Latvian, Welsh - languages with a similar struggle

  • 2000-09-21
  • Antra Linarte
Baltic people and those living several thousand kilo-meters away in Wales have much in common.

A few years ago when traveling around, if asked where I came from, my reply was Latvia. The most common response: "Where is that?" After explaining that we were once a part of the Soviet Union people looked with recognition and said: "That means you are Russian." Another small nation having the same problem is Wales, whose people are often referred to as English when abroad.

There are many other parallels that could be drawn between these nations. In recognition of this there is the Wales Baltic Society, based in the Welsh capital Cardiff.

It came about in response to the killings in Vilnius on January 13, 1991 during Lithuania's drive for independence. The initiative came from Jill Hutt, a Baltic watcher living in Wales, and Welshman Niclas Walker.

"Lots of people, some of them English, were Welsh nationalists, so they had sympathy towards Baltic people because they could see the similarities such as being dominated by a larger power" said Walker, a librarian at St. Fagan's Welsh folk museum.

The initial purpose of the society, which now has 60 members, was to campaign for the recognition of independence for the three Baltic countries, as well as to help them forge relations with Wales.

After independence the Wales Baltic Society continued furthering contacts, promoting friendship and increasing awareness about the Baltic countries through research, education and publicity. In a small way, it also provides practical and financial help.

"The music, the ancient traditions and peoples' characteristics, are very like each other," said the society chairman Andy Taurins, whose parents emigrated to England from Latvia in the 1940s. "It has no great ideals. It is just a place to meet and be reminded of your origins."

Latvian, Lithuanian and Welsh are among the oldest surviving Indo-European languages, and the nations take great pride in their heritage.

Wales, on the West Coast of Britain, is one of the seven Celtic nations, which include Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall and Brittany. The Celts were the original settlers in Britain and were dispossessed of their lands and forced west by the invading Saxons. Their rights were opposed by the Romans, the Saxons and the Normans. Still, they have survived and flourished.

The Balts once inhabited a great portion of northeastern Europe. They became a civilization pushed back against the sea on the edge of extinction, but one that refused to give in. Latvia is one place where the original Indo-European tongue is still spoken and where the beliefs that have been passed down through thousands of years are still held.

Baltic people have had the misfortune to find themselves squeezed between two imperial powers - Russia and Germany. Both of whom at certain stages in history have occupied the Baltic territories.

Consequently, there have been continuous language struggles throughout history for Baltic and Welsh speakers.

But the language situation in Wales is likely worse than in Latvia at the moment.

"Only 20 percent of the Welsh population are Welsh speaking," said Walker. "The largest proportion consider themselves Welsh, but don't speak the language. They use English in everyday affairs."

There have also been deliberate attempts to stamp out the Welsh language, he said. The 1847 report of the Church Commissioners in Wales attacked Welsh as likely to isolate the masses from the upper segments of society. People using Welsh in school, at that time, had to wear a wooden halter known as the Welsh knot. Many parents realized that by sending their children to English schools they would gain greater benefits later in life.

There was not enough impact on people's sense of history and the ancient traditions peculiar to Wales, said Walker. For hundreds of years England was considered their homeland; their songs were "Rule Britannia" and "God Save the Queen." More recently, The Beatles and The Spice Girls have been far better known than Welsh musical groups.

But that is changing with the emergence of a new national identity. Last year Wales got a new National Assembly, where the official language is Welsh, which has triggered a comeback.

"A while ago the Welsh language was not taught in schools and lacked official recognition, but that has changed dramatically over the last few years," said Walker. "There have also been two major acts of (U.K.) Parliament which have improved the official status of the Welsh language."

The Latvian language is much more alive than Welsh. Latvia has a population of about 2.4 million people, of whom about 54 percent are native speakers of Latvian.

There was a time during an intensive policy of Russification when speaking Latvian in schools was a punishable offense. This was at the end of the 19th century when Russia's Czarist government, believing in a pan-Slavic mission, decided to tighten its hold over the Balts.

Following more than 700 years of foreign occupation - from German, Swedish, Polish, and Russian - Latvia was finally able to declare its independence in 1918, which lasted until the Soviet Union rolled in the early 1940s. But this was temporarily cut short for another 50 years after the end of World War II, when the Soviet Union illegally annexed the country.

The Soviets stressed Russian as the common language to wipe out national differences, chiefly the linguistic ones. The official position was "smaller nations must melt into larger ones."

However, since regaining independence in 1991, the proportion of Latvian speakers in the country has been increasing, together with the percentage of native Russian speakers who are sending their children to Latvian schools.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Latvia once again is independent and, despite its past hardships, the language is still very much alive and well.

So, after many years of struggling to retain their identities it's a question of "all's well that ends well" for both the Baltic and Welsh peoples in the new millennium.