Meeting Livonian Speaker Poulīn Kļaviņa

A short biog­ra­phy of Poulīn (Paulīne) Kļav­iņa

Poulīn Kļav­iņa (Paulīne Kļav­iņa, in Lat­vian) was one of only a hand­ful of native speak­ers of Livo­ni­an. Though there are peo­ple today learn­ing this lan­guage as adults, Poulīn knew Livo­ni­an before any oth­er lan­guage. Born in Vaid (Vaide, in Lat­vian) on the north­west­ern coast of Latvia on Jan­u­ary 19, 1918, her birth­place was one of a col­lec­tion of vil­lages lin­ing the Baltic coast that by the begin­ning of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry were the last home­land of her peo­ple. With the onset of the Sovi­et occu­pa­tion of the Baltic States, the vil­lages were emp­tied of their inhab­i­tants by the occu­pa­tion regime. In the years fol­low­ing World War II, Poulīn would move to Rīga, the Lat­vian cap­i­tal, to work as a seam­stress.

The next decades would be dif­fi­cult for Poulīn’s peo­ple. They were per­se­cut­ed and scat­tered through­out Latvia and the world by the Sovi­et author­i­ties. Many oth­ers were deport­ed to slave labor camps in Siberia, nev­er to return. The years of the occu­pa­tion would see a steep decline in the num­ber of speak­ers of Livo­ni­an. By the ear­ly 1990s, there would only be about ten remain­ing native speak­ers of the lan­guage, with Poulīn as one of the few in this unique group.

Dur­ing the years of the occu­pa­tion, Poulīn would help estab­lish the Livo­ni­an folk ensem­ble “Līvlist”, which was one of the few expres­sions of Livo­ni­an cul­ture per­mit­ted dur­ing the occu­pa­tion. She also would serve as a source to count­less lin­guists and researchers who were inter­est­ed in study­ing her lan­guage as well as record­ing her mem­o­ries of Livo­ni­an vil­lage life on the coast. Her self­less will­ing­ness to work with whomev­er had an inter­est in her lan­guage, is per­haps her most last­ing lega­cy as one of the last native speak­ers of Livo­ni­an. Poulīn Kļav­iņa passed away in Sep­tem­ber of 2001.


My mem­o­ries of meet­ing Poulīn (in the sum­mer of 2000)

My first mem­o­ries of meet­ing Poulīn are at the build­ing of the Irē (Mazir­be) board­ing school. I’d heard of her before, but nev­er met her. Before I came to the coast that sum­mer, there was talk of me stay­ing with her at her home in Vaid, but ulti­mate­ly it made more sense for me to stay closer to the sum­mer camp. There would be more peo­ple there and more oppor­tu­ni­ties to learn about Livo­ni­an. Still, the idea of meet­ing one of them, a per­son whose inner-most thoughts could only be shared with a hand­ful of oth­ers in the world, thrilled me.

Poulīn Kļav­iņa (right) on the day I met her at the meet­ing described in this sto­ry. I’m on the left in the black coat.

It was the sec­ond day of the camp, and I heard from one of the teach­ers that Poulīn was already at her home in Vaid and that she would be com­ing over to the camp that day to meet with the chil­dren. Those of us who were inter­est­ed in the lan­guage would also have a chance to speak with her.

Lat­er that after­noon I was sit­ting in a room with a few oth­er peo­ple. The school had been built on the eve of World War II, but the rooms had a def­i­nite Sovi­et feel. Drab walls and shelv­ing, some couch­es had been brought in to sit on. We were all chat­ting and then she came in. At first glance this famed speak­er of Livo­ni­an seemed just like any oth­er old­er wom­an I had seen in the Baltic States. She was of medi­um stature, and remind­ed me of my step-father’s moth­er who had lived with us for much of my child­hood. She too had been a descen­dant of Livo­ni­ans. Poulīn had been ill and looked it, she seemed a lit­tle tired. Her hair was light­ly styled and she was wear­ing a brown skirt, anoth­er reminder of my step-father’s moth­er. Poulīn sat down. I noticed she had slip­pers on and her brown stock­ings were pulled up almost to her knees.

I had grown up a speak­er of a lan­guage that nobody else spoke. As a Lat­vian in Ari­zona it seemed that my life par­al­leled the lives of peo­ple like Poulīn. For me, like many of my Livo­ni­an con­tem­po­raries, the only oth­er peo­ple who knew my native lan­guage were my par­ents and a group of main­ly elder­ly peo­ple that lived scat­tered, as we did, in a world that had no knowl­edge of our words. But there was a dif­fer­ence between me and Poulīn. I had a whole coun­try of peo­ple on the oth­er side of the world who knew my native lan­guage, but for her there was no oth­er place, save her thoughts and mem­o­ries, where she could go to hear her lan­guage.

That day we did not speak much. I mere­ly observed her. For years I had searched for Livo­ni­ans and mate­ri­als on the lan­guage, and now, final­ly, I had a per­son sit­ting in front of me who could per­haps unlock all of the mys­ter­ies I had pon­dered for so long.

I would lat­er watch Poulīn speak to the chil­dren at the camp. Over the years she had become a sort of lan­guage matron, the pro­tec­tor and keep­er of secrets. The chil­dren called her Paulī­nes tan­te (Aunt Paulīne, in Lat­vian) and she gave all she could to them, answered their ques­tions, and told them of the old days.

Sev­er­al days lat­er I would have my first real encoun­ter with her. At the camp I learned that I wasn’t the only per­son who want­ed to seri­ous­ly under­take learn­ing Livo­ni­an. I’d met a Lat­vian grad­u­ate stu­dent from Tar­tu Uni­ver­si­ty, in Esto­nia, who had made Livo­ni­an the focus of her stud­ies. We agreed to walk to Poulīn’s house in Vaid, about 8 km up the coast from Irē.

I had often read of Poulīn’s own mem­o­ries of the old days, when a con­ge­nial atmos­phere ruled on the coast. Peo­ple could stop in at each other’s homes unan­nounced. Now many peo­ple I spoke with lament­ed the fact that this uni­ty had been replaced by prop­er­ty lines that were vig­or­ous­ly enforced by their own­ers. Own­ers who often nowa­days weren’t even from the coast, let alone Livo­ni­ans, and were fun­da­men­tal­ly chang­ing the char­ac­ter of this place that had been the home of Poulīn’s fam­i­ly and ances­tors.

As we walked, I thought of Pētõr Damberg, who Poulīn recalled would sling his shoes over his shoul­der and walk bare­foot to her house from his home in the west. The Livo­ni­an Coast tru­ly was stun­ning. Bar­ren beach­es over­flow­ing with off-white sand, pine forest reach­ing up prac­ti­cal­ly to the edge of the water, and the sea, its col­or the slate grey of the stormy sum­mer.

We walked through all the vil­lages along the way, Kūoštrõg (Košrags), Pitrõg (Pitrags), Sǟnag (Saunags), and final­ly Vaid (Vaide). Each vil­lage had its own char­ac­ter, but in some ways all were very much the same, lit­tle com­mu­ni­ties nes­tled in the forest a short walk from the water. Kūoštrõg was only a short dis­tance from Irē. Pitrõg, fur­ther away from Kūoštrõg had a large Bap­tist church and fish can­nery. Sǟnag was so close to Vaid, that two lit­tle towns seemed to grow togeth­er. In some places we saw fish­ing boats, though I had been told that no one went fish­ing any­more. Lat­er I would learn that this was just a fishermen’s tale told to keep the best fish­ing spots secret.

We walked into Vaid through the forest from Sǟnag. The first sign that we were close was a sign­post mark­ing the way to Ozol­nieki, the name of Poulīn’s prop­er­ty. In coun­try towns through­out Latvia, homes and estates do not have actu­al address­es, instead they sim­ply have a name. The name of Poulīn’s home was Lat­vian and it seemed to derive from the Lat­vian word ozols, or oak. I nev­er learned if Ozol­nieki had any oth­er sig­nif­i­cance. Often an estate name will extend far back in the own­er­ship of the prop­er­ty, some­times los­ing its orig­i­nal mean­ing and sig­nif­i­cance alto­geth­er. On the coast that sum­mer I saw oth­er prop­er­ty names as well, though most seemed to either be in Lat­vian or of inde­ter­mi­nate orig­in. Few names sound­ed Livo­ni­an.

Poulīn’s lit­tle house seemed idyl­lic. Not being an expert in the archi­tec­tural dif­fer­ences between dif­fer­ent cul­tures, I thought it would not have been out of place, in almost any coun­try set­ting in Latvia. Some of the fishermen’s homes in the coast towns looked worn and weath­ered, like they had sur­vived a thou­sand storms. But Poulīn’s house was nice­ly paint­ed, a well-tend­ed yard in the front.

