AskDefine | Define Lettish

Dictionary Definition

Lettish n : the official language of Latvia; belongs to the Baltic branch of Indo-European [syn: Latvian]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. Of or pertaining to the Latvian people or the Latvian language.


See also

Extensive Definition

Latvian language (), is the official state language of Latvia. Alternative names include Lettish and Lettisch. There are about 1.39 million native Latvian speakers in Latvia and about 150,000 abroad. The Latvian language has a relatively large number of non-native speakers, atypical for a small language. Because of language policy in Latvia approximately 60% of the 900,000 ethnic-minority population of Latvia speak Latvian. The use of the Latvian language in various areas of the social life in Latvia is increasing.
Latvian is a Baltic language, closely related to Lithuanian; however, they are not mutually intelligible to each other.
Latvian first appeared in Western print in the mid-16th century with the reproduction of the Lord's Prayer in Latvian in Sebastian Münster's Cosmographia Universalis, in Roman script. Prior to this westernization, earlier Latvian was written in runic characters.


Latvian is one of two living Baltic languages (with the other one being Lithuanian), a group of its own within the Indo-European language family. 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.


There are three dialects in Latvian: the Livonian dialect, Latgalian and the Middle dialect. The Livonian dialect is divided into the Vidzeme variety and the Courland variety (also called tāmnieku or ventiņu). The Middle dialect, the basis of standard Latvian, is divided into the Vidzeme variety, the Curonian variety and the Semigallian variety. Note: Latvian dialects should not be confused with the Livonian, Curonian, Semigallian and Selonian languages.

Livonian dialect

The Livonian dialect of Latvian was more affected by the Livonian language substratum than Latvian in other parts of Latvia. 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 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.

Middle dialect

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.

Non-native speakers

The history of the Latvian language (cf. below) has placed it in a peculiar position whereby it is spoken by a large number of non-native speakers as compared to native speakers. The minority population in Latvia reaches 900 000 people. It comprises Russians, Belorussians, Ukrainians, Poles, and others. Most of them emigrated to Latvia when Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union (1940 - 1991). 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. There are two grammatical genders in Latvian (masculine and feminine) and two numbers, singular and plural. Nouns decline into seven cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, locative, and vocative. Primary word stress, with a few exceptions, is on the first syllable. There are no articles in Latvian. Basic word order in Latvian is Subject Verb Object, however word order is relatively free.
So Latvian grammar are more like Latin, not modern English or Italian grammar.


Latvian in western orthography was first written using a system based upon German phonetic principles, while the Latgalian dialect was written using Polish orthographic principles. At the beginning of the 20th century, this was replaced by a more phonetically appropriate system, using a modified Latin alphabet.

Standard orthography

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. 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 three exceptions to this that could cause mispronunciation. The first is the letter E and its long variation Ē, which are used to write two sounds that represent the short and long versions of either [ɛ] or [æ] respectively. The 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 Latgalian language, where it is used to write a distinct phoneme that does not occur in other Latvian varieties. Latvian orthography allows nine digraphs, which are written Ai, Au, Ei, Ie, Iu, Ui, Oi, Dz and Dž.

Old orthography

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 as many as 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 different 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

Lack of software support of diacritics has caused an unofficial style of orthography, often called translit, to emerge for use in situations when the user is unable to access Latvian diacritic marks in today's computerised media (e-mail, newsgroups, web user forums, chat, SMS etc.). It uses the basic Modern Latin alphabet only, and letters that aren't used in standard orthography are usually omitted. In this style, diacritics are replaced by digraphs - a doubled letter indicates a long vowel; j indicates palatalisation of consonants, except for Š, Č and Ž that are indicated by using h. 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 widespread for financial and social reasons.
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)). 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.

Comparative orthography

For example, the Lord's Prayer in Latvian written in different styles:



The consonant sounds /f x/ are only found in loanwords. Latvian plosives are not aspirated (unlike in English and other Germanic languages).

