Language watchdog tightens grip on Lithuania

  • 2001-03-29
  • Geoffrey Vasiliauskas
VILNIUS - The Lithuanian language commission will be monitoring the speech of Lithuanian MPs during parliamentary debates next month by sending a list of grammatical errors made by MPs to each offender individually. But there are no plans for fines.

Its chairwoman Dr. Danguole Mikuleniene and parliamentary chancellor Arvydas Kregzde have been discussing how to proceed with the commission's work in the new Parliament. Notification in writing is being introduced with the hope individual MPs with an interest in improving their speech will find the service useful.

Instead of being an ivory tower of elite grammarians or a stronghold of aging school matrons ready to rap misbehaving MPs on the knuckles, the commission, a Lithuanian government agency, says it is striving to perform the task of public service to the best of its ability.

It has, according to Mikuleniene, been correcting the speech of MPs in Parliament almost since its inception in 1990, when it consisted of a typewriter in an attic room and an unpaid staff of enthusiasts.

In 1995 and 1996, commission staff listened in to parliamentary sessions and during recesses reviewed the mistakes MPs had made for all who cared to listen.

"What's new with this Parliament is the individuality of the service," she explained.

Mikuleniene said the language commission's work among parliamentarians has been a great success. "I remember MPs who began their terms speaking Lithuanian poorly but improved greatly," she said.

She denied the commission was in any way telling MPs how they should speak. "MPs can speak any language they want. They are elected officials and represent constituencies, and those constituencies have the right to elect whomever they see fit."

Usually Lithuanian MPs take an active interest in improving their speech. The standard Lithuanian language, based on the Aukstaitijan dialect spoken in Vilnius, presents problems to some regional speakers because of its vowel system.

"Our Russian citizens speak Lithuanian," Mikuleniene said. "Those who went to school after 1991 speak well, while others have picked it up through work or through the work of our commission."

But the commission's hardest work is yet to be done. Mikuleniene quoted David Brooke of Microsoft as saying a language left out of the information technologies' sphere is sentenced to die out.

The commission is working on creating IT terminology. The up-coming generation needs software with a user interface in Lithuanian. Mikuleniene denied that the small size of the Lithuanian software market precluded a release of Windows in Lithuanian.

"It just takes the right kind of push, maybe state support. If the Basques can have Windows in the Basque language, I don't see any reason why there can't be Windows in Lithuanian," she argued.

English loan-words pose a danger to Lithuanian. "Loan-words are normal in the evolution of any language, but when they all emanate from one source, and there is no feedback, that can be a problem. We were all forced to learn Russian, and there was an obvious sense of resistance in speaking and using Lithuanian. That sense isn't there regarding English."

The commission has been operating a language hotline for several years. People from all walks of life make use of this public service, from primary school students to MPs to journalists. "We record all the questions received on the hotline and maintain a consultation database."

The hotline receives around 80 calls daily, and the information collected in the database will go online this year, as will a 300,000-word digital terminology database.

Due to its large majority of Lithuanian speakers - over 80 percent - Lithuania has accomplished more than Latvia and Estonia in making the official state language the language of everyday public discourse. But much remains to be done.

"I'm jealous of the French with their hundreds of years of experience in conserving their language," Mikuleniene admitted.

There have been no complaints from MPs over the commission's work. Despite some murmuring in the media in recent years, including poet Marcelijus Martinaitis' characterization of the commission's work as "language amelioration" on a television talk show (he later recanted), no one has come out against the commission's work.