1.75 million (2015)
Official language in
Latin (Latvian alphabet)Latvian Braille
Latvian (latviešu valoda [latviɛʃu valuɔda]) is the official state language of Latvia. It was previously known in English as Lettish which remains the standard today in various forms in most other Germanic languages. There are about 1.3 million native Latvian speakers in Latvia and 100,000 abroad. Altogether, 2 million, or 80% of the population of Latvia, speak Latvian. Of those, 1.16 million or 56% use it as their primary language at home. The use of the Latvian language in various areas of social life in Latvia is increasing.
- Livonian dialect
- Middle dialect
- High Latvian dialect
- Non native speakers
- Standard orthography
- Old orthography
- Latvian on computers
- Comparative orthography
- Pitch accent
Latvian is a Baltic language and is most closely related to Lithuanian. In addition there is some disagreement whether Latgalian and New Curonian, which are mutually intelligible with Latvian, should be considered varieties or separate languages.
Latvian belongs to the Baltic branch of the Indo-European language family. It is one of two living Baltic languages with an official status (the other being Lithuanian). The Latvian and Lithuanian languages have retained many features of the nominal morphology of the proto-language, though in matters of phonology and verbal morphology they show many innovations, with Latvian being considerably more innovative than Lithuanian.
The Baltic languages are of particular interest to linguists because they retain many archaic features believed to have been present in the early stages of the Proto-Indo-European language.
There is some evidence to suggest the existence of a Balto-Slavic language group after the break-up of Proto-Indo-European, with the Slavic and Baltic languages splitting around the 10th century BC. However, some linguists – Meillet, Klimas, Zinkevičius – oppose this view, providing arguments against a Balto-Slavic group, and explaining those similarities by one or several periods of close contacts. There exist a number of Baltic words that are similar to Sanskrit or Latin and which lack counterparts in Slavic languages. Latvian, Lithuanian, Armenian, Albanian, Slavic and Indo-Iranian languages are grouped as satem languages. While the possession of many archaic features is undeniable, the exact manner by which the Baltic languages have developed from the Proto-Indo-European language is not clear.
According to some glottochronological speculations, the Eastern Baltic languages split from Western Baltic (or, perhaps, from the hypothetical proto-Baltic language) between 400 and 600. The differentiation between Lithuanian and Latvian started after 800, with a long period of being one language but different dialects. At a minimum, transitional dialects existed until the 14th century or 15th century, and perhaps as late as the 17th century.
Latvian as a distinct language emerged during several centuries by language spoken by ancient Latgalian tribe assimilating the languages of other neighboring Baltic tribes - Curonian, Semigallian and Selonian, which resulted in these languages gradually losing their most distinct characteristics. This process of consolidation started in the 13th century after the Livonian Crusade and forced christianization. These tribes came under Livonian rule thus forming a unified political, economic and religious space.
The oldest known examples of written Latvian are from a 1530 translation of a hymn made by Nikolaus Ramm, a German pastor in Riga.
Until the 19th century, the Latvian language was heavily influenced by the German language, because the upper class of local society was formed by Baltic Germans. In the middle of the 19th century the First Latvian National Awakening was started, led by “Young Latvians” who popularized the use of Latvian language. Participants to this movement laid the foundations for standard Latvian and also popularized the Latvianization of loan words. However, in the 1880s, when Czar Alexander III came into power, Russification started. During this period, some Latvian scholars even suggested adopting Cyrillic for use in Latvian. After the czar's death, around the start of the 20th century, nationalist movements reemerged.
In 1908, Latvian linguists Kārlis Mīlenbahs and Jānis Endzelīns elaborated the modern Latvian alphabet, which slowly replaced the old orthography used before. Another feature of the language, in common with its sister language Lithuanian, that was developed at that time is that proper names from other countries and languages, no matter how obscure, are altered phonetically to fit the phonological system of Latvian. Even if the original language also uses the Latin alphabet, this process takes place. Moreover, the names are modified in order to ensure that they have noun declension endings, declining like all other nouns. For example, a place such as Lecropt (a Scottish parish) is likely to become Lekropta; the Scottish village of Tillicoultry becomes Tilikutrija. This is a good example of linguistic purism in this ancient language.