Vowels and diphthongs

Latvian has six vowels, with length as distinctive feature: Vowel length ratio is about 1/2.5. Vowel length is phonemic and plays an important role in the language. For example ‘koka’ [`kuɔka] means 'made of wood', ‘kokā’ [`kuɔkaː] means 'on the tree'.
Latvian also has 10 diphthongs ([ai], [ui], [ɛi], [aŭ], [iɛ], [uɔ], [iu], [ɔi], [ɛu], [ɔu]), altough some diphthongs are mostly limited to proper names and interjections.

Pitch accent

In Latvian, long syllables—i.e. those containing a long vowel, a diphthong, or a so-called "mixed diphthong" (a short vowel followed by a sonorant consonant)—can take one of three tones::high throughout the syllable
e.g., loki "chives" (pronunciation represented as "luõki" in Latvian phonetics):brief rise followed by a long fall
e.g., loks "arch, bow" (pronounced "lùoks"):rising tone followed by falling tone with interruption in the middle or some creakiness in the voice
e.g., logs "window" (pronounced "luôks")
This system is similar to the ones found in Lithuanian, Swedish, Norwegian and Serbian. The broken tone is similar to the Danish stød.


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 Balto-Slavic group, and explaining similarities by one or several periods of close contacts. As there exist a number of Baltic words that are similar to Sanskrit or Latin, which lacks counterparts in Slavic languages. Latvian with 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 emerged as a distinct language in the 16th century, having evolved from Latgalian and assimilating Curonian, Semigallian and Selonian on the way. All of these belong to the Baltic language group.
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 German language, because upper class of local society was formed by Baltic Germans. In middle of 19th century first Latvian National Awakening was started, led by “Young Latvians” who popularized use of Latvian language, participants of this movement laid foundations for standard Latvian and also popularized latvianization of loan words. However in 1880s when tsar Alexander III came into power, Russification started, during this period some Latvian scholars even suggested adopting the Cyrillic alphabet for use in Latvian. After the tsar's death, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, nationalist movements reemerged.
In 1908, Latvian linguists Kārlis Mīlenbahs and Jānis Endzelīns elaborated the modern Latvian alphabet, which slowly replaced old orthography used before. Another interesting feature of the language, in common with its sister language Lithuanian, that was developed at the 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 to ensure 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 years of Soviet occupation (1940–41 and 1945–91) the policy of Russification greatly affected the Latvian language. Through these periods many Latvians and Latvia’s other ethnicities faced deportations and persecutions. A massive immigration from the Soviet republics of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and others followed, largely the result of Stalin's plan to integrate Latvia and the other Baltic republics into the Soviet Union by means of Russian colonisation. 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 the Soviet Latvia, most of the immigrants who settled in the country didn't 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 goal declared 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, Jewish, Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Estonian, and Roma schools. Latvian is taught as a second language in the initial stages to encourage proficiency in the language, aiming to avoid alienation from the Latvian-speaking linguistic majority and to facilitate academic and professional achievement. 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. The 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 literal translations 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, 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 Russians-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.


  • Bielenstein, Die lettische Sprache (Berlin, 1863-64)
  • Bielenstein, Lettische Grammatik (Mitau, 1863)
  • Bielenstein, Die Elemente der lettischen Sprache (Mitau, 1866), popular in treatment
  • Ulmann and Brasche, Lettisches Wörterbuch (Riga, 1872-80)
  • Bielenstein, Tausend lettische Räthsel, übersetzt und erklärt (Mitau, 1881)
  • Bezzenberger, Lettische Dialekt-Studien (Göttingen, 1885)
  • Bezzenberger, Ueber die Sprache der preussischen Letten;; (Göttingen, 1888)
  • Thomsen, Beröringer melem de Finske og de Baltiske Sprog (Copenhagen, 1890)
  • Bielenstein, Grenzen des lettischen Volksstammes und der lettischen Sprache (St. Petersburg, 1892)
  • Baron and Wissendorff, Latwju dainas (Latvian Folksongs, Mitau, 1894)
  • Andreianov, Lettische Volkslieder und Mythen (Halle, 1896 )
  • Bielenstein, Ein glückliches Leben (Riga, 1904)
  • Brentano, Lehrbuch der lettischen Sprache (Vienna, c. 1907)
  • Wolter, "Die lettische Literatur," in Die ost-europäische Literaturen (Berlin, 1908)
  • Kalning, Kurzer Lettischer Sprachführer (Riga, 1910)

