22 September 2007

Unity Day

Today is Baltic Unity Day, when Latvians and Lithuanians mark the defeat of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword by the Samogitians and Semigallians in the Battle of Saule, 22 September 1236. Equinox greetings to pagans everywhere! Saule means “sun” in both Latvian and Lithuanian (saulė) -- the idea of a "battle near the sun” was surrealistically inspiring to me in boyhood (visions of steeds galloping through solar flares). The heathen victory moved artists and poets from the national romantics of the 19th C to today's "pagan metal" band Skyforger, which has a song about the battle that makes use of the early 20th C poet Vilis Plūdonis' lyrics. Jānis Juškevičs published a detailed military study in 1926, available online in Latvian. "Mārasvalsts (Mary's Land, the statelet of the northern Crusaders) stood at the edge of the abyss, and a small strike would have destroyed it. But our ancestors were incapable of national thought..."

But on to another Terra Mariana, Latgallia -- Mōras zeme, Latgola. At nine this morning Latgallian activists will gather at the entrance to the University of Latvia's main building to demand regional language status for the Latgallian language (considered a dialect by most linguists), led by Mareks Gabrišs of the Latgallian Students' Center. Vysi latgalīši aicinōti jimt piketā akteivu daleibu! I'll hide behind Max Weinreich's formulation as to whether it's a language or not: "A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot." The announcement of the picket has provoked 687 comments so far at Delfi, the Internet portal that attracts the most wags and jackbooted sputterers -- that's a lot of comments, a density usually reserved for what gets a bigot's goat. Plenty of bigotry in evidence, as always -- čangaļi vs. čiuļi (the first is the somewhat derogatory term for Latgallians, the second the somewhat derogatory term for non-Latgallian Latvians -- čangalis is often used as nigga is by American blacks).

I've lived in Latgallia since 1992 and my mother grew up here, but I'm not Latgallian -- ditto for my wife, who was born here and whose mother was born here. A fervent čangalis would call us čiuļi, and it's interesting to peruse the 1930s Daugavpils "Latvian" (i.e., čiuļu) paper for some insight into the friction -- Latgallia (impoverished, Catholic, Russified, uneducated and rather drunk) resented the "Balts" (snooty, self-righteous, Germanized, Lutheran, exploitative). One hilarious argument is a complaint about the Ludza teachers' association offering a concert in which songs were sung in "bad" Latvian -- i.e., Latgallian. The teachers pointed out that this supposedly "bad" Latvian was actually Italian! The Latgallian newspaper Drywa once offered this line: "Shall we let the Lutheran wolf devour our lambs?"

Language in Latvia is heavily politicized, and the "Latgallian question" has always been suffused with politics. Long separated from the rest of Latvia (Inflanty, its name a Polish corruption of Livland, was long under Polish rule and then a part of Vitebsk guberniya, not included in the Baltic Provinces), Latgallia was subject to Russification long before the rest of Latvia was and more harshly so. I've some notes on some of this stuff here.

A friend of mine was a major Latgallian activist in the 1980s, but swerved a bit and put it aside when the Black Colonel began to take an interest. As some of the comments at Delfi suggest, Latgallian separatism is seen as dangerous because subtracting the Latgallians from the Latvians increases the weight of the Russians. Russophones are often at least as "pro-Latgallian" as Latgallians (for instance here [RU, LV]), whilst most Latgallians are quite comfortable in Latvian. A survey in Rēzekne showed that most there, in the heart of Latgallia, Latgallians included, don't consider Latgallian a language.

On the other hand, Latvian paranoia about "separatism" is often as absurd as bigotry towards Latgallians is ugly. When not tinged with intolerance, it boils down to this -- "we're so small, we shouldn't be divided against ourselves." The trouble with that formulation is that "ourselves" ought to include our diverse elements. I had the good fortune to study under the late Dr. Jāzeps Lelis for a few weeks -- a great linguist and Latgallian, he noted that Latvians say that Latgallian speech and literary Latgallian (it is indeed standardized) are no more than a dialect of the language spoken in the rest of Latvia. If meant to mean that we are one people and speak the same language, no Latgallian would object. But as soon as Latvians meet this "dialect" cheek to cheek, especially in its printed form, they immediately shout that it is incomprehensible and harmful to national unity.

On Baltic Unity Day, I would suggest a meditation on what unity means, in this sense: sameness and homogenization aren't exact synonyms of unity. I can offer qualified support to the demonstrators in Rīga because I think Latgallian ought to be taught -- dialects are part of the living language and Latgallian is one of our language's roots, and a thick one at that. But the Language Law already stipulates that "the Latvian State ensures the preservation, protection and development of the Latgallian literary language as a historical variant of the Latvian language." Making that work requires constructive labor rather than pickets -- the fact is that almost no qualified Latgallian teachers would be available even if Latgallian were declared an official language tomorrow.

I took the photo in Alejas iela here in Daugavpils (Daugpiļs in Latgallian), the second largest city in Latvia and the largest in Latgallia. It's not snowing yet, but the beauty of autumn fills me with dread?

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Blogger Frank Partisan said...

Really interesting post.

I'm cursed with being able to see both sides of that argument. Your argument which is in essence, for Latvia not to panic, is correct.

23 September, 2007 04:16  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Thanks, Eye! I'll be writing more about the region in the near future. I meant to do so from the beginning (it's even on the masthead or whatever that's called in a blog), but never got around to it...

23 September, 2007 06:18  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

I'm not surprised (having been to a demonstration against the proposed nuclear power plant that attracted about 5 people), but only 13 persons showed up to demonstrate for Latgallian rights -- here's the report in Latvian.

Gabrišs claims that the viewpoint of linguists who see Latgallian as a separate language is being deliberately concealed in Latvia. I find that dubious -- though I've no problem with calling it a "volūda" (and the great Toporov is said to have said it could be considered one according to the criteria used to differentiate Slavic languages), I wish these people would lose their tendency to resort to bad science and conspiracy theories; time and again one encounters twisted arguments devoted to denying a century and a half of comparative linguistics, demonizing Endzelīns, etc.

23 September, 2007 06:46  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are Latvian and Latgallian mutually intelligible?

27 September, 2007 16:03  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Previous Anonymous said...

Are Latvian and Latgallian mutually intelligible?

I would say Yes, pretty much. Certainly Latgallians would have no trouble understanding Latvian through ongoing constant daily contact with news media and literature. Aside from a few unique archaic words and usages, the main audible difference is in regular vowels shifts and dropped letters in Latgallian. Similar to British English vs Cockney dialect or Irish brogue, or deep Southern drawl in the U.S.

I grew up in the U.S. with my parents and grandparents speaking "Maleniski" a northern version of Latgallian in our home. For Latvian community and church events they of course switched to the stiffer "correct" Latvian without any problem. Latgallian has a sweet and fuzzy, more casual and quirkier use of the language. When I traveled to Latvia in the 70's, I think the Riga folk were a bit shocked to find I spoke Latvian with a bit of a Malienas accent, instead of the american accent they expected. My father always called it an "izloksne" - dialect, and would not have considered it a separate language.

02 October, 2007 06:45  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

It depends upon the Latgallian, which varies tremendously by region and speaker. Reading Seiksts or Lukašēvičs, both young writers, requires a dictionary or glossary at least. Valentīns gave me a copy of Vot taidi vot i batvini, and I would've been rather lost if someone who knows Latgallian hadn't helped. There's a very (very, very) incomplete online dictionary here.

02 October, 2007 14:30  
Blogger Bryce Wesley Merkl said...

Here's a Samogitian resource that you might want to check out: Žemaitėška wiki browser

29 June, 2009 23:54  

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