Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on January 27th, 2008

Sanctus Bruno, qui cognominatur Bonifacius, archepiscopus et monachus XI suae conversionis anno in confinio Rusciae et Lituae a paganis capite plexus cum suis XVIII, VII Id. Martii petiit coelos.


Excerpt from the Annales Quenlinbergensis. wikipedia

There it is, the nearly thousand-year-old first reference to Lithuanians, made in passing while describing the martyrdom of Bruno of Querfurt, the second apostle of the Prussians. The description is clearly not one of discovery, meaning that, though the textual record does not exist, there are almost certainly earlier mentions of “Litua” out there, somewhere. From the Lithuanian word “Lietuva,” via German and Latin, we get the English form “Lithuania,” a word that is comically impossible for most non-native speakers of English to say (including the speaker who provides the English recording welcoming to to your FlyLAL flight, “FlyLAL” being a shortened—and equally awkwardly rendered orally—version of “Lithuanian Airlines”).

On Friday we learned that, part of Lithuania’s rebranding project, the government is considering a name change in English. In a previous post I discussed the value of pursuing the historical boldness of the Žečpospolita when trying to brand Lithuania as brave and innovative. And in a future post, I discuss the specific plans of raising the nation’s profile. But this post, the most fun one for me, is about renaming.

Zigmas Zinkevičius, whose History of the Lithuanian Language is a complete thrill to read, put together a short, definitive description of the origin of the ethonym “Lithuanians” in 1999, translated into Lithuanian by Gražina Zaleckytė in Voruta. This article has been subsequently been largely reproduced in English on Wikipedia.

In short, “Litua” clearly comes from “Литва,” which remains the modern name of Lithuania in Russian. The “и” demonstrates the ie -> i shift shown in Lithuanian and Russian words like “žiemà” and “зима.” This suggests that the word “Lietuva” was long known to Slavs, as the Slavic vowel shift was already present by the time “Litua” is recorded in 1009.

“Lietuva” enters into German and Latin texts in the thirteenth century variously, including “Lettowen” (compare to contemporary German “Litauen”) and “Lethovia,” with the Lithuanians becoming the slavicized “Lethovini.” From these last two Latin examples, which become standardized as “Lituania,” we can see where the English word “Lithuania” has its intermediary origins.

We now have the four sources of the various names of the Lithuanian nation: from “Lietuva” (kept by the Lithuanians, Latvians, and Finns), we get “Litva” for Slavic languages, “Litauen” for Germanic and Nordic languages, and “Lituania” for Romance Languages and the non-European world. I only cannot make a strong case among these four for the Estonian “Leedu,” though I suspect it follows its Finnish relative in coming straight from “Lietuva” (and Zinkevičius agrees).

In general, the various names are pretty easy to pronounce, save “Lithuania,” which has the voiceless dental fricative [θ]. This consonant, though entering into English via its Anglo-Saxon/Germanic ancestors, fell out of German such that “th” in modern German is pronounced [t] (as in “Theologie” or “Therapie”). So given the difficulty of [θ], the rebranding commission has moved to rename “Lithuania” in English.

Central European Republic

In my first post on this makeover, I offered “The Republic” and “The Commonwealth” as limit case examples of new names, ones that very specifically abandon an ethnonym, much like what we get with the UK or USSR. Furthermore, “The Republic” specifically echoes to the historic name “Žečpospolita” and “Rzeczpospolita,” both terms coming from “rēs publica,” the Latin term that gives us, via French, “Republic.”

Possible names could move from the limit example with additions of modifiers, like “Central European Republic.” This would position Lithuania onomastically in the center of Europe, where it already imagines itself geographically. And it still keeps an ethnonym out of the picture.

In the past thirty years, we have seen very few conscious renaming efforts of states. The two that jump out at me both represent profound changes in government. Zaire returned to being the Democratic Republic of Congo, a move that, as far I can tell, was a rejection of the curious nationalism of Mobutu Sese Seko, who named his nation the Portuguese word Zaire in 1971. And, similarly, the right-wing junta in Burma adopted the more literary name “Myanmar” in English to replace the more colloquial “Burma,” though both Burmese words are used without conflict. Interestingly, the romanizations “Burma” and “Myanmar” were both devised by Englishmen speaking with a non-rhotic accent, so that when we Americans pronounce the words with our rhotic accents (one I’ve kept despite years of living in Massachusetts), we’re hilariously mispronouncing the name.

The point is that a peacetime renaming in English (only) of a nation-state is practically unprecedented during my lifetime. The two main ones involved major changes in government, and one shed an imagined nationalist name, whereas the other tried to increase the prestige of its name by choosing a less popular form.  So turning “Lithuania” into “Central European Republic” could follow the model of the Democratic Republic of Congo. But it is probably far less likely a move.

