Livonian is a Finno-Ugric language related to Finnish and Estonian. Once, hundreds of years ago, it was spoken throughout much of Latvia, but over the centuries Livonians became increasingly assimilated into the Latvian population; by the 20th century it was confined to a few hundred speakers, concentrated mostly in a few remote fishing villages along the tip of Kurzeme (western Latvia). During the Soviet occupation of Latvia, the Livonian Coast formed the western border and was largely taken over by the militaryaccess to the coast was restricted, and Livonians were prevented from fishing, meaning that many abandoned their traditional homeland.

Since the restoration of Latvia’s independence, the language has seen a slow revival as a small number of people with Livonian heritage or with an interest in its culture have started learning and promoting the language. It is thought that the last native speaker was Grizelda Kristiņa, who died in 2013 in Canada, where she had settled after fleeing Latvia in 1944. For more on the history and current situation of the Livonian people, take a look at Roland Papp’s article on the subject for Deep Baltic.

The “boat graveyard” in the Livonian village of Mazirbe, where fishing boats were left by their owners during the Soviet period, as they could no longer be used [Image: Will Mawhood]

In the last year or so two books of poetry originally written in the Livonian language have appeared in English translation: Trillium, an anthology of selected works by Valts Ernštreits, Baiba Damberga and Ķempju Kārlis (Valt Ernštreit, Baiba Damberg and Ķempi Kārl in Livonian), and People Like Us, a solo work by Ernštreits. Given that the language has only an estimated twenty remaining speakers, this must surely make Livonian among the smallest living literary languages in the world. Earlier this year, Valts Ernštreits and his translator Ryan Van Winkle took part in a discussion at the National Poetry Library in London. Moderated by poetry librarian Chris McCabe, the conversation touches on the challenges of translation, the impact of modern technology on very small languages, and the influence the Livonian language has had on Latvian. We also share three poems from People Like Us, in both Livonian and English.

Chris McCabe: Thinking about Livonian as a language, how did it come to have just twenty speakers? Has that been a quick decline, or is it a process that’s been happening for decades or centuries?

Valts Ernštreits: I would say that this small number of Livonians has been happening for hundreds of years. During recent times, there have never been very many Livonians. In the mid-19th century there were two and a half thousand people, and in the mid-20th century around one thousand Livonian-speakers. So basically I would rather turn the question around: in my opinion, the wonder is not that the number of Livonians has got smaller and Livonian has been thought of as a language that is becoming extinct or at an end, but vice versa: the real wonder is that through the centuries Livonians have somehow survived being not very many, being few, and being actually very much integrated with the society around them.

CM: That’s really interesting. So you’d see it more as a kind of reclamation, rather than a threat or an extinction. You’d put the focus on the activism that happens with the language?

VE: Yes, because I really think that it is very easy if you look back at history. Livonian history dates back for more than a thousand years. If you think about the Baltic region as such, Livonians are at the very core of the history of the Baltic region: the history of Estonia, Latvia and also Lithuania starts with Livonians. It’s very easy to disappear, to go away; we have lots of examples from throughout Europe and the world, of nations that were once important and then disappeared – like the Prussians in Europe [speakers of the Old Prussian language]. In the case of Livonians, the real greatness is that somehow they have managed to live through this millennium – or more than a millennium – and still have their culture and language preserved, and managed to survive.

Map of Livonian fishing villages in Kurzeme, 1930s [with places names written in Livonian]

CM: This incredible statistic that there are three poets among the last twenty speakers…

VE: Yes, I like statistics. In the Livonian case, the statistics are what I like to operate with. So this is one good example and another good example is that during the last 25 years we have officially 250 Livonians – apparently not all of them speak the Livonian language. But in recent decades we have had more than 30 good books published – either poetry books or books about Livonian. That is yet another number – if you have one good book for every ten people, that’s a great result that every country should try to reach.

CM: What role do you think the poets are playing in the activation of the language? Are they helping to preserve the language and to generate interest in the language?

VE: Personally I’m quite a contemporary person, and I do think that for every community – not only languages, but for every community, for every culture – there are two important things. One is the heritage – especially recently, there has been lots of talk about preserving the heritage and keeping it alive and you have different lists, also UNESCO lists, of material heritage, intangible heritage, etc. Which is very important, because the way you keep the heritage reflects your attitude towards your past. But one important thing is quite often missing from the picture – like a tree: it not only has roots, but it also has all its leaves.

