Insights into the Baltic and Finnic Languages

Contacts, Comparisons, and Change

by Helle Metslang (Volume editor) Miina Norvik (Volume editor) Andra Kalnača (Volume editor)
©2022 Conference proceedings 326 Pages


This book includes twelve articles that present new research on the Finnic and Baltic languages spoken in the southern and eastern part of the Circum-Baltic area. It aims to elaborate on the various contact situations and (dis)similarities between the languages of the area. Taking an areal, comparative, or sociolinguistic perspective, the articles offer new insights into the grammatical, semantic, pragmatic, and textual patterns of different types of predicates or nouns or consider the variation of grammatical categories from a typological perspective. The qualitative analyses find support in quantitative data collected from language corpora or written sources, including those representing the less studied varieties of the area.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of contents
  • Abbreviations
  • Introduction: The languages and language systems that meet at the Baltic Sea (Miina Norvik, Helle Metslang, Andra Kalnača)
  • The change of surnames and its consequences in Latvia in the 1920s and 1930s (Laimute Balode, Laura Grīviņa)
  • The distribution of inessive case endings in Lutsi (Uldis Balodis)
  • Functions of Livonian and Latvian indirect imperatives and their further developments (Milda Dailidėnaitė)
  • Latvian prefixes in Livonian: Frequency, consistency, and distribution (Milda Dailidėnaitė, Valts Ernštreits)
  • The polysemy of the Latvian verbal prefixes pa- and no- (Daiga Deksne)
  • Latvian oblique forms: An interaction of evidentiality, epistemicity, and mirativity (Andra Kalnača, Ilze Lokmane)
  • Language standardisation, authenticity, and typological change (Johanna Laakso)
  • The present passive participle and its semantics in Latvian (Kristīne Levāne-Petrova)
  • Analyticity/syntheticity in language varieties: The case of Estonian (Helle Metslang, Külli Habicht, Pärtel Lippus, Karl Pajusalu)
  • Demonstrative pronouns in Latvian and Finnish online texts (Emīlija Mežale)
  • Periphrastic causative constructions in Livonian: An overview (Miina Norvik, Jurgis Pakerys)
  • In the evening, in summer. Temporal case adverbs in Votic and Ingrian in the context of linguistic convergence (Fedor Rozhanskiy, Elena Markus)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Subject index
  • Series index

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Miina Norvik,Helle Metslang,Andra Kalnača

Introduction: The languages and language systems that meet at the Baltic Sea

The Circum-Baltic (CB) area is a meeting point of two Uralic branches – Finnic, Saamic – and three Indo-European branches – the Baltic, Slavic, and Germanic languages. The term “Circum-Baltic languages” was coined to denote the area around the Baltic Sea where these languages are spoken, however, the exact delimitation of this area is left intentionally vague (see Dahl & Koptjevskaja-Tamm 2001a). A notable feature of the CB area is the continuity of contacts over time (Koptjevskaja-Tamm & Wälchli 2001: 726). For instance, the presence of Finnic and Baltic in northeastern Europe can be traced back to the prehistoric era (Kallio 2014: 78). According to the current viewpoint, which finds support in archaeology and genetics, Finnic speakers reached the Baltic Sea approximately 2800–3200 years ago (e.g., Lang 2018). Contacts between the Finnic and Baltic languages, however, started even before that. Namely, the Baltic language area is thought to have once stretched to the Upper Volga region, although the Baltic languages were probably only secondarily spoken in the Volga-Oka area (Kallio 2014: 78; see also Nichols 2021: 355). The Slavic expansion began no earlier than the middle of the first millennium AD (ibid.).

