Things of Latvia: 'Nu'

Latvian is not the easiest language to learn - at least for English speakers - but it's nice that many visitors to the country do go to the trouble of learning a few words, such as 'Sveiki' (Hello), 'Lūdzu' (Please) and 'Paldies' (Thank you).

But the one word they will encounter perhaps more than any other is rarely listed in their phrasebooks and pocket dictionaries and might leave them scratching their heads.

The word is "nu" (pronounced "noo").

I recall asking during one of my first visits to Latvia why people were saying "nu" all the time and what it meant. I was told "It doesn't mean anything. It's just a word." This did not help and only sharpened my perception that everyone was constantly saying "nu" and I had no idea why.

The first dictionaries I tried didn't even have "nu" in them, but eventually I ran a meaning to ground: "Well." This didn't help much either, as "well" is one of those annoying English words that has about a dozen different meanings: health, a hole full of water, to become teary-eyed, satisfaction, and so on.

I'm no philologist but "nu" seems to me to be a carry-over word that Latvian has absorbed from German. Reading Katherine Mansfield's "In a German pension" stories recently, I was delighted to come across several "nu"s ("Nu," said the Herr, "there isn't room to turn.") 

Another theory would suggest Russian origins for "nu".

Maybe the Latvian "nu" is a bit of both.*

Whatever the derivation, I think Latvian has not only absorbed the word, it has vastly enriched it.

"Nu" can be said many different ways. The most common and the most similar to the German style is as a sort of preparatory word for "labi" (good). "Nu labi," which roughly speaking is "Well, fine". Straightforward.

But there's also the slowly drawled "nuuuuuu" which means "You might think that, but I am not entirely convinced."

There's the quick, sharp "nu!" which means "Let's stop sitting around here being lazy, let's get on with the job."

There's the impudent "So what?" style of "nu" and the patronising "I choose to ignore everything you just said" type of "nu".

There are many, many more "nu"s.

But my favorite by far, the one which is most useful and most distinctive, is the "nu" which measures an unfortunate gap between starting to speak and working out what it is you actually want to say. This is delivered in rapid piston-pumping style while your brain starts up like an old car on a cold day, something like: "Nu-nu-nu-nu-nu-nu".

I am still far from understanding all the subtleties of this apparently very simple word and I'm sure after reading this everyone will take these harmless personal observations far too seriously and pitch in pointing out all my inaccuracies, misunderstandings and omissions.


(* The etymological dictionary to which we frequently refer while writing LSM stories says it comes from an ide root related to Latin nunc and Greek νῦν (nun) - both mean 'now, now then'.)

Related articles
Germans say more like "nnna?"
Anda Baumerte
There should be a comma in your example - "Nu, labi". I agree to those who say that "well" is a good translation, bearing in mind that "nu" is a particle. I also agree it might have a derived meaning of "now", because "nupat" means "just now", for example. Did anyone mention "Nu, re!", which means "See!?".
"Nu, tad!" - as a toast, meaning "Let,s (drink)". Nuuuu! - the thing one says to horse to tell it to go faster (if I am not wrong)
Irisa Roze
love the discussion of this fine word and it's usage. I never realized how much it was used in Latvian until now. Thanks to all contributors.
Gundega Makita Evelone Evelone
you can say to somebody "nu nu nuuuu ", if he does something slightly questionable or blamefull
Anonymous user 6254
My little boy uses "nu nu nu" as a way to express dissatisfaction over a rule being broken, like, when someone is trying to take his toy without permission.
Laura Andžāne
There's also the "Nu?" which is used to respond when someone says "Listen, ..." (Klau..) or calls your name:)
Ingus Rumpēters
About "nu" being a carry-over word from German, I doubt that, and propose that it's more likely to be the exact opposite. It is near impossible for Latvians to drop saying "nu", so even ones proficient in a foreign language will sometimes start sentences with "Nu, ..."! :) I imagine that a great many Latvians emigrated to Germany during centuries past. I have no knowledge about this book "In a German pension" by Katherine Mansfield, but perhaps that character is actually Latvian-born?
Zane Stračinska
I had the suspicion that the word had some connection with meaning 'now'. As in Swedish that's exactly what it means. Thanks for clearing that one out!
Ingus Rumpēters
Colloquially "well" is a great translation. However one of the meanings (etymologically the base meaning, I should think!) of "nu" is "now" (consider the phonetical similitude!). I remember that a frequent question in cross-word puzzles was "synonym for "tagad", 2 letters". "the quick, sharp "nu!" which means "Let's stop sitting around here being lazy, let's get on with the job."" You could also say: "Nu, tad!" = "Now then!" "Nu, jā, bet..." = "Well, yes, but..."
Ingus Rumpēters
Tilde dictionary has this to add: nu labi! - all right! very well! ko nu? - what next?, what now? nu, un? - so what? nu, nu! (mierinot) - come, come!, now, now!, there, there! nu un tad? - so what?, big deal
Brigita Stroda
And then there is - "nu, un?" with an inflection, meaning - ", , , , , and your point is ?"
Comment using your social media profile