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Lesson 8: Latvian

Lilita Zalkalns, Peteris Vanags, and Jonathan Slocum

The most outstanding Latvian modern realist of the late 19th century was Rūdolfs Blaumanis (1863-1908). A prolific writer and dramatist, he is most noted for his masterful short stories and plays. He was influenced early on by the National Awakening revival, which had begun in the 1850's, and he was sympathetic to the revolutionary New Current movement, which started in the 1880's among radical Latvian intellectuals. Blaumanis expressed social pathos and his sympathy for the plight of the Latvian poeple in prose works, drama, poetry, and satire. His interests lay in concentrating on the present, in describing situations recognizable by ordinary Latvians, and dealing with immediate issues concerning society in general.

In his works, Blaumanis focuses on the conflicts between the heart and mind, and portrays the depths of human emotions, both positive and negative. Even today his many stories and plays retain their freshness and relevance. He never revelled in negativity just for the sake of novelty, nor did he moralize.

By his skillful use of aptly directed words and actions, intertwined with precise detail, Blaumanis conjures up a virtual time-space of Latvia at the turn of the last century, depicting the lives of the well-to-do and of those less fortunate. His stories are set in the bustling city as well as in the countryside, where, under a seemingly serene facade, emotions are ready to be set loose at any moment, eventually to explode either in tragedy or comedy.

Blaumanis has created a number of classic, unforgettable characters in Latvian literature, including many striking portraits of Latvian women. Today these characters are a part of Latvian literary discourse.

Reading and Textual Analysis

Rūdolfs Blaumanis' work "In the Shadow of Death" (1899) is based on a newspaper account of several fishermen lost at sea on an ice floe. The short story portrays the characters of fourteen fishermen and their reactions as they encounter a life-threatening situation on a dwindling ice floe. A small fishing boat passes by after five harrowing days, but it can seat only eleven. After casting lots, the three who must remain are the most honest and decent of the group: the natural leader Grīntāls, who kept the group from disintegrating into anarchy, the young and innocent Kārlēns ("Charlie"), who could have saved himself when the ice floe broke away but instead ran back to warn the others, and old Dalda, who gave up his place in the boat to his son. As the three disappear on the horizon, Blaumanis leaves us with the conviction that it is these men who have already won their victory over death.

Blaumanis played an important role in raising standards in the language and style of written Latvian during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As a newspaper editor and leading cultural personality, his recommendations, criticisms, and publications on correct Latvian inspired many of the period's young Latvian writers and authors to explore and uncover the genuine directness and compactness of Latvian expression, and to challenge the direct imitation of the dominating German, and to some extent Russian, language styles.

Labu laiku garenais dūmu stabiņš palika vienlīdzīgi liels.

  • labu -- adjective; accusative singular masculine of <labs> good -- for a long
  • laiku -- noun, masculine; accusative singular of <laiks> time -- time
  • garenais -- definite adjective; nominative singular masculine of <garens> longish -- the elongated
  • dūmu -- noun, masculine; genitive plural of <dūms> smoke -- smoke
  • stabiņš -- noun, masculine; nominative singular of <stabiņš> little pillar -- pillar
  • palika -- verb; 3rd person preterit of <palikt, palieku, paliku> remain, become -- remained
  • vienlīdzīgi -- adverb; <vienlīdzīgi> equally -- the same
  • liels -- adjective; nominative singular masculine of <liels> large -- size

Nekustēdamies zvejnieki viņā skatījās, nejaudādami gandrīz pat ne acu pamirkšķināt.

  • nekustēdamies -- negative particle; <ne> not + verb; nominative plural masculine present participle reflexive of <kustēties, kustos, kustējos> move -- not moving
  • zvejnieki -- noun, masculine; nominative plural of <zvejnieks> fisherman -- the fishermen
  • viņā -- pronoun; locative singular masculine of <viņš> he -- at it
  • skatījās -- verb; 3rd person preterit reflexive of <skatīties, skatos, skatījos> look at, gaze,stare -- stared
  • nejaudādami -- negative particle; <ne> not + verb; nominative plural masculine present participle active of <jaudāt, jaudāju, jaudāju> be able, can -- not being able to
  • gandrīz -- adverb <gandrīz> almost, nearly, all but -- almost
  • pat -- adverb; <pat> even -- even
  • ne -- negative particle; <ne> not -- not
  • acu -- noun, feminine; genitive plural of <acs> eye -- of the eyes
  • pamirkšķināt -- verb; infinitive of <pamirkšķināt, pamirkšķinu, pamirkšķināju> blink -- blink

Bet tad viņu skati metās arvien stīvāki, arvien šausmīgāki.

  • bet -- conjunction; <bet> but, yet, however -- but
  • tad -- adverb; <tad> then, after that -- then
  • viņu -- pronoun; genitive plural masculine of <viņš> he -- their
  • skati -- noun, masculine; nominative plural of <skats> look, sight, view -- gazes
  • metās -- verb; 3rd person preterit reflexive of <mesties, metos, metos> set in -- became
  • arvien -- adverb <arvien> all the time, the whole time -- the whole time
  • stīvāki -- adjective; comparative nominative plural masculine of <stīvs> stiff -- stiffer
  • arvien -- adverb <arvien> all the time, the whole time -- the whole time
  • šausmīgāki -- adjective; comparative nominative plural masculine of <šausmīgs> terrible, horrible, awful -- more horrible

Mākonītis sāka dilt!

  • mākonītis -- noun, masculine; nominative singular <mākonītis> little cloud -- little cloud
  • sāka -- verb, ; 3 sg.pret. of <sākt, sāku, sāku> begin -- began
  • dilt -- verb; infinitive of <dilt, dilstu, dilu> decrease, wane, dwindle -- fading

Tvaikonis netuvojās viņiem, tas viņus neredzēja, vai negribēja redzēt!