Similarities between the languages of the Circum-Baltic area have led to attempts to establish a Sprachbund or even several Sprachbünde in the area. The first researcher to use the term for the area was Roman Jakobson (1971a [1931a], 1971b [1931b]), who identified common phonetic features among the languages of the area. The idea was developed further, and – in addition to phonetics – common features were also discovered in morphosyntax (e.g., Mathiassen 1985). An extensive treatment of the topic is provided by Thomas Stolz in his monograph “Sprachbund im Baltikum?” (1991), in which he focuses on areal phenomena primarily in the southern and eastern parts of the region and demonstrates that especially Latvian and Estonian show convergence; his research was mainly concentrated on the standard languages. In 2001, the two-part compendium “The Circum-Baltic languages”, edited by Östen Dahl and Maria Koptjevskaja-Tamm (Dahl & Koptjevskaja-Tamm 2001a, b), was published; this work presents an overview of the development of the region, its language groups and common linguistic features, and continues to be a valuable source of information on the entire area. In the summary article “The ←11 | 12→Circum-Baltic languages: An areal-typological approach”, Maria Koptjevskaja-Tamm and Bernhard Wälchli (2001) present a new viewpoint on the Circum-Baltic language area. In their thorough and multifaceted areal-typological analysis, they conclude that the Circum-Baltic area cannot be treated as a language union defined by some set of common features. Thus, they suggest the term “Contact Superposition Zone”, as the CB linguistic area can instead be characterised by intensive linguistic contacts between small groups of languages and the continuity of these contacts over a long period of time, rather than by isoglosses covering all the CB languages. As shown, the isoglosses pick up different subsets of languages and there are only a few common innovations in the area. Lyle Campbell (2017), generalising from a number of different language areas, finds that language areas are inherently uneven in their nature and their development, and that they lack clear boundaries. The articles in this volume also show that there are different contacts and common features between languages and language groups in different parts of the region.

The described unevenness in these areas has also been shaped by different contact situations, as well as economic, political, and religious processes. Regarding such factors, Riho Grünthal (2020) argues in favour of a diversification of the Finnic languages into three zones already in the medieval period. The core of the southern zone is made up by Livonian and the Estonian varieties (excl. Northeastern Estonian); the eastern zone includes Veps, Ludic, Karelian, Ingrian, Votic, Northeastern Estonian, and the eastern Finnish varieties; the northern zone is reserved for the Finnish varieties spoken in western Finland. More specifically, these groupings reflect different trade routes, contacts with neighbouring communities, and relationships between centres and peripheries (Grünthal 2020: 13). Among the three zones, the southern zone is claimed to stand out due to the faster speed of language change on all levels (phonology > morphology, syntax, lexicon). The southern zone stretches to/partly overlaps with the area where Latvian is spoken. As generally agreed, Latvian has been more innovative than Lithuanian and it is known to have gone through a more rapid development (see, e.g., Balode & Holvoet 2001).

The languages of the area also differ in terms of their description and standardisation. The written traditions of Estonian, Finnish, and Latvian have their roots in the 16th century. The tradition of writing in Latgalian goes back to the 18th century (Cibuļs 2009: 27). As regards several of the Finnic varieties also discussed in this volume (Livonian, Votic, the South Estonian language islands, etc.), more systematic documentation began only in the second half of the 19th century and written standards started to appear in the late 20th century or even ←12 | 13→more recently. It is not rare, however, for speaker communities to have diminished considerably or become non-existent by the start of the 21st century. In the latter case, today’s linguists can only rely on the data collected earlier. An example of this is the primer on Lutsi (see Balodis 2020), a South Estonian language island in Latvia that faded out of use in the 1970s–1980s (Vaba 2011). The study of Livonian also must rely primarily on older written sources. However, the development of standardised language also brings about typological differences between the language form developed by scholars and the language as spoken natively (Laakso, present volume).

The present volume has its roots in the workshop “Circum-Baltic languages: varieties, comparisons, and change” (convenors: Liina Lindström, Helle Metslang, and Andra Kalnača) from the 51st annual conference of the Societas Linguisticae Europaea held in Tallinn in 2018, containing expansions of presentations from the workshop as well as other submissions. The articles herein focus primarily on the southern and eastern parts of the CB area (see Figure 1), addressing the structure and usage of Baltic and Finnic languages today and in the recent past and discussing different contact situations in the area. All the articles contain comparisons of different languages or language variants within the region. Particular attention is given to structural features influenced by contact between Livonian and Latvian (the articles by Milda Dailidėnaitė, Milda Dailidėnaitė and Valts Ernštreits, Miina Norvik and Jurgis Pakerys). As Milda Dailidėnaitė (present volume, p. 88) writes: “understanding any phenomenon is not possible without broader areal research in this region, also, in this case, many of the common developments are not unique to Livonian and Latvian”. Similarities and differences in structure and use are analysed for Latvian and Lithuanian by Daiga Deksne, and for Ingrian and Votic by Fedor Rozhanskiy and Elena Markus. The articles by Andra Kalnača and Ilze Lokmane, Kristīne Levāne-Petrova, and Laimute Balode and Laura Grīviņa deal with Latvian morphosyntax and onomastics, taking into account the areal context. Emīlija Mežale’s article on pronoun use in Finnish and Latvian offers a contrastive viewpoint on two languages which share common features despite not being in direct contact with one another. Uldis Balodis’ analysis of form variation in dialects within the Lutsi language island shows the reciprocal effects of language varieties on one another. Helle Metslang, Külli Habicht, Pärtel Lippus, and Karl Pajusalu provide a typological comparison of historical and modern varieties of Estonian, and Johanna Laakso does the same for standard and dialect forms of Veps and Võro.

