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The Art of the Word

Translating household dialectal speech is very difficult. Often the result differs so much from the original meaning that it becomes ridiculous or even comic. Dialectal speech expresses each ethnic region's individual psychology, and is much more animated than the standard language. The dialects of Dzukija resemble singing, whereas those of Zemaitija remind one of refined yet rude mockery.

Lithuanian dialectal language is rich in phraseologisms, proverbs, sayings and other such embellishments. Even though many of these forms have equivalents in distant cultures, quite a few examples, sayings in particular, can only be found in small areas. For example, only the Balts (Lithuanians and Latvians) would describe a gluttonous and lazy person as someone who "eats like a horse and works like a rooster", and someone who is happy for no reason, is "as happy as though he's found a bit of iron". Some sayings or proverbs are distinguished by their unique phonetic consonances, rhymed structures and plays on words, "Rasi rasoj rasi"(Maybe you'll find it in the dew). Maxims extol labor and put forth important principles to live by. They are used among adults to scold one another and as tools for educating children.

Lithuanian riddles are usually witty and are often characterized by rhyme and rhythm. Sometimes new words are specially created to maximize consonance. Children delight in these and other word games including teasing, counting and sound imitations. They learn about their surroundings through these devices. For example:

"I broke through the ice and found silver. I broke through the silver and found gold." ( an egg)
"A young lady in the bathhouse, her braids outside." (a carrot)
"A tablecloth covered with crumbs and a chunk of bacon." (the sky, stars and moon)
"The father of riddles lying in a puddle." (a tongue)

Riddle and story-telling often served as entertainment at parties and gatherings. The world of popular mythological legends (which people believed to be completely true) is inhabited by devils, sorceresses, laumes, aitvarai, kaukai, ghosts and others. Many of these characters are of pre-Christian origin. Anyone can come across them in remote and unknown places especially during odd times such as while working or returning home after dusk. The outcome of such an encounter is sometimes happy, and sometimes not. If you find a piece of horse manure in the place of the new pipe you got last night, you can be sure that the traveler you traded with was no ordinary man, but a devil. If you left an infant out in the fields overnight on purpose, you might only find its bones the next morning and know that laumes had been at work. Tamed aitvarai carried goods and riches to their owners. Other Lithuanian legends describe the creation of the earth and the origins of various objects or phenomena usually according to Biblical events. However, these legends are less popular.

Legends are related to other surviving pre-Christian cultural elements such as those of holiday customs as well as beliefs, spells, farming methods following the moon and medicine. Secret magical healing knowledge and incantations were carefully preserved and guarded as they were handed down from generation to generation through carefully chosen heirs. Village inhabitants recount legends surrounding nearby hills, lakes and unusual trees or rocks. In many parts of Lithuania, people describe sunken cities and churches, lakes that fell from the sky when someone spoke their names, or rocks that had been carried and thrown aside by devils. Orally transmitted recollections of serfdom and national uprisings are also still alive today.

Many of the subjects of Lithuanian folk tales are quite similar to those of other cultures. However, they are distinguished by unique variations and calm delivery. The tellers employ mimicry and intonation changes sparingly and subtly. The characters that inhabit these tales do not have proper names or possess ones that only exist in stories. If you know someone named Sigute or Zilvinas, you can be sure that their names come from popular Lithuanian tales.

Mystical tales are most common and are often the most artistic. In them, heroes battle dragons or free people who have been turned into swans, grass snakes or other animals. The unique and tragic story of Zilvinas, the king of the grass snakes, his wife Egle, and their family remains as a relict of the ancient cult of the grass snake. Many stories involve orphans and evil stepmothers. Heroes are often aided by magical objects and heavenly or earthly helpers.

Short stories without endings and tales about animals are especially popular among children. Domestic and forest animals who behave like human beings, as well as exotic lions inhabit such pieces. Often grandmothers, while narrating certain stories, embellish them with short, simple sung pieces which are attributed to the stories' characters. More modern stories about the adventures of clever hired hands, gullible lords and matchmakers have no connection with ancient mythology and beliefs.

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Next: Songs Previous: WORD, MUSIC AND DANCE

"LITHUANIAN ROOTS", Edited by Rytis Ambrazevicius

Copyright , 1996 Lithuanian Folk Culture Centre.