So it’s important for every community, for every culture, for every language that they are not stuck just keeping alive the heritage that they have, but that they pay a lot of attention to creating new things, creating new heritage that will become protectable in, let’s say, fifty or a hundred years, so that we can look back. And it is very important than in every culture various kinds of creative and cultural things are created – whether that’s literature, which is the thing that is most connected with language, or whether it’s modern art or music. Because that’s what actually defines whether the culture or society or language has a future or not. If you have modern culture being born today, it means that you have a future, so you cannot die.

CM: And obviously your poems are part of that as well. Just getting into your poems a little bit, it really struck me that the rhythm, these repetition of phrases – it seemed to me to be a technique that you use really skilfully. Is there something in the Livonian language which is based around repetition or particular rhythms?

VE: I would like to say that I don’t only write poetry in Livonian. Both of my books that I have written so far, both of my poetry collections, have been published in Latvian. And indeed I don’t have any poetry collections in Livonian – we’re working on that with Francis Boutle Publishers right now. But the poetry I write in Livonian differs from the poetry I write in Latvian, because language is a vessel, and also carries the culture, so basically if you write poetry in a language, it is a tool that not only communicates words and sounds, but also communicates the culture, which is also attached to where it comes from. So what I write in Livonian, it’s much more connected with the Livonian poetry tradition, which has also existed for almost two hundred years – and it’s more rhythmic, more about this language. So this is maybe what can be heard in Livonian more than in Latvian – it’s more free perhaps.

Graveyard in the village of Pitsrags [Pitrõg in Livonian], Livonian coast, Latvia, written in Livonian [Image:]

CM: Do you want to say something about that, Ryan, from the translating point of view? Because you’ve translated Latvian and Livonian. Was there a real difference?

Ryan Van Winkle: I’ve done a bit. It’s hard to say, because each of the Livonian poets had a different tack to doing it. I think you find yourself drifting more traditional when you work in Livonian. Certainly with Valts’ last collection, I was like “OK, you’re repeating that again. Are you sure you want to use the same word? Do I have to use the same word every time?” Trying to figure that out. So that was something we had a lot of conversations about. And I should just be clear: I’m not one of the thirty Livonian-speakers in the world. I’m guessing there’s not anybody else here either who speaks Livonian?

[Silence]. OK, that makes me feel very comfortable.

CM: What was your process there? Obviously there’s many ways in which poetry is translated, many different techniques. What was your technique for moving the Livonian-language poems into English?

RW: For the first book we did, Trillium, which was the three poets. I guess firstly I should just say I think you can probably call the poems I’ve worked on versions; translations would probably be too strict, because I don’t have the language – you know, I don’t have Livonian. So you can call them versions. So for the first book we got bridge translations from Uldis, who is an American who does speak Livonian and English, which is incredible. He gave us some bridge translations, and I just sat with Valts and went line by line through everything, being like “what do you mean? What are you talking about? What is this? I don’t understand”.

And there were cultural resonances, geographical things – I’m just thinking about how the coast is set up in that part of Latvia, because you know it was under Communist occupation, so people who lived there in that time period, they didn’t have access to the beach. When you talk about the coastline you forget that there were those people who were right on the coast – [to VE] How far was your sister’s…?

VE: Two hundred metres

RW: Two hundred metres to the beach, but they had never actually gone to the beach. It would have been fenced off, there would have been spotlights, and soldiers ready to shoot you or stop you if you tried to flee. So just getting that sense of the geography, and these things kind of are inbuilt in the poems, so we’d just sit and we’d talk about and talk about it. And for the new collection we didn’t have the bridge translations. Valts and I had worked with each other enough that now we could just sit down. And Valts would just work it through in English over and over again, and then I’d tinker with it in English and I’d come back and I’d say… I’d realise that – I don’t know if anyone else does this, but you think you understand a poem and then you talk to the poet, and they’re like “nah, man, you did not understand that at all. Do it again” and I’m like “argh, but I really liked it” and then I’d have to go back and fix it. So it was a process of that.

So there’d be changes – if you did speak Livonian, you’d probably notice a few changes and alterations, and a few bits here and there that I’d taken some liberties with, but that’s all done through Valts, the original poet, helping me to be like, “OK, yeah, you can push it in that direction a little bit – that’s OK” or sometimes “nah, man, that’s too far – you’re not putting unicorns in that, no way.”

