A fascinating article on why Lithuanian is likely the most conservative living descendant of the Proto-Indo-European languages.
“Lithuanian is a very old language.” This is a bit of mythology which is constantly repeated whenever the subject of the Lithuanian language arises. It seems, however, that very few people ever take the time to ask exactly what this means. Every language has a history extending back to the date of its earliest historical records and one assumes that there existed speakers of this language even before the historical records. There is no human population anywhere in the world that does not have some language and it seems likely that the ability to speak a language is a fundamental property of all mankind. Certainly Lithuanian is a very old language, but so is every language spoken today. The origin of language in general is shrouded in mystery, but all nations have a language.
Let us try here, however, to understand a little bit about what we humans do know about language development, although it behooves us to be quite modest about achievements in this regard. Every advance in science tells us that we know less than we thought we did.
By the words historical linguistics we mean the science which concerns itself with the ways languages change, how the sounds and forms of one stage of a language became different at a later stage of the same language, how the meanings of words change during the course of time. The earliest recorded history in the form of monuments in the ancient Sumerian and Egyptian languages goes back only around 5,000 years. When we talk of historical records we always have some form of written language in mind. The recorded evidence of some language families is better than that for others. One of the language families with the most complete historical records is the Romance language family, and I will use this family for my illustration.
The Romance languages are, of course, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Moldavian, Catalan, Provencal, Sardinian, Rheto-Romance (Romansh, Engadinish, Ladin, Friulan). (See Elcock, 1975, 15). These languages all had their origin in Latin and this Latin gradually changed or evolved into the contemporary Romance languages. Thus to say that French or Spanish or whatever are ‘old languages’ would be meaningless. They are contemporary representatives of Latin which only exists today as a separate language as a result of the efforts of scholars. Thus French faire ‘to do, to make’ or Spanish hacer are just the modern forms of Latin facere.
It is no longer possible for the uneducated Frenchman or Spaniard to understand Latin, just as it is no longer possible for the average American to understand Chaucer. The reason for this is that the languages have changed in the course of time.
A common, but somewhat simplified way of looking at this is the family tree scheme.
The relationship of Latin to the Romance languages is parallel to the relationship of the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language (frequently known also as just Indo-European) to the various daughter languages. For example, Italic is a daughter language with respect to Indo-European, but is the source for Latin which in turn is the source for French, Spanish, Italian, etc. One can compare this to the generations of a family, although in this case the analogy isn’t quite exact since there is only one parent. Perhaps it can be compared to a biological chart where we see the evolution of various types of animal or plant families.
Thus Proto-Indo-European is the source for a Proto-Baltic which in turn is divided into Proto-East Baltic and Proto-West Baltic. West Baltic is represented by the extinct Old Prussian (divided into eleven tribes). East Baltic is divided up into four groups: Lithuanian, Latvian and the now extinct languages of Semigallian and Selonian. One other extinct Baltic language, Curonian, stands somewhere between East and West Baltic. Or perhaps it was an East Baltic language greatly influenced by West Baltic. The relationships can be visualized like this, perhaps.
The above schematization shows only several of the branches of the Indo-European language family and likewise it is vastly oversimplified. It should serve, however, to give a general notion of what is meant by the family tree of Indo-European languages. Thus, the notion of age with regard to a language is hard to understand. What one can say is that the Baltic languages seem to have undergone fewer changes than their sister Indo-European languages. The problem here is, of course, that there are no speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language left, so we cannot be absolutely certain as to how it was pronounced nor can we be absolutely certain of its grammatical structure. The reconstruction of the Proto-Indo-European language is a fascinating game, a game on which I have spent most of my adult life. Still it befits the specialists in the field to be very modest about the achievements of Indo-European linguistics. Although the Indo-Europeanists can make informed guesses based on inductive reasoning, they can never really know in any absolute way the nature of the Indo-European sound or grammatical system.
So how do Indo-Europeanists try to reconstruct the Proto-Indo-European language? They take the oldest attested form of all the various Indo-European languages and try to imagine how an ancestor to all of these attested languages would appear.
One of the oldest attested forms of the Italic language branch is Latin, the oldest attested form of Greek is Mycenean Creek, the oldest attested form of Indo-lranian is Vedic Sanskrit, the oldest attested form of Slavic is Old Church Slavic.
Old Church Slavic, also known as Old Bulgarian, is an extinct South Slavic language which was used by the Slavic missionaries Cyril and Methodius to propagate the Christian faith. Later forms of this language called simply Church Slavic were and are used in the Orthodox church for religious purposes.
The oldest attested form of Baltic is Old Prussian, but there are so many problems with the interpretation of Old Prussian texts that most comparativists use Lithuanian for the Baltic branch. (The language is sometimes called merely Prussian = Lithuanian prūsas, but I prefer the term Old Prussian to avoid confusion with German dialects of the area which are usually called Prussian dialects.)
The oldest attested form of the Germanic language is Gothic, known to us chiefly through the Bible translation made by the West Gothic (Visigothic) bishop Wulfila (311-382 or 3). The remaining leaves of this translation (187 out of an original 336) are now in the library of the University of Uppsala, Sweden. It is unlikely that any contemporary speaker of English could understand an ancient Goth, but a few words show the common changes which English and Gothic have undergone as opposed to their Lithuanian counterparts: Gothic fimf, English five have an initial f- as opposed to Lithuanian penki which has an initial p-; Gothic twai, English twohave an initial t- as opposed to Lithuanian du or dvi with an initial d-.
Other ancient Indo-European languages such as Hittite, Old Irish, etc. are also used, but usually to a somewhat lesser degree for various reasons.