Europe’s language that few speak

With a population estimated at just around 200, Europe’s smallest ethnic group is fighting to save its language and culture from extinction.

When Davis Stalts spoke of his seafaring grandfather, it was with the reverence accorded to a mythical hero. “He had hands this big,” he gestured, capping off a large space with his palms. “He said he was made of steel.”

We were sitting in Hāgenskalna Komūna, a now-closed bar and cultural centre that Stalts set up in Riga, the Latvian capital. Hidden away in a dimly lit neighbourhood on the left bank of the Daugava river, it was a world away from the brash sports bars and stag-party haunts of Riga’s old town.

The grey-eyed, barrel-chested Stalts was a man of imposing build himself, so it was not hard to imagine the impressionable young boy being awed by his grandfather – a giant sea captain who had endured more than his fair share of hardship. Then there were his tales, thrilling accounts of adventure at sea that captivated the young Stalts. But the old captain seldom spoke in Latvian to his grandson: he would relate his stories in a language full of extended vowels, dipthongs and tripthongs.

It was only when Stalts reached the age of nine or 10 that he started to understand that aside from a few relatives, nobody else around him spoke like this. “I remember thinking, what’s going on? Why does nobody speak this language? Only some very old people.”

In fact, Stalts’ grandfather was one of the last native speakers of Livonian, a language now considered by linguists to be on the verge of extinction. Unlike Latvian, which is an Indo-European language from the Baltic group, Livonian belongs to the group of Finno-Ugric tongues, most of which are spoken by ethnic minorities in modern-day Russia. Like its cousins Finnish and Estonian, it has a complex grammar: there are 17 cases; nouns have no gender; and there is no future tense.

Today’s Livonian population is estimated at just around 200, making them Europe’s smallest ethnic minority. But it wasn’t always this way. For centuries this Finno-Ugric race of fishermen thrived on Latvia’s remote western shores, with as many as 30,000 people speaking the language in medieval times. The Livonians carefully preserved their distinct heritage as the region passed from German to Russian hands, and eventually, in the early 20th Century, became part of an independent Latvian republic.

Read more: BBC Travel

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