Latvia's minute Livonian minority struggles to keep language alive
All living Livonians can fit into a single room.Once every two years they pretty much do, when representatives of this tiny Latvian ethnic minority gather in their cultural centre in this seaside village to discuss their future.
This indigenous ethnic group, like their language -- Livonian -- is on the verge of extinction.
Latvian media recently reported that the last native speaker of Livonian died in February.
However, Livonians themselves believe he may not be the last.
"People have been talking about the last (native) Livonian (speaker) dying and suddenly it emerges that he is very far from the last," Valts Ernstreins, 34, one of the leaders of Latvia's Livonian Cultural Center told AFP.
He says he knows of five native Livonian speakers living on three continents.
In Latvia, the recently deceased Viktors Bertholds belonged to the last generation of children who started their primary Latvian-language school as Livonian monolinguals.
Thought to be born in 1921, Bertholds avoided being mobilized in the Soviet army which occupied Latvia in 1940 and in the German forces that took over the country a year later.
After Latvia regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Bertholds taught Livonian in children's summer camps.
"If you think about numbers, then of course, it does not look very good," says Ernstreins, who also owns a cosy store stuffed with Livonian paraphernalia in the Latvian capital, Riga.
Still he is stubbornly optimistic about the future of his tiny ethnic group: "The culture is going to live."
He's convinced the next generation of Livonians will promote their culture and the language and save the cultural links connecting Latvians with their northern Estonian neighbours.
"You can't work if you're pessimistic,” he says. “It's that simple.”
Faith in the young
And yet, the numbers are staggering. Today there are only 200 people registered as Livonians, according to official Latvian statistics.
Social and economic factors, together with the Livonians' dispersed population, have been cited as reasons for the diminishing number of the "coast dwellers," with just a small group surviving in the 21st century.
Livonians settled on the white, sandy shores of the eastern Baltic Sea in what is now European Union member Latvia some 4,000 years ago.
They were fishermen.
In the 14th century, Livonians named the present-day Baltic nations of Latvia and Estonia, Livonia.
Now, there are just 12 Livonian villages on Latvia's Baltic shores.
Among them, the village of Marizbe, population 147, hosts the Livonian National House and is considered Latvia's Livonian cultural capital.
More than a hundred Livonian met there recently for a biannual meeting of the Livonian Society.
"We're very happy to see young people here," said Gunta Gintere, head of the Mazirbe Livonian Society.
Her daughter is studying Livonian at a private university in the nearby town of Ventspils.
"This is something we've been trying to accomplish in the hope the next generation will carry on our traditions," she says.
Over the last two centuries, Livonians have enjoyed the support of their Finno-Ugric brothers – Estonia, Finland and Hungary – in their efforts to preserve the Livonian language.
The three countries helped to build Mazirbe's pride, the Livonian Community Centre, in 1938.
A green-white-blue Livonian flag waves in the sea breeze outside the building today, a sight seen near many homes in Mazirbe.
Among some young Latvians, it has become hip to learn Livonian and Livonians hope the trend will help them preserve the language.
"It's hard,” says Janis Ertmanis, a 22-year-old student at the University of Latvia as he thumbs through a thin Livonian-Latvian dictionary.
“I want to say something. I look in a dictionary but there is no word. So you decide to speak or not to speak.”
Although Ertmanis has no Livonian blood, he is taking Livonian classes paid for by the government simply because he wants to learn more about the small nation.