  • tvaikonis -- noun, masculine; nominative singular of <tvaikonis> steamboat -- the steamboat
  • netuvojās -- verb; 3rd person singular preterit reflexive of <tuvoties, tuvojos, tuvojos> to approach -- approached
  • viņiem -- pronoun; dative plural masculine of <viņš> he -- to them
  • tas -- demonstrative pronoun; nominative singular masculine of <tas, tā> that -- it
  • viņus -- pronoun; accusative plural masculine of <viņš> he -- them
  • neredzēja -- negative particle; <ne> not + verb; 3rd person singular preterit of <redzēt, redzu, redzēju> to see -- did not see
  • vai -- conjunction; <vai> or -- or
  • negribēja -- negative particle; <ne> not + verb; 3rd person singular preterit of <gribēt, gribu, gribēju> to want -- did not want
  • redzēt -- verb; infinitive of <redzēt, redzu, redzēju> to see -- to see

Tas viņiem aizbrauca garām!

  • tas -- demonstrative pronoun; nominative singular masculine of <tas, tā> that -- it
  • viņiem -- pronoun; dative plural masculine of <viņš> he -- to them
  • aizbrauca -- verb; 3rd person singular preterit of <aizbraukt, aizbraucu, aizbraucu> to leave -- passed
  • garām -- adverb <garām> past, by -- by

Kā nakts ēna nolaidās uz visu ģīmjiem.

  • -- adverb <> as, like -- like
  • nakts -- noun, feminine; genitive singular of <nakts> night -- the night
  • ēna -- noun, feminine; nominative singular of <ēna> shadow -- a shadow
  • nolaidās -- verb; verb; 3rd person singular preterit reflexive of <nolaisties, nolaižos, nolaidos> to descend -- fell
  • uz -- preposition <uz> on, upon -- on
  • visu -- pronoun; genitive plural masculine of <visi> everybody, everyone -- everyone's
  • ģīmjiem -- noun, masculine; dative plural of <ģīmis> face -- faces

Plagas turētāji kārti palaida vaļā, tā nogāzās un Zaļga sarkano kreklu mīdīja ar kājām un kodīja sava kažoka piedurkni.

  • plagas -- noun, feminine; genitive singular of <plaga> flag -- of the flag
  • turētāji -- noun, masculine; nominative plural of <turētājs> holder -- holders
  • kārti -- noun, feminine; accusative singular of <kārts> pole -- pole
  • palaida -- verb; 3rd person plural preterit of <palaist, palaižu, palaidu> to let go, release -- let go
  • vaļā -- adverb of <vaļā> open -- open
  • -- demonstrative pronoun; nominative singular feminine of <tas, tā> that -- it
  • nogāzās -- verb; 3rd person singular preterit reflexive of <nogāzties, nogāžos, nogāzos> to tumble down -- fell
  • un -- conjunction <un> and -- and
  • Zaļga -- proper noun, masculine; nominative singular of <Zaļga> Zalga -- Zalga
  • sarkano -- definite adjective; accusative singular masculine of <sarkanais> the red -- the red
  • kreklu -- noun, masculine; accusative singular of <krekls> shirt -- shirt
  • mīdīja -- verb; 3rd person singular preterit of <mīdīt, mīdu, mīdīju> to tread, trample -- trampled
  • ar -- preposition <ar> with, together, and -- with
  • kājām -- noun, feminine; dative plural of <kāja> foot -- feet
  • un -- conjunction <un> and -- and
  • kodīja -- verb; 3rd person singular preterit of <kodīt,kodu, kodīju> bite repeatedly -- chewed
  • sava -- pronoun; genitive singular masculine of <savs> his -- his
  • kažoka -- noun, masculine; genitive singular of <kažoks> fur coat -- of the fur coat
  • piedurkni -- noun, feminine; accusative singular of <piedurkne> sleeve -- the sleeve

Nabaga Skrastiņš bija atšļūcis uz ragavām un muldēja tur nesaprotamus vārdus un smējās.

  • nabaga -- adjective; genitive singular masculine of <nabags> poor, needy -- poor
  • Skrastiņš -- proper noun, masculine; nominative singular of <Skrastiņš> Skrastins -- Skrastins
  • bija -- verb; 3rd person singular preterit of <būt, esmu, biju> to be -- was
  • atšļūcis -- verb; singular masculine past active participle of <atšļūkt, atšļūcu, atšļūcu> to slip down -- had fallen down
  • uz -- preposition <uz> on, upon -- on
  • ragavām -- noun, feminine; dative plural of <ragavas> sled, sleigh -- sleigh
  • un -- conjunction <un> and -- and
  • muldēja -- verb; 3rd person singular preterit of <muldēt, muldu, muldēju> to babble, rave -- babbled
  • tur -- adverb <tur> there -- there
  • nesaprotamus -- negative particle; <ne> not + verb; accusative plural masculine present passive participle of <saprast, saprotu, sapratu> to understand -- comprehensible
  • vārdus -- noun, masculine; accusative plural of <vārds> word, name -- words
  • un -- conjunction <un> and -- and
  • smējās -- verb; 3rd person singular preterit reflexive of <smieties, smejos, smējos> to laugh -- laughed

Kārlēns Birkenbaumu cieti bija apkampis, un Grīntāls stāvēja un skatījās aizvien vēl uz to vietu, kur mākonītis bija nozudis.

