Yes, it is obvious that Latgalian is an important language, not...

Yes, it is obvious that Latgalian is an important language, not a dialect.

Language or Dialect?: The Politicisation of Language in Central and Eastern Europe Catherine Gibson SSEES, University College London


Language formed the ideological foundation of many national movements in Central and Eastern Europe during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The decision on whether a people spoke a language or a dialect was not based on arguments about linguistic proximity or distance, but rather on political definitions of who constituted the ethno-linguistic nation. This led to languages being combined or split in accordance with nation-building projects. Often overlooked is the impact of this politicisation of language on sub-national and regional dialects, which are today not accorded the status of languages. This paper focuses on the case study of Latgalian, which is used as a means of everyday communication by 150,000-200,000 people in eastern Latvia. It is officially classified as a ‘historical variety’ and ‘dialect’ of Latvian, but linguists have made the case for it being a separate language. The debate over the distance and proximity of languages/dialects is especially pronounced in this ‘peripheral’ (from the perspective of Riga) and highly multi-ethnic region that borders Belarus, Lithuania, and Russia.

Languages, dialects and ethno-linguistic nationalism

The division of the linguistic landscape of Central and Eastern Europe into discrete ‘languages’ is a relatively recent phenomenon. Prior to the nineteenth century, when literacy in Europe was confined to the narrow stratum of literati, the majority of people residing in the multilingual empires of the region used oral communication in face-to-face conversations. During the nineteenth century, the spread of education and literacy among the population, the standardisation of written forms through the production of grammars and dictionaries, and the greater movements of peoples meant that communication became dependent on prior agreement of ‘a language’ in which to converse through speaking or writing (Billig 1995; Gellner 1983). This amalgamated the mosaic of small, localised speech-communities into self-contained, standardised ‘languages’, which were based on the spoken variety of a power centre (usually the capital city of a polity), spoken and written by the elite, and imparted to the population at large via compulsory elementary education. Non-standard ethnolects were lowered to the status of non-official ‘dialects’.

The collapse of the four multi-ethnic (and multilingual) European empires, Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman, at the end of the First World War dramatically changed the map of Europe: the Austro- Hungarian and Ottoman empires were divided up, the German Empire was truncated, and the Russian Empire was transformed into the Soviet Union and lost its western borderlands. In their place, a host of independent ethno- linguistically-defined nation-states were created according to, and legitimised by, the credo of ‘national self-determination’ espoused by Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir I. Lenin. However, this process was only partial and many ethno- linguistically defined peoples found themselves without a titular state, and all the nation-states were, to a degree, multilingual. Moreover, the majority of ethnolects in these new nation-states were condemned to the lowly status of dialects and only a small number were elevated to the status of state official languages.

The dichotomy of thinking about language (both spoken and written) in modern nation-states in terms of standardised languages and dialects became the norm, as well as the basis and ideological foundation of nation-state building and national statehood legitimisation in Central and Eastern Europe (Hroch 1985). August Schleicher’s (1821-1868) Tree Model or Stammbaum taxonomy, developed in the mid-nineteenth century and thus contemporaneous with Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution, divides diachronically similar languages into genealogical ‘families’. This became a popular way of theorising languages among the nationalistically-orientated intelligentsia, and remains the basis of comparative historical linguistics today (François, 2014). These divisions of speech communities into separate languages have come to be seen as primordial and natural, and the existence of discrete languages is used to justify the existence of the separate ethno-linguistic nation- states. Alternative ways of conceptualising languages and dialects have gained far less popular currency. For example, the notion of a ‘dialect continuum’ developed by the American linguist Leonard Bloomfield (1887-1949) argues that what we understand as languages are in fact a range of dialects spoken across a geographical area and as one travels across it in a particular direction, differences accumulate, so that speakers from opposite ends of the continuum are no longer mutually intelligible (Bloomfield, 1935). However, the absence of ‘hard’ linguistic boundaries in this model makes it far less appealing to nationalistic modes of thinking, orientated as they are towards ethno-linguistic exclusivity.

