According to recent data there are around 7,099 known languages alive in the world. Among the Indo-European language family alone, there are said to be more than 11 major groups (2 of which are extinct), comprising 449 languages (Ethnologue).
Surrounded by a mass of Slavic languages, the two Baltic republics, Latvia and Lithuania (Estonia belonging to a different linguistic category), have intrigued language enthusiasts for some time. But to what precisely does the term ‘Balto-Slavic’ refer? Is it a real language?
Actually, the term ‘Balto-Slavic’ refers to a hypothesis put forth to explain the origins of Latvian and Lithuanian, linking them to Slavic roots via a common ancestral language which emerged after the breakup of Proto-Indo-European. What is particularly interesting about the two Baltic languages is that they retain a number of archaic features, which are especially prominent in Lithuanian’s grammar, sound system, and noun morphology, which effectively give linguists a glimpse of the structures that could have been present in earlier, now extinct, languages.
As the official language of the Republic of Latvia, it is estimated to be spoken by about 1.4 million people. Ethnologue estimates that about 1.5 million people worldwide claim Latvian as their primary language. Falling under the umbrella-term ‘Latvian’ you can find a number of mutually intelligible regional dialects which have traditionally been divided into two groups: Low or West Latvian, which includes the Central and Tamian sub-dialects, and Higher or East Latvian (also known as Latgalian), which forms the basis for Standard Latvian.
Unlike Latvian, which only re-gained its status as a national language in 1989, two years prior to Latvia’s independence from the Soviet Union, Lithuanian has been the official language of Lithuania since 1918. It is spoken in Lithuania by close to 3 million people in all public and personal domains. The worldwide population of Lithuanian speakers is estimated at around 3.1 million (Ethnologue).
Standing out once again amongst the Baltic pair, Lithuanian likewise encompasses a number of regional sub-dialects – however, they are more distinctive and do not have a high degree of mutual intelligibility. The first of these is Highland Lithuanian (or Aukštaitian), which lies at the foundation of Standard Lithuanian, and the other is Lowland Lithuanian or Samogitian.
So overall, even though ‘Balto-Slavic’ is a popular way of referring to the common linguistic ancestor shared by Slavic and Baltic languages, it is not a “real” language spoken in the three Baltic States. The two languages of the “Baltic” group are spoken in Latvia and Lithuania, as well as by immigrant communities of those countries spread around the globe, and encompass a number of regional dialects as well.