Tribes and Dialects
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Habitat. Ancient Livonians lived in Livonia, i.e. in the 60--100 km wide area on the eastern coast of the Livonian Bay from the Väina river (Daugava) to the Estonian territory and in north Courland among the Courlanders. Some researchers are of the opinion that the Livonian habitat in North Latvia could have been wider. According to the chronicle of Henrik the Lett, the Livonians lived at the estuary of the Väina, on the Koiva (Gauya) and in Salatsi (Salaca).
Nowadays, there are only an insignificant number of Livonians, living in the coastal villages of Northwest Courland and dispersed throughout Latvia (Ventspils, Talsi, Riga).
Population. The earliest reliable data about the Livonians is from Koeppen, in 1835, when he numbers the Livonians as 2,074 persons. About 3,000 Livonians lived in 12 villages on the coast of Courland in 1860 (F. J. Wiedemann says in his survey of the Livonian language in 1859 that more than 2,000 Livonian speakers lived in Courland and 8 in Salatsi, Livonia). At the beginning of the 20th century the number was 2,000 (only in Courland); 1,238 in 1925 (Latvian census); 2,000 in 1939; 500--600 in 1948; 200 in 1959 (census of the Soviet Union) though the actual number at this time was closer to 500. The Livonians were not counted during the census of 1970. About 35 persons could speak Livonian in 1990, 15 of them fluently. In addition, there are a couple of hundred people in Latvia who would like to identify themselves as Livonians.
Language. The Livonian language belongs to the Southern group of Baltic-Finnic languages. It is assumed that the Livonians were the first to break off from the common Baltic-Finnic community. The crucial problem of the academic study of the Livonians has been their place of origin and migration. Although the data has been controversial, the prevalent opinion is that the original Livonian habitat is local.
By the 19th century the majority of Livonians had assimilated with the Latvians. In North-Latvia the Livonian language had become obsolete by the beginning of this century at the latest. The Livonian language of Courland has branched into dialects: West (Luzh or Luzhna and Piza or Mikeltorni), Transition (Ira or Lielirbe) and East (from Ukila or Jaunciems to Mustanumme or Melnsils). The differences between the dialects are not great. The Livonian written language is based on the East dialect but it has also been heavily influenced by Latvian in vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar.
History. The first written mention of the Livonians in Livonia dates from the 11th century, and of the Courland Livonians from the middle of the 14th century. In earlier sources the people of Courland were called kurelased and the term embraced the Baltic Kurs and the Baltic-Finnic Livonians.
The ancient Livonians were farmers, livestock-breeders and fishermen. As the Livonians were settled beside a very important trade route -- the Väina River --, they had a remarkably well-developed material culture. The Livonians traded busily with Gotland (Ojamaa), Kievan Rus and Finland. In the middle of the 12th century German merchants started to come to the Väina estuary. In 1201 Bishop Albert founded the city of Riga on Livonian land. The crusaders defeated the Livonians in 1206. Consequently, the Livonians had to take part in following military campaigns, including against the Estonians. Latvian tribes (Latgals) started to settle in the sparsely populated Livonian areas in the 13th century. Gradually, the Livonians of Livonia became completely latvianized. A few Livonian families remained living at Salatsi until the middle of the 19th century, maybe even longer. There are many traces of the Livonian language in Latvian place-names and in the Livonian dialects of Latvian. Livonian has not completely disappeared from Courland, even today. The Livonians were able to retain their identity as their life, based on fishing, was different from that of the inland villages. In addition, the coastal Livonian settlements were cut off by forests and marshlands. They had closer relations with the island of Saaremaa. The Livonians established family ties with the people of Saaremaa. The assimilation of Livonians and Courland only took hold in the 1960s. During World War I the Livonians of Courland were in the way of the war. The German troops occupied Courland in 1915 and the Livonians were forced to evacuate and leave their villages. After the war many Livonians did not return.
Through the plebiscite of 1923, the Livonians tried to gain permission to establish an ethnic parish but the Latvian government forbade it. However, their culture made noticeable progress in the Latvian Republic. A choir was founded, the Livonian Society created, and Livonian song festivals took place on the Livonian coast of Courland. Livonian language became an optional subject in schools in 1923. Teacher, Mart Lepste, used to ride on horseback from village to village and teach Livonian to those who so wished. A national awakening and desire to develop the Livonian ethnic culture was spurred by the movement to promote closer ties among kindred people in Estonia and Finland in 1920--1930. In 1939 a Livonian Community Centre opened its door at Irel on the Livonian coast, sponsored by the larger kindred nations. All these achivements were annulled with the beginning of World War II and during the following Soviet occupation. Economic and cultural life practically ceased to exist. During the war, just as it had been in World War I, the Livonians were evacuated from their homes and some families fled to Sweden. The life of the Livonians who had returned to their damaged homes changed radically. For instance, they could not go fishing any more because a restricted zone had been established by the Soviet border guard. The Livonians alike the other Baltic peoples suffered from the deportations to Siberia in 1949. All ethnic culture was suppressed. The Livonian Society was banned, the Livonian Community Centre given to others. Even in Latvia Livonian national identity was not recognized. As a curiosity only one registered Livonian lived in the coastal villages of Courland in 1989 (Kolka Area). Livonian singers were only able to establish their group (Livlist) in Riga and Ventspils at the beginning of the 1970s. When the liberalization of Soviet society began in the second half of the 1980s, the Livonian Cultural Society was founded in Latvia and since a number of people have taken up Livonian in an attempt to revive the language.
Writing. Different Livonian orthographic systems have been created and used. Printed matter in the Livonian language has been published on and off since 1863. St. Matthew's Gospel in both East and West dialects was the first book to appear. Three Baltic Finnic peoples had their own written languages prior to that -- the Estonians, Finns and Karelians. The overall number of items printed in Livonian amounts only to a couple of dozen: religious literature, calendars, readers, collections of poetry and a hectographed monthly Livli (1931--1939). The creators of Livonian literary language have tried to develop and unify the spelling and enrich the vocabulary, deliberately avoiding Latvian elements in the lexis. In 1935 P. Damberg, a Livonian teacher and man of culture, compiled the first Livonian reader. There are other intellectuals of Livonian descent who have put considerable effort into the preservation of the Livonian language and culture (poet K. Stalte, conductor and singer Hilda Cerbach-Griva). After World War II the number of Livonians has decreased to such an extent that a language community able to sustain Livonian literary language has ceased to exist.
Finnish and Estonian researchers (A. J. Sjögren, F. J. Wiedemann, E. N. Setälä, L. Kettunen, L. Posti, O. Loorits, F. Linnus, J. Mägiste, P. Ariste, E. Vääri, S. Suhonen, T.-R. Viitso) have been active in collecting samples of the Livonian language and ethnic culture. The thorough Livonian-German dictionary by L. Kettunen (1938) is worth mentioning separately. Oskar Loorits was the main collector of Livonian folklore and beliefs. The life and culture of the Livonians has also been filmed (for the first time, in 1930 by Eesti Kultuurfilm).