Figure 1.Map of languages covered in the articles of the present volume (drawn by Timo Rantanen)

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This volume contains 12 articles, which deal with the Baltic languages (Latvian and Lithuanian) and numerous Finnic languages (Livonian, Estonian, Finnish, Ingrian, Votic, Veps, Lutsi, and Võro). Seven articles focus on the verbal core of the sentence, the predicate – its categories, grammar, semantics, and pragmatics. Three of these articles deal with morphosyntax of verb forms, one focuses on analytic verb constructions, and two articles analyse verb prefixes. Four articles are devoted to nominals, and two articles present a typological view on variation in the usage of grammatical forms.

Andra Kalnača and Ilze Lokmane’s article “The Latvian Oblique Forms: An Interaction of Evidentiality, Epistemicity, and Mirativity” focuses on the oblique mood in Latvian. The primary function of the oblique mood is to express reported evidentiality. Evidentiality is grammaticalised in verb forms in the ←14 | 15→languages of the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea – Lithuanian, Estonian, Livonian, and especially Latvian. This article examines the morphosyntax, semantics, and pragmatics of the oblique mood in different contextual conditions, in political discourse and fairy tales, and includes comparisons with Lithuanian and Estonian. The results show that in different instances, epistemic (disbelief, irony) and mirative (surprise, usually unpleasant) meanings may be layered on top of the core evidential meaning. In political discourse, evidentiality is used in expressing scepticism and negative judgements, while in fairy tales it is used in the context of evidential narration, telling a story heard from someone else.

Milda Dailidėnaitė’s article “Functions of Livonian and Latvian Indirect Imperatives and Their Further Developments” also focuses on verb forms expressing reported discourse – indirect imperatives, which express a command not directed immediately from the person giving the command to the addressee. Comparisons are made to Lithuanian as well as Estonian, Finnish, and other Finnic languages; language use in folklore is also discussed. The article examines the Livonian jussive and the Latvian analytic construction with the particle lai, comparing their functions and usage shifts. Both of these are used mainly in the third person imperative function, but occur with other persons as well. The primary difference between them is that the Livonian jussive is used more in functions typical of the imperative (command, request, desire, etc.), while the Latvian lai construction is used in various ways outside the realm of directives (e.g., purpose, concession). They are used with very similar meanings and functions in questions and subordinate clauses. The use of the imperative to mark concessive clauses emerges as a Circum-Baltic areal feature.

Kristīne Levāne-Petrova’s article “The Present Passive Participle and Its Semantics in Latvian analyses the modal and syntactic functions of the Latvian declinable passive participle. The participle forms a compound predicate together with the copula būt ‘to be’ and can also be used as an attribute. The construction with the copula resembles a passive in that the grammatical subject is the patient, but its primary role is to express modal meanings. Depending on the contextual, lexical, and grammatical features of the sentence, the participle can express necessity, possibility, impossibility, or evidential meaning. On the basis of the corpus of modern Latvian, legal texts comprise a distinct genre in which the passive-like construction is used primarily to express necessity.

Miina Norvik and Jurgis Pakerys’ article “Periphrastic Causative Constructions in Livonian: An Overview” examines Livonian periphrastic causative constructions formed with five different verbs functioning as auxiliaries, distinguishing permissive and factitive causation, with curative causation being a subtype of the latter. Parallels to these constructions and the meaning ←15 | 16→shifts that have motivated their emergence can be found in other Circum-Baltic languages from the Baltic, Slavic, and Finnic families. As causative constructions are attested in all Finnic languages, they are likely quite old in Livonian as well. However, as regards the meaning shifts seen in the auxiliarisation, verb loans, and case assignment of the causee and permittee, Latvian-like features can be seen in the Livonian constructions.