Thus, the designation of an ethnolect as either language or dialect is not based on arguments about linguistic proximity or distance, but rather on political definitions of who belongs to which ethno-linguistic ‘imagined community’ (Anderson, 1983). This politicisation of language has been especially prevalent in Central and Eastern Europe, leading to languages being combined, such as Czechoslovak and Serbo-Croato-Slovenian (both during the interwar period, the former being the model for the latter), or split, such as Romanian into Romanian and Moldovan, Czechoslovak into Czech and Slovak – and Rusyn – (during the Second World War), and Serbo- Croatian into Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin (1991-2007), all in accordance with nation-building projects. However, often overlooked is the impact of this politicisation of language on sub-national and regional dialects, which are today not accorded the status of languages. This paper focuses on the political debates about the status of Latgalian, which is used as a means of everyday communication by 150,000-200,000 people in the Latgalia (Latvian: Latgale; Latgalian: Latgola) region of eastern Latvia (Lazdiņa & Marten, 2012).2 Latgalian is officially classified as a ‘historical variety’ of Latvian, but some linguists have made the case for it being a separate language. The debate over the distance and proximity of languages and dialects is especially pronounced in this ‘peripheral’ (from the perspective of Riga) and highly multi-ethnic region that borders Belarus, Lithuania, and Russia. Language is used by the Latvian state as a means of bridging differences between the predominantly Lutheran Latvians and Catholic Latgalians, and hence of culturally and ethno-linguistically ‘Latvianising’ the region. Especially in regions with ethno- linguistically diverse and multilingual inhabitants, such as Latgalia, language becomes a political statement.

Historical development of Latgalian

A diachronic approach is vital to understand the language/dialect debate in Latvia today. Following the Polish-Swedish War from 1626–1629, the Duchy of Livonia3 was divided between Swedish and Polish-Lithuanian rule, beginning a period of almost three hundred years in which Latgalia was administratively split from the other Baltic-speaking (future Latvian-speaking) territories of Courland and Livland. From 1629-1772 Latgalia was part of the Polish-Lithuanian political and cultural world as the Inflanty Voivodeship or Palatinate. Then, at the first partition of Poland-Lithuania in 1772, the territory was incorporated into the Pskov, and later Vitebsk, gubernias of the Russian Empire. It was only decided that Latgalia should join the other Latvian- speaking territories in 1917 when delegates at the First Congress of Latgalistics in Rēzekne (city in the centre of Latgalia) voted to join a future independent Latvia, which was realised when Latvia declared independence on 18 November 1918 (Plakans, 2011)5 Latgalia’s divergent historical development until the end of the First World War left strong cultural traces. Alongside the aforementioned differences in confessional allegiance (Latgalians are predominantly Catholic, whereas the Latvians of the western provinces are mostly Lutheran), parallel systems of writing the local Baltic speech were developed in Livland and Inflanty during the eighteenth century, a fact that has subsequently been used as the basis for arguments by Latgalian activists and linguists for Latgalian being a separate language (Gibson, 2013).

Written Latgalian emerged in the eighteenth century as part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation response to the Protestant Reformation. The earliest printed Latgalian texts were Catholic texts translated by Polish-speaking (ie. non-native Latgalian speakers) priests in Wilno (today, Vilnius in Lithuania) who wanted to emulate the local inhabitant’s ‘customary way of speaking’, rather than following the written Latvian tradition which had been established in Courland and Sweden’s Livland for 200 years (Gibson, 2013: 41), There are three main differences in the development of written Latgalian from what is today known as standard Latvian. Firstly, Latgalian was printed in Latin Antiqua type similar to Polish. This visually distinguished it from the Latvian written in Courland and Livland, which was printed in Gothic Fraktur (Blackletter) type associated with Lutheranism. Secondly, Latgalian was written down with Polish spelling, whereas written Latvian was more influenced by the German used by the Baltic Germans in Courland and Livonia (initially Low German, then standard German [Hochdeutsch] with the shift in the official scribal language around 1600). Finally, Latgalian was subject to Slavic influences. This was slow at first because the Polish-speakers were generally from the nobility (szlachta) and the social barrier did not encourage this. However, gradually many Slavic words entered Latgalian through contact with the Orthodox and Old Believers in the region, in addition to Polish, Ruthenian and Belarusian (Jankowiak, 2014). Latvian, on the other hand, was more susceptible to Germanic influences (Rembiszewska, 2009: 67).

The development of written Latgalian suffered several setbacks in the nineteenth century. As a result of the 1863 uprising of the Polish-Lithuanian nobility in the Russian Empire, the tsarist administration also placed a ban on printing in the Latin (i.e. ‘Polish’) script from 1864-1904. During the interwar period, there was some elementary schooling in Latgalian, but after the coup in 1934 by authoritarian leader Karlis Ulmanis, a policy of Latvianisation was pursued in quest for national ethnolinguistic homogeneity. During the Soviet period, the use of Latgalian was relegated to the private sphere and a handful of émigré publications in Munich, West Germany and the USA.

Politicisation of Latgalian in Latvia today

Since Latvia regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, there has been a revival of the Latgalian ethno-linguistic regional identity. Latgalia’s sense of regional distinctiveness remains strong and Latgalieši (Latgalian) is still used as a term of regional identification. The Latgalians have their own flag, coat of arms, radio station, cultural festivals, and societies such as the Latgolys Student Centre. Among the younger generation, the internet provides a forum for writing and using Latgalian as an everyday means of communication – for example, there is an online Latgalian Cultural Newsletter, Latgalian Wikipedia, and Latgalian TED talks.6 In 2012, a two-volume quadrilingual (Latvian- Russian, Latgalian-English) Linguoterritorial Dictionary of Latgalia was published (Šuplinska, 2012).

However, in official terms, Latgalian is classified as a ‘historically- established variety of the Latvian language’ or a Latvian ‘dialect’ (Language Law, 1999, III.iv.). Latgalians are not accorded the status of an indigenous linguistic minority and are regarded in official discourse as a ‘sub-group’ of the ‘autochthonic indigenous nation of Latvia’ (Apine 2009: 30). The problem of determining the number of Latgalian speakers arises from the fact that they are not counted in the Latvian census. For the first time in 2011, use of spoken- Latgalian was recorded on the census, but only in terms of ‘Latvians who use the Latgalian dialect in everyday communication’.7 The policy of non-recognition of Latgalian as a language in its own right justifies the non-application of minority or regional language rights. Latgalian is not used in any official capacities and there is no state provision for Latgalian-language schools; Latgalian is only taught as an extracurricular subject in some schools through the initiative of individual teachers (Mercator 2009).

However, arguments are also made by those in Latgalia and elsewhere for Latgalian being a separate language (Marten 2011; Lazdiņa & Marten, 2012; Nau, 2011). Latgalian has a relatively long literary tradition and a large number of Latvian speakers find Latgalian very difficult to understand. More importantly, many Latgalians themselves consider Latgalian a language and not a dialect. Thanks to the efforts of Latgalian activists, a Latgalian Cultural Centre and Teachers Association were established. Despite all this, when in 2009 participants of the second Latgalian Academic Conference in Rēzekne petitioned the Latvian government for recognition of Latgalian as a regional language, their petition was declined. The debate as to whether Latgalian is a separate language or not continues to be dominated by socio-political debates rather than linguistic ones.

Threat of multiculturalism

One explanation for the Latvian state’s policies towards the Latgalians is the perceived threat of minorities to the Latvian national identity. The 2011 census revealed that ethnic-Latvians (including Latgalians) make up only 62 per cent of the population of Latvia.8 Bordering Belarus, Lithuania, and Russia, Latgalia is one of the least ethno-linguistically ‘Latvian’ parts of the country. It has large numbers of Latvian, Russian, Latgalian, Polish, and Belarusian-speakers, and is inhabited by Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Old Believers, Lutherans, and Jews (Volkov, 2012). Latvians are the majority in Latgalia only by a small margin. Of the 304,032 residents of Latgalia in 2011, 139,941 (46 per cent) were Latvians/Latgalians, while Russians comprised 118,170 (38.9 per cent).

In urban areas, however, the picture is quite different. In Daugavpils (pop. 93,312), Latvians/Latgalians comprise only 18,447 (19.8 per cent), compared to Russians 50,013 (53.6 per cent), Poles 13,279 (14.2 per cent), Belarusians 6,674 (7.2 per cent).9 The local municipality supports community centres dedicated to preserving Latgalian, Latvian, Russian, Polish, Belarusian, Ukrainian, German, Jewish, and Roma culture as part of Europe-wide programmes for minority integration and representation.10 Thus, if Latgalian-speakers were given an official Latgalian ethno-linguistic identity, Russians would come to constitute a majority of the population in Latgalia.11 The Latvian state’s decision to continue to regard Latgalians as a Latvian national ‘subgroup’ can thus be seen as a continuation of policies from the interwar period. During the early period of Latvian independence, national territorial claims were consolidated by ‘space filling’ (Wilson & Donnan, 2005: 10-11) the region with those who identify as ‘Latvian’ in order to ‘make the frontier Latvian’ (Purs, 2002)12.

