Lithuanian State Language Commission Turns Down Jewish Community’s Suggestion for a Spelling Rule that “Holocaust” Be Spelled with a Capital “H”

VILNIUSDefending History today obtained from local sources a copy of the official statement of the Lithuanian State Language Commission concerning the spelling, in Lithuanian, of the word for Holocaust, usually Holokaustas.

For some it will sound astounding that in the country with the highest percentage of Jews killed (96.4%) in Holocaust era Europe, where a massive state effort has been underway to promote “Double Genocide” and the “Prague Declaration,” a simple suggestion from the tiny remnant Jewish community that Holocaust be spelled with a capital letter (denoting its status as a unique event in history) has drawn a tortured, convoluted reply from the state language commission, one that seems to wittingly confound the capitalization question with the issue of whether holocausts strike far and wide, like hurricanes.

The very nontrivial and essential questions inherent in the capitalization issue in the Lithuanian language have been dealt with previously, as ever with brevity and brilliance, by Leonidas Donskis. As for the related question of some Baltic attitudes toward the Holocaust, the reader is referred to Algis Davidavičius’s remarks on these pages.

The sense of moral confusion and the varying tone within the State Language Commission’s new statement will strike some as somehow more telling than one or another opinion about spelling and capitalization practice. Outsiders will not guess that the “local” reason for the Jewish Community’s letter was the insistence of various editors and authors that the Lithuanian word for Holocaust be spelled with a small even when the reference is to the destruction of European Jews during World War II as a matter of “Double Genocide principle.” In other words, that there were two or more events of the same magnitude and that capitalization would be cowtowing to foreign Jewish demands, the Wiesenthal Center, etc.

The state body’s statement goes so far as to uncritically quote a far-right source that would see any such inquiry as somehow coming from “special interest groups,” as if an elected representative of this tiny remnant of Jewish citizens of Lithuania, making a suggestion about the capitalization of a word in the national language, is ipso facto, heaven protect us,  a “special interest group.”

But for the local scene, the failure to enact the requested spelling rule (the kind of thing such commissions do as part of their raison d’être) means that Double-Genocidist editors can continue to diminish in every sense the Holocaust, precisely when it refers to the near-total destruction of Lithuanian Jewry by the Nazis and their local allies.

Does the State Language Commission suffer from “Holocaust Envy” (with a capital “E”)?

“Some special interest groups are disappointed: Neither the Holocaust, nor the Armenian genocide, nor the crimes of the regime of Stalinism are mentioned in law.”

(a quote cited as part of the evidence for usage in the state language board’s 5 Nov. 2013 statement on the capitalization of the word Holocaust)

The following draft translation was prepared by Geoff Vasil at Defending History:

Lithuanian State Language Commission

  • To Director, Lithuanian Jewish Community
  • November 5, 2013 Sl-548 (1.7)
  • re: September 29, 2013 No. 133


A session of the Grammar, Orthography and Punctuation Subcommittee of the Lithuanian State Language Commission considered the Jewish Community’s proposal “to adopt a resolution which would instruct that the word ‘Holocaust’ be written exclusively with a capital letter,” and the proposal was not adopted for the reasons provided below.

The word holocaust is primarily a generic word and according to the generic rules is written in lower case, as in general are all generic words. As a generic word, it is written in lower case not just in Lithuanian, but also in other languages, for example, English holocaust, Spanish holocausto, Czech holokaust, etc. In this way it is used with the meaning “genocide, the destruction of people, mass murders” (see Tarptautiniu zodziu zodynas, Vilnius, 2013, page 336; Visuotine lietuviu encyklopedia, Vilnius, 2005, volume 7, page 625; Istorijos zodynas, 2003, page 159).

Used with the specifically defined meaning “the persecution and mass murder, mainly of Jews, planned and executed by Nazi Hitlerians during the Second World War (1941-1945),” as the title of a distinct historical event, this word may also be and usually is written with a capital letter. This orthography is supported by the position of point 2.6.4 of Resolution no. 60 of the  Lithuanian State Language Commission of June 19, 1997, “On the Orthography and Punctuation of the Lithuanian Language” (News, 1997, 63-1490), [which says] the names of important historical events and epochs are to be capitalized (for example, the Thirty years’ war, the Renaissance epoch).

The dual orthography (holokaustas, Holokaustas) according to difference in meaning is explained on the official webpage of the Language Commission in the Language Consultation Bank [section] ([a copy is] appended). We [would like to] point out that the dual orthography in the English language (holocaust, the Holocaust) is also explained in the United Nations Organization’s UNTERM terminology database ([a copy is] appended).

We remind [you] that there was a request made (by e-mail) on September 19, 2013, for certain explanations. The entries in the Consultation Bank may be changed and elaborated (for example, regarding shoa or Shoa, Great Shoa, Catastrophe).

Three pages appended.

Deputy director Jurate Palionyte

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State Language Commission / “Genocide” or “holocaust”?

