Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian [Language Comparison]

The term “Baltic States” refers to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, but this designation is based on geopolitical factors rather than linguistic similarities.

Linguistically speaking, Lithuanian and Latvian are classified as Baltic languages, whereas Estonian is classified as a Uralic language.

The Baltic languages are one of the two branches of the Balto-Slavic language family — the second branch being the Slavic languages. Balto-Slavic languages are part of the larger Indo-European language family, which also contains English.

Estonian, being a Uralic language, does not belong to the Indo-European language family. Among Uralic languages, Estonian is related to the Finnish language and distantly related to Hungarian.

In essence, Lithuanian and Latvian are closely related languages, while Estonian shares similarities with Finnish, but differs greatly from Lithuanian and Latvian.

Vocabulary comparison

The basic vocabulary words in the table below show just how similar Lithuanian and Latvian are in terms of their vocabulary — and how different both these languages are to Estonian.

Table: Some vocabulary words in Lithuanian Latvian and Estonian
English Lithuanian Latvian Estonian
friend draugas draugs sõber
happiness laimė laime õnn
white baltas balts valge
snow sniegas sniegs lumi
mountain kalnas kalns mägi
sun saulė saule päike
moon mėnulis mēness kuu
river upė upe jõgi
sea jūra jūra meri
fish žuvis zivis kala
father tėvas tēvs isa
mother motina māte ema
fire ugnis uguns tulekahju
dog šuo suns koer
important svarbus svarīgs oluline
green žalias zaļš roheline
job darbas darbs töö
evening vakaras vakars õhtu

Lithuanian and Latvian have many similar vocabulary words in common. Typically these pairs of similar words are inherited from their common ancestor language, Proto-Slavic, and may even come from their earlier ancestor language, Proto-Indo-European.

For instance, the word “white” is “baltas” in Lithuanian, and “balts” in Latvian. These words come from the Proto-Indo-European language, which explains why they are also somewhat similar to the Polish equivalent, “biały”, the Czech word “bílý” and even the French word “blanc”.

In contrast, the Estonian word for “white”, which is “valge”, is related to the Finnish word “valkea” (white), but it is very different from the Lithuanian and Latvian terms because it does not originate from the Proto-Indo-European language.

Estonian is a genderless language, in contrast to Lithuanian and Latvian

In contrast to Lithuanian and Latvian, Estonian is a genderless language. In particular gendered pronouns don't exist in Estonian but they do exist in Lithuanian and Latvian.

In Estonian, the English pronouns “he” and “she” both translate to the same pronoun (“ta”). In Lithuanian and Latvian, there is a masculine pronoun and a feminine pronoun.

Table: Lithuanian and Latvian have gendered pronouns, but not Estonian
English Lithuanian Latvian Estonian
he jis viņš ta
she ji viņa ta

Gendered pronouns are absent not only in Estonian but also in Finnish and Hungarian, both of which are Uralic languages like Estonian.

In Lithuanian and Latvian, each noun has a gender - this is not the case in Estonian

In Lithuanian and Latvian, each noun has a gender, whereas in Estonian nouns don’t have genders.

For example, in Lithuanian, the word “mėnulis” (moon) is masculine. Similarly, in Latvian, the word “mēness” (moon) is also masculine. In Estonian, the corresponding word is “kuu” and like all Estonian nouns, it doesn’t have a gender.

Another example: in Lithuanian, the word “saulė” (sun) is feminine. Similarly, in Latvian, the word “saule” (sun) is also feminine. In Estonian, the corresponding word (“päike”) has no gender.

Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian: which of them is the easiest for English speakers to learn?

The Foreign Service Institute ranks languages into 4 categories according to how difficult they are for English speakers to learn.

Category 1 includes the languages which are the easiest for English speakers to learn. These languages are generally the most similar to English and include Dutch, Spanish, Italian, and a few others.

At the other end of the spectrum, category 4 contains languages that are exceptionally difficult for English speakers to learn. Examples of languages in this category are Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic.

Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian are all three classified as category 3 languages. This is the category of “difficult languages” which present significant linguistic differences compared to English.

They estimate that Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian each require approximately 1100 hours of classroom instruction for the student to reach a working knowledge of one of these languages.

The reasons why these languages are difficult for English speakers to learn

Grammatical cases are one of the difficult aspects of learning either Lithuanian, Latvian, or Estonian. Lithuanian and Latvian each have 7 grammatical cases, and Estonian has 14 grammatical cases.

Another difficulty presented by these languages is their vocabulary. Although Lithuanian and Latvian belong to the Indo-European language family (as does English), they don’t have a lot of vocabulary overlap with English.

In the vocabulary table above, you may have recognized the Lithuanian and Latvian words “ugnis” and “uguns” as being cognates with the Latin word “ignis” which has produced the English word “ignite”. But you probably did not recognize many others.

Since Estonian is not a member of the Indo-European language family, it does not share many similar vocabulary words with English.


The geographic proximity of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia does not translate to a linguistic proximity of their languages, Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian.

Although Lithuanian and Latvian are similar languages, Estonian is unrelated to both Lithuanian and Latvian. Estonian is similar to Finnish (interesting fact: Helsinki, the capital of Finland, is situated just 50 miles north of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia).

For more on this topic, see this comparison of Lithuanian and Polish.

To continue learning about the similarities and differences between Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian have a look at these lists: