The Livonians - a nation of not more than 8

The geographical designation "Livonia" (= Livland in German, Swedish and Danish) is derived from the medieval name for a small Finno-Ugric people, the Livonians (= Liven or Livländer in German, Liivid or Liivlased in Estonian), who used to live on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea, near Riga in present-day Latvia.

However, the historical region that came to be called "Livonia" was vastly larger than the relatively small coastal area actually inhabited by Livonians. The "Livonia" known to history includes the southern half of present-day Estonia, as well as the northern part of present-day Latvia (see Estonia). In the 13th century Livonians inhabited less than 10% of the historical region of "Livonia".

In medieval times the Livonian people numbered about 20 000, before being vanquished by the knights of the German Teutonic Order in 1206 (the Teutonic Order appears in history under various names - Livonian Knights, Knights of the Sword, etc.). Since then their number has steadily dwindled. At the end of World War II, the 800 Livonians still remaining were forcibly displaced from their coastal villages by the Soviet military, who intended to build fortifications on the coast. Scattering the surviving Livonians among the non-Livonian population of Latvia effectively obliterated the Livonians as a living community.

Romantic extinction

Today the Livonian nation is close to extinction, if not actually extinct. There are only 8 native Livonian-speaking people left in the world - the youngest is born in 1926. About 40 individuals speak Livonian as a second language and 190 more see themselves as Livonians, but don't speak Livonian. Only linguists are keeping the language "alive" in their academic fashion - there are sections for Livonian studies at the language departments of some universities in Estonia, Latvia and Finland. The ongoing extinction of an ancient people, in the middle of modern Europe, has tragic as well as romantic overtones. Tear-jerking TV-documentaries with themes like "The last of the Livonians" or "A whole nation, but just a handful of people" have been received with a lot of interest in Scandinavia and the Baltics.

A language without gender

The Livonian language belongs, along with Estonian and Finnish, to the Baltic branch of the Finno-Ugric languages. Its closest cousin is the Estonian language. As in all Finno-Ugric languages, there are no genders and no definite or indefinite articles in Livonian. The nouns have nearly a score of different inflected grammatical forms or "cases", i.e. word endings affixed to the nouns. The "cases" have a function similar to that of prepositions in English. Examples:

  • "The cup is on the table" would in Livonian be expressed as CUP IS TABLEON.
  • "She put the cup on the table" would become IT PUT CUP TABLEONTO.

The examples above are of course merely illustrative analogies. The case endings in Livonian are for example not derived from prepositions. Here the English neutral pronoun IT is used to exemplify the Livonian single non-gender pronoun, which replaces all three English pronouns - the feminine "she", the masculine "he" and the neutral "it". But the corresponding Livonian non-gender pronoun actually refers to "people" and doesn't have the "thing"-nuance that IT has in English.

Diacritical marks galore

The Livonians originally called themselves rândalist, "coastal people", and their language rândakêl, "the tongue of the coast". The creation of a written form of Livonian began in the second half of the nineteenth century. The development of the written literary language continued during the 1920s and 1930s, led by the Estonian linguist/folklorist Oskar Loorits and his Finnish colleague Lauri Kettunen, but remained unfinished. A complete Livonian grammar has never been written, nor has a dictionary (L. Kettunen's major work "Livisches Wörterbuch" (= Livonian Dictionary) was written using phonetic transcription). In order to represent the many different sounds of the Livonian language, diacritical marks are used on Latin letters. The presently used Livonian alphabet has 41 letters:

A a, Â â, Ä ä, Á á, B b, C c, D d, À à, E e, Ê ê, F f, G g, H h, I i, Î î, J j, K k, L l, Ï ï, M m, N n, Ñ ñ, O o, Ô ô, Õ õ, Ó ó, P p, R r, È è, S s, Ú š, T t, Ë ë, U u, Û û, V v, W w, Y y, Y y, Z z, Ù ù.

In 1992, when the Soviet occupation of Latvia was finally over, the newly independent Latvian Republic established a culturally protected area, Lîvõd Rânda (= Livonian Coast), on the coastal stretch of Latvia where the last Livonian villages used to be situated. The "Livonian Coast" has since become a popular site for tourism and recreation. The Latvian Government plans to turn Lîvõd Rânda, together with some surrounding sites, into a national park.


Oskar Loorits: Volkslieder der Liven. Tartu 1936.

Oskar Loorits: Liivi rahva mälestuseks. Tartu & Tallinn 1938.

Valt Ernstreit: Mõni sõna liivlastest. Fenno-ugristica nr19, 1996.

Virtual Livonia:


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