Consultation Bank

genocidas, holokaustas

“Genocidas” or “holokaustas”?

Both words are provided in the Tarptautiniu zodziu zodynas [Dictionary of International Words] (Vilnius, 2001) and both may be used:

genocide (Gr. relation, tribe + Lat. caedo “I kill”) — “the destruction of entire groups of inhabitants because of their race, ethnicity or religion” (page 265);

holocaust (Lat. holocaustum – consumed by fire (sacrifice)) — “genocide, the destruction of people, mass murder, especially the persecution and destruction of European Jews planned and carried out by the Hitlerians during World War II” (page 304).


A. Girdenis in his 1997 article “What in the Heck Kind of Word is Holocaust and What Does it Mean?” (Gimtoji kalba [Native Language], 1997, No. 7, page 11) states the word holokaustas began to be used in the Lithuanian press very recently and should be considered an unnecessary barbarism coming from English (1), [whereas] the simple statements masines zudynes [mass murder], naikinimas [destruction] or the long-used genocidas [genocide] should be used [instead]. It should be kept in mind that under the Republic of Lithuania’s law on commemorative days (Zinios [News], 1997, No. 67-1672) September 23 is the Day of Remembrance of the Genocide of Jews of Lithuania (cf.: June 15th, Day of Occupation and Genocide, and October 16th, Day of the Genocide of the Inhabitants of Lithuania Minor [=East Prussia]).

The word holokaustas is not included in the electronic dictionary Dabartines lietuviu kalbos zodynas [Dictionary of Contemporary Lithuanian Language]. Usage shows, however, that the statements mentioned [above] don’t always represent the word holokaustas, while at the same time, the word holokaustas when used exceptionally [=distinctively], one might say, in Lithuanian texts to refer to the persecution and destruction of Jews by the Nazis of the Third Reich in Germany and German-occupied countries from 1939 to 1945 (Visuotine lietuviu enciklopedija [Universal Lithuanian Encyclopedia], Vilnius, 2005, volume 7, pp. 625-626), as the name of a distinct historical event, is occasionally written with a capital letter.

Compare the VDU (Vytautas Magnus University) “Dabartines lietuviu kalbos tekstyne” [“Collection of contemporary Lithuanian language texts”] [underlined in printed text so as to indicate an internet link]: On commemorative archaeology, the culture of suffering and holocaust memories <…>; Auschwitz in global memory has become a symbol of the holocaust and mass murders; This portion of the tragedy of the Jewish people in the history of the holocaust is called the Great Action of the Kovno ghetto; A new stage in the understanding of the holocaust began after Lithuania regained independence in 1990 <…>, the Cross of Aid to the Dying is given for Jewish lives saved from the holocaust during World War II; Some special interest groups are disappointed: neither the Holocaust, nor the Armenian genocide, nor the crimes of the regime of Stalinism are mentioned in law.

(1) “The English got this word through translations of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate (Lat. holocaystum, ‘the total consumption by fire of the sacrifice; the sacrifice completely burnt’); it most likely entered the Latin language from the Greek Septuagint. In the Greek language itself, holokauston (with the compounded meaning being ‘totally burnt’) is a simple compound of the adjective holos ‘total, universal’ and the verb kauso, kaustos, ‘I will burn’.” (A. Girdenis)

See also the entry “holokaustas, orthography” [missing link]

Oct 2013

page 3

Consultation bank

holokaustas, orthography

Should the Word “holocaust” Be Written with a Capital Letter?

The word holokaustas is primarily a generic word and written with a lower case letter, and it is defined thus: “genocide, destruction of people, mass murder” (see Tarptautiniu zodziu zodynas [Dictionary of International Words], 2001, page 304; “Visuotine lietuviu enciklopedija” [Universal Lithuanian Encyclopedia], vol. 7, Vilnius, 2005, page 625; “Istorijos zodynas” [Dictionary of History], 2003, page 159), further compare correspondences in other languages: Eng. holocaust, Sp. holocausto. For example: The historiography of foreign countries and Lithuania usually indicate these periods of the holocaust in Lithuania <…> Objective studies of the holocaust require self-criticism in regards to one’s own national history <…> Undoubtedly one of the most remarkable of such “wars of memory” in Lithuania today is to be associated with the interpretation and judgment of the soviet period (or, recalling the very sensitive topic of the holocaust in historical consciousness, of totalitarian regimes).

When the word is used as the title of a [=the] distinct historical event (the persecution and destruction of Jews and members of other ethnic minorities planned and carried out by the Nazi Hitlerians during World War II (1939-1945)), it may be written with an initial capital letter: Holokaustas. For example: Over 90 percent of all Jews who were on Lithuanian territory were murdered during the Holocaust. The significance of the silence following the Holocaust was well understood by the author of this term, Elie Wiesel <…> Also see “genocidas or holokaustas” [link missing].

Tags: orthography

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October 31, 2013

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