidentally, the word Žemaitija, as the name referring to the land (territory), appeared quite late because Žemaitija is not a collective noun; up until the twentieth century the name of the territory Žemaitija was the plural collective noun Žemaičiai.

The collective noun *Leitava from the very beginning had two meanings: it referred to both Lithuania (Lietuva) and Lithuanians (lietuviai, leičiai). Later, because of certain changes, this word acquired the form Lietuva, and then the ethnonyms lietuvis, lietuvninkas were derived from this form. In some strata, however, the non-derivative form leitis (leitys) continued to be used for a “Lithuanian.” Dubonis came to the conclusion that leičiai were special Lithuanians, sort of “the most authentic” Lithuanians, or “Lithuanians among Lithuanians.” Not only they themselves, but other Lithuanians as well, clearly differentiated between a person who is a leitis (a true Lithuanian) and one just simply a lietuvis (a Lithuanian). Leičiai had higher status and were the support of the ruler of Lithuania in the various lands of the Grand Duchy.

Considering the fact that in the thirteenth century in the state of Lithuania there existed a Lithuanian land in a narrow sense, in other words a “Lithuania within Lithuania,” it is easy to see the parallel between this and “Lithuanians among Lithuanians.” Thus it appears that leičiai were Lithuanians in Lithuania in a narrow sense. Dubonis found settlements of Leičiai in almost all districts of the Trakai province in the Vilnius region, mainly on the Užneris side (north of the river Neris), and also in some settlements in Žemaitija and Rus’. All of these territories were beyond the limits of the Lithuanian land in a narrow sense. And the Leičiai in these lands were newcomers; therefore, they were distinguished from local inhabitants by that ethnonym. As shown by the most recent research, the Lithuanian land in the narrow sense was part of the Vilnius province in the direction toward Ashmyany (up to the border of ethnic Lithuania)9 . In the Ashmyany region, a peasant stratum of Leičiai is almost unknown, and it should be, if that is their homeland and all inhabitants of this region are Leičiai. The existence of Leičiai has been reported only on the estate of Ashmyany in 1510–1522. This exception can easily be explained by looking at a topographical map. At present within the estate there remain two villages with names derived from leičiai.The names of these villages, now Russified, are Loiti (15 km southwest from Ashmyany, near Grauzhyski) and Loitevshchina (12 km south of Ashmyany, 7 km east of Loiti). One immediately notices that near Loiti there is a village called Borti whose name is related to the ethnonym of Bartians (a Baltic Prussian tribe), while near the village of Loitevshchina lies a village by the name Lenkovshchina, whose name is related to the ethnonym lenkai (Poles). Thus, identification of the Leičiai as a distinct peasant class within the estate of Ashmyany must be related to the settlements of foreigners near by.

If we relate leičiai with the land of Lithuania in a narrow sense, we might conclude that leitis was the name of the original Lithuanians, and lietuvis and lietuvninkas that of other Balts merged into the Lithuanian nation. In that case, the name for the latter would have been derived from the name of the country, Lietuva. The weakest argument in this hypothesis is the problem of intonation (accent) mentioned above, but that problem can only be solved by linguists.

Translated by J. A. Anysas

1. Baranauskas, Lietuvos valstybės ištakos, 22-24.
2. Kuzavinis, Kalbotyra. 5-18.
3. Dubonis, Lietuvos didžiojo kunigaikščio leičiai.
4. Karaliūnas, “Lietuvos vardo kilmė,” 55-71.
5. Ibid., 71-91.
6. Zinkevičius, Lietuvos vardas, 59-62.
7. Zinkevičius, Lietuvių kalbos istorija, 125.
8. For example, “Per Jana Bretkuna Lietuwos Plebona Karaliaucziuie Prusuosu – 1591; Zacharias Blothno Lietuwos Klibons Tilszeie” – 1600; “ Lietuway ir Zemayciamus norėdamas gierey padarit, abeietuy Catechismu pergulde, ir todrin abeios gimines žodžius pagulde. Wienok idant Lietuwa tuo gieraus, ir labiaus sawo prigimtui Lietuwiszku Liežuwi ir pazintu, ir permanitu... tu Ledesmos Cathechismu iž nauio pėrguldziau” – 1605. Koženiauskienė, XVI–XVIII amžiaus prakalbos ir dedikacijos, 111, 185, 208–209.
9. Baranauskas, “Kur buvo Lietuvos žemė?” 3-18.


Baranauskas, Tomas. Lietuvos valstybės ištakos. Vilnius: Vaga, 2000.

______. “Kur buvo Lietuvos žemė?” Lituanistica, No. 2 (50), 2002.

Dubonis, Artūras. Lietuvos didžiojo kunigaikščio leičiai: iš Lietuvos ankstyvųjų valstybinių struktūrų praeities. Vilnius: Lietuvos istorijos instituto leidykla, 1998.

Karaliūnas, Simas. “Lietuvos vardo kilmė.” Lietvių kalbotyros klausimai. Vol. 35, 1995.

Koženiauskienė, Regina. XVI–XVIII amžiaus prakalbos ir dedikacijos. Vilnius: Mokslas, 1990.

Kuzavinis, Kazys. “Lietuvos vardo kilmė.” Lietuvos TSR aukštųjų mokyklų darbai. Kalbotyra. Vol. 10, 1964.

Zinkevičius, Zigmas, Lietuvių kalbos istorija, Vol. 2. Vilnius: Mokslas, 1987.

_____. “Lietuvos vardas ir leičiai (laičiai).” Lituanistica, No. 4 (20) 1994.