  • Kārlēns -- proper noun, masculine; nominative singular of <Kārlēns> Charlie -- Charlie
  • Birkenbaumu -- proper noun, masculine; accusative singular of <Birkenbaums> Birkenbaums -- Birkenbaums
  • cieti -- adverb <cieti> tightly -- tightly
  • bija -- verb; 3rd person singular preterit of <būt, esmu, biju> to be -- was
  • apkampis -- verb; singular masculine past active participle of <apkampt, apkampju, apkampu> to embrace -- had embraced
  • un -- conjunction <un> and -- and
  • Grīntāls -- proper noun, masculine; nominative singular of <Grīntāls> Grintals -- Grintals
  • stāvēja -- verb; 3rd person singular preterit of <stāvēt, stāvu, stāvēju> to stand -- stood
  • un -- conjunction <un> and -- and
  • skatījās -- verb; 3rd person singular preterit reflexive of <skatīties, skatos, skatījos> to look, stare -- stared
  • aizvien -- adverb <aizvien> all the time, the whole time -- the whole time
  • vēl -- adverb <vēl> still, yet -- still
  • uz -- preposition <uz> on, upon -- on
  • to -- demonstrative pronoun; accusative singular feminine of <tas, tā> that -- that
  • vietu -- noun, feminine; accusative singular of <vieta> place -- place
  • kur -- adverb <kur> where -- where
  • mākonītis -- noun, masculine; nominative singular <mākonītis> little cloud -- little cloud
  • bija -- verb; 3rd person singular preterit of <būt, esmu, biju> to be -- was
  • nozudis -- verb; singular masculine past active participle of <nozust, nozūdu, nozudu> to disappear -- had disappeared

Lesson Text

Labu laiku garenais dūmu stabiņš palika vienlīdzīgi liels. Nekustēdamies zvejnieki viņā skatījās, nejaudādami gandrīz pat ne acu pamirkšķināt. Bet tad viņu skati metās arvien stīvāki, arvien šausmīgāki. Mākonītis sāka dilt!

Tvaikonis netuvojās viņiem, tas viņus neredzēja, vai negribēja redzēt! Tas viņiem aizbrauca garām! Kā nakts ēna nolaidās uz visu ģīmjiem. Plagas turētāji kārti palaida vaļā, tā nogāzās un Zaļga sarkano kreklu mīdīja ar kājām un kodīja sava kažoka piedurkni. Nabaga Skrastiņš bija atšļūcis uz ragavām un muldēja tur nesaprotamus vārdus un smējās. Kārlēns Birkenbaumu cieti bija apkampis, un Grīntāls stāvēja un skatījās aizvien vēl uz to vietu, kur mākonītis bija nozudis.

Translation

For a long time the elongated pillar of smoke remained the same size. Motionless, the fishermen stared at it, not being able to even blink their eyes. But then their eyes stiffened in horror. The little cloud of steam was fading away!
The steamboat wasn't coming any closer - it didn't see them, or didn't want to see them! It passed them by! A dark shadow fell on all their faces. The holders of the flag let go of the flagpole, it fell, and Zalga trampled the red shirt with his feet and chewed on the sleeve of his fur coat. Poor Skrastins had fallen back on the sleigh and was babbling incomprehensibly and laughing. Charlie held Birkenbaums tightly, and Grintals stood and kept on staring at the spot where the little cloud of steam had disappeared.

Grammar

This grammar is a compilation of the three modern Latvian grammars that have been published in the English language, viz. (in order of publication): A Grammar of Modern Latvian, Volumes 1, 2 and 3, by T. G. Fennel and H. Gelsen (Mouton Publishers, The Hague, 1980), A Short Grammar of Latvian by Terje Mathiassen (Slavica Publishers Inc, Columbus OH, 1997), and Latvian by Nicole Nau (Lincom Europa, Munich, 1998). The Latvian language materials published on the internet by the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory of the Institute of Mathematics and Computer Science at the University of Latvia are highly recommended and have been extremely helpful (http://www.ailab.lv/ai-en.htm).

Illustrative materials and examples have also been taken from: Latviešu valodas gramatika 'A Grammar of the Latvian Language' by J. Endzelīns (Latvijas Valsts Izdevniecība, Riga, 1951); Latviešu valodas gramatika 'A Grammar of the Latvian Language' by V. Baltiņa-Bērziņa (Latviešu apgāds, Esslingen & Detmold, 1946); Teach Yourself Latvian by Terēza Budiņa Lazdiņa (The English Universities Press Ltd., London, 1966); Lettiska for universitetsbruk 'Latvian for University Students' I, II, by Aija Priedīte (University of Stockholm, 1992); and Latviešu valodas praktiskā fonoloģija 'A Practical Phonology of the Latvian Language' by Lalita Muižniece (Rasa ABC, Riga, 2002).

Additional information about specific language points discussed below can be sought in the cited grammars, as well as in numerous other grammars of the Latvian language published in Latvian, German, Russian, and other languages.

1. The Alphabet

The oldest surviving printed documents in Latvian date from the sixteenth century and appear in Gothic (fraktur) script. The ensuing orthographic tradition, called Early Written Latvian, was introduced by noted Baltic German clergyman and philologist Georg Mancelius (1593-1654).

Over the following centuries several parallel orthographical systems in the Latin and Gothic scripts were in use. In addition, the Cyrillic script was used in the province of Latgale from 1865 to 1904, as a result of the Czarist Russian ban on Latin script. At the beginning of the twentieth century the Orthographical Commission of the Riga Latvian Association (Rīgas Latviešu Biedrība) established principles for the "new orthography", which essentially meant the use of Latin script with diacritics. The orthography of current Modern Latvian is based on the Latvian SSR orthography reform of 1956.

The Latvian alphabet consists of 33 letters: 24 consonants and 9 vowels --

    a   ā   b   c   č   d   e   ē   f   g   ģ
    h   i   ī   j   k   ķ   l   ļ   m   n   ņ
    o   p   r   s   š   t   u   ū   v   z   ž

Among the differences between the Latvian and English alphabets are 11 additional letters:

  1. ā = a (as in 'calm')
  2. č = ch (as in 'check')
  3. ē = a (as in 'baby')
  4. ģ = d (as in 'dew', 'due')
  5. ī = ee (as in 'meet')
  6. ķ = t (as in 'tune') or qu (as in 'queue')
  7. ļ = l (as in 'lewd')
  8. ņ = n (as in 'new')
  9. š = sh (as in 'push')
  10. ū = oo (as in 'boot')
  11. ž = zh (as in 'pleasure')
1.1. Vowels

The Latvian vowels are pronounced as they are in Latin. Vowels are always short, except when topped by a macron, which indicates a lengthening of the vowel. Under similar circumstances, the long vowels are twice as long as the short ones. Thus ā is similar to the English long vowel in 'calm'; ī denotes a long vowel as in English 'meet'; ū denotes a long vowel as in English 'boot'.

The e represents two different phonemes, known as "closed e" (šaurais e) and "open e" (platais e):

  • "Closed e" as in te 'here', nest 'to carry', pele 'mouse'. A closed front vowel with lip spreading, corresponding approximately to the e of English 'net'.
  • "Open e" as in nesam 'we carry', vecs 'old'. An open front vowel with slight lip spreading, corresponding approximately to the a of English 'man'.

Like e, ē represents two different phonemes, "closed ē" and "open ē":

  • "Closed ē" as in vēlēt 'to wish, vote', mēle 'tongue'. Pronounced as "closed short e" above, but lengthened, corresponding approximately to the a in English 'baby'.
  • "Open ē" as in lēns 'slow', jērs 'lamb'. Pronounced as "open short e" above, but lengthened, corresponding approximately to the a in English 'man'.

In general, the grapheme o represents three different sounds. In words of foreign origin, the 'o' is either short or long and pronounced similar to the monophthong o as in Scottish 'loch'. Thus hormons 'hormone' is pronounced with short 'o'in the first syllabe, long 'o' in the second syllable. In words of Latvian origin, 'o' is pronounced as the diphthong /uo/ or /ua/ similar to wa in English 'wallet': ola 'egg', dot 'to give', ozols 'oak'. See below.

1.2. Diphthongs

Latvian has 10 diphthongs, of which 5 (eu, oi, ou, iu, ui) are quite rare, or found mainly in borrowings and foreign words:

  1. ai = i as in English 'pine, fine'
  2. au = ow as in English 'how, now'
  3. ei = ey as in English 'prey'
  4. eu = no English counterpart
  5. ou = no English counterpart
  6. oi = oy as in English 'boy'
  7. iu = no English counterpart, equivalent to i + u
  8. ui = ui as in German pfui
  9. ie = no English counterpart, similar to diphthong /ia/
  10. o = /uo/ or /ua/ = a as in English 'wallet'
1.3. Consonants

There are voiced and unvoiced consonants:

  • Voiced: b, d, g, ģ, z, ž, dz, j
  • Unvoiced: p, t, k, ķ, s, š, c

The articulation of Latvian consonants differs from that of English consonants. Latvian consonants are pronounced with the speech organs relatively relaxed; they are not aspirated as in English 'p', 't', 'k'. The Latvian r is rolled as in Spanish.

The letter c corresponds to ts in English 'cats'. The letter j corresponds to y in English 'yes'.

Several consonants can be soft, or palatalized, which is indicated by a comma underneath (or for the g, an inverted comma above) the letter: ļ, ķ, ņ, ģ. To soften the consonant the middle of the tongue should approach the roof of the mouth.

The ŗ, as in in kaŗš 'war', is pronounced as rh in English 'rheumatic'. The letter was removed from the Latvian alphabet in 1956. It is, however, used in linquistic texts. The ŗ (as well as the ch) is still quite often found in texts published by Latvians living abroad.

The letters f and h occur in loanwords.

1.4. Other Notes

Some sounds are represented by digraphs:

  • dz = dz as in English 'adz'
  • = g as in English 'age'

The digraph ch (as in the Scottish pronunciation of 'loch') has been replaced by h in post-1956 texts; thus, šahs (= English 'chess') is the contemporary form of šachs.

Word stress is usually on the first syllable of the word. Exceptions to this rule, where the stress is placed on the second syllable, comprise:

  • a few compound forms, such as pus-otra 'one and a half', lab-vakar 'good evening', pal-dies 'thank you';
  • superlative forms prefixed by vis-, such as vis-lielākais 'the biggest';
  • some pronouns and adverbs prefixed with the negation ne- (e.g. ne-kad 'never'), and with the prefixes ik- (e.g. ik-viens 'each and every one') and jeb- (e.g. jeb-kurš 'anyone').

Some speakers of the central dialect, on which standard Latvian is based, have preserved three vowel tones: drawn, falling, broken:

  • ~ drawn, stieptā intonācija, where the pitch gently rises and then rests: ma~te 'mother'
  • ` falling, krītoša intonācija, with a short rise and a long falling pitch: dra`ugs 'friend'
  • ^ broken, lauztā intonācija, with a glottal closure between rise and fall: de^ls 'son'

However, many dialects and most speakers make a distinction only between two vowel tones. In the western central and Tamian dialects, the contrast is between the drawn tone and the non-drawn tone; in the eastern dialects, a contrast is made between falling and non-falling tones. Vowel tones are not indicated in ordinary published materials.

2. The Sound System

Sounds in Latvian may be divided into vowels and consonants. The sounds may be arranged in tables acording to their articulation. Vowels can be classified as follows:

    Front           Back
High   i, ī           u, ū
Middle   e, ē (closed)           o, ō
Low       e, ē (open)   a, ā    

There are two diphthongs gliding from a high vowel to a central mid-low vowel: one front, graphemic ie, and one back, graphemic o.

The table below lists consonant sounds:

    Voiceless   Voiced
Plosives   p   b
    t   d
    ķ   ģ
    k   g
Fricatives   f   v
    s   z
    š   ž
        j
    h    
Affricates   c   č
    dz  
Nasals       m
        n
        ņ
Liquids       l
        ļ
Vibrants       r
        ŗ

The affricates c (t + s), dz (d + z), č (t + š), (d + ž) are composite sounds.

Note that the voiced consonant becomes unvoiced before a voiceless consonant. Thus b, g, z may be pronounced p, k, s respectively. For example, labs 'good', zirgs 'horse', lauzt 'to break' are pronounced *laps, *zirks, *laust, respectively.

An unvoiced consonant becomes voiced before a voiced consonant. Thus k, p, s, š, t may be pronounced g, b, z, ž, d respectively. For example nākdams 'coming', kāpdams 'climbing', pusdivi 'half past one', trešdiena 'Wednesday', atdot 'to give back' are pronounced *piedzgade, *nāgdams, *kābdams, *puzdivi, *treždiena, *addot respectively.

The dental nasal n becomes a velar nasal before k and g. The 'nk' and 'ng' sound heard in banka 'bank', banga 'wave', for example, is pronounced as the 'ng' in English 'bank' and 'sing'.

An s before š or č is often assimilated to š, thus: pusčetri 'half past three' is pronounced *puščetri; visšaurākais 'the narrowest' is pronounced *viššaurākais.

A z before ž is often assimilated to ž, thus: izžaut ' to hang out' is pronounced *ižžaut.

At the end of a word the combinations šs and žs are assimilated to š, thus: brašs 'dashing' is pronounced *braš; mežš 'forest' is pronounced *meš.

3. Noun Inflection

Nouns in Latvian are inflected to show their relations with other words and their function in the sentence. Endings play a very important role. They mark number, case, and gender (either masculine or feminine) of the noun. An ending also indicates to which of seven stems a noun belongs. The names of the stems may vary in different grammars. Latvian has six declensions, three masculine (I- III) and three feminine (IV-VI). The ija- stem and the consonant stem are grouped under the 2nd declension.

Stem   Nom. Sg.   Decl.   Examples
             
a-   -s, -š   I   tēvs, 'father', vējš, 'wind'
             
ija-   -is   II   brālis, 'brother'
Consonant   -ns, -ss       akmens, 'stone', mēness, 'moon'
             
u-   -us   III   medus, 'honey'
             
ā-   -a   IV   māsa, 'sister'
             
ē-   -e   V   māte, 'mother'
             
i-   -s   VI   pils, 'palace'

Note that the nominative ending -s is common to both genders. There are, however, many more masculine nouns than feminine nouns with this ending. The masculine -s nouns can be differentiated from the feminine -s nouns by the nominative plural, which is -i for the masculine noun and -is for the feminine noun.

Proper names all belong to a declension class, have gender, and are inflected. Proper names of foreign origin are spelt in Latvian according to their pronunciation and take gender endings. For example:

  • Berlīne 'Berlin'
  • Valters 'Walter'
  • Tomass 'Thomas'
  • Ņujorka 'New York'
  • Kārlis 'Carl'
  • Ilze 'Ilse'
  • Amerika 'America'

There are six cases in Latvian: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, locative, vocative. The vocative is used to address persons, animate beings, or inanimate things used figuratively. In the singular, it is usually similar to the nominative or else has no ending. In the plural, the vocative of all nouns has the same ending as the nominative. The vocative is usually not included in declension paradigms.

Some Latvian grammars also regard the instrumental as a separate case. The endings of the instrumental correspond to those of the accusative in the singular and the dative in the plural. The instrumental case will not be listed in this presentation.

3.1. First Declension

The first declension is the most common declension of masculine nouns. The nouns of this class are labeled as a/ja-stems (Indo-European o- and jo-stems). The a-type used to have a short a before the ending, thus tēvs < *tēvas. The short a of the stem is still found in the dative singular tēvam. Nouns that end with the -ja- stem are bundled together with the a-stem group, for example vējš < *vējas.

The paradigms below are for the first declension nouns tēvs 'father' and vējš 'wind'.

    Singular   Plural
Nom   tēvs, vējš   tēvi, vēji
Gen   tēva, vēja   tēvu, vēju
Dat   tēvam, vējam   tēviem, vējiem
Acc   tēvu, vēju   tēvus, vējus
Loc   tēvā, vējā   tēvos, vējos
3.2. Fourth Declension

The great majority of feminine nouns belong to the fourth declension. These nouns are referred to as ā-stems, since in older forms the root ended with ā, for example Nom. Sg. liepa < *liepā 'linden tree'. The long ā is still found in the Loc. Sg. liepā, Dat. Pl. liepām and Loc. Pl. liepās.

A few nouns of the fourth declension refer to male persons, and they are declined like the feminine nouns of the 4th declension except for the dative singular, which has -am as the ending instead of -ai. See example below. The same applies to common nouns with the ending -a: tiepša 'a stubborn person' (Nom. Sg., Fem. or Masc.); tiepšai (Dat. Sg. Fem.), tiepšam (Dat. Sg. Masc.).

The paradigms below are for the fourth declension nouns māsa 'sister', puika 'boy'.

    Singular   Plural
Nom   māsa, puika   māsas, puikas
Gen   māsas, puikas   māsu, puiku
Dat   māsai, puikam   māsām, puikām
Acc   māsu, puiku   māsas, puikas
Loc   māsā, puikā   māsās, puikās

The earlier form of the Dat. Sg. had the ending -i, which has still been retained in some Latvian dialects. Traces of this form can be found in Standard Latvian, for example, in the adverbial expressions patiesi 'truly', lieti derēt 'quite useful'. The present dative singular ending -ai has been taken over from the demonstrative pronouns tai 'that' (Dat. Sg. Fem.), šai 'this' (Dat. Sg. Fem.).

