Answers to the 5 Most Common Questions about the Latvian Language

Every year on the 21st of February UNESCO celebrates the International Mother Language Day to mark the richness and diversity of the thousands of languages spoken across the globe.

As someone whose mother tongue is shared by roughly 2 million people in the whole wide world, I often encounter questions about the Latvian language. I asked my Latvian friends about their experiences and, while there may be no such thing as a silly question, we all get asked the same things over and over again.

Wonder no more – here is the ultimate guide to all you ever wanted to know about the Latvian language!

1. Do you have your own language?

Well yes, we do. Non-native speakers included, roughly 2 million people on the planet speak Latvian. That is approximately the population of Paris, France or around one fourth of the population of London, UK.

2. Is it similar to Russian?

No, not really. I am sure that both Latvians and Russians who have encountered the other language after the age of six will vouch for that. Latvian and Russian may belong to the same branch of the Indo-European language family tree but that does not mean that the two are similar. If proximity in the language tree is any indicator, a native English speaker should have an easier time understanding a German or a Dutch speaker than a Latvian would have understanding a Russian.

3. What is it similar to then?

The short answer: Lithuanian, yet the two are not mutually intelligible. As most people who ask this question don’t know more about the Lithuanians either, let me expand on this.

The descent of the language outlined in linguistic family trees is one thing, but when we talk about, e.g., similarities of words, history can be just as important. Through conquests and trade links over the past centuries the Latvian language has been strongly impacted not only by the Russian neighbors but also by the Germans, and it shares some similarities with Estonian and Finnish. Curiously, 9 times out of 10 speaking Latvian here in Northern Germany has resulted in questions whether my conversation partner and I come from Sweden or Denmark.

4. Do you use the Cyrillic alphabet?

No, we don’t. And the reason for this is purely a matter of history. Latvian was only a spoken language until mid-16th century when the efforts of Protestant pastors produced first texts in Latvian, starting  with the Lord’s prayer. As not only the clergy but also the upper class at the time were German speakers, the Latvian alphabet was based on the Latin alphabet and used the old German shrift.

The modern day Latvian alphabet was born in the early 20th century and has its peculiarities. It does not have the letters  Q, X, W, and Y but makes up for this shortage by having 11 other letters – long forms of vowels like Ā or Ē, soft forms of consonants like Ļ or Ķ, and consonants like Š that replace “Sh”. Which brings us to the next question:

5. What is up with the “Latvianising” of foreign names?

The meme on the right is not a joke, a foreigner can have a difficult time recognizing their own name by the time the Latvians are done with it. In addition to having a slightly different alphabet (see previous question), all male names typically have to end with an “S” and all female names with an “A” or an “E”. There are some exceptions but these are few and far between.

In addition, adapting foreign names to Latvian is necessary to make them usable in normal sentences. You see, the Latvian language has seven grammatical cases and while, e.g., in German these are constructed with the help of articles, in Latvian it is the end part of the word that has to change – something that is not possible unless the word ends “correctly”.

This may be somewhat annoying (and it is the reason why I kept my maiden name) but is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Something that I have forgotten to mention? Would like to share some lovely peculiarities of your own mother tongue? Please comment below!

45 Replies to “Answers to the 5 Most Common Questions about the Latvian Language”

  1. Guess my First name is ok for Latvian standards… But what it will be for my family name (my hubby’s family name)?
    To be more serious, I love this post. I have never heard someone speak your language, but it seems that it’s a very smart language, with which you can express many things.
    Can you give me the cases? Because I know the 6 from latin, and the 4 in german… but 7? Mmm… I wonder.

    1. Actually even your first name might be changed by adding an extra letter 🙂 (don’t ask me why!) I think in Latvian you would be “Eolija Dislere”.
      The cases are: (1) nominative, (2) accusative, (3) dative, (4) genitive, (5) vocative, (6) locative, and (7) instrumental.
      From what I read while researching this post Indo-European languages started out with eight cases but many languages have dropped a few along the way.

      1. That’s quite interesting, Ilze! Like Eolia, I have never heard anyone speaking Latvian, but I can say that Polish has the same seven cases and, like it Latvian, names change to make them grammatically correct – except for foreign names like mine. It was kind of funny/ weird for me at the beginning (because sometimes male names take an “a” at the end and that, to my Spanish-gendered mind, is confusing and awkward), but now I’ve gotten used to it.
        🙂

        1. I can completely relate to that, Ingrid! My brain always assumes that anyone whose name ends with “a” or “e” is a woman. Which leads to embarrassing situations like looking for a Brazilian lady named Tobia only to figure out it is actually a guy! 🙂

      2. Man skolā mācīja pavisam citādu locījumu sesību….?

      3. Thank you for the great and loving article. I just wanted to note, that Latvians are note the only ones changing proper names: Charle Magne, Charles the Great, Kārlis Lielais, Karl Velikij etc. – this is just one name in various languages….?

