by Uldis Balodis, LUDZA
“Maq sinnu sali”. I can hear the sound of these words in my ears even now, but today there is no one left to speak them.
These words, which mean “I love you” were spoken in the Lutsi language by the last person to still have appreciable knowledge of it, Antonīna Nikonova (1949-2014). I heard them in her apartment in the rural town of Pilda near Ludza in Latgale (eastern Latvia) in 2012.
I was at the end of a one-year postdoctoral appointment at the University of Helsinki studying another Finnic language of Latvia – Livonian – and had traveled with colleagues from the University of Tartu to meet with Antonīna. This phrase came up in a memory she told of her grandfather. Along with this phrase, Antonīna knew many other words in Lutsi, though she could not speak her ancestral language fluently. In the following years, I would focus my work exclusively on Lutsi and during that time I discovered how good Antonīna’s pronunciation truly had been when I compared my memory of it with pronunciations of other Lutsi speakers recorded by linguists in their notes from over a century ago. Antonīna passed away in 2014, but this did not spell the end of the Lutsi language, as memory of individual words and the fact that this language had been spoken continues to live on among people in Ludza and surrounding areas.
Antonīna Nikonova’s late husband, Nikolajs, born in 1944, was the last fluent speaker of Lutsi. He died suddenly in 2006 and after that only Antonīna remained with significant knowledge of Lutsi. Antonīna and Nikolajs both were originally from the village of Lielie Tjapši near the town of Pilda. (The Lutsis had two names for this village: Sūreq Tsäpsiq and Jānikülä.) By the later decades of the twentieth century, Lutsi had already ceased to be spoken in most areas where it once had been known. It had persisted in Lielie Tjapši, and especially in the Nikonovs family, longer than elsewhere. This was most likely due primarily to the efforts of Nikolajs’ grandmother, Antoņina Nikonova (1898-1983), who had been a passionate speaker of her language and was the only person of her generation to pass on knowledge of Lutsi to her descendants.
After my first encounter with Antonīna in 2012, I applied for and received a three-year postdoctoral fellowship from the Finnish Kone Foundation to study the Lutsis and their language as well as to write a primer for their language. The purpose of this primer was to take the first steps towards what I call “language reacquaintance”. It is too early to know whether full language revival efforts, such as language classes, will be possible for Lutsi, as this will take more funding and also broader support in the community as such. However, it is more than possible to take steps to reacquaint not only Lutsi descendants, but people in the Baltic countries in general, with the language of this historical minority nation in their midst.
Names and Identity
The term “Lutsi” is mostly one used by linguists and others writing scientifically about this community and is derived from the Estonian name for the city of Ludza – “Lutsi”. Historically, Lutsi speakers themselves have used other names to refer to their own language with a common one being simply “mākīļ” – the country language. Present-day Lutsi descendants will mostly describe their grandparents or great-grandparents as having spoken “Estonian”. Lutsi was for centuries spoken in the area surrounding the city of Ludza in southeastern Latvia. This is surprising to learn, as the Lutsis are not typically mentioned among the minority nations of Latvia and yet they have lived in the Latgalian countryside for hundreds of years. In my journeys through the villages of this area, it was not that difficult to find individuals who still knew how to say a few words in their grandparents’ Lutsi language. However, it is still an unexpected and surprising experience to meet people in rural Latgale who will greet you with the Lutsi greeting “Tere, tere”.
Lutsi forms but one part of the historic linguistic diversity of the Ludza area. The earliest most comprehensive research conducted on the Lutsis by Estonian researcher Oskar Kallas in 1893, notes this diversity. Kallas (1868-1946) writes of a Lutsi man who spoke Estonian (i.e., Lutsi) with his father, Latvian with his wife, Russian with his children, who attended Russian school, and used Polish in church. As the historic diversity of this region continues to be rediscovered and written about, it is important that Lutsi forms a part of this rediscovery, so that it too is acknowledged as part of the heritage of Latgale and its people.
Lutsi is a variety of South Estonian. Today the most known varieties of South Estonian are Võro and Seto, which are found in the southeastern part of Estonia and in adjacent areas of Russia. South Estonian traces a separate origin from the ancestral Proto-Finnic language from which all Finnic languages descend and differs from North Estonian, which is the basis of the Estonian literary language, in a number of noteworthy ways. Among these is the preservation of vowel harmony, also found in Finnish but not in literary Estonian, as well as differences in the way nouns are declined and verbs conjugated. A fluent speaker of Estonian would not necessarily have an easy time understanding Lutsi or South Estonian in general.
