Reviving the Livonian Language and Culture

  • June 22, 2021      By Friendly Borders Staff

Riga – How would you feel if you spoke a language that no other person in your community can understand? You may feel a bit lonely or even isolated. It is a sad thought, and yet it may also open a great opportunity for keeping that language alive. As long as someone still speaks a language, there is still hope.

This kind of thinking can present an interesting new project for people devoted to studying language and culture. However, this is a reality that Livonians are living.

Who Are the Livonian Speakers?

Livonians are indigenous people of Livonia, which is present-day northern Latvia and southwestern Estonia. In the past, they lived along the shores of the Gulf of Riga. In historical accounts, the Livonians lived in two separate regions of Latvia: Livonia and the northern coast of Courland. By the 19th century, the Livonians had assimilated with the Baltic Latvians.

Despite the people’s assimilation with Latvians, they were able to retain their distinct identity in their inland villages. Even after the wars, the Livonian culture prospered in the Republic of Latvia. However, throughout history, the Livonians or Liv people have experienced difficulties due to ethnic dispersal, resulting in a decrease in the native Livonian population. At present, they have the smallest number of community members and are the smallest minority in Europe.

Present Effort for Livonian Revival through Language

Even with a small population, the younger generations began a revival of their cultural heritage. From their traditional practice of livestock breeding, fishing, and farming, the modern communities found a way to balance their tradition with the contemporary needs of the globalized world. The younger members of the ethnic community started with the promotion of the Livonian language.

A few years back, the Livonian language was an endangered one. Livonian is a member of the Finno-Ugric language group. Many minorities still speak languages in this group in Russia. However, the Livonian language is thought to be extinct when the last known native speaker breathed her last in 2013. At present, there is an attempt to revive this extinct language. This effort can also bring attention back to an entire ethnic culture that many have forgotten. After all, there is still an estimated 200 people who are still knowledgeable of the language.

This kind of revival is not new to the Livs. In 1923, there had been a revival in between the two World Wars. During that period, the people expressed their identity through founding Livonian song festivals where they had a Livonian language choir. Also, this was around the time that a Livonian flag was adopted.

With those instances, it is good to see that the Livs continue to keep their indigenous identity alive. Now, a significant contribution from the Livonian community made the present movement possible. The efforts of the Latvian Language Agency highlighted the importance of keeping the indigenous language alive. Now, the language is taught in various universities in Latvia, as well as in Estonia and Finland.

As this is only the beginning, there may still be others who may feel isolated within their communities due to the gap in their language identity. Nonetheless, the future seems bright as the focus on this linguistic revival continues. Aside from the government’s actions, it is also vital that people within the region begin embracing their ethnic heritage once again.

Image from Darya Tryfanava,

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