      4. Unfortunately, it is written in wrong order: It should be
        1) nominative 2) genitive 3) dative 4) accusative 5) instrumental 6) locative 7) vocative (a special speech case ending with exclamation mark)

        Lepojos ar latviešu valodu, jo tā ir viena no visgrūtāk apgūstamajām 🙂 Somu, protams, arī ir ļoti grūti apgūt, bet pats apgūstu spāņu, zviedru, krievu, angļu un čehu valodu, jo pats tagad esmu Erasmus apmaiņas programmā Čehijā 🙂

        1. Maris Ozols says: Reply

          Who says there is an order? It makes not an iota of a difference to anything. In German, we were always taught NAGD but it doesn’t mean that that is a fixed order. Maybe Germans learn the order differently. I don’t know.

  2. Another important point regarding the personal names – they are rendered into Latvian according to the pronunciation in the original language. The reason is not to ‘change’ one’s name, but to allow Latvians to pronounce it correctly. I used to think it is unnecessary, but later understood the reasoning behind it. For example, the pronunciation of some letters that are used both in English and in Latvian differs, e.g. such letters as J or C. Therefore Latvians would probably have a few ways how to pronounce such names as Justin or Caine and believe me, some of them would sound nothing like the original English name. To avoid confusion and be consistent – we render them according to the pronunciation + add the inflections. You can always add the original spelling in parenthesis after the rendered name.
    Surely, we still have some confusion with names that do not originate from the Western World or Russia. For instance, with the name of the Secretary General of United Nations Ban Ki-moon; some people have dropped the key concept of rendering personal names according to the original pronunciation (in this case – Korean) and thus consistency is not observed.

    For more information you can visit http://likumi.lv/doc.php?id=85209

    1. Thank you so much for the great explanation! I have actually experienced this confusion with non-Western names on my own skin. My daughter’s second – Chinese – name is usually written with Latin letters as “Xue” and, as Latvian doesn’t have the letter “X” we changed it to “Sue”. The authorities were not happy with this and proposed to write it as “Sjū” which would be fine if it was an English name but the pronunciation in Chinese is entirely different.

      1. Did you tell them that it is originally a Chinese name? If so, they should have taken that into account. You can also turn to Latviešu valodas aģentūra. How do you pronounce your daughter’s name?

        1. That’s a good idea, thanks. I might do it once we get her a Latvian passport. I was dealing with it though the Latvian embassy in Berlin and since the writing of her Chinese name is not that important to me I just made it into “Su” which they were fine with 🙂

      2. Ingrīda Bite says: Reply

        Forgive me for not fully understanding the correct pronunciation of Xue, but I would offer ‘Ksu’ as phonetic Latvian alternative.

      3. Foreign given and family names in Latvian should be written as they phonetically sound in the language of origin. Therefore if we are adopting male name Richard from the English language it would sound as “Ričards”. But if the same Richard moves to the France we would apply to him as to “Rišārs”. The same with Xue: if it comes from english-speaking country, it could be “Ksjū” or ” Ksu”, but if it is Chinese… Then I don’t have any idea because I know nothing about Chinese pronounciation. 🙂

  3. Re Latvian language roots/region: During WWII, my father travelled from his home in Riga to Germany, passing through the region known as ‘Old Prussia’ with its capital Koenigsberg. He was surprised at being able to read the street signs and to understand what was being said around him. Apparently not German…? He had the impression that the language known as “old Prussian” is similar to Latvian and Lithuanian. I’m neither scholar nor linguist, but it may be that all three aforementioned languages constitute a category of their own, namely a Baltic language set that is distinguishable from Slavic, Germanic and/or Scandinavian roots. Thank you all for the opportunity to participate.

    1. You’re exactly right, Latvian, Lithuanian and Old Prussian are all Baltic languages. Sadly the latter has died out by now. Nevertheless, when Germans ask me what the Latvian language is similar to, I reply Old Prussian as it at least invokes familiar associations 🙂

  4. My mother came to the US at 18 and married an American at 22. My aunts both married Latvians so Latvian was spoken in their homes. My mom spoke it exclusively with her family – and cared for her mother from 80 until she died 10 years ago at 93–but English was the language in our home. I miss hearing conversations in Latvian (she and her aging sisters don’t see each other often). It makes me very sad that this beautiful language will die in our family when she is gone.

    Incidentally, I struggled with why my Latvian mother, Arija, would name me what I thought was a Korean name-Kim-but it turned out she was reading Rudyard Kipling ? My Oma and Opa (not VecMomma-sp?) always called me Kims. should it have been Kima?

    1. Thank you for sharing your family’s story! Yes, I believe Kima would be the Latvian version. Are you in touch with the American Latvian community? It seems to be quite large and active.

      1. The Latvian/American community in Michigan is quite large–my cousins who knew the language were more involved. Immigrants like my mom are nearly all gone. I keep Latvia alive in my family with jewelry and food like piragi, yellow bread, Alexander Cukka and Latvian rye bread.

  5. While I appreciate the article I wish the author would do a bit more research before writing it. Comparing Latvian and Russian by drawing parralels with English and German is plain misleading, because Latvian and Russian are not in the same language family, while German and English are. Comparing English and Italian would be much better yet not very accurate.

    The foreign influence on Lartvian is grossly misstated as well. Latvian is heavily influenced by German and Swedish. German words are all over the place. It is also sharing surprisingly much with Livonian – a nearly extinct Finnic language. The Russian influence is negligible despite the cultural contact in the past two centuries, though. The reason is that what is Latvia now was never actually ruled by Russians – even during the Russian Empire times the local elite was Baltic German with all the consequences.

    Also, telling that using Roman alphabet is a “matter of history” is a bit funny because, well, usage of pretty much every alphabet is a matter of history.

    Finally, latvianising foreign names is not as straightforward as portrayed. Lithuanian, for example, being as flexible as Latvian does not change the names leaving them in the original form. The reason why Latvian does it is, hold your chairs, a matter of history. Simply because Endzelins and Mielenbachs, the linguists with a huge influence on modern language, decided so.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I agree, “a matter of history” is certainly a simplification, the full story could take chapters of a PhD dissertation (it did in mine!). Alas, the focus of this article is to inform and entertain, not bog down with details 🙂

      As for the Indoeuropean language tree, I was quite surprised that it was drawn quite differently in Latvian textbooks than it is in most international texts. While the Latvians make sure to clearly separate the Baltic and the Slavic branches (I wonder why…), most other sources draw these as belonging to the same large branch of language.

    2. Lithuanian leaves names in their original forms? No it doesn’t and for the same grammatical reasons as Latvian. As spelling in Lithuanian and Latvian is phonetically based look at NB’s comment on personal names (I would also include place names). As for a matter of history, Ilzele (the comment following) hits the nail on the head. Yes, the article is simplistic and while Russian may not be an influence on the Baltic branch of the Indo-European family of languages being part of the Soviet Union probably did have an impact. Both Baltic languages use loan words and for Lithuanian the source was either Polish or Belarusian although German did provide some. Russification in Empire days was a means to stamp out national identity, while in the Soviet era the languages were not banned one cannot help but think that if the ultimate aim of the Soviet Union was for its citizens to live without nationalism (a bourgeois concept) with Russian as the lingua franca, thus in some sense a “neutral” language, the regional languages would eventually die out.

    3. Its fun how foreigners from far away knows everything better about your native language and country than you.

    4. Hi, before attacking the author, I should recommend to see this, I know it’s wikipedia, but you can check, of course, the references mentioned there to confirm the authenticity.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balto-Slavic_languages#Historical_dispute

  6. Gunta Brakmanis Emmons-Zivarts says: Reply

    The other evening I picked up our Latvian newsmagazine “Laiks” – Time – and lo and behold, our folks are writing President Trump’s name as “Tramp” – I do think we could have left this one alone, don’t you? Gunta

    1. Why?

      1. Tramps (and other cases: Trampa, Trampam, Trampu, ar Trampu, Trampā, Tramp!). Always remember about the endings. And why should name Trump be exception from the rules?

    2. That’s interesting because ‘trumpis’ is a term used in the Latvian card game ‘Zolīte’. Still, I think ‘tramp’ is more appropriate in this case.

  7. Wow, similar to Russian, really?? If you would see that the Russian language and Baltic are totally not the same branch, go read some books, silly, stop relying on wikipedia and on your clouded vision. Latvian language has a shared branch with Lithuanian and only. Dumb-ass people who think it is a slavic language. Because Latvia has been occupied by f*.. russians it does not make it Russia or even being on the same branch of language!!
    For spreading false information people should be sued!! Or educated by force!!!
    You made my day very sad, “wise people”!

    1. I wonder on what are you relying? Certainly, should chill out a bit.
      There are a couple of theories about the history of Baltic and Slavic languages. Also linguists don’t put Latvian into Balto-Slavic branch due to Russian influence, but due to language structure etc. For example, hearing Croatian and other Slavic languages make you understand why as they are closer to Latvian than Russian is:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balto-Slavic_languages#Historical_dispute

  8. Hmm I think it’s safe to say that somebody got their knickers in a knot XD #Zoej #Calmyourfarm #dontforgettobreath #woosaaaaa

  9. I have read, that the Latvian language is related to the oldest language in the world – Sanskrit…

  10. Diminutive form is always a challenge to explain.. words like “maziņa” are just impossible to translate directly to English keeping the same “feel” to it.

    1. In Englsh just add “little” before any word you want to use. Diminutives exist in many languages and so English is one of the rare ones that do not have them.

  11. 6. We don’t like to use this language with anybody.

    This language is mostly used by Latvians when they think to themselves. Communication in Latvian is not something we do, have done, or encourage.

  12. Hi!
    Latvian language is based on latgalian language.
    As You read latvian language was created 19-20th century, but latgalian is still suppressed and not supported from latvian officials. Nowadays ~ 170 000 people are still speak it everyday…

    1. That’s quite missinforming, my friend, Latvian wasn’t created in 19th/20th century, where do you get that info? + Modern Latgalian has basically nothing to do with the old one, it is extremely Russian influenced nowadays.

  13. Roberts Dambergs says: Reply

    Has anyone mentioned that Latvian schools are best at producing “Grammar natsis?” Yes, I know, I misspelled that! But you know what I mean. At age of 70 I will never get it right, but the dumb mistakes I still make, after living in Latvia (I was a refugee, who grew up in Canada) for seven years, make my relatives cringe. It seems futile, for them to keep correcting me, and worse, it destroys any conversation by ripping to shreds any thread of thought that I was trying to pursue.
    But, errors grate on their ears as if they were fingernails being dragged across a chalkboard of their mind and soul.
    I have been told by Russian acquaintances of mine, that this phenomenon is why they have given up trying to learn to speak Latvian. Well, alright, Latvians wanting to recover, and preserve their language is indeed understandable. But to act as “Grammar natsis” seems to be self-defeating toward their avowed, and so honourable, goal.
    Thanks! This has been an interesting thread to follow!
    Roberts

    1. That was funny and sad to read. Well, keep speaking Latvian, just tell them that you speak differently and they should chill out. 😉 Also could be that you actually speak correctly according to the rules, which existed back in the day, you know, the language has changed a lot since 1920s/1930s when your parents learned it.

  14. I think more then 2 million speak Latvian, we are spread all over the world. At the moment I am dealing with an issue how to keep my Latvian language alive and pass it to my daughter when it is just more convenient speaking English. Anyone ideas welcome. Thanks for the post.

  15. Thank you for the article, it was great! Indeed, it answers all the most typical queries which follow the question “Latvia?!.. I have never heard of it. Where is it!?”
    P.S. Never mind the language tree dispute. You can just add point No 7. Latvians love to believe they belong to a separate language tree branch with other Baltic languages dead or alive due to predominantly negative experiences linked to Russia in past centuries.
    No 6 would be the Language Nazi thing. The most significant social crime in Latvia is use of wrong spelling, punctuation or grammar.
    P.P.S. I apologize for all language mistakes in my comment. 

  16. http://langala.lv/lv/
    In this site You can get more info about Lat, Slavic languages. But sorry, it is in Latvian and a little Rusian.

  17. Uhh finally I found someone who knows about this 🙂 Well my boyfriend is latvian but I don’t wanna push him in the corner and ask stuff like that so may you are so kind and answer two questions from my side? 🙂
    1. My Name is Melanie Sarah Piccirillo (you say Bidschirillo)- how would it be spelled in Latvian?
    2. If I would get married – and take on his name Pāstars, would I turn into a Pāstarova (like russians and some other countries would)?
    Thank you so much in advance ❤

    1. Hi Melanie, sure I can help you out. The typical translation of your first and second names is Melānija Sāra. As for the last name, there are several options and, as I’ve learned from translating my kids’ second (Chinese) names, you can debate with the language commission and agree on a version you like. Probably something along the lines of “Piširillo”. As for your boyfriend’s last name, the female version is “Pāstare”. But you would get that only if you married in Latvia or got any Latvian documents. It’s usually easy to tell whether a woman with a Latvian last name is born or married abroad – she has a last name with the male ending. Hope this helps!

    2. Maris Ozols says: Reply

      I more or less agree with that except. I think other possible versions of your surname would be ‘Pičirilo or Pitsirillo’, because they wouldn’t necessarily know how it is pronounced. By the way, I am impressed that you have mastered diacriticals! You would beome a ‘Pāstara’. As Ilzele says, in the West we do not give the surnames female endings just because the holder of the name is female. To me it seems ridiculous that someone calls themselves Linda Ozola (Iknow someone with that name) because an Ozols is male noun. I suspect that it is hangover from the Soviet period.

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