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Faculty Spotlight: Milda Richardson and “Foundations of Baltic Languages”


Foundations of Baltic Languages, an English version of Le lingue baltiche by Pietro U. Dini (Florence: La Nuova Italia Editrice, 1997), was published in 2014 by Eugrimas, the Vilnius University Academic Press, Vilnius, Lithuania. The Italian text was translated by Milda Richardson, Art History faculty at Northeastern University’s Department of Art + Design and R.E. Richardson at Boston University, Department of Modern Languages and Comparative Literature. The funding for the book was provided in part by the Vydūnas Fund and the European Union project Lithuania Here and Abroad: Language, Science, Culture, Society.

The Lithuanian language is often referred to as the oldest surviving language of the Baltic branch of the Indo-European language tree. It is related to Old Prussian and possibly also to Sanskrit. Scholarly research indicates that Lithuanian is archaic based on the preservation of phonetic and morphological features of the proto-language from which many other European languages derive. Therefore, Lithuanian is important to the field of Indo-European historical linguistics.

Dini’s volume represents the most current research in the field of Baltic linguistics. The text provides a global orientation to Lithuanian, Latvian and Prussian, as well as to other minor Baltic languages. From the historical perspective, Foundations… covers development of these languages from ancient phases through contemporary usage. Diachronic features are presented using comparative references to Slavic, German, and Finnish. A particularly engaging exposition of Baltic hydronyms is part of the linguistic-cultural aspect of the book. Analysis of the philological impact on Lithuanian of independence, sovietization, and the return of independence is unique to this English version of Foundations…

Professor Dini asked Milda Richardson to take this project because Milda had already translated from Lithuanian the popular book We, the Balts by Algirdas Sabaliauskas, a leading Lithuanian academician (Vilnius: Lithuanian Educational Press, 1993; reprinted 2001).

What does linguistics have to do with art and architecture? Henry Glassie, the eminent American folklorist, taught Milda to think about the arts in terms of grammar. Professor Glassie believes that the basic core of design stays the same while things around it change. All the arts are expressed in a language system which addresses an audience. Language changes over time as it comes in contact with other languages, or clings to archaic forms if it remains isolated. Languages contain dialects and sub-dialects, some of which survive, while others disappear. What are the forces behind evolution, extinction, or innovation? Do the arts really work this way? These are questions we must ask ourselves.

In Milda’s research on the architect Rimas Mulokas, a post-World War II immigrant from Lithuania, Milda discovered the way in which he uses elements of cultural heritage to inspire his quest for modernism and abstraction. For example, the vernacular farmhouse of his homeland forms the foundation of his design for the Church of the Transfiguration, 1957-62, in Maspeth, New York. Upon his arrival in the United States, he discovered the work of Bruce Price, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Pietro Belluschi. These contacts freed Mulokas to think abstractly. The basic shape of the vernacular house dominated by a gable roof, which almost reaches the ground, has not changed, but in the Maspeth commission Mulokas has translated its grammar into steel and glass.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Latin American art, which Milda presents in her Modern Art 1900-1945 course, is the way in which Latin American artists blended European and American influences with indigenismo. This began in the 19th century, and the process intensified during the first decades of the 20th century. The visual culture in each country differs because of the ethnographic and political situations making the study Latin American art complex.

In the Modern Art course, Milda also includes the interesting situation of Greek modernism, with its roots in Bavarian Naturalism followed by the German and Austrian Secession movements. The struggle for Greek independence and the subsequent revolution polarized 20th century Greek artists into two major schools. With a solid background in the grammar and language of art, a teacher may pursue semiotics or the “language of vision” (Gyorgy Kepes) and proceed from there.

By Milda Richardson and Nicholas Marini