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.

Nu?

(* 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'.)

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