Lithuanian, Latvian, and Old Prussian

For Lithuanian, Gessner had no specimen, but was able to report on the authority of the Polish humanist Macieij Miechowita (z Miechowa, de Michovia) that the Lithuanorum lingua was quadripartita, a ‘fourfold language’[1] Its four parts were the language of the Iaczuingi; that of the Lithuani and Samogithae; a variety he called Prutenica; and a variety spoken in Livonia, around Riga. Miechowita noted a tradition that this group of language varieties was of Italian origin, and remarked that a number of words in the language varieties did seem to be Italian: this contrasted them with Polish, which he saw as the language of a people descended from the unconquerable Sarmatians of the classical world.[2] Treating all four varieties as parts of one language made the contrast with Polish as clear as possible. Gessner, however, noted that the varieties subsumed under the term Lithuanorum lingua were not mutually intelligible.[3] They may correspond to the Baltic language varieties now called Yatvingian, Lithuanian, Old Prussian, and Latvian, and if so, we would take at least the latter three to be separate languages.

Two of them do not appear to have been handled by sixteenth-century lexicographers. The speakers of Yatvingian were disappearing in Miechowita’s day, and their language was never written down; it is primarily known from place-names.[4] A Lutheran service book with parallel texts in Latvian and the Finno-Ugric languages Livonian and Estonian was printed in 1525 (all the copies were seized shortly afterwards, and none survive), and the Latvian Lord’s Prayer in the Latin edition of Munster’s Cosmographia may derive ultimately from this printed book or from a liturgical or catechetical manuscript, but despite these early examples of written Latvian, the first Latvian dictionary is a German-Latvian printed book of 1638, which had several successors in the same century.[5]

As for Lithuanian, the first printed book in the language, a Lutheran catechism, was published in Konigsberg in the duchy of Prussia in 1547.[6] Then the first printed dictionary did not appear until the seventeenth century: this was the Dictionarium trium linguarum of Konstantinas Sirvydas (Szyrwid) SJ, published in Vilnius before 1620, which ran to further seventeenth-century editions and was also followed by manuscript German-Lithuanian dictionaries.[7] But as early as 1550, a writer known as Michalo the Lithuanian had produced a fragmentary account of the customs of the Tartars, Lithuanians, and Muscovites, one chapter of which explains that the Lithuanians were of Italian origin. ‘This, Michalo argues, ‘can be seen from our semiLatin language’—for a whole list of about seventy words, from ignis, unda, aer, and sol to unus, duo, tres, quatuor, quinque, sex, and septem, which Michalo sets out, ‘and many others, mean the same thing in the Lithuanian language and also in Latin’.[8] Michalo’s wordlist is an oddity, because it is at once Lithuanian, and as such the first wordlist of Lithuanian by seventy years, and Latin, and as such one among thousands of wordlists of Latin. It is really more Latin than Lithuanian, though: as the historian Christoph Hartknoch pointed out in 1679, the Latin words are not exactly the same as their Lithuanian equivalents, so that Latin ignis ‘fire’ corresponds to Lithuanian ugnis, Latin

unda ‘wave’ with Lithuanian wanda, and so on.[9] One might say that in so far as the words it lists are Lithuanian, they have been systematically respelt in a way which makes them appear identical with Latin and does not reflect Lithuanian pronunciation. Michalo’s wordlist remained in manuscript until 1615, when it was printed, with a couple of other little inedita, by the Swiss poet and traveller Johann Jakob Grasser; thereafter, it was reprinted in the volume which describes Poland and Lithuania in the widely circulated Elzevir ‘Republics’ collection.[10] Its argument echoes Macieij Miechowita’s claim that Lithuanian and the languages closest to it were of Italian origin, but whereas in Miechowita’s hands, the theory showed that Lithuanians were not noble Sarmatians, in Michalo’s hands, it showed that they were noble Romans.[11]

Interesting as Michalo’s little piece is, the liveliest sixteenth-century wordlist of a Baltic language is of Old Prussian. This is somewhat surprising at first sight: by the middle of the sixteenth century, Old Prussian was already undergoing internal changes indicative of ‘a situation of imminent language death’.[12] It follows from the declining state of the language in the age of the printed book that there are very few substantial printed texts in Old Prussian: in fact, there are basically two, both catechisms printed at Konigsberg, the first in 1545 (with a revised edition in the same year: these two editions are known to Balticists as the First and Second Catechisms), and the second (known as the Third Catechism) in 1561.[13]

Prussian had, however, been written long before it was printed: there was a Middle Low German-Old Prussian classed wordlist, with 802 entries, now known as the Elbing Vocabulary. It was originally compiled in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century. The only manuscript of this wordlist to survive into the twentieth century (if it survived the Allied bombing of Elbing [Elbqg] in 1945, it was presumably destroyed in the subsequent taking of the city by the Soviet army) dated from around 1400. It was photographed and described before its destruction, so we know that it was an attractive copy, with the beginning of each subject-category marked with an initial letter in red ink, in the same manuscript as three law-codes from the German-speaking Baltic lands.[14] Its archetype was no doubt produced by substituting Old Prussian words for the Latin of a Middle Low German-Latin classed wordlist, and so not all of its entries would have been particularly useful for legal purposes, but its place in a legal manuscript does suggest that it was meant to be used in the administration of law by a German-speaker among Prussian-speakers—perhaps the scribe, Petrus Holczwesscher of Marienburg, which in 1400 was the administrative centre of the Teutonic Knights, or perhaps his employer.

The one sixteenth-century wordlist of Old Prussian has a much clearer ideological motivation than the Elbing Vocabulary. It is part of the Prussian chronicle of the Dominican friar Simon Grunau of Tolkemit (Tolkmicko), near Elbing in the western part of Prussia, which had been part of the commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania since 1464. The chronicle was composed between 1517 and 1526.[15] Telling the story of Prussia meant taking sides: the deeds of the Teutonic Knights who had conquered Prussia either had to be judged favourably, as they were by writers in a historiographical tradition which saw them as responsible for the evangelization of the heathen, or unfavourably, with more attention to their cruelty and violence. Grunau wrote with a strong antiTeutonic bias, which would have been very acceptable to many readers in Polish Prussia, where the rule of the Teutonic Knights had been unpopular.[16] He therefore gave a rich picture of the indigenous people whom the knights had conquered, emphasizing the distinctiveness of their culture, for instance in some highly-coloured accounts of their pagan beliefs and customs.[17] He also presented an Old Prussian-German wordlist, of 100 words, most of which belong to everyday vocabulary, explaining in his introduction that he was doing so ‘so that everyone can perceive that Prussian is a distinct language’, and adding immediately after the wordlist that it showed that Prussian is indeed a distinct language, unintelligible to speakers of Polish and scarcely intelligible to speakers of Lithuanian.[18] The contrast which was made clearest in the wordlist itself rather than its brief paratexts was of course that between Prussian and German, which was also brought out in the introductory paragraph: there were originally, Grunau observed, no Germans in Prussia, and the wordlist made it clear that the aboriginal language was nothing like German.[19] The wordlist itself was neither alphabetized nor clearly subject-ordered (though it does start with the word for ‘God’, in this case dewus), and this suggests that it was not simply copied directly from another wordlist. However, Grunau’s own knowledge of Old Prussian seems to have been limited, and so he is unlikely to have produced the wordlist from his own memory: perhaps a phrase-book of some sort underlies it.[20] In that case, Grunau was taking a lexical resource produced, like so many lexical resources of the period before 1500, for practical use, and turning it into an ideological vehicle.

Grunau’s chronicle was not printed in the sixteenth century, but it evidently circulated in manuscript. The oldest manuscript of the complete chronicle belongs to the early seventeenth century, and was preserved at Konigsberg until the Second World War, and other manuscripts were formerly located in Konigsberg and Danzig, with one further afield at Dresden.[21] There is an elegantly produced sixteenth-century manuscript, now at Gottingen, whither it may have come as a diplomatic gift, of a text which is abridged from Grunau’s but has some later material at the end. It includes the wordlist, but in a different form, German-Old Prussian, leading the German-speaking reader from the familiar to the unfamiliar rather than vice versa.[22] Ten words have been cut from the wordlist as presented in the oldest extant manuscript of the complete chronicle, perhaps because they were not genuinely Old Prussian, or because they were redundant or obscure, and ten different words or phrases have taken their place, several of which are also to be found in the Elbing Vocabulary.[23] This suggests that the redactor of the abridged chronicle valued Grunau’s wordlist enough to retain and improve it; that he knew more Old Prussian than Grunau; and that he may have had access to the Elbing Vocabulary or to a related wordlist. Simon Grunau and his sixteenth-century redactor therefore illustrate two different approaches to the Old Prussian wordlist which they both handled: for the former, it was a document illustrating Prussian identity, and for the other, it was a philological record.

  • [1] Gessner, Mithridates (1555) fo. 59r, adapting Miechowita, De duabus Sarmatiis sig. f3v.
  • [2] See Friedrich, The Other Prussia 89-91.
  • [3] Gessner, Mithridates (1555) fos. 59r, ‘Et horum quanquam eadem sit lingua (uidetur [Miechowita]sentire linguam unam esse, linguagium ipse uocat, sed quatuor dialectis distinctam) unus tamen non satisalterum intelligit’; discussion in Dini, ‘Auffassungsvarietat’ 43.
  • [4] For Yatvingian, see Schmalstieg, Studies in Old Prussian 17-49, esp. 34.
  • [5] For the book of 1525, see Viksnins, ‘Early history of Latvian books’ 20-1; the Lord’s Prayer is in Munster,Cosmographia (1552) 789; for the dictionaries, see Gluck and Porzgen, Deutschlernen in Russland 69-72.
  • [6] Ochmanski, ‘National idea in Lithuania’ 305-6.
  • [7] For the first edition of Sirvydas’ dictionary, see Schmalstieg, Review; for subsequent editions and theiruse by speakers of German, see Schiller and Zubaitiene, ‘Worterbucher von Konstantinas Sirvydas’; forGerman-Lithuanian dictionaries, see Gluck and Porzgen, Deutschlernen in Russland 131-3.
  • [8] Michalo, De moribus Tartarorum 23, ‘Quod ita esse liquet ex sermone nostro semilatino . . . Etenim etignis, et unda, aer, sol, . . . unus, duo, tres, quatuor, quinque, sex, septem, et pleraque alia, idem significantLituano sermone quod et Latino.’
  • [9] Hartknoch, ‘Dissertationes’ 93; he had already reproduced the wordlist in Hartknoch and vonNettelhorst, Dissertatio historica de originibus Prussicis, sigs. E1v-E2r.
  • [10] Respublica, siue status regni Poloniae (1627) 265-6.
  • [11] See Ochmanski, ‘National idea in Lithuania’ 304. 83 Kortlandt, Baltica & Balto-Slavica 213.
  • [12] 84 For the catechisms, see Trautmann, Altpreussischen Sprachdenkmaler xxvi-xxviii (with texts ibid.
  • [13] 1-81) and Schmalstieg, Old Prussian Grammar 4-7.
  • [14] Trautmann, Altpreussischen Sprachdenkmaler xxii-xxv; Schmalstieg, Studies in Old Prussian 68-9.
  • [15] Trautmann, Altpreussischen Sprachdenkmaler xxv-xxvi; Schmalstieg, Studies in Old Prussian 69-83.
  • [16] Friedrich, The Other Prussia 81-2.
  • [17] See Borchardt, German Antiquity in Renaissance Myth 157-60.
  • [18] Grunau, Preussische Chronik 1: 92 (= Trautmann, Altpreussische Sprachdenkmaler 94), ‘Domit . . . imantmoge begreiffen, und Preusch ein besonder sprache sey, so hab ich etliche worte gesatz’; ed. cit. 1: 93 (=Trautmann, Altpreussische Sprachdenkmaler 96), ‘Unnd so ist abe zunemen, wie Preusch ein sonderlichesproche hott, und der Pole im nix vorstehet, der Littau gantz wenigk’.
  • [19] Grunau, Preussische Chronik 1: 92 (= Trautmann, Altpreussische Sprachdenkmaler 94), ‘Von anbegines nicht Deutsch volk gehabt hot’.
  • [20] For Grunau’s knowledge of Old Prussian, see Schmalstieg, Studies in Old Prussian 76; for the possiblesource of his wordlist, see Rosenkranz, ‘Zur Uberlieferungsgeschichte’ 117.
  • [21] Kiparsky, ‘Schicksal eines altpreuftischen Katechismus’ 222.
  • [22] Hermann, ‘Eine unbeachtete Uberlieferung’: text at 151-4, facsimiles at 155-8, discussed as a possiblediplomatic gift 166.
  • [23] Hermann, ‘Eine unbeachtete Uberlieferung’ 160-1.
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