4. Verb Inflection

Verbs are inflected for number, person, tense, voice, and mood. Verbs are either singular or plural; the older dual form has disappeared. The first and second person endings show not only person but also number, for example the 1st singular present redz-u 'I see', 1st plural redz-am 'we see'. The 3rd person singular and the 3rd person plural are the same in all tenses in Latvian; for example: pērk 'he, she buys, they (Masc., Fem.) buy'.

Verbs have two voices: active (unmarked) and passive. The passive is formed by the auxiliary verbs tikt/tapt/kļūt 'to become' or būt 'to be' and the past passive participle.

Latvian has six tenses: simple present, simple past (preterit), and simple future, and the three compound tenses in the present, past and future, which are formed with participles.

Latvian has five moods: indicative (which is unmarked), imperative, debitive, subjunctive (in some grammars called conditional), and relative.

Verbs can be transitive or intransitive. There are many verbs than can be both transitive and intransitive. For example:

  • Transitive: suns rej ceļinieku = 'dog barks (at the) traveller'
  • Intransitive: suns rej = 'dog barks'

Impersonal verbs have no agent and are found only in the third person: līst 'it rains, it is raining', snieg 'it snows, it is snowing'.

4.1. Verb Stems

The infinitive ending of the verb is -t (-ties in the reflexive). The infinitive is usually the only verb form listed in Latvian dictionaries.

To generate the different Latvian verb forms, it is necessary to know the infinitive stem, the present stem, and the past (preterit) stem of the verb.

The infinitive stem is formed by dropping the -t/-ties ending of the verb. From this stem, the following can be constructed:

  1. the infinitive
  2. the simple future
  3. the subjunctive
  4. the past passive participle (-ts)
  5. the -dams participle

The present stem is formed by dropping the 1st person singular ending -u of the verb in the simple present. From this stem, the following can be constructed:

  1. the simple present
  2. the debitive
  3. the imperative
  4. the relative
  5. the present active participle (-ošs)
  6. the present passive participle (-ams)
  7. the -ot participle
  8. the -am participle

The past stem is formed by dropping the 1st person singular ending -u of the verb in the past tense. From this stem, the following can be constructed:

  1. the simple past (indicative)
  2. the past active participle (-is)
4.2. Verb Conjugation Classes

4.2.1 Class I

Primary verbs that have one syllable in the infinitive, and where the first singular in the present and past tenses consists of two syllables, belong to the first conjugation. This conjugation forms a closed class (no longer productive) of basic vocabulary with no derivations. The stems can differ and the forms may show different morphonological alternations, such as the ablaut, insertion, etc. See examples below. Irregular verbs belonging to this conjugation are būt 'to be', dot 'to give', iet 'to go'.

Note that prefixes and the reflexive ending -ies of the infinitive are not counted in the stem. Thus for example the following verbs all belong to the class I conjugation: mest 'to throw', aizmest 'to throw away', mesties 'to throw oneself'. Class I verbs may also be labeled as the short conjugation.

I   Infinitive   1st Person   Present   Past
    mest   Sg:   met-u   met-u
    'to throw'   Pl:   met-am   met-ām
                 
    pirkt   Sg:   pērk-u   pirk-u
    'to buy'   Pl:   pērk-am   pirk-ām
                 
    siet   Sg:   sien-u   sēj-u
    'to bind'   Pl:   sien-am   sēj-ām
                 
    glābt   Sg:   glābj-u   glāb-u
    'to save'   Pl:   glābj-am   glāb-ām'
                 
    trūkt   Sg:   trūkst-u   trūk-u
    'to lack'   Pl:   trūkst-am   trūk-ām

4.2.2 Class II

Verbs with at least two syllables in the infinitive, and where the number of syllables in the present stem is identical to the number of syllables in the past stem, belong to the second conjugation. All stems are identical with no morphonological alternations. See examples below. This is an open (productive) class with derivations, and most borrowings appear here. Examples: studēt 'to study', diskutēt 'to discuss'. The verb dabūt 'to get' belongs to this conjugation. Class II verbs may also labeled as the long conjugation.

II   Infinitive   1st Person   Present   Past
    runāt   Sg:   runāj-u   runāj-u
    'to speak'   Pl:   runāj-am   runāj-ām
                 
    gatavot   Sg:   gatavoj-u   gatavoj-u
    'to prepare'   Pl:   gatavoj-am   gatavoj-ām
                 
    svētīt   Sg:   svētīj-u   svētīj-u
    'to bless'   Pl:   svētīj-am   svētīj-ām
                 
    audzēt   Sg:   audzēj-u   audzēj-u
    'to grow'   Pl:   audzēj-am   audzēj-ām

4.2.3 Class III

Verbs which have at least two syllables in the infinitive, and where the number of syllables in the past stem is one more than the number of syllables in the present stem belong to the third conjugation. The infinitive and past stem are identical and the forms may show morphonological consonant alternation. This is a partially open class with derivations. Since the principle forms are short in the present tense, but long in the past tense and the infinitive, for example redz- (pres), redzē-j- (past). redzē- (inf) 'to see', this conjugation is also labeled the mixed conjugation.

