|Extinct||2 June 2013, with the death of Grizelda Kristiņa (initial)|
|Revival||1 native speaker|
~40 L2 speakers at B1 and up
~210 at A1–A2
Distribution where the last Livonian speakers lived
Historic distribution of the Livonian language in Latvia
The Livonian language (Livonian: līvõ kēļ or rāndakēļ) is a Finnic language whose native land is the Livonian Coast of the Gulf of Livonia, located in the north of the Kurzeme peninsula in Latvia. Although initially its last native speaker died in 2013, a child born in 2020 is reported to be a native speaker of Livonian. Her parents are Livonian language revival activists Jānis Mednis and Renāte Medne. Also, there are about 40 reported L2 speakers and 210 having reported some knowledge of the language. Possibly uniquely among the Uralic languages, Livonian has been described as a pitch-accent language (see below).
Currently, the only person whose native language is Livonian is Kuldi Medne, who was born in 2020. Her parents are Livonian language revival activists Jānis Mednis and Renāte Medne. Some ethnic Livonians are learning or have learned Livonian in an attempt to revive it, but because 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 Latvian-language school as a monolingual. Some other Livonians had argued, however, that there were some native speakers left, including Viktors Bertholds' cousin, Grizelda Kristiņa, who died in 2013. 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.
The promotion of the Livonian language as a living language has been advanced mostly by the Livonian Cultural Centre (Līvõ Kultūr Sidām), an organisation of mostly young 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, Finland and Sweden, which constantly increases the pool of people with some knowledge of the language who do not permanently reside in Latvia.
In the 19th century, about 2,000 people still spoke Livonian; in 1852, the number of Livonians was 2,394. Various historical events have led to the near total language death of Livonian:
In the 13th century, the native Livonians inhabited all the areas around the Gulf of Riga, except for the Estonian island of Saaremaa. In the 12th–13th centuries the Livonian lands were conquered by the Teutonic Order. The conquest led to a strong decrease in the number of speakers of the Livonian language, empty Livonian lands inhabited by the Latvians, which contributed to the replacement of the Livonian language in favor of Latvian. It is estimated that at the time of the German colonization, there were 30,000 Livonians. In the 19th century the number of speakers of the Couronian dialect is estimated as follows: 2,074 people in 1835, 2,324 people in 1852, 2,390 people in 1858, 2,929 people in 1888. According to the Soviet Census of 1989, 226 people were Livonian, and almost half of them spoke Livonian. According to estimates of the Liv Culture Center in 2010, only 40 people spoke Livonian in everyday life. In 2013, there were none who spoke Livonian in everyday life.
The first Livonian words were recorded in the Livonian Chronicle of Henry. The first written sources about Livonian appeared in the 16th century. The collection of Livonian poems "Mariners sacred songs and prayers" (Latvian: Jūrnieku svētās dziesmas un lūgšanas) was translated to Latvian by Jānis Prints and his son Jānis Jr. and was published in 1845. The first book in Livonian was the Gospel of Matthew, published in 1863 in London in both the eastern and western Courland dialects. It was translated into eastern Couronian by Nick Pollmann and into western Couronian by Jānis Prints and Peteris. The plan with the book was to establish a standard orthography by F. Wiedemann, which consisted of 36 letters with many diacritics. The total circulation was 250 copies. The Livonians received only one copy of each dialect. The second book in Livonian was the same Gospel of Matthew, published in 1880 in St. Petersburg, with an orthography based on Latvian and German.
In the interwar period, there were several dozen books published in Livonian, mainly with the help of Finnish and Estonian organizations. In 1930, the first newspaper in Livonian, "Līvli", was published. In 1942, a translation of the New Testament was published in Helsinki. It was translated by Kōrli Stalte, with help from the Finnish linguist Lauri Kettunen. After WWII, books in Livonian were no longer published, as Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union. The whole area of the Livonian Coast became a restricted border zone under tight Soviet supervision. Coastal fishing was gradually eliminated in the smaller villages and concentrated in the larger population centres of Kolka, Roja, and Ventspils. Limits were placed on freedom of movement for inhabitants. All of these factors contributed to the decline of the language, although some initiatives appeared from the early 1970s onwards.
After Latvia regained its independence, the newsletter "Õvā" was published in Livonian in 1994, dedicated to the Livonian culture, art, and figures of the national movement, and in 1998 with the support of the "Open Society," the first collection of poetry in Livonian, "Ma akūb sīnda vizzõ, tūrska!", was published and presented in Finland and Estonia. It combines the works of famous Livonian poets. To date, the only Livonian media outlet is the trilingual (English-Latvian-Livonian) Livones.lv (livones.net) operated by the Liv Culture Center.
Two sites were included in the Atlas Linguarum Europae to study Livonian: Miķeļtornis and Mazirbe.
Viktors Bertholds (10 July 1921 – 28 February 2009), one of the last Livonian speakers of the generation who learnt Livonian as a first language in a Livonian-speaking family and community, died on 28 February 2009. Though it was reported that he was the last native speaker of the language, Livonians themselves claimed that there were more native speakers still alive, albeit very few.
As reported in the Estonian newspaper Eesti Päevaleht, 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 the 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.