During the Soviet occupation (1940–91), the policy of Russification greatly affected the Latvian language. Throughout this period, many Latvians and Latvia’s other ethnicities faced deportation and persecution. A massive immigration from the Soviet republics of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and others followed, largely as a result of Stalin's plan to integrate Latvia and the other Baltic republics into the Soviet Union by means of Russian colonization. As a result, the proportion of the ethnic Latvian population within the total population was reduced from 80% in 1935 to 52% in 1989. In Soviet Latvia, most of the immigrants who settled in the country did not learn Latvian. Today, Latvian is the mother tongue of more than 60% of the country's population.
After the re-establishment of independence in 1991, a new policy of language education was introduced. The primary declared goal was the integration of all inhabitants into the environment of the official state language, while protecting the languages of Latvia's ethnic minorities.
Government-funded bilingual education is available in primary schools for ethnic minorities. These include Russian, Yiddish, Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Estonian and Roma schools. Latvian is taught as a second language in the initial stages too, as is officially declared, in order to encourage proficiency in that language, aiming at avoiding alienation from the Latvian-speaking linguistic majority and for the sake of facilitating academic and professional achievements. Since the mid-1990s, the government may pay a student's tuition in public universities only provided that the instruction is in Latvian. Since 2004, the state mandates Latvian as the language of instruction in public secondary schools (Form 10–12) for at least 60% of class work (previously, a broad system of education in Russian existed).
The Law on State Language was adopted on December 9, 1999. Several regulatory acts associated with this law have been adopted. Observance of the law is monitored by the State Language Centre run by the Ministry of Justice.
To counter the influence of Russian and English, government organizations (namely the Terminology Commission of the Latvian Academy of Science and the State Language Center) try to popularize the use of Latvian terms and linguistic purism. Purism is often observed in the coining of new terms, which are usually disputed by the public – although purists have invented some euphonic words, many neologisms are widely seen as 'alien' and unnecessary, as pre-existing words could be used instead. For example, a heated debate arose when the Terminology Commission suggested that “eira”, with its 'latvianized' ending, would be a better term for euro than the widely used “eiro”. Other new terms are calques or new loanwords. For example, Latvian has two words for "telephone" – "tālrunis" and "telefons", the former being a direct translation into Latvian of the latter international term. Still others are older or more euphonic loanwords rather than Latvian words. For example, "computer" can be either "dators" or "kompjūters". Both are loanwords (the native Latvian word for 'computer' is "skaitļotājs"). However, for some time now “dators” has been considered an appropriate translation.
There are several contests held annually to promote correct use of Latvian. Notably, the State Language Center holds contests for language mistakes, named "Gimalajiešu superlācis" after an infamous incorrect translation of Asiatic Black Bear. These mistakes, often quite amusing, are both grammatical and stylistic; sometimes also obvious typos and mistranslations are considered to belong here. Organizers claim that mistakes are largely collected in areas heavily populated by Russian-speakers, as well as from Lithuanian-owned chain stores. Mistranslations are not necessarily grammatical, but also stylistic and vocabulary mistakes, such as literal translations from the English language.
There are three dialects in Latvian: the Livonian dialect, High Latvian and the Middle dialect. Latvian dialects and their varieties should not be confused with the Livonian, Curonian, Semigallian and Selonian languages.
The Livonian dialect of Latvian was more affected by the Livonian language substratum than Latvian in other parts of Latvia. It is divided into the Vidzeme variety and the Courland variety (also called tāmnieku or ventiņu). There are two intonations in the Livonian dialect. In Courland short vowels in the endings of words are discarded, while long vowels are shortened. In all genders and numbers only one form of the verb is used. Personal names in both genders are derived with endings – els, -ans. In prefixes ie is changed to e. Due to migration and the introduction of a standardised language this dialect has declined. It arose from assimilated Livonians, who started to speak in Latvian and assimilated Livonian grammar into Latvian.
The Middle dialect is spoken in central and Southwestern Latvia. New Curonian, which used to be spoken along Curonian Spit, is closely related to the varieties of middle dialect spoken in Courland. The dialect is divided into the Vidzeme variety, the Curonian variety and the Semigallian variety. The Vidzeme variety and the Semigallian variety are closer to each other than to the Curonian variety, which is more archaic than the other two. There are three intonations in the Middle dialect. In the Semigallian variety, ŗ is still used. Standard Latvian is based on the middle dialect.
High Latvian dialect
High Latvian dialect is spoken in Eastern Latvia. It is set apart from rest of the Latvian by number of phonetic differences. The dialect has two main varieties - Selonian and Non-Selonian. There is a standard language, the Latgalian language, which is based on deep Non-Selonian varieties spoken in south of Latgale. The term "Latgalian" is sometimes also applied to all Non-Selonian varieties or even the whole dialect. However, it is unclear if it is accurate to use the term for any varieties besides the standard language. While the term may refer to varieties spoken in Latgale or by Latgalians, not all speakers identify as speaking Latgalian, for example, speakers of deep Non-Selonian varieties in Vidzeme explicitly deny speaking Latgalian.
The history of the Latvian language (cf. below) has placed it in a peculiar position for a language of its size whereby it is spoken by a large number of non-native speakers as compared to native speakers. The immigrant and minority population in Latvia is 700,000 people: Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Poles, and others. The majority of immigrants came to Latvia from 1940–1991; supplementing pre-existing ethnic minority communities (Latvian Germans, Latvian Jews). In a recent survey, 60% of Latvia's ethnic minorities described their knowledge of Latvian as fluent. Fluency in Latvian is prevalent among the younger generations of the minorities.
The adoption of Latvian by minorities was brought about by its status as the only official language of the country, its prominence in the education system, its sole use in the public sector and by changes in the society after the fall of the Soviet Union that shifted linguistic focus away from Russian. As an example, in 2007 universities and colleges for the first time received applications from prospective students who had a bilingual secondary education in schools for minorities. Fluency in Latvian is expected in a variety of professions and careers.
Latvian is an inflecting language with many analytical forms. Primary word stress, with a few exceptions, is on the first syllable. There are no articles in Latvian, however definiteness is expressed by inflection of adjectives. Basic word order in Latvian is subject–verb–object; however, word order is relatively free.
There are two grammatical genders in Latvian (masculine and feminine) and two numbers, singular and plural. Nouns and adjectives decline into seven cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, locative, and vocative. There are six declensions and no articles.
There are three conjugation classes in Latvian. Verbs are conjugated for person, tense, mood and voice.
Latvian in Latin script was first based upon the German alphabet, while the alphabet of the Latgalian dialect was based on the Polish alphabet. At the beginning of the 20th century, this was replaced by a more phonetically appropriate alphabet.
Today, the Latvian standard alphabet consists of 33 letters:
The modern standard Latvian alphabet uses 22 unmodified letters of the Latin alphabet (all except Q, W, X and Y). It adds a further eleven letters by modification. The vowel letters A, E, I and U can take a macron to show length, unmodified letters being short; these letters are not differentiated while sorting (e.g. in dictionaries). The letters C, S and Z, that in unmodified form are pronounced [ts], [s] and [z] respectively, can be marked with a caron. These marked letters, Č, Š and Ž are pronounced [tʃ], [ʃ] and [ʒ] respectively. The letters Ģ, Ķ, Ļ and Ņ are written with a cedilla or little 'comma' placed below (or above the lowercase g). They are modified (palatalized) versions of G, K, L and N and represent the sounds [ɟ], [c], [ʎ] and [ɲ]. Non-standard varieties of Latvian add extra letters to this standard set.
