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Situated on the cape where Latvia juts into the Baltic Sea, Kolka used to be a busy fishing town, and one of the cultural homes of the Livonians, the country’s indigenous inhabitants. As recently as the mid-20th century, you could hear them speak Livonian, a sonorous tongue immediately distinguishable from Latvian.
But hardly anyone fishes in Kolka now. The town is mostly pensioners; the young people have left to find work in Riga, Latvia’s capital, or elsewhere in the European Union. And no one here speaks Livonian.
The last native speaker, Grizelda Kristiņa, died in Canada in 2013, rendering the language extinct by most definitions. The handful of people who still speak it—estimates range from 25 to 30—are linguists and enthusiasts. Among them is Valts Ernštreits, a professor at Tartu University in Estonia. When asked what Livonian sounds like to the unacquainted ear, he refuses to describe the language.
“Just listen,” he says. “It’s very hard to describe it. You can do it in very scientific terms, in a very boring half-hour lecture, which, in the end, there’s no point. If you want to know how it sounds, just sit down and listen.”
Unlike Latvian, an Indo-European language most closely related to its Baltic sibling, Lithuanian, Livonian is a Finno-Ugric tongue, belonging to a small family that includes Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian. Latvians often describe Estonian as “musical,” and indeed, Livonian shares its sonorous, loping cadence. Spoken by Ernštreits, it sounds almost Italian.
Livonian’s fingerprints are all over modern Latvian: for example, Latvian inherited its first-syllable stresses from Livonian. Denying Livonain’s influence on Latvian, Ernštreits says, is like “adding salt to the soup and then you just say, what salt? I don’t know what salt is.”