Language and Culture

Lithuania Table of Contents

Like Latvian and Old Prussian, the Lithuanian language belongs to the Baltic branch of the Indo-European language family. The size of the territory in which Lithuanian was spoken shrank considerably through the ages. Today it is roughly coterminous with the boundaries of Lithuania except for some areas of Lithuanian speakers in Poland and Belarus, and except for the diaspora living in the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Latin America, Australia, and even Siberia.

The medieval Lithuanian rulers did not develop a written form of the Lithuanian language. The literary Lithuanian language, based on a southwestern Lithuanian dialect, came into use during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, replacing the use of the Samogitian, or western Lithuanian, dialect. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the use of Lithuanian was confined mainly to the peasantry, but the language was revived subsequently. In 1988 it was declared the official language of Lithuania, as it had been during 1918-40 and the early years of Soviet rule.

Unlike Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania's cultural development was affected by Poland rather than Germany. The imperial Russian regime had an enormous impact on Lithuania from 1795 to 1915, and the Soviet Union had similar influence from 1940 to 1991. Direct contacts with western Europe also made significant contributions beginning in the sixteenth century. Lithuanian nobility in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries and Lithuanian intellectuals since the turn of the twentieth century brought back ideas and experiences from Italy, Germany, and France. Also, between the two world wars independent Lithuania's direct communication with western Europe affected the development of educational and religious institutions, the arts and literature, architecture, and social thought. Lithuania's historical heritage and the imprint of the Western outlook acquired in the twentieth century were strong enough to make Soviet citizens feel that by going to Lithuania they were going abroad, to the West.

Lithuanian folk art, especially woodcarving and weaving, contributed to the growth of Lithuanian artistic development. Traditionally, Lithuanian folk artists carved mostly crosses, wayside chapels, and figures of a sorrowful Christ--very symbolic and characteristic of Lithuanian crossroads. Under Soviet rule, which outlawed religious subjects, woodcarvings became sec-ular. Today, Lithuania's roads and gardens are dotted with wooden crosses, poles, and other carvings.

Among Lithuanian artists, probably the best known is Mikalojus Ciurlionis (1875-1911), an originator of abstract painting and a composer whose music became the main subject of study by Professor Vytautas Landsbergis, Lithuania's de facto president 1990-92 and a leader of the independence movement. During the Soviet period, Lithuanian art was best known for graphic arts and for stained glass windows, but the most prominent art forms included abstract painting, sculpture, commercial art, and amber jewelry.

Lithuanian music is as ancient as its art. Folk music has had great influence on its development, and choral singing--periodically demonstrated in huge singing festivals--remains extremely popular. Lithuanian composers write not only choral but also symphonic, ballet, chamber, and opera music. A conservatory, established in 1933, has contributed much to the development of musical culture. In addition to the conservatory, Lithuania supports four higher music schools, three art schools, two pedagogical music schools, eighty music schools for children, five symphony orchestras, ensembles for medieval and contemporary music, and an internationally known string quartet. Many instrumentalists and soloists are winners of international prizes. Folk music ensembles also abound.

Opera and ballet are important elements of Lithuania's national culture. Dancers are trained at the Vilnius School of Choreography and the Kaunas School of Music, as well as in Russia.

All of these activities were state supported under the Soviet system. Membership in artistic associations usually assured work in the profession. All of this now has to be reorganized on a private basis, and both the state and the artists are struggling to find satisfactory working arrangements. Many supporters of the arts believe that art should be state-supported but not state controlled.

The movie industry was established in the late 1940s. Lithuanian filmmakers released four full-length films in 1989 and five in 1990; they also released twenty-eight short films, twenty-four newsreels, and four documentaries. Artistic photography has roots that are older than the Soviet regime in Lithuania.

Sports are also a prevalent national pastime. Lithuania's most popular game is basketball, and a few Lithuanians play professionally in the United States and in European countries. Lithuania's individual athletes have won Olympic medals and routinely compete in European events.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress