What You Need to Know About the Latvian Language
Say you booked a trip to Riga. Good for you! It is a gorgeous city, wonderful architecture, buzzing nightlife, eclectic art scene, full of awesome people. And say you do not want to be one of those passer-by style tourists, but you actually want to experience the country through it’s cool people. Which is where the Latvian language barrier comes in.
Can you survive with just English? Do you need Latvian to make friends (and more than friends)? And what is the Latvian language even like?
We start off with a teeny-tiny history lesson.
So the people of Latvia are Latvians, right? Wrong. There is also the Livonian minorty. They come from Northern Latvia and their language is much closer to Finnish and Estonian.
Unfortunately, the Livonian language is no longer spoken as a mother tongue and there are less 200 people in Latvia that claim to be a part of that ethnic group. This is one less local language to worry about, but also a small tragedy in itself, since loss of peoples and languages is loss of one more beautiful and intricate human culture.
Other than that, there is quite a significant Russian minority in Latvia.
They form more than 25% of the population, and their language, unsurprisingly, is Russian. This is where the history language comes in.
Some 26 years ago, Latvia was a country under occupation. It wasn’t until 1991 that they declared their independence from the Soviet Union. And trust me when I say that it wasn’t easy being occupied by the Soviet. Moscow would repress the Latvian people in ways unimaginable to us today.
And yet, this is something that was still happening a few decades from now.
Along with deporting wealthier farmers and business owners (deemed enemy of the working class) to Siberia, they would also deport Latvian patriots. Some were sent to work camps (which is basically the Soviet equivalent of a concentration camp), some simply dissipated. The Latvian culture (along with the Latvian language) was repressed immensely. The Soviets would favor Russian in most state dealings, as well as in day-to-day communication.
This is how bilingualism became the norm, with Russian being even more used and popular than Latvian. Not only that, but hundreds of thousands of Soviet functionaries, military personnel and simple workers were sent to Latvia. This is how the Russian minority arose. And it’s not minor, either. As I mentioned, more than ¼ of Latvian citizens are of Russian descent.
Our short history lesson got kind of long, right?
Well, my point with this is for you to expect to hear Russian, even though you are not in a country where you expect it to be spoken. The other thing is to try and be very understanding with people you meet.
As is usually the case with controversial topics, you will be better off not discussing them at all. You never know what perspective your new Latvian friend has on these issues, and this all very recent, too. Take the time to get educated if it is something that interests you — the atrocities of Soviet socialism are not nearly as known as they should be.
But moving on to the actual language. Here are a few things to know about it — ranging from basic FAQ-style information about Latvian to fun and weird facts:
1. It is one of the two surviving Baltic languages
The only Baltic languages that survive to this day are Latvian and Lithuanian.
The language family also contains some extinct languages (like the Livonian language we mentioned) and is thought to have come from a common Balto-Slavic ancestor. That being said, don’t expect it to have too much to do with Slavic languages.
It will certainly be a plus for you if you speak or understand a Slavic language and try to learn Latvian (there will be some grammatical and lexical similarities), but you won’t understand the Latvian language unless you actually learn it.
Thus, it is actually not really that similar to Russian or Polish. Same goes for Lithuanian — although it even belongs to the same family, the two languages are not very much mutually intelligible even to native speakers.
2. It is the only official language in Latvia (but not the only one actually used)
Now that the country is finally independent, it makes sense that they would get rid of Russian as an official language. This is a matter of national pride to Latvians. Their TV, the radio, and other media are basically Latvian-only. Livonian and Latgalian are protected as indigenous languages.
Ever read Russian in those last few sentences? Nope, you did not. Officially speaking, Russian is currently as much of a foreign language as English, French and Swahili. This doesn’t exactly reflect reality, though. Russian speakers are so much, that they are actually the largest language minority without an official status.
For a foreigner, Russian seems to be everywhere, and it is, although not officially. Even people with Latvian as a first language use Russian fluently, as it is a common second language to learn.
Younger people are not always as good at Russian as older ones, since they never grew up under the Soviet. As a general rule though, the majority of people speak and understand it very well.
3. They use the Latin letters, but they also have some of their own
In total the Latvian alphabet consists of 33 letters, each with it’s own sound of course. Thankfully, it is a phonetic alphabet, meaning that in most cases you read what you see. The trouble is, of course, that there are also quite a lot of peculiar sounds that you will have a hard time reproducing. Take the infamous palatal ģ and ķ for instance. They sound like a mix of [t] and [k] or [g] respectively. You are supposed to tap the roof of your mouth with the middle part of your tongue. Go ahead and try it! It feels really awkward and uncomfortable, plus it gives you a weird sense of tongue soreness, right? Well, there is Latvian pronunciation for you. Never promised it would be easy.
4. Word endings will be the end of you
Did I already convince you that Latvian is preeeeeety tough? Erm, I never even mentioned cases and declensions. If you are lucky (or unlucky) enough to have ever learned a language which features those, you know what I’m talking about. You also know how (excuse the language) much of a pain in the ass they are to learn.
What cases basically are is different variations of words depending on their function within the sentence. For instance, you can have a case for when the word signifies the subject of the action and another case for when it is the object. There are also cases for possession and other stuff.
Declensions are how certain words change between the cases. This usually means different word endings.
And as though this was not enough, there are also no articles in Latvian. How do you know if a certain word is definite? You guessed it, word endings. Even personal names have them. For instance, if you meet a guy named Edmunds (a pretty common name) and you two got some beer, Edmunds’ beer would be alus Edmunda. See how it changes?
It does that a lot.
5. When it comes to verbs…
Stuff isn’t easier, either. Once again, it is endings that matter and there are three conjugations. Verbs have an infinitive stem, a present, and a past stem, which means you have to learn all three if you want to be able to conjugate. Then we have cases, like the Subjunctive, the Relative, and the Debitive.
You need to know when they are used, in order to make a decent sentence. Add that to the sheer volume of vocabulary, most of it probably completely foreign to you, and you see why language learners rate Latvian as one of the hardest languages to master.
Finally, do you need to learn the Latvian Language…in Latvia?
The answer should come naturally, but it isn’t as obvious.
If you are not planning to move there (and even if you are), your best bet would actually be Russian. It is spoken and understood everywhere, and it’s also much more useful in terms of being spoken by so much more people globally.
Sure, some Latvian can come in handy, and locals really appreciate it (you will notice a huge difference even in things like customer service). If you are not keen on learning the language, though, no worries. Latvians know that it is a hard one and they don’t exactly expect you to speak it (they do want you to respect it, of course).
Bottomline, don’t be masochistic for the sake of it.
PS: If you want to learn a new language and you happen to have a trip to Riga soon, try Russian first. Who knows, if you become more advanced it could become a cool new feature on your CV, too.