Simanaitis Says

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ON LEARNING LITHUANIAN

ALAS, DESPITE my heritage, I speak no Lithuanian. This, despite the best attempts of others.

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Lithuanian Self-Taught (Marlborough’s Self-Taught Series) by M. Variakojyte-Inkeniene, fifth edition, Lithuanian Catholic Press Society and E. Marlborough & Co. Ltd., 1958.

The book’s subtitle promises “This System Teaches You the Essentials of a Language (for Travel and Enjoyment) Without the Drudgery of Prolonged Study.”

Yep, that’s the ticket. Though, in retrospect, I might have guessed my success would be inversely proportional to the subtitle’s length.

Lithuanian Self-Taught is one of English publisher Marlborough’s language series. Others include Tamil, Spanish, Polish, Norwegian, Italian, Greek, German, French and Esperanto.

Purely as an aside, Esperanto would be good fun. It’s a constructed language devised by Polish linguist L.L. Zamenhof in 1887, now spoken by as many as 2,000,000 people around the world, primarily in Europe, East Asia and South America. The language has an online presence at http://www.esperanto.net.

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Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, 1940. The sign in the background reads “Old Clothes” in Esperanto.

Esperanto appeared on shop signs in Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film, The Great Dictator. The 1966 flick Incubus was entirely in Esperanto. It starred William Shatner prior to his Star Trek trek. (Critics reported the cast’s Esperanto was poorly enunciated.)

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Incubus a 1966 Esperanto horror film starring William Shatner. Its producer forbade any dubbing into other languages. Image from http://goo.gl/oOHxmI.

More recently, in the 2011 movie Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, Superman’s native Kryptonian is faked with a mixture of Esperanto and gibberish. (Not to be confused with real Kryptonian, as described at http://goo.gl/TkOJHA.)

Lithuanian Self-Taught gets off to an interesting start with an essay on the country and its language. The 1400s were a Lithuanian high point, when Vytautas the Great ruled and the country stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

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The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, c. 1430. Image by Augustinas Žemaitis.

The Lithuanian language is one of the oldest extant of the Indo-European linguistic family. In fact, its structure is nearest to original Sanskrit.

Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha, highlighting the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi, is in Sanskrit. Fortunately I saw it with supertitles.

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Glass: Satyagraha opera sung in Sanskrit.

Lithuanian has two main dialects, upper, aukštaučų, and lower, žemaičių. And doesn’t this second one look like it might be the root of Simanaitis?

The book’s section on Short and Long Vowels starts okay, the short ones being a, e, i and u.

Where’s o?

O is only a long vowel, and here things get sticky. To quote from page 3, “The long vowels are ė, y, o, ū.” Then, it offers as examples, “e.g., skynė (skeeh’neh), ‘somebody plucked’; žiūronas (zhlōōrô’nahs), ‘opera-glass.’ ”

I’m comforted by the opera reference so early on. But “somebody plucked”?

Then follows a 72-page vocabulary of English, Lithuanian and pronunciation, this last column replete with helpful hints like those in parentheses above. By the way, žemė (zhă’meh) is Lithuanian for “earth” as opposed to dangus (dahnŏŏs’) for “sky.”

Then comes a 24-page Outline of Grammar. Were Sanskrit my native tongue, this grammar might have seemed straightforward. In fact, Sanskrit is one of 22 “scheduled” languages of India (i.e., included in its Constitution); it’s an official one of Uttarakhand, the state on India’s northern border with Tibet and Nepal.

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The Indian state of Uttarakhand, उत्तराखंड in Hindi, another language of India related to Sanskrit.

Sanskrit not being native to me, I was put off by the complexities of Lithuanian’s nine parts of speech, three different conjugations of verbs and seven cases, each with five or more declensions.

As an example from Lithuanian Self-Taught, “Adjectives as well as Substantives are variously declined. The differences of their declension are decided by the Nominative case in the singular number. Adjectives agree in gender, number, and case with Substantives. There are three Declensions of Adjectives.”

These complexities make all the more remarkable any learning of a native language. I suspect Lithuanian (or Uttarakhandi) kids would be as baffled as I am by grammatical formalism. For a less formal approach to learning Lithuanian, check out http://goo.gl/9w2t9B.

There’s also the linguistic concept of total immersion. I learned French in elementary school, with a (native French) teacher speaking seulement français for an hour a day. Though much of my prowess is forgotten, what French remains is deep in my understanding.

In any case (Nominative, Genitive, Dative, Accusative, Instrumental, Local and Vocative are Lithuanian’s), I gave up on the book’s Outline of Grammar and contented myself with its Conversational Phrases on Motoring.

These included “Will you examine my gearbox?,” “The carburetor is out of order,” “What is the power of this car?,” “The handle is out of order,” and “I have lost my horn.”

Do you suppose this motorist might have been plucked? ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014

2 comments on “ON LEARNING LITHUANIAN

  1. Anton Thortzen
    May 3, 2015

    And have you ever practiced those most relevant sentences on a trip to Lithuania like when you test drove a SAAB convertible for R&T there in 1990?

    • simanaitissays
      May 3, 2015

      Anton,
      Alas Saab had planned time in Lithuania, but the Soviets got shirty and turned off the country’s natural gas supply. Saab modified its itinerary at the last moment. See my website item “A Lot of Balts.”

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