Latvian spelling has almost perfect correspondence between graphemes and phonemes. Every phoneme has its own letter so that a reader need not learn how a word is pronounced, but simply pronounce it. There are only two exceptions to this, which could cause mispronunciation. The first problem is that the letters E/Ē represent two different sounds: [ɛ]/[ɛː] and [æ]/[æː]. The second problem is that letter O indicates both the short and long [ɔ], and the diphthong [uɔ]. These three sounds are written as O, Ō and Uo in Latgalian, and some Latvians campaign for the adoption of this system in standard Latvian. However, the majority of Latvian linguists argue that o and ō are found only in loanwords, with the Uo sound being the only native Latvian phoneme. The digraph Uo was discarded in 1914, and the letter Ō has not been used in the official Latvian language since 1946. Likewise, the letters Ŗ and Ch were discarded in 1957, although they are still used in some varieties and by many Latvians living beyond the borders of Latvia. The letter Y is used only in the standard Latgalian written language, where it is used to represent /ɨ/, which is not used in other dialects. Latvian orthography allows nine digraphs, which are written Ai, Au, Ei, Ie, Iu, Ui, Oi, Dz and Dž.
The old orthography was based on that of German and did not represent the Latvian language phonemically. At the beginning it was used to write religious texts for German priests to help them in their work with Latvians. The first writings in Latvian were chaotic: there were twelve variations of writing Š. In 1631 the German priest Georgs (Juris) Mancelis tried to systematize the writing. He wrote long vowels according to their position in the word – a short vowel followed by h for a radical vowel, a short vowel in the suffix and vowel with a diacritic mark in the ending indicating two accents. Consonants were written following the example of German with multiple letters. The old orthography was used until the 20th century when it was slowly replaced by the modern orthography.
Latvian on computers
Standard QWERTY keyboards are used for writing in Latvian; diacritics are entered by using a dead key (usually ', occasionally ~). Some keyboard layouts use the modifier key AltGr (most notably the Windows 2000 and XP built-in layout (Latvian QWERTY), it is also default modifier in X11R6, thus a default in most Linux distributions). In the early 1990s, the Latvian ergonomic keyboard layout was developed. Although this layout may be available with language support software, it has not become popular because of a lack of keyboards with this layout.
In the 1990s, lack of software support of diacritics caused an unofficial style of orthography, often called translits, to emerge for use in situations when the user is unable to access Latvian diacritic marks (e-mail, newsgroups, web user forums, chat, SMS etc.). It uses the basic Modern Latin alphabet only, and letters that are not used in standard orthography are usually omitted. In this style, diacritics are replaced by digraphs – a doubled letter indicates a long vowel (as in Finnish and Estonian); a following j indicates palatalisation of consonants, i.e., a cedilla; and the postalveolars Š, Č and Ž are written with h replacing the háček, as in English. Sometimes the second letter, the one used instead of a diacritic, is changed to one of two other diacritic letters (e.g. š is written as ss or sj, not sh), and since many people may find it difficult to use these unusual methods, they write without any indication of missing diacritic marks, or they use digraphing only if the diacritic mark in question would make a semantic difference. Sometimes an apostrophe is used before or after the character that would properly need to be diacriticised. Also, digraph diacritics are often used and sometimes even mixed with diacritical letters of standard orthography. Although today there is software support available, diacritic-less writing is still sometimes used for financial and social reasons. As š and ž are part of the Windows-1252 coding, it is possible to input those two letters using a numerical keypad.
For example, the Lord's Prayer in Latvian written in different styles:
Voiced and unvoiced consonants assimilate to the next-standing consonant, e.g. apgabals [ˈabɡabals] or labs [ˈlaps]. Latvian does not feature final-obstruent devoicing.
Doubled consonants are pronounced longer: mamma [ˈmamːa]. Same with plosives and fricatives located between two short vowels: upe [ˈupːe]. Same with 'zs' that is pronounced as /sː/, šs and žs as /ʃː/.
Latvian has six vowels, with length as distinctive feature:
/ɔ ɔː/, and the diphthongs involving it other than /uɔ/, are confined to loanwords.
Latvian also has 10 diphthongs, four of which are only found in loanwords (/ai ui ɛi au iɛ uɔ iu (ɔi) ɛu (ɔu)/), although some diphthongs are mostly limited to proper names and interjections.
Standard Latvian and, with a few minor exceptions, all of the Latvian dialects have fixed initial stress. Long vowels and diphthongs have a tone, regardless of their position in the word. This includes the so-called "mixed diphthongs", composed of a short vowel followed by a sonorant.