Walk­ing up we saw a car parked out­side. It had Esto­ni­an license plates. My friend from Tar­tu rec­og­nized the car as belong­ing to Prof. Vääri. A lin­guist from Esto­nia, he had come to record and study Poulīn’s lan­guage and that of the oth­er coast dwellers, for decades. In time he and Poulīn had become good friends. Lis­ten­ing to their con­ver­sa­tion that was easy to tell. Vääri said some­thing and she laughed, jok­ing back. But what was amaz­ing was that they weren’t speak­ing Lat­vian, Rus­sian, or Esto­ni­an, but instead they were speak­ing Livo­ni­an. It seemed so real and in some ways total­ly unre­mark­able. As if out­side the walls of Poulīn’s lit­tle home there could have been hun­dreds per­haps thou­sands of oth­er peo­ple speak­ing in this same lan­guage, hav­ing the same sorts of con­ver­sa­tions. Laugh­ing, jok­ing, argu­ing, talk­ing about entire­ly mun­dane things. In that moment I under­stood. This lan­guage was exact­ly the same as all oth­er lan­guages. I had come to the coast to study Livo­ni­an, because it inter­est­ed me, but also because it was dis­ap­pear­ing. Some­how a dis­ap­pear­ing lan­guage seemed as if it held secrets that a larg­er lan­guage did not. Some­thing of hid­den knowl­edge, some­thing sig­nif­i­cant. And though that may be true, this sig­nif­i­cance does not lie in the num­ber of speak­ers a lan­guage has, instead it lies in our per­son­al expe­ri­ence with the lan­guage. Livo­ni­an is where it is as a result of a series of unfor­tu­nate his­tor­i­cal events, but its fate was hard­ly pre-ordained.

I walked out­side for a moment. I was feel­ing a lot of mixed emo­tions. Hap­pi­ness and excite­ment at hav­ing heard this rare con­ver­sa­tion, but some­how also sad­ness at know­ing that there is no oth­er place where this sort of expe­ri­ence could have been pos­si­ble. At that moment I was cer­tain that there were like­ly no oth­er con­ver­sa­tions going on in this lan­guage any­where else in the world.

This real­iza­tion would reoc­cur sev­er­al times dur­ing the fol­low­ing weeks. Just like the death of a close loved one, is an expe­ri­ence that the human mind or per­haps the human heart is not made to be able to tru­ly com­pre­hend, so too I could not com­pre­hend this expe­ri­ence. How could some­thing seem so real and alive, yet be so ephemer­al and tran­si­to­ry at the same time.

I would meet Poulīn sev­er­al more times over the course of the fol­low­ing weeks. Each time she was delight­ed to share her sto­ries, and help us prac­tice speak­ing the lan­guage. Leav­ing the coast it seemed that the­se pre­cious con­ver­sa­tion more than the months of study were what helped seer the Livo­ni­an I knew into my brain.

Poulīn at her home in Vaid when my trav­el­ing com­pan­ions and I stayed with her on our hike along the Livo­ni­an Coast in 2000.

In one of my final con­ver­sa­tions with her, I would ask her a ques­tion that had played upon my mind for some time. See­ing her, it did not seem like it could pos­si­bly be true, that she real­ly was one of the last of only bare­ly a hand­ful of peo­ple to speak her lan­guage. She seemed as she had when I first saw her, as a nor­mal every­day per­son, lead­ing a fair­ly nor­mal every­day life. Yet she was also unique in a way that seemed was real­ly a result of fate or chance more than any­thing else. So, I asked her, what it was like to be one of the last peo­ple left who speak her native lan­guage. She paused for a moment. I had felt uncer­tain about ask­ing her this ques­tion, it seemed like it might be too per­son­al or too strange. But I also knew that a sec­ond chance would per­haps nev­er come. Poulīn looked up at me and said, “Ear­lier it did make me sad. But now I feel hap­py, because so many peo­ple are work­ing every day to keep the lan­guage alive.”

I left the coast in ear­ly August of that year. I would spend time in Esto­nia and Fin­land, before return­ing to my home in the Ari­zona desert in the ear­ly fall. Poulīn passed away approx­i­mate­ly one year lat­er, in Sep­tem­ber of 2001. Though my own life took me in oth­er direc­tions in the fol­low­ing years, I would think often on the time spent on that dis­tant shore and the expe­ri­ence of meet­ing this remark­able per­son.