Daiga Deksne’s article “The Polysemy of the Latvian Verbal Prefixes PA- and NO- presents a new hierarchical model based on corpus analysis for the handling of Latvian polysemous verb prefixes and compares, based on dictionaries and a parallel corpus, the meanings of Latvian and Lithuanian cognate verb prefixes. Prefixation is a widespread means of derivation in Baltic languages, and many prefixes in the two languages share a common origin. The prefixes mainly express different kinds of spatial, temporal, and quantitative meanings. The comparison reveals that the primary spatial and temporal meanings belong to the Lithuanian prefixes pa- and nu- and their Latvian analogues pa- and no-; the deviations from this pattern can be clearly justified.

Milda Dailidėnaitė and Valts Ernštreits’ article “Latvian Prefixes in Livonian: Frequency, Consistency, and Distribution” examines the use of Latvian verb prefixes in non-standard Courland Livonian texts over a 150-year period in the context of the dynamics of the language contact situation. Unlike in the Baltic languages, prefixation in the Finnic languages is not a common means of word formation; the occurrence of verb prefixes in Livonian is due to contact with Latvian. This study shows that prefixes were used more often during periods of closer language contact, when the Livonians were forced out of their previous lands and were made to live among Latvians. However, prefixed verbs did not take root in the Livonian lexicon. Livonians did indeed use Latvian verb prefixes, but they combined them with verb lexemes quite freely, with large idiolectal differences. The prefixed verbs found in texts are merely incidental, often nonrecurrent combinations of prefixes and verb lexemes, such that they cannot be considered loans but rather a code-switching phenomenon brought about by intensive bilingualism.

Uldis Balodis analyses the variation of case forms of nominals in the Lutsi South Estonian language island in Latvia in his article “The Distribution of Inessive Case Endings in Lutsi”. The Lutsi language variety was spoken in villages near the city of Ludza and its development is characterised by intense language contact with Latvian and Latgalian as well as Russian, Belarusian, Polish, and Yiddish. Today its speakers have passed on, but written material has been preserved from the 19th and 20th centuries. The origin of the Lutsi people is unclear; they likely emigrated in several waves from various dialect areas of ←16 | 17→southern Estonia. This article examines one linguistic phenomenon – the variation in the inessive case ending in nominals – in different Lutsi villages. It draws on material from two collections of texts, one of which is from 1893 and consists primarily of folk songs and the other from 1925 to 1971, containing narratives of various sorts told by language informants. The research results are a step forward in a study which aims to identify the subdialects of Lutsi and the origin of the Lutsi people from different dialect areas in Estonia.

Fedor Rozhanskiy and Elena Markus’ article “In the Evening, in Summer. Temporal Case Adverbs in Votic and Ingrian in the Context of Linguistic Convergence” examines lexicalised nominal case forms that function as adverbs with temporal meaning. The case marking of eight items (‘in winter’, ‘in spring’, ‘in summer’, ‘in autumn’, ‘at night’, ‘in the morning’, ‘in the daytime’, and ‘in the evening’) is compared across three Finnic varieties: Lower Luga Ingrian, Soikkola Ingrian, and Vaipooli Votic. These time expressions occur in the adessive, elative, essive, inessive, and partitive, depending on several factors such as the variety, the meaning, and the degree of lexicalisation. Language contact plays an important role: the two Ingrian dialects discussed, which are located apart from one another, have less contact and accordingly fewer similarities with each other than they do with Votic.

Emīlija Mežale’s article “Demonstrative Pronouns in Latvian and Finnish Online Texts” analyses pronoun use in online texts, including different text types, e.g., news, blogs, and commentaries. The study focuses on adnominal use of demonstrative pronouns, distinguishing three usage types: use with an accessible referent, article-like use, and expressive use. It turns out that all three types are widespread in both Latvian and Finnish, and demonstrative pronoun use in these languages, including in different registers, is quite similar. Both article-like and expressive use occur in both languages in colloquial, informal, and unedited texts, but are not found in formal written texts where the standard language is used.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (May)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 326 pp., 1 fig. col., 16 fig. b/w, 31 tables.

Biographical notes

Helle Metslang (Volume editor) Miina Norvik (Volume editor) Andra Kalnača (Volume editor)

Helle Metslang is a professor emerita at the University of Tartu, Estonia. Her research interests include morphosyntax, language variation, historical sociolinguistics, and typology. Miina Norvik is a research fellow in Finnic languages at the University of Tartu. Her research interests include syntax, language contacts, and typology. Andra Kalnača is a professor and senior researcher at the University of Latvia in Riga. Her research interests include morphology, morphosyntax, evidentiality, modality, and typology.


Title: Insights into the Baltic and Finnic Languages