The Last Livonian

Viktor Berthold, who was probably the last Livonian speaker of the generation who learnt Livonian as a first language in a Livonian-speaking family and community, died on February 28th 2009.

Born in 1921 in Latvia, Viktor Berthold spoke only Livonian, a Finno-Ugric language, until starting school, where the language of instruction was Latvian. He was part of the last generation of to grow up with Livonian as a native language and subsequent generations were raised speaking Latvian.

During World War II Berthold, unlike most Livonian men, managed to avoid being mobilized in the armies of either occupation force by hiding in the woods. After the war Berthold worked in various professions and shared his knowledge of Livonian language with many field linguists, and in the 1990s he also taught Livonian in children's summer camps.

Berthold's last Livonian-speaking family members, his brother and his wife, died in the 1990s. In the early 2000s, many other prominent "last Livonians" also passed away. These include Poulin Klavin (1918-2001), keeper of many Livonian traditions and the last Livonian to reside permanently on the Courland coast, and Edgar Vaalgamaa (1912-2003), clergyman in Finland, translator of the New Testament and author of a book on the history and culture of the Livonians ("Valkoisen hiekan kansa", Jyväskylä 2001).

The survival of the Livonian language now depends on young Livonians who, in the best case, may have learnt Livonian in their childhood from grandparents or great-grandparents of the pre-war generations. There are not very many of them, but all in all, there are a few hundred ethnic Livonians in Latvia now who are interested in their Livonian roots. Some young Livonians not only sing folk-songs in Livonian but even strive at actively using Livonian in everyday communication.

Sources: Tangyra & Eesti Päevaleht


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