New law in Lithuania lets people use foreign letters

The Lithuanian alphabet is based on the Roman alphabet but does not include the letters ‘q’, ‘x’ and ‘w’. As a result, using those letters in the official spelling of people’s names in Lithuania has not been possible. However, that has now changed. On 26 January 2020, the President of Lithuania signed a new law that will allow names to include these letters, if a Lithuanian citizen:

  • assumes their spouse’s non-Lithuanian surname;
  • has a parent or other ancestor who is (or was) a citizen of another country and whose name is spelled in a source document there using those letters; or
  • resides in a foreign country and acquired there a name spelled in a source document using those letters.

At a press conference on 26 January, Justice Minister Evelina Dobrovolska said that Lithuanian nationals wanting to change the spelling of their names to include those letters would first need to declare their ethnicity: ‘The law says that an ethnicity record in the resident register is necessary to show that you are a Lithuanian Pole or of any other ethnicity. Specific bills on ethnicity records are now being drafted […], and I am sure we will have all necessary decisions by May 1’.

After the rejection of a proposal by the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania–Christian Families Alliance, the law still bans letters bearing diacritic marks, such as some letters used in the Polish alphabet.

The new law may still face a challenge in the Constitutional Court by the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union. It argues that using non-Lithuanian characters is inconsistent with the constitutional status of the Lithuanian language.

Background: the Baltic languages

Lithuanian is a member of the Baltic family of languages, which is part of the Indo-European group of languages. Other members of the Baltic family are Latvian and the extinct old Prussian.

There are several similarities between the Baltic languages and the Slavonic languages. This is generally taken as evidence that a Balto-Slavonic sub-group split off from the rest of Indo-European group, before splitting later into Baltic and Slavonic.

Estonian is not a Baltic language. It is Finnic language, closely related to Finnish, and within the Finno-Ugric sub-group within the Uralic group of languages.


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