"The Last Livonian" has passed away

Johanna Laakso johanna.laakso at univie.ac.at
Tue Apr 7 06:48:48 UTC 2009

Dear Colleagues,

as Riho Grünthal from Helsinki just pointed out to me, Viktor Berthold,
probably the last Livonian speaker of the generation who learnt Livonian as
first language in a Livonian-speaking family and community, passed away a
few weeks ago. His funeral, obviously unnoticed by large parts of the
Finno-Ugristic community, took place in the village of K?olka on Saturday,
28th February this year.

As reported in the Estonian newspaper "Eesti Päevaleht" (by Jaak Prozes and
Ott Heinapuu, http://www.epl.ee/artikkel/460898 ), Viktor Berthold was born
1921 and probably belonged to the last generation of children who started
their (Latvian-medium) primary school as Livonian monolinguals; only a few
years later it was noted that Livonian parents had begun to speak Latvian
with their children. 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 and lore with many
field linguists; in the 1990s, he also taught Livonian in children's summer

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"
have also passed away, such as Poul?n K?avi?a (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.

For more information on Livonian(s), the Internet portal www.livones.lv is
warmly recommended.


Univ.-Prof. Dr. Johanna Laakso
Universität Wien, Institut für Europäische und Vergleichende Sprach- und
Literaturwissenschaft (EVSL) | Abteilung Finno-Ugristik
Universitätscampus Spitalgasse 2-4 Hof 7, A-1090 Wien
Tel. +43 1 4277 43019, (VoIP) +43 599664 43019 | Fax +43 1 4277 9430
johanna.laakso at univie.ac.at | http://homepage.univie.ac.at/Johanna.Laakso/

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