The last native speaker of Livonian was Grizelda Kristiņa, née Bertholde (1910–2013, a cousin of Viktors Bertholds), who lived in Canada from 1949. According to linguist and activist Valts Ernštreits, she spoke Livonian as well "as if she had stepped out of her home farm in a Livonian coastal village just yesterday" and qualified as the last living native speaker of the Livonian language of her generation. She died on June 2, 2013.
The survival of the Livonian language now depends on young Livonians who learnt Livonian in their childhood from grandparents or great-grandparents of the pre-war generations. There are not many of them, though 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 to use Livonian actively in everyday communication. One such younger generation Livonian speaker is Julgī StalteTuļļi Lum. In 2018, the Livonian Institute at the University of Latvia (Livonian: Lețmō Iļīzskūol Līvõd institūt) was established to promote research and awareness of the language. It is led by Valts Ernštreits., who performs with the Livonian-Estonian world music group
In 2020, it was reported that newborn Kuldi Medne had become the only living person who speaks Livonian as their first language. Her parents are Livonian language revival activists Jānis Mednis and Renāte Medne. Two years later, in October 2022, they published Kūldaläpš. Zeltabērns ('Golden Child'), a book in Livonian and Latvian for children and parents, with plans for subsequent books and an audio version.
2023 was proclaimed as Livonian Heritage Year (Livonian: Līvõd pierāndõks āigast) by the UoL Livonian Institute in cooperation with the UNESCO Latvian National Commission and the Latvian National Cultural Center, with various events held by individuals and institutions. In January 2023, the first of 171 approved road signs in Latvia with Latvian and Livonian text were placed on the border of Talsi Municipality. Similar signs are being placed in Latgale featuring Latgalian. During the 2023 Latvian Song and Dance Festival, for the first time in the history of the event, a song with Livonian lyrics was featured. Lībieši nāk (Latvian: 'Livonians are coming'), the 2nd part of the musical cycle Nācēji by Inese Zandere and Valts Pūce was performed during the Grand Choir Concert Tīrums. Dziesmas ceļš.
Livonian, like Estonian, has lost vowel harmony, but unlike Estonian, it has also lost consonant gradation.
Livonian has 8 vowels in the table below. Additionally two archaic vowels are given in parentheses:
|Close||i ⟨i⟩||(y ⟨y⟩)[b]||ɨ ⟨õ⟩||ɯ||u ⟨u⟩|
|Mid||ɛ~e ⟨e⟩[c]||(œ ⟨ö⟩)[b]||ə[d]||ɤ ⟨ȯ⟩||o ⟨o⟩|
|Open||æ ⟨ä⟩||ɑ ⟨a⟩|
All vowels can be long or short. Short vowels are written as indicated in the table; long vowels are written with an additional macron ("ˉ") 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 also a large number of diphthongs, as well as a number of triphthongs. These can also occur as short or long.
The two opening diphthongs /ie/ and /uo/ vary in their stress placement depending on length: short ie, uo are realized as rising [i̯e], [u̯o], while long īe, ūo are realized as falling [iˑe̯], [uˑo̯]. The same applies to the triphthongs uoi : ūoi.
Livonian has 23 consonants:
|Nasal||m ⟨m⟩||n ⟨n⟩||ɲ ⟨ņ⟩||ŋ[a]|
|Plosive||voiceless||p ⟨p⟩||t̪ ⟨t⟩||c ⟨ț⟩||k ⟨k⟩|
|voiced||b ⟨b⟩||d̪ ⟨d⟩||ɟ ⟨ḑ⟩||ɡ ⟨g⟩|
|Fricative||voiceless||(f ⟨f⟩)||s ⟨s⟩||ʃ ⟨š⟩||(h ⟨h⟩)|
|voiced||v ⟨v⟩||z ⟨z⟩||ʒ ⟨ž⟩|
|Trill||r ⟨r⟩||rʲ ⟨ŗ⟩|
|lateral||l ⟨l⟩||ʎ ⟨ļ⟩|
/f h/ are restricted to loans, except for some interjections containing /h/. Voiced obstruents are subject to being either devoiced or half-voiced in the word-final position, or before another unvoiced consonants (kuolmõz /ˈku̯olməs ~ ˈku̯olməz̥/ "third").
The Livonian alphabet is a hybrid which mixes Latvian and Estonian orthography.
|Majuscule forms (also called uppercase or capital letters)|
|Minuscule forms (also called lowercase or small letters)|
|* denotes letters that were used for phonemes that were unrounded in later generations; these were retired when a song book was published in 1980 with new rules, but sometimes used as late as 1997.|
** some texts may used cedilla instead of comma due to technical limitations, similar to the issue in Romanian typography.
Main article: Livonian grammar
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 for a Finnic language. There are about 2,000 Latvian and 200 Low Saxon and German loanwords in Livonian and most of the Germanic loanwords were adopted through Latvian. Latvian, however, was influenced by Livonian as well. Its regular syllable stress, which is based on Livonian, is very unusual in a Baltic language. 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. There are about 800 Estonian loanwords in Livonian, most of which were borrowed from the Saaremaa dialect.
Tā ir 1998. gadā Rīgā iznākusī lībiešu dzejas antoloģija „Es viltīgāks par tevi, menca", kurā apkopoti visu zināmāko lībiešu dzejnieku – pavisam 24 – darbi.