Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian: are they similar languages?

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are known as the Baltic States. This is a grouping based on geopolitical but not on linguistic similarity.

From a linguistics perspective, Lithuanian and Latvian are both Baltic languages, whereas Estonian is an Uralic language.

As Baltic languages, Lithuanian and Latvian are part of the Balto-Slavic language family and more generally part of the Indo-European language family (which includes the majority of languages spoken in Europe).

As an Uralic language, Estonian is related to the Finnish language and distantly related to Hungarian, but it is not part of the Indo-European family of languages.

Basically, Lithuanian and Latvian are similar languages. In contrast, Estonian is not similar to either Lithuanian or Latvian. This will become very clear as we compare some of their vocabulary in the table below.

Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian: how similar is their vocabulary?

The high degree of lexical similarity between Lithuanian and Latvian, and the low degree of lexical similarity between both these languages and Estonian is apparent when comparing some of their vocabulary in the table below.

Table: Some vocabulary words in Lithuanian Latvian and Estonian
English Lithuanian Latvian Estonian
friend draugas draugs sõber
happiness laimė laime õnn
white baltas balts valge
snow sniegas sniegs lumi
mountain kalnas kalns mägi
sun saulė saule päike
moon mėnulis mēness kuu
river upė upe jõgi
sea jūra jūra meri
fish žuvis zivis kala
father tėvas tēvs isa
mother motina māte ema
fire ugnis uguns tulekahju
dog šuo suns koer
important svarbus svarīgs oluline
green žalias zaļš roheline
job darbas darbs töö
evening vakaras vakars õhtu

Lithuanian and Latvian have many similar vocabulary words in common. Typically these pairs of similar words are inherited from their common ancestor language, Proto-Slavic, and may even come from their earlier ancestor language, Proto-Indo-European.

For instance, the word “white” is “baltas” in Lithuanian and “balts” is Latvian. These words come from the Proto-Indo-European language, which explains why they are also somewhat similar to the Polish equivalent, “biały”, the Czech word “bílý” and even the French word “blanc”.

In contrast, the Estonian word for “white”, which is “valge”, is related to the Finnish word “valkea” (white), but it is very different from the Lithuanian and Latvian terms because it does not originate from the Proto-Indo-European language.

Estonian is a genderless language, in contrast to Lithuanian and Latvian

In contrast to Lithuanian and Latvian, Estonian is a genderless language. In particular gendered pronouns don't exist in Estonian while they do exist in Lithuanian and Latvian.

In Estonian, the English pronouns “he” and “she” both translate to the same pronoun (“ta”). In Lithuanian and in Latvian, there is a masculine pronoun and a feminine pronoun.

Table: Lithuanian and Latvian have gendered pronouns, but not Estonian
English Lithuanian Latvian Estonian
he jis viņš ta
she ji viņa ta

Estonian is not the only language in which gendered pronouns don’t exist. This is also the case for Finnish and Hungarian, which like Estonian belong to the family of Uralic languages.

In Lithuanian and Latvian, each noun has a gender - this is not the case in Estonian

In Lithuanian and Latvian each noun has a gender, whereas in Estonian nouns don’t have genders.

For example, in Lithuanian, the word “mėnulis” (moon) is masculine. Similarly, in Latvian, the word “mēness” (moon) is also masculine. In Estonian, the corresponding word is “kuu” and like all Estonian nouns, it doesn’t have a gender.

Another example: in Lithuanian, the word “saulė” (sun) is feminine. Similarly, in Latvian, the word “saule” (sun) is also feminine. In Estonian, the corresponding word (“päike”) has no gender.

Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian: which of them is the easiest for English speakers to learn?

The Foreign Service Institute ranks languages in 4 categories according to how difficult they are for English speakers to learn.

Category 1 includes the languages which are the easiest for English speakers to learn. These languages are generally the most similar to English, and include Dutch, Spanish, Italian and a few others.

At the other end of the spectrum, category 4 contains the languages which are exceptionally difficult for English speakers to learn. Examples of languages in this category are Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic.

Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian are all three classified as category 3 languages. This is the category of “difficult languages” which present significant linguistic differences compared to English.

They estimate that Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian each require approximately 1100 hours of classroom instruction for the student to reach a working knowledge of one of these languages.

The reasons why Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian are difficult languages for English speakers to learn

Grammatical cases are one of the difficult aspects of learning either Lithuanian, Latvian or Estonian. Lithuanian and Latvian each have 7 grammatical cases, and Estonian has 14 grammatical cases.

Another difficulty presented by these languages is their vocabulary. Although Lithuanian and Latvian belong to the Indo-European language family (as does English), they don’t have a lot of vocabulary overlap with English.

In the vocabulary table above, you may have recognized the Lithuanian and Latvian words “ugnis” and “uguns” as being cognates with the Latin word “ignis” which has produced the English word “ignite”. But you probably did not recognize many others.

Estonian being a language outside of the Indo-European family, certainly does not have a lot of similar vocabulary words with English.

Conclusion

The geographic proximity of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia does not translate to a linguistic proximity of their languages, Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian.

Although Lithuanian and Latvian are similar languages, Estonian is unrelated to both Lithuanian and Latvian. Estonian is similar to Finnish (interesting fact: Helsinki, the capital of Finland, is situated just 50 miles north of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia).

For more on this topic, see this comparison of Lithuanian and Polish.

To continue learning about the similarities and differences between Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian have a look at these lists: