From the language of serfs to official EU communication - the journey of Latvian

Take note – story published 7 years ago

The Latvian language is "a mirror of the wonderful story of our nation", says a linguistics professor at the University of Latvia.

On May 13, the National Language Day, LSM presents an interview with professor Ojārs Lāms, who heads the Department of Latvian and Baltic Studies at the University of Latvia.

Lāms goes into depth on what's special about Latvian, what are its ties with other languages, and how foreign languages have influenced and continue to affect Latvian. 

From the language of serfs to becoming an official EU language

LSM: What's special about Latvian in the context of European and world languages?

O. Lāms: The Latvian language is a sort of a mirror for the wonderful story of the Latvian nation.

In mid-19th century the Latvian language was not taken seriously. Baltic Germans called it a peasant language suitable for giving agricultural lessons, strengthening [Christian] beliefs, and maybe expressing the simplest of sentiments in straightforward verse.


Latvian is a language in the Baltic branch of the Indo-European family. It has about two million speakers and is related to Lithuanian but the two are not mutually intelligible.

Latvian often draws comparisons to Sanskrit and has preserved ancient words and characteristics thought to be close to the way the original Indo-Europeans spoke. Nowadays it is a rich language strong enough to keep up with technological advances and used to write beautiful books. 

Every Latvian who strove for wisdom and fortune in his life left the Latvian language in his father's home just like he hung his pastalas [ed. - simple shoes made of a piece of leather] on a nail when he went out in the world.

But then there came men saying, well, it's not really okay. Juris Alunāns, whose 185th birthday we're celebrating as the National Language Day, started working fervently to keep the Latvian language. He did it very skillfully, by translating a wide range of poetry into Latvian, starting from the Ancient Greeks to German contemporaries.

Not everything went swell at the start, perhaps, as nowadays you can feel growth pains when reading one translation of his, or another. However the work of Alunāns and his contemporaries was a little spring that turned into a great lake. 

A little more than fifty years later, Latvian became a national language and it had matured both in poetry and thought, and it could express the concepts required for building a state.

The 21st century has elevated the Latvian language even higher, and it has become an official EU language.

Language historians note similarities between Latvian and Sanskrit

Going back to the 19th century, another process is worth noting - the development of historical linguistics. This branch of linguistics explores the relationships between languages, their development in time, and unites languages into branches and families. 

They found that the small Baltic language branch has preserved the most ancient characteristics of the Indo-European language family. 

That's how the Latvian language attracted researchers' attention with its unique grammatical system, its vocabulary that shows a correspondence with Sanskrit. Our modern, manifold language is also a preserver of ancient linguistic characteristics. 

Loanwords fit neatly into Latvian

LSM: What's significant in the historical development of the Latvian language? What other languages have influenced it?

O. Lāms: Up until the early 20th century Latvian was harshly ruled by German syntax, with the verb often moved to the back of the sentence.

In the old Livonian times many words from Middle Low German flowed into Latvian. These words were related to many things brought in by the Germans, like the words amats (profession), dambis (dam), būvēt (to build) and many others that fit organically into Latvian, including many words for simple things like bikses (trousers) which we can however call in a half-forgotten Latvian name - ūzas. 

Following the division of Livonia, German was no longer the language of the powers that be, however it retained its influence until the early 20th century. With other foreign powers came other languages - Swedish, Polish and Russian.

It's interesting that skurstenis (chimney) comes from Swedish. It makes one think that chimney construction spread across Latvian homes during the Swedish times.

Foreign powers come and go, and linguistic influences change accordingly. The 21st century has brought English influences into Latvian. The transferred characteristics are usually lexical. However the influence can be phonetic as well, like when the pronunciation of the consonant l changed during the Soviet times, while the soft ŗ disappeared completely. This has affected the use of e, and ē.

Lexical influences affect the language on a small scale, however phonetic influences are of a much graver nature, while influences in word building and syntax can change the character of a language quite dramatically.

Russian and English influence is becoming apparent

Russian started, and English is continuing to do away with the vocative case. It sounds lame when a Latvian says, "hey, Aivars" [instead of "hey, Aivar"]. While the rarely used third declension, which ends in -us in the nominative, is being seriously distorted nowadays. 

While compound tenses have lost their once clearly defined usage. While even foreigners who have learned Latvian very well cannot deal with the definite and indefinite endings of adjectives. It might be allowed in spoken language, but it causes a linguistic headache and leaves an impression of unspeakable carelessness in academic language.

The Old Prussians disappeared, but their words did not

While in terms of mutual influence, Latvian has the most organic relationship with its ancient neighbors - Baltic Finno-Ugric peoples, especially Livs, as well as our Baltic neighbors - Lithuanians and Old Prussians.

The Old Prussians disappeared, but their words continue to live on in Latvian in terms like ķermenis (body), and kadiķis (juniper). 

During the Latvian awakening, culture luminaries borrowed conscientiously from the Lithuanian, evident from the word veikals (store).

But there are historically organic loanwords too, which prove to be interesting testimonies to the relations between the two neighboring folk, as shown by the loanword paģiras (hangover). 

While an important change that marks a difference between Latvian and Lithuanian is the first-syllable stress taken from Finno-Ugric languages. It is now a marked characteristic of the Latvian language.

LSM: What characterizes the way Latvian sounds like? 

O. Lāms: We can easily judge foreign languages in terms of sound, being understandable and other aspects. Our native tongue is much harder to evaluate.

However I would like to think that Latvian has a phonetic multifariousness and proportion that unites both vowels, diphthongs and sundry types of consonants harmoniously. 

The phonetic variety of Latvian reveals itself in words that make your tongue lift rise and fall a lot, like šaursliežu dzelzceļš and the 19-letter superlative visneiedomājamākais (the most unimaginable), which is as impossible to pronounce as the thing it describes in reality.

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