In chapter 32 of Lingo, I describe – and poke fun at – the way Latvians and Lithuanians write foreign names. Basically, they spell every name as phonetically as possible and then tag on a case ending for good measure. The first US president is known as Džordžas Vašingtonas in Lithuanian, Džordžs Vašingtons in Latvian; the capital and state named after him are written as Vašingtonas in Lithuanian, Vašingtona in Latvian. In Lingo, I trace the history of this habit, once widespread across Europe, in a very general sort of way. But at the time, I had no specific information as to why the Lithuanians and Latvians have maintained it, whereas most other language communities using the Latin script dropped it long ago.
Which is why I am grateful to a Lithuanian-American reader of Lingo, Joe Yčas, who recently sent me exactly that.
‘Over the period 1863-1905’, he writes, ‘Lithuanian was written in three alphabetizations: the old Polish style, Czarist-mandated Cyrillic, and the nationalist “Czech style”.’ He illustrates this by giving his family name in three ways. Polish-style would be Yczas (see chapter 22 of Lingo); in Cyrillic script, it’s Ичас (chapter 24); the one that finally prevailed, Yčas, was the nationalist, Czech-style variety (chapter 21).
Given that Cyrillic was, then as now, Russia’s predominant script, ‘any historical Latin-style spellings had to be phoneticized’, he explains. ‘In developing the modern “patriotic” (i.e., non-Polish, non-Russian) alphabet, perhaps letter-for-letter transcription was made from the Cyrillic, which was despised, but probably quite widely read. In this way, any native spellings such as ‘Washington’ were lost in transcription.’ And apparently, this practice continued after independence, when the Czech-style spelling became the undisputed standard.
But why? Joe doesn’t provide the whole answer, but he does give a clue when he says that ‘Lithuania and, for all I know, Latvia are a little unusual in that their nationalist movements were largely defined by struggles over alphabetization.’ In other words, how words were spelled mattered a great deal, and doing it the nationalist way was the order of the day.
Incorrect, that is politically incorrect spelling could carry grave consequences in Czarist Russia. ‘I have several ancestors who were exiled for how they spelled Lithuanian’, he says, adding wryly, ‘Then they had to learn to spell English.’
A previous version of this blogpost stated that it was independent Lithuania that exiled people for using the wrong spelling. This was based on my mistaken interpretation of Joe’s email message. For more information, read the Wikipedia page titled Lithuanian book smugglers.