CM: Nice try.

RW: I’m always trying to get a unicorn in (laughs)

Watchtower by the beach in Mazirbe, Livonian Coast

Questions from the audience:

Audience member: Is it true that in Rūjiena [a town in northern Latvia, close to the Estonian border], there are some people who use some Livonian words and Estonian words, and some other people don’t understand them? It’s a sort of dialect…

VE: Well, yes, in Latvian there are these Livonian-like dialects in the language, which are in places that Livonians used to live. They are pretty big areas – there is one on each side of the Gulf of Riga. So you have Riga in the middle and on both sides are Livonian-like dialects. I would say that the Livonian impact in these areas is even bigger than in standard Latvian  because in standard Latvian there are very many Livonian words in the standard vocabulary as well, but I would say in Courland [Kurzeme in Latvian], in the western part of Latvia, which is where this last Livonian-speaking area used to be – this dialect, the distance would be more like Scots and English, and in Rūjiena, in that part that you are talking about, it will be much closer to standard Latvian

“Lībiskais dialekts” [the Livonian dialect] indicates where the form of Latvian strongly influenced by Livonian is spoken, as opposed to “Vidus dialekts” [the Middle dialect], which is what standard Latvian is based on

AM: Are there any Livonian words in the Latvian language?

VE: It’s full of them. Basic words like “vai”, that means “or”; “vajag” – “to need”.  Then there is “kāzas”, which comes from Livonian, which is – what is this? “Marriage”, yeah?

RW: Yeah. Well, more like “wedding”.

VE: “Wedding”, yes. “Laulāt”, “to get married”; “Puika” – “boy”. So you have really a lot in basic vocabulary. Even the fact that Latvian puts stress on the first syllable, that comes from Livonian as well. So generally people don’t notice this Livonian substrate under it. But that’s the one thing that defines the Latvian language as a whole, because the cardinal difference between Latvian and all the other Baltic languages, or any other Indo-European language, is this presence of Livonian – this Finno-Ugric presence in general.

AM: Of your twenty Livonian-speakers, is there a younger generation emerging speaking Livonian, or has it sort of ossified?

VE: Yes, there is. In the case of Livonian, the process of inheritance still continues. And here I would like to say that all these modern technologies that in some cases play quite a bad role, in terms of supporting globalisation of various kinds, in cases of small languages and small cultures, they actually open up entirely new possibilities that people couldn’t have thought of – the internet, social networking, and all these kinds of things. And it’s important to use them in such a way that they can be used for a good purpose.

And in the case of Livonian, it’s very simple, you can see it: in the Old World, with old structures, let’s say 50 years ago if you were Latvian in some Australian village, you could live 50 years not ever speaking or hearing any Latvian. Now it’s impossible – now you have internet everywhere, so wherever in the world you are, you can still stay connected to your cultural space, to your language. And for small languages, that means… for example, Livonians are scattered all over Latvia, because of the quite complex history of the 20th century, so it [new technology] makes communication much easier – so people can get together, even if they are not getting together physically, and which is even more important is, for example, publication. Because if we waited for television in Livonian, probably it would take a couple of thousand years. Currently YouTube solves the problem, because you can actually hear Livonian, which no institution can make for you.

I also like this big turn in history, because before very many things were institutionalised – the power vertical, that you had to have a representative who talks to the government and things like that. And people didn’t have very much responsibility themselves – there was kind of this representative system going up. And in today’s world, every member of society is responsible for contributing something himself, because all these things work horizontally, even though all the governmental systems still function along this vertical idea of how culture should be supported. But nowadays this is very much changing, and also the fact that everybody is responsible and has all the means to be involved in the process. This is what contributes quite a lot – actually it gives much more hope than there would have been twenty or thirty years ago.

Kardõ, vōdõ täuž mier ȭg

kazātõb kardiži rovžti

lǟlamd kädūd ja ōgiz sidāmõks;

nänt siļmši neku upāndõnd laijši –

mustā vež, kīlma tõvvit ja tōvaz.