Literary histories in Latvian

  • Klaushush, Latweeschu rakstneezibas wehsture (Riga, 1907)
  • Pludons, Latwiju literaturas vēsture (Jelgava, 1908-09)
  • Lehgolnis, Latweeschu literaturas wehsture (Riga, 1908)
  • Prande, Latviešu Rakstniecība Portrejās'' (Rīga, 1923)
Lettish in Afrikaans: Lets
Lettish in Old English (ca. 450-1100): Lettisc sprǣc
Lettish in Arabic: لغة لاتفية
Lettish in Aragonese: Idioma letón
Lettish in Azerbaijani: Latış dili
Lettish in Belarusian (Tarashkevitsa): Латыская мова
Lettish in Bosnian: Latvijski jezik
Lettish in Bulgarian: Латвийски език
Lettish in Catalan: Letó
Lettish in Czech: Lotyština
Lettish in Danish: Lettisk (sprog)
Lettish in German: Lettische Sprache
Lettish in Estonian: Läti keel
Lettish in Modern Greek (1453-): Λεττονική γλώσσα
Lettish in Spanish: Idioma letón
Lettish in Esperanto: Latva lingvo
Lettish in Basque: Letoniera
Lettish in Persian: زبان لاتویایی
Lettish in French: Letton
Lettish in Irish: Laitvis
Lettish in Galician: Lingua letoa
Lettish in Korean: 라트비아어
Lettish in Upper Sorbian: Letišćina
Lettish in Croatian: Latvijski jezik
Lettish in Ido: Latviana linguo
Lettish in Indonesian: Bahasa Latvi
Lettish in Icelandic: Lettneska
Lettish in Italian: Lingua lettone
Lettish in Hebrew: לטבית
Lettish in Georgian: ლატვიური ენა
Lettish in Cornish: Latviek
Lettish in Latin: Lingua Latviana
Lettish in Latvian: Latviešu valoda
Lettish in Lithuanian: Latvių kalba
Lettish in Ligurian: Lengua lettone
Lettish in Limburgan: Lets
Lettish in Hungarian: Lett nyelv
Lettish in Macedonian: Латвиски јазик
Lettish in Malay (macrolanguage): Bahasa Latvia
Lettish in Dutch: Lets
Lettish in Japanese: ラトビア語
Lettish in Norwegian: Latvisk
Lettish in Norwegian Nynorsk: Latvisk språk
Lettish in Low German: Lettsch
Lettish in Polish: Język łotewski
Lettish in Portuguese: Língua letã
Lettish in Romanian: Limba letonă
Lettish in Russian: Латышский язык
Lettish in Northern Sami: Látviagiella
Lettish in Slovak: Lotyština
Lettish in Slovenian: Latvijščina
Lettish in Serbian: Летонски језик
Lettish in Serbo-Croatian: Letonski jezik
Lettish in Finnish: Latvian kieli
Lettish in Swedish: Lettiska
Lettish in Thai: ภาษาลัตเวีย
Lettish in Turkish: Letonca
Lettish in Ukrainian: Латиська мова
Lettish in Samogitian: Latviu kalba
Lettish in Chinese: 拉脱维亚语
Privacy Policy, About Us, Terms and Conditions, Contact Us
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Material from Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Dict
Valid HTML 4.01 Strict, Valid CSS Level 2.1