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Eastern Europe

What's in a Name - Lithuania

by Eglė Daunoravičiūtė, 25 June 2022

The Lithuanians, the people of Lietuva (Lithuania), were and are a native Baltic people. Originally they were one of many Baltic tribes which formerly occupied territory between northern Poland near the lower Vistula and the outskirts of Moscow.

When the northern crusades began in the eleventh century, it was the Lithuanians alone who remained unconquered amongst all their fellow tribes. What's more, within two centuries they had formed a powerful grand duchy of their own - briefly recognised as a kingdom. This became a major political structure in Eastern Europe for several centuries before it weakened and succumbed to foreign domination in the late eighteenth century.

The meaning behind the name

The original, native form of 'Lithuania' is Lietuva. Many a modern Lithuanian will inform you, somewhat jokingly, that it comes from the word 'lietus', meaning 'rain'. That, though, is simply a play on words. Lithuanians like to wheel it out when it rains a lot.

The word for 'rain' in Lithuanian has a similar root as 'Lietuva', suggesting that, grammatically, Lietuva could refer to the place in which it rains a lot, the 'land of rain'.

At some point in time this was a genuine theory, and quite a popular one too as it looks quite simple and obvious. But other than the obvious similarity, such a claim lacks any reasonable basis.

It is uncommon for an ethnonym to indicate climate conditions in a region, especially given the fact that - in Lietuva's case - there are other regions in which the rain is even more frequent, but even that rain is still is not considered to be a region-defining feature.

Sadly the genuine etymology of the name 'Lietuva' is not entirely certain, and to this day there is no common agreement amongst historians and linguists about its origins.

There were several hypotheses, however, even some which were quite ridiculous.

Map of the Baltic tribes around AD 1000
By about AD 1000 the final locations of the Baltic tribes were well known by the Germans who were beginning their attempts to subdue and control them, although the work would take a few centuries to complete and the Lithuanians would never be conquered by them (click or tap on map to view full sized)

WHAT'S IN A NAME?:
Apennines
Asia
Britain
Catuvellauni
China
Frey & Freya
German
Helvetii
Lithuania
Picts & Caledonia
Sakas & Scythians
Scandinavia
Sicambri
Slav
Xionites


During the romantic era in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it was believed that 'Lietuva' was a modified variant of l'Italia (Italy), suggesting that Lithuanians were descendants of the Romans.

The root, 'liet-' may also be associated with words such as 'lieti', meaning 'to pour something', or 'susilieti', meaning 'to interflow', but the hypothesis which is now considered to be the most reliable is one by a linguist by the name of Kazimieras Kuzavinis which he published in 1964.

The most likely theory

He suggested that the region was named after a small stream by the name of Lietava which is situated not too far from one of the most significant political centres of those times: Kernavė, which later became the historic capital of the grand duchy of Lithuania.

It is believed that the lands around Kernavė were ruled by Duke Ringaudas (or Ringoldas), who is thought to be the father of Lithuania's King Mindaugas, founder of Lithuania as a state.

Such a name origin would be entirely fitting as many rivers between the Vistula and Moscow still carry names which can be traced back to Balt words rather than Slav words. That alone has been a major factor in determining the extent of Balt territorial dominance prior to the fifth to twelfth century AD migrations of Slavs which allowed them to gain dominance outside the modern Baltics region.

In any case, it seems like the name probably is still water-related, so jokes about it meaning 'the land of rain' are not so far off the truth.

 

Main Sources

Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples

Linguistics Research Center, University of Texas at Austin

Pokorny, J - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary

 

 

     
Map and text copyright © P L Kessler & Eglė Daunoravičiūtė. An original feature for the History Files.