Ja mis sīestõ,

ku amād nänt mõtkõd āt raḑḑõltõd kivstõ,

mis sīestõ, ku sõnād nänt sūstõ

tulbõd ulzõ alz vaimizt ja ǟrmatõnd;

ku ne kūorbastõbõd, jūrmatõbõd ja lǟmatõbõd;

ku ne nõŗžõbõd nemē sudūd,

siskābõd, rakkõbõd, purrõbõd

pīlõbõd vagās.

Ne attõ min rovzt.

Ma um ikš nänt rovzt siegāst.

Harsh and salty sea air

grows harsh people with hard hands

and gray hearts. In their eyes you can see

the reflection of boats drowned

in icy, unfathomable, storm-black water.

If their thoughts are rough

as if chopped from stone, so what

if their words stab with sharp frost

if they scald you, freeze you, garrote you.

Those people growl like wolves.

Those people tear you,

bleed you, rip you up, sometimes

stand in eerie silence.

These are my people.

I am one of them.

Amā lǟlam um vȱlda rūoikõmõt,

kazzõ nei kierdõ neku āina kazāb,

vaņtlõ, kui se aļļõb vīm pierrõ,

īeb vīrizõks, ku kīebi sõv imūb leb kat brezent;

lomūb, až ud sadāb mōzõ,

až pǟvad ailõbõd piddõz.

Amā lǟlam um vȱlda

bougõn rōdariek aigās,

kus šīnõd ja bōnõd, ja rov kälā azmõl

ūgõb vizā setmiņāigasti āina,

mis aļļõb vīm pierrõ,

īeb vīrizõks, ku kīebi sõv imūb leb kat brezent;

ja lomūb.

Amā lǟlam um neiīž ku āinan

veimõ ja ūd pǟl kazzõ,

ribbõ tūls ja vȱlda īžeņtšõn plagāks


ižēņtšta tempõ.

The challenge is not to rush

to grow only as quick as the grass grows,

while the seasons go racing past,

watch how grass shines after a storm

how it stiffens yellow in summer sun

how it bends as a morning mist presses down.

The challenge is to be an old hut

by the abandoned railway stop

where, once, you saw bustle, rails reaching

out and trains at all times of night,

now, decades of grass rustles; glows

green after a rain, hardens to yellow

when the summer sun pushes through, it bends.

The challenge is to wither

and grow again like grass,

to flutter in the wind and be

your own flag, not allowing

anyone to trample you down.

Siz ku kievād virgõbõd

tallõ vied allõ maggõnd līndõd,

nänt tūrgõd āt vel kažžizt,

nänt ēļ um vel kardõ,

nänt kēļ um vel ȭnõz ja vȭrõz.

Ku kivīd virgõbõd, paļļõd ja ōgizt,

ne nūzõbõd ilzõ jõugõst ja viedstõ, ja mūldast,

lougõ ja sitkõ,

addõŗi murdõs ja

kējid jālgad sil akkõs.

Nänt kēļ neku nänt eņtš sidām

vel um vizā, lǟlam ja tijā;

amād sõnād āt ūd,

set set sindõn,

set pimdõmst ulzõ tunnõd;

abbõrz sieldõm kūoŗ nēḑi katāb.

Kievād, ku lūomõd ja liestād,

pūošõd ja neitsõd

āt īdlimist jagdõd

pids randõ,

līndõd ja kivīd rõkāndõbõd

ūds kīels,

missõn jūŗi äb ūo

äbka īrgandõkst,

äb ka tutkāmt.

In spring, birds wake

from their underwater slumber,

their feathers damp,

voices cracked and croaking

in an empty, foreign language.

Stones, naked and grey, rise up

from the sand, soil, sea – stubborn

and heavy – breaking ploughs,

getting under your feet.

Their rocky tongues,

just like their hearts, are cold

heavy and hollow. Their words;

new born

fresh out

of darkness, swaddled

in a thin, eggshell light.

In spring, when beasts and fish

and all the young men

and all the young women

get dispersed fairly and evenly

throughout the coast,

the birds and stones

speak their rootless language,

a tongue

with no beginning, no end.

The beach near Kolka, Livonian Coast [Image: Will Mawhood]

People Like Us is available now from Francis Boutle Publishers

You can find out more about the Livonian language, history and culture at (available in Livonian, Latvian and English). A recording of the full discussion, which also includes Valts Ernštreits reading his poems in Livonian, as well as readings and discussions by the Scottish poets Stuart A Paterson and Macgillivray is here.

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