By contrast, the Latvian state recognises Livonian, a near-extinct Finno-Ugric micro-language spoken by a small number of people in north- western Latvia, as Latvia’s only official indigenous minority language. In official discourse, the Livs are described as an ‘ancient indigenous nationality’13 and ‘indigenous population (autochtons)’.14 In contrast to the Latgalians, it is likely that the Livs are perceived as less of a threat because, aside from being numerically smaller, they live in a less multi-ethnic region, in historically Central Latvian-speaking heartlands (southern Livland), and along the present- day border with Estonia, a less politically threatening neighbour.


Developments regarding Latgalian in the last ten years since Latvia joined the European Union in 2004 have been double-edged. On the one hand, discussion of Latgalian has been incorporated into the discourse of European regional minority languages and has received increased attention outside Latvia, for example through the short-lived Latvian branch of the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages and through projects such as Poland’s Linguistic Heritage: Documentation Database for Endangered Languages.15 On the other hand, increased emigration after the EU borders opened in 2004 has led to a net out-migration in Latgalia as people move in search of work and higher salaries, and pre-empts the question of whether the hold of this traditional region will diminish even further. As a result, the Latgalian local and ethno- linguistic identification remains subordinate to the broader Latvian national ethno-linguistic identification. Latgalian activism remains mostly in Phase A of Miroslav Hroch’s schema of comparative nationalism, that is, the realm of ‘scholarly interest’, although the emergence of dictionaries, youth movements, and use of Latgalian on the internet suggests some elements of Phase B, ‘the period of patriotic agitation’ (Hroch, 1985). However, it is likely that Latgalian activism will remain in the murky area between these two phases for the foreseeable future.


The designation of an ethnolect as a language or a dialect is, as this paper has shown, not based on objective linguistic arguments about distance and proximity, but on subjective decisions about who constitutes the ‘imagined’ ethno-linguistic nation and where the corresponding linguistic boundaries lie. The situation regarding Latgalian in eastern Latvia is a case in point. I suggest that the Latvian state’s decision not to recognise Latgalian as a language (and only as a Latvian dialect) is shaped by the challenge to the unity of the Latvian ethno-linguistic nation such a change would bring. This is heighted by Latgalia’s peripheral location (from the perspective of Riga), linguistic diversity and high proportion of minorities. Thus, the Latvian state’s policy of regarding Latgalian as a dialect of Latvian suggests continuity with policies pursued during the interwar period which sought to ‘make the frontier Latvian’ (Purs, 2002).

Against the weight of these political and ideological arguments, scholars have struggled to make their linguistic case for Latgalian as a separate language heard.