Lutsi itself is part of a special group of South Estonian dialects called the “South Estonian language islands”. These are three communities (Lutsi, Leivu, Kraasna) lying outside of Estonia where South Estonian has been historically spoken. Lutsi was spoken in the pagasti or rural parishes around Ludza, Leivu was spoken near Alūksne in northeastern Latvia, and Kraasna was spoken not too far away from Lutsi in a network of villages across the border in Russia near the town of Krasnogorodsk. Lutsi was the only one of the South Estonian language island dialects to survive into the twenty-first century with Leivu and Kraasna ceasing to be spoken a number of decades earlier.
The origin of the Lutsis is somewhat of a mystery and there are a number of theories and accounts describing possible scenarios leading to this seemingly out of place group of Estonians living in the countryside of rural Latgale. Based on linguistic affinity alone, it seems unlikely that the Lutsis are an ancient population in Latgale. The Lutsi language as recorded in the twentieth century is similar enough to dialects of South Estonian presently spoken in Estonia – especially Seto – that based on this similarity the separation of the Lutsis from other South Estonian speakers is likely not more than a few centuries in length.
While there are earlier mentions of them, the first in-depth research into the Lutsis was conducted by Estonian researcher Oskar Kallas in 1893. Kallas found speakers of Lutsi in 53 villages across four pagasti of that time: Mērdzene, Pilda, Nirza, Brigi. When he asked the Lutsis where they had come from, Kallas, just as subsequent researchers, was told different stories. One story was that the Lutsi had come “from Sweden” (Rōdzimālt) or “from the Swedish king’s land” (Rōdzi kuninga mālt). The Lutsis have also told tales of fleeing war and destruction. These stories have been connected with the theory that the Lutsis may be descendants of refugees fleeing southeastern Estonia during the Great Northern War at the turn of the 18th century or that they are Catholic Estonians who fled forced conversion to Protestantism during the period of Swedish rule of Estonia.
Others have told stories of being resettled in the countryside near Ludza as a result of all of the local peasants dying of the Plague. In connection with this story, some have pointed to similarities between the Latvian word for ‘plague’, mēris, and the name of Mērdzene pagasts where the Lutsis also lived. (It should be noted, however, that this may also just be a coincidental similarity and folk etymology.)
Still beyond this there are more curious tales, which are perhaps even more difficult to verify. Some Lutsis have said that their ancestors were Estonian peasants who were forced to move to the Ludza countryside as a result of a lost wager between manor lords. The manor lord in Estonia on whose land the Lutsis’ ancestors lived lost the wager and as part of his payment to the other manor lord in Latgale, the Lutsis’ ancestors were forced to relocate to the land of this other manor lord near Ludza.
Therefore, surprisingly, even today there is no absolutely clear answer to the question of the Lutsis’ origin, though it is entirely possible that several or all of these stories are true. And indeed it has been theorized that the Lutsis might have coalesced over time from many different migrations of people from southeastern Estonia. Thus, for the moment the question of origins remains open though with some clear indications of possible answers.
Oskar Kallas published his findings in his landmark volume Lutsi maarahvas (Lutsi kinfolk) in 1894. Later in 1911, Finnish linguist Heikki Ojansuu, visited the Lutsi, Leivu, and Kraasna communities and recorded several hundred pages of handwritten notes on these languages. Just as Kallas’s volume records the language of places, such as the Lutsi villages in Mērdzene pagasts, from which we have no later records, Ojansuu also recorded the Lutsi spoken in other villages in Pilda pagasts for which we have no other documentation after that.
The next most important contact with the Lutsis came during the interbellum independence period of the Baltic countries. Two Estonian researchers, August Sang (1914-1969) and Paulopriit Voolaine (1899-1985), documented the Lutsi language by writing down stories and other narratives told by their Lutsi consultants. At that time, in the 1920s and 1930s, Lutsi was spoken only in a few villages in the Pilda and Nirza pagasti. At this point, the estimates of the remaining number of Lutsi speakers range from Voolaine’s figure of 120 in 1925 and Sang’s figure of 30-40 in 1936. The two men also had differing visions for the road forward for the Lutsi community.
Sang wrote several valuable unpublished linguistic studies on Lutsi and also detailed some of the memories of his field experience in a diary. Sang felt that the Lutsis’ main hope in developing and improving their condition was to fully assimilate into the Latvians. He worried that doing otherwise would lead to the Lutsis living a frozen existence somewhat like in a folk ethnographic museum.
Voolaine, on the other hand, felt that there was meaning and worth in encouraging the Lutsis to continue speaking their language, practicing their culture, and cultivating their unique Lutsi Estonian identity. One can catch glimpse of Voolaine’s feelings towards the end of a play, Maajumala Poig, he wrote, which was a dramatic retelling of Kallas’s research trip and encounter with the Lutsis in 1893. In this scene “Aolask”, who is meant to be Kallas, is speaking with “Made”, a female Lutsi village inhabitant, and is highlighting the importance of Lutsi and, in a sense, emphasizing the almost sacred nature of this knowledge.