III   Infinitive   1st Person   Present   Past
    audzināt   Sg:   audzin-u   audzināj-u
    'to protect'   Pl:   audzin-ām   audzināj-ām
                 
    dalīt   Sg:   dal-u   dalīj-u
    'to divide'   Pl:   dal-ām   dalīj-ām
                 
    turēt   Sg:   tur-u   turēj-u
    'to hold'   Pl:   tur-am   turēj-ām
4.3. Present and Preterit Tense Endings in Indicative Active

Three sets of endings are encountered, here labelled A, B, C:

        A               B               C    
    Sg.   Sg/Pl.   Pl.       Sg.   Sg/Pl.   Pl.       Sg.   Sg/Pl.   Pl.
1st   -u       -am       -u       -am       -u       -ām
2nd   -ø       -at       -i       -at       -i       -āt
3rd       -ø               -ø               -a    

In general it can be said that verbs of the Class I conjugation follow mainly subset A, infrequently subset B. The Class II conjugation always follows subset A. Verbs of the Class III conjugation ending in -ēt- follow subset B. Those ending in -āt- or -īt- follow subset C. Subset C is used for all preterit forms in all conjugations.

Many grammars bundle subset A and subset B endings into one paradigm, with subset C falling into another:

        1 (A+B)               2 (C)    
    Sg.   Sg/Pl.   Pl.       Sg.   Sg/Pl.   Pl.
1st   -u       -am       -u       -ām
2nd   -ø/-i       -at       -i       -āt
3rd       -ø               -a    
4.4. Present Tense Class I (Short Conjugation)

Note that in Latvian, the corresponding English translation for the present tense can be both simple present or continuous present, for example: pērk-u 'I buy, I am buying'.

The Class I (short) conjugation is the most complicated of the three conjugation types. Some examples of subclasses of Class I verbs are seen under 4.2.1 above. This conjugation can be broken down into five subclasses, and some grammars present up to fifteen subgroups under each subclass, depending upon which vocalic and consonantal changes are studied.

4.4.1 First subclass

Verbs which form the stem of the present tense with -a- (bēg-a-m 'we flee', sāk-a-m 'we start') and where the root vowel remains unchanged, belong to the first subclass.

Infinitive: augt 'to grow'

    Sg.   Sg/Pl.   Pl.
1st   augu       augam
2nd   audz       augat
3rd       aug    

4.4.2 Second subclass

Verbs which form the stem of the present tense with -a- and where the root vowel is either -e-, -ē- or -ie-, and where the root vowel changes to -i- in the other principle forms, belong to the second subclass. Example: inf. vilkt 'to pull', 1st sg. pres. velku 'I pull', 1st sg. past vilku 'I pulled'. This vowel alternation is a remainder of the Indo-European vowel alternation.

Infinitive: likt 'to put'

    Sg.   Sg/Pl.   Pl.
1st   lieku       liekam
2nd   liec       liekat
3rd       liek    

4.4.3 Third subclass

Verbs which once were formed with the infix -n- and which today have a changed vowel in the root of the present tense as a result of the -n- merging with the preceding vowel (-an- > o; -en- > -ie-, -in- > -ī-; -un- > -ū-) belong to the third subclass. Example: inf krist 'to fall', 1st sg pres krītu < *krintō.

Infinitive: zagt 'to steal'

    Sg.   Sg/Pl.   Pl.
1st   zogu       zogam
2nd   zodz       zogat
3rd       zog    

Verbs with the present stem ending in p, t, and d have the ending -i in the 2nd person singular (=subset B).

Infinitive: prast 'to know'

    Sg.   Sg/Pl.   Pl.
1st   protu       protam
2nd   proti       protat
3rd       prot    

This subclass also includes verbs with the -n- suffix.

Infinitive: skriet 'to run'

    Sg.   Sg/Pl.   Pl.
1st   skrienu       skrienam
2nd   skrien       skrienat
3rd       skrien    

4.4.4 Fourth subclass

Verbs which form the present tense with the suffix -j- belong to the fourth subclass. This -j- causes the palatalization of the preceding consonant in all persons except the 2nd sg. (See section 6.0). Example: inf bāzt (<bāzjō) 'to shove', 1st sg bāžu 'I shove', 2nd sg bāz 'you shove'.

Infinitive: kāpt 'to climb'

    Sg.   Sg/Pl.   Pl.
1st   kāpju       kāpjam
2nd   kāp       kāpjat
3rd       kāpj    

Verb stems ending in a vowel or diphthong have -j- in all persons of the present tense and in all forms derived from the present stem.

Infinitive: pļaut 'to reap'

    Sg.   Sg/Pl.   Pl.
1st   pļauju       pļaujam
2nd   pļauj       pļaujat
3rd       pļauj    

4.4.5 Fifth subclass

Verbs which have the suffix -st- in the present tense belong to the fifth subclass. All fifth subclass verbs end in -i- in the 2nd sg (=subset B). All verbs are intransitive and often denote a change in state or position.

Infinitive: kļūt 'to become'

    Sg.   Sg/Pl.   Pl.
1st   kļūstu       kļūstam
2nd   kļūsti       kļūstat
3rd       kļūst    
4.5. Present Tense Class II (Long Conjugation)

Verbs of the second conjugation can be divided into four subgroups according to their infinitive suffixes: -āt, -ēt, -īt, -ōt. The suffix, as it appears in the 1st person plural, determines the verb stem:

Subgroup   Infinitive   1 Pl.   Stem
1st   run-āt 'to speak'   run-āja-m   āja-stem
2nd   audz-ēt 'to cultivate'   audz-ēja-m   ēja-stem
3rd   svēt-īt 'to bless'   svēt-īja-m   īja-stem
4th   gatav-ōt 'to prepare'   gatav-ōja-m   ōja-stem

The first person ending in the singular in all tenses is -u. The -j- is inserted between the root and the ending in order to prevent hiatus, a combination of two vowels which do not constitute a diphthong.

The second person ending in the singular present is zero, since not only the older -i ending (shortened from the even older -ie) has fallen away, but also the previous -j- has fallen away; for example: meklē < *meklēji < *meklējie 'you (sg) seek'; ogo < *ogōji < *ogōjie 'you (sg) pick berries'.