Since there is no similar “Bama”/“Myanma” split in Lithuanian, there is value in investigating a third path of renaming, that is, finding an English name that avoids the [θ] consonant that causes problems in pronunciation and transcription within the other non-Lithuanian renderings of the name, namely “Litva,” “Litauen,” and “Lituania.”

The Republic of Litva

Any name similar to “Litva” would probably never survive politically because of its direct Slavic link, despite the fact that the “i” in the name of the country in nearly every other language of the world does come from the Slavic rendering of “Lietuva.”

“Litva,” though, would be a great new name. It is short, sweet, close to “Lietuva” without a tricky dipthong, and different enough from “Latvia.” Furthermore, “Litva” would avoid a common toponymic suffix that gets passed into English, thereby increasing the singularity of the name (though, of course, “-va” comes from the hydronymic suffix “-uva”). In this case, it’s “-ania,” but you can compare it with “-ia,” “-stan,” and so on. The popularity of the “New Yorkistan” cover of the New Yorker negatively points the value of a name that has no common toponymic suffix. Adjectival forms could be “Litvan,” “Litvese,” or something similar (note the politically useful similarity to “Litvak”).

The Republic of Litauen

“Litauen” would be a very foreign looking word in English—almost a pedantically obscure name. Furthermore, it drops the “v” in the original Lithuanian name, and bunches a whole group of vowels together. Finally, “Litauen” in English sounds like an adjective, which made me always pause in German class when I would try talking about Lithuania. The adjectival form of “Litauen” in English is not immediately clear, either. “Litauenese” or “Litauenian” both sound laughably complicated and unnatural.

This suggests, then, the possible neologism “Litau,” which somehow manages to sound even more German than “Litauen,” though it would at least offer up “Litauen,” “Litauan,” or “Lituaese” as adjectival forms. Hence, maybe, “The Litauen Republic.” However, “Litau” quickly begins to look like “Litov,” or something equally Slavic looking. Zinkevičius describes the German 16th century description of Lithuania Minor as “Klein-litaw.”

In short, “Litauen” would probably not be a useful example for the renamers to follow.

The Republic of Lituania

What, then, about “Lituania”? No voiceless dental fricative, a long history of use with a Latin etymology—the gold standard pedigree of European toponyms, demonyms, and ethnonyms. The change from “Lithuania” would be different enough, but not world-changingly different. Sadly, it still involves a vowel cluster (the “ua”) that is awkward in Lithuanian. “Lituania”/“Lituanian” as a result, might still end up, when pronounced by a native speaker of Lithuanian who has learned English late in life, as the awkward “Lidvaynia,” a weird term that yields the slang “Duania”/“Duanie” and “Waynia”/“Waynie” for “Lithuania”/“Lithuanian (from Lithuania).”

I imagine that if the government were to seriously engage in a renaming project, they would punt and choose something minor like this change.

The Republic of Voruta

Perhaps there is a renaming that would take into account the literary/vulgar split present in the “Myanma”/“Bama” split: abandoning “Lietuva” as the source for the English name. This would be, to be sure, as radical as renaming the state “The Central European Republic.” The question, then, would be what to use as a specifier. I present “The Republic of Voruta” as a possible path to follow.

First, “Lietuva” retains the ethnonymic tinge impressed upon it by the Suvalkai of the 19th century. One of the strong benefits of “The Central European Republic” would be the abandonment of this feature. Renaming the state after Voruta, Mindaugo mythic capital, would remove the ethnonymic aspect while reinforcing a political designation for the state. In a comic reversal of the more common naming of a capital after a state (i.e. Brasil/Brasília), here the state would take its name from the capital, something that might be rarer, with Algeria and Tunisia as two contemporary examples.

Next, Voruta is also famously unlocatable, which would decenter the Republic of Voruta as a geographically bounded cultural entity. The nation would take its name from a mythic place, one that cannot be found and might not even have ever existed as a unique place—after all, “Voruta,” speculates Būga, could simply have meant “castle.”

“Voruta” has no clear, original form. It is a giant, stinking, etymological black hole. That makes me happy.

So who knows if the renaming effort will ever provide a concrete solution that then gets adopted. I’m intrigued by the task (despite the ludicrousness of the project—not for nothing that it appears in the “oddly enough” section of Reuters), and I wonder what path the commission will follow.

By the way, my roommate offers the following new names:

  • “No-name Country”
  • “Galactica”
  • “Stripclub Dreams”
  • “Rotating Fire” — This is also the name of his band in Guitar Hero III and the name of his BFD pizza from Domino’s, so it might not be appropriate for an Eastern European nation.

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One Response to “Lithuania contemplates extreme makeover, pt. 2 of 3”

  1. Interesting entry. I don’t think Lithuania’s name in English should change. Lithuania sounds nice in English. Litva doesn’t. If the th and ua combinations are too difficult to pronounce for Lithuanians, then make the slight change to Litania. That sounds OK.

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