Endnotes 1 I wish to thank Tomasz Kamusella for his comments on an earlier draft of this paper and all the conference participants for their stimulating discussion. Any errors that remain are my own. The exception was in the Soviet Union where around 150 languages enjoyed some official status until the late 1930s as part of the policy of korenizatsiia (‘nativisation’). (Martin, 2001) 2 Reported knowledge of Latgalian (proportional) according to 2011 census:…/latviesu-valodas-paveida-latgaliesu-valoda… lietosana-35066.html [accessed 27 May 2014]. 3 From 1561-1569 it was a province of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and after the Union of Lublin in 1569 it became a joint domain of the Polish Crown and the Grand Duchy. 4 Also known as Polish Livonia. 5 The borders and future of this state were only secured in 1920 with the Treaty of Riga in 1920 following two years of war between Latvians, the Red Army, Latvian Bolsheviks, Baltic Germans and Poles. 6 Latgalīšu Kulturys Gazeta, [accessed 5 Jun 2014]; Latgalian Wikipedia, [accessed 5 Jun 2014]; Latgalian TED talks [accessed 13 May 2014]. 7 CSB 11-071 ‘Table 11-071: Ethnicities of resident population in statistical regions, cities under state jurisdiction and counties by language mostly spoken at home, 1 March 2011’. gada+tautas+skaitīšanas+galīgie+rezultāti&tablelist=true&px_ language=en&px_type=PX&px_db=tautassk_11&rxid=992a0682-2c7d-4148- b242-7b48ff9fe0c2 [accessed 5 Jun 2014]. 8 CSB 11-071 9 CSB 11-071 10 ‘Multinacionālā kultūra’, Daugavpils City Council, lv/97 [accessed 5 Jun 2014]. 11 Evidence of Russia’s assertion of its perceived right to influence in the ‘near abroad’ (blizhnee zarubezh’e), the states which (re)emerged after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, was recently seen in the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, which Russia publically justified in ethno-linguistic terms. 12 Purs uses this phase in reference to educational policies during the interwar period aimed at the ‘Latvianisation’ of minorities. (Purs, 2002) 13 Paragraph 4, ‘Law About the Unrestricted Development and Right to Cultural Autonomy of Latvia’s Nationalities and Ethnic Groups, 1991’. 14 Language Law, 1999, IV. 15 Dziedzictwo językowe Rzeczypospolitej: Baza dokumentacji zagrożonych języków, [accessed 5 Jun 2014]. 8 TROPOS Works cited CATHERINE GIBSON Anderson, Benedict. 1983 (Rev ed. 2006). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso. Apine, Ilga. 2009. Latvian scientists about traditions of recognition and acceptance of Russians (other ethnic minorities) in Latvia. Ethnicity. Vol. 2, pp. 29-57. Billig, Michael. 1995. Banal Nationalism. Los Angeles; London: Sage. Bloomfield, Leonard. 1935 (Rev ed. 1957). Language. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd. François, Alexandre. Forthcoming 2014. Trees, waves and linkages: Models of language diversification. In: Claire Bowen & Bethwyn Evans, eds. The Routledge Handbook of Historical Linguistics. New York: Routledge. Gellner, Ernest. 1983 (2nd ed. 2006). Nations and Nationalism. Malden, Mass.; Oxford: Blackwell. Gibson, Catherine. 2013. Gruomota: the influence of politics and nationalism on the development of written Latgalian in the long nineteenth century (1772- 1918). Sprawy Narodowościowe/Nationality Affairs. Iss. 43, pp. 35-53. Hroch, Miroslav. 1985. Social Preconditions of National Revival in Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Jankowiak, Mirosław. 2014. Bjelaruskija zapazychanni u latyshskaj movje i latgal’skih gavorkah. Bjelaruskaja lingvistykaи. Iss. 72, pp. 10-21. Language Law. 1999. Available in English translation: lv/advantagecms/LV/tulkojumi/dokumenti.html?folder=&currentPage=10 [accessed 5 Jun 2014] Lazdiņa, Sanita & Marten, Heiko F. 2012. Latgalian in Latvia: A Continuous Struggle for Political Recognition. Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe. Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 66-87. Marten, Heiko F. 2011. “Latgalian is not Language”: Linguistic Landscapes in Eastern Latvia and how they Reflect Centralist Attitudes. In: Durk Gorter et al., Minority Languages in the Linguistic Landscape. Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 19-35. Martin, Terry. 2001. The affirmative action empire: nations and nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939. Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press. Mercator European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning. 2009. The Latgalian language in education in Latvia. Nau, Nicole 2011. A short grammar of Latgalian. Munich: Lincom Europa. Plakans, Andrejs. 2011. Regional Identity in Latvia: the Case of Latgalia. In: Martyn Housden & David J. Smith (eds.). Forgotten Pages in Baltic History: TROPOS 9 CATHERINE GIBSON Diversity and Inclusion. Amsterdam: Rodopi B.V, pp. 49-70. Purs, Aldis. 2002. The Price of Free Lunches: Making the Frontier Latvian in the Interwar Years. The Global Review of Ethnopolitics. Vol. 2, No. 4, pp. 60-73. Rembiszewska, Dorota Krystyna. 2009. Polonizmy w łotewskich gwarach Łatgali [Polonisms in Latvian dialects of Latgalia {in Polish}]. Acta Baltico Slavica. Iss 33, pp. 67-74. Schleicher, August. 1869. Darwinism Tested by the Science of Language. London: John Camden Hotten. Šuplinska, Ilga (ed.). 2012. Latgolys Lingvoteritorialuo Vuordneica/ Linguoterritorial Dictionary of Latgalia Vol. I & II. Rēzekne: Rēzeknis Augstškola. Volkov, Vladislav. 2012. Linguistic Identities in Modern Daugavpils. Ethnicity. No. 7, pp. 31-47. Wilson, Thomas M., & Donnan, Hastings. 2004. Territory, identity and the places in-between: Culture and power in European borderlands. In: Thomas M. Wilson & Hastings Donnan (eds.). Culture and Power at the Edges of the State: National support and subversion in European border regions. Munich: Lit Verlag, pp. 1-29. Biography Catherine Gibson is a postgraduate student on the IMESS: Nation, History, Society programme at SSEES, UCL. Her research focuses on ethno-linguistic nationalism in the Baltic region. She has published on the influence of politics and nationalism on the development of written Latgalian and is currently co- editing the Palgrave Handbook of Slavic Languages, Identity and Borders.

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