The third person ending in the singular and plural present is also zero, since not only the older -a ending has fallen away, but also the previous -j- has fallen away; for example: mazgā < *mazgāj < *mazgāja 'he, she, they wash'.

Examples of the present tense of Class II, 1st, 2nd and 4th subgroups are:

Class II   1st   2nd   4th
Infin.   runāt 'to speak'   audzēt 'to cultivate'   gatavot 'to prepare'
1 Sg.   runāju   audzēju   gatavoju
2 Sg.   runā   audzē   gatavo
3 Sg.   runā   audzē   gatavo
1 Pl.   runājam   audzējam   gatavojam
2 Pl.   runājat   audzējat   gatavojat
3 Pl.   runā   audzē   gatavo

4.5.1 The Third Subgroup -īja-stems

The -īja-stems are a dwindling subgroup of the class II conjugation. Verbs of this subgroup have gradually migrated over into the historical -ā-stems of the class III conjugation. This is an ongoing process, and many verbs that a century ago were regarded as -īja-stems definitely belong to the ā-stems today, for example zvanīt 'to ring', tīrīt 'to clean', postīt 'to destroy'.

There are currently eleven verbs in the -īja-stem subgroup, of which four can be conjugated according to both the -īja-stem and the ā-stem paradigms. For example:

Infinitive svētīt 'to bless', 1st sg svētīju or svētu

    Class II       Class III
1 Sg.   svētīju   or   svētu 'I bless'
2 Sg.   svētī   or   svēti
3 Sg.   svētī   or   svēta
1 Pl.   svētījam   or   svētām
2 Pl.   svēt'jat   or   svētāt
3 Pl.   svētī   or   svēta

Other examples include: cienīt 'to respect', 1st sg cienīju or cienu; pētīt 'to investigate', 1st sg pētīju or pētu; veltīt 'to dedicate' 1st sg veltīju or veltu.

4.5.2 The verb dabūt 'to get'

The verb dabūt 'to get, to receive, to obtain' is conjugated as a class II verb with -ū- in all forms:

1 Sg.   dabūju 'I get, receive, obtain'
2 Sg.   dabū
3 Sg.   dabū
1 Pl.   dabūjam
2 Pl.   dabūjat
3 Pl.   dabū
4.6. Present Tense Class III (Mixed Conjugation)

Verbs of the third conjugation can be divided into three subgroups, according to their infinitive suffixes -ēt, -īt and -ināt.

4.6.1 The -ēt subgroup

Two types of verbs have merged into the -ēt subgroup: the historical a-stems, for example tecēt 'to flow', tekam 'we flow', and the historical i-stems, for example gulēt 'to sleep', guļu < *guljō 'I sleep', guļam < *gulim 'we sleep', guļat < *gulit 'you (pl) sleep'.

Verbs ending in -ēt follow subset B endings in the present (see section 4.3).

Infinitives: dzirdēt 'to hear', gribēt 'to want'

1 Sg.   dzirdu   gribu
2 Sg.   dzirdi   gribi
3 Sg.   dzird   grib
1 Pl.   dzirdam   gribam
2 Pl.   dzirdat   gribat
3 Pl.   dzird   grib

4.6.2 The -īt subgroup (historical ā-stem)

Verbs ending in -īt follow subset C endings in the present tense (see section 4.3). The first person singular has the ending -u, which has been shortened from the older -au, for example saku < *sakau 'I say'. The second person singular has the ending -i, which has been shortened from -ai, for example dari < *darai 'you (sg) do' (cf. Lithuanian darai). The 3rd person singular ending -a has been shortened from the older -ā, for example raksta <* rakstā 'he, she, they write'.

Verbs that have a dz or c before -īt retain g or k, respectively, in all present forms. This however does not apply to the verbs mīcīt 'to knead' or mācīt 'to teach', which retain the c in all present forms.

Infinitives: lasīt 'to read', sacīt 'to say'

1 Sg.   lasu   saku
2 Sg.   lasi   saki
3 Sg.   lasa   saka
1 Pl.   lasām   sakām
2 Pl.   lasāt   sakāt
3 Pl.   lasa   saka

4.6.3 The -ināt subgroup

Verbs ending in -ināt follow subset C endings in the present (see section 4.3). Four verbs with -āt in the infinitive also belong to this group: sargāt 'to protect', zināt 'to know', dziedāt 'to sing', raudāt 'to cry'. The latter two verbs follow subset B endings in the present.

Infinitives: audzināt 'to foster', raudāt 'to cry'

1 Sg.   audzinu   raudu
2 Sg.   audzini   raudi
3 Sg.   audzina   raud
1 Pl.   audzinām   raudam
2 Pl.   audzināt   raudat
3 Pl.   audzina   raud
5. Word Order

The most common word order of a neutral declarative sentence is Subject + Verb + Object; example: Es tulkoju grāmatas. 'I translate books'. Adjective/adverbial modifiers are placed before the governing word, example: Es ātri tulkoju labas grāmatas. 'I quickly translate good books'.

However, since Latvian is a language with a case system, word order is rather changeable. Thus, the following are all possible and grammatically correct (='Mother woke the children early today'):

  • Māte šodien agri modināja bērnus 'mother, today, early, woke, children'.
  • Šodien māte bērnus agri modināja 'today, mother, childern, early, woke'.
  • Māte modināja šodien bērnus agri 'mother, woke, today, children, early'.

However, each sentence conveys a different meaning, since emphasis gets placed on the first word in a sentence. A difference in style is also apparent due to the change in word order.

Word order is not free in interrogative sentences: the interrogative particle vai or the interrogative prounouns (kas, ko, etc.) and adverbs (kur, cik, kad) are always placed in first position. Examples: Vai tu arvien baro cūkas? 'Are you still feeding the pigs?', Kāpēc tu nedejo? 'Why aren't you dancing?'