MADE: …Well, will you come here again?
AOLASK: If all your children speak the Lutsi language and sing your songs.
AOLASK (writes): I’ll write them [words for Made] in Lutsi and then in Latin afterwards.
Meil meeles olgu ajalugu, (We forever remember the history)
et Lutsi hõim on eesti sugu! (that the Lutsi tribe is an Estonian kind!)
Vivat populus lucinorum (May the Lutsi people live)
per omnia saecula saeculorum! (forever and ever!)
(Gives the paper to Made.)
MADE: Those are holy words. I would listen to them also in church
Voolaine worked to have Lutsi taught in a village school in Lielie Tjapši, but ultimately was not successful. He built connections between Estonians in Estonia and the Lutsis by securing places for Lutsi children to attend school in Estonia and also organized Estonian Christmas celebrations in Lutsi villages. Even today some older Lutsi descendants still remember these celebrations.
Voolaine also attempted to give Lutsi a written form, which can be seen in letters he wrote with Lutsi village inhabitants to Oskar Kallas who, at that time, had left active research and had joined the Estonian diplomatic service and was working as Estonia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom. The letter pictured here is most likely one of the rare times in history when mail written in Lutsi has been sent to the UK.
Ultimately, Voolaine’s efforts were cut short. During the Ulmanis presidency of the mid to late 1930s, the Latvian authorities began to view with suspicion Voolaine’s work encouraging Estonian identity among inhabitants of rural Latgale. As a result, he was declared persona non grata by the Latvian government and forbidden to return.
After World War II and with the onset of the Soviet occupation, in time Voolaine began to travel once again to the Lutsis. He came on his own as well as with linguists from the University of Tartu during the next decades and up to his death in a car accident in 1985. Though any dreams of Lutsi language revival were now gone, Voolaine maintained close ties with the Lutsis through these decades. This is much in evidence in the photo albums of the Nikonovs family where Voolaine appears again and again at family gatherings.
During the years of my Lutsi study, I have visited about 40 of the over 50 villages that Kallas mentions in his study, Lutsi maarahvas. What was surprising to me was that it was not unusual to find people living in these villages who were aware of their Lutsi heritage or had last names, which were of Lutsi origin. (Common last names among Lutsi descendants are Buls, and its variants – Buļs, Bulis, Buļis – and Mekšs. Lutsi ancestry, however, is not limited only to people with these last names, though having either of these last names strongly suggests that one has Lutsi ancestry.) The fact that Lutsi descendants still seemed to be living to some extent in the villages Kallas had visited was surprising to me, because Latgale underwent such upheaval in the 20th century that I did not expect to find such a clear line between current and pre-WWII inhabitants of these villages.
In a rough sense it seemed that assimilation of the Lutsis into the Latvians had continued to proceed somewhat linearly from where the community had been before WWII and the Soviet occupation. The least amount of Lutsi knowledge was to be found in the Lutsi area around Mērdzene north of Ludza. Already in Kallas’s time the Lutsis there were the most assimilated and knew their language the least well. I found effectively no knowledge of Lutsi there in the last years and only Lutsi last names and some occasional individuals who knew that they descended from a population of Estonians there. In the areas to the south of Ludza, near Pilda and Nirza there was seemingly more knowledge of Lutsi origins and also some knowledge of Lutsi language. Aside from in the case of Antonīna, there were no other people who could be called fluent or partially fluent speakers of Lutsi. Mostly I found individuals who had knowledge of some basic words, such as greetings or the names of certain animals – suzi ‘wolf’, pini ‘dog’, etc.
My work is ongoing; however, after these most recent three postdoctoral years (2013-2016) I did complete my hoped-for materials for Lutsi language revival or reacquaintance. I ultimately wrote not only a primer, but also wrote an elementary grammar and compiled a beginner’s dictionary of Lutsi. My hope is next to focus on writing a language course, which then could be used by Lutsi descendants or others interested in this part of Latvia’s heritage to learn a bit of this language historically spoken in Latvia. By doing this, knowledge of the Lutsi people and language will not be lost and this important piece of Latvia’s story will continue to be known. While the likelihood of eventual language revival efforts for Lutsi cannot yet be known, perhaps someday once again it will be possible to go to the Ludza countryside and hear someone say “Maq sinnu sali”.
Uldis Balodis is a linguist and freelance translator. He spent 2013-2016 studying the Lutsi Estonians as a Kone Foundation postdoctoral fellow. He specializes in the study of the languages of the Baltic region and the southwestern United States.
You can find more information on the Lutsis, and their language, villages and history, at Uldis Balodis’s website on the subject (available in English, Latvian and Estonian)
Header image – Borovaja (“Paŗke külä” in Lutsi) in the historic Pilda pagasts [Uldis Balodis]
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