The Latvian language (latviešu valoda), sometimes referred to as Lettish, is the state language of the Republic of Latvia. There are about 1.4 million native Latvian speakers in Latvia and about 150 000 abroad.
The Latvian language belongs to the East Baltic sub-group of the Baltic language group in the Indo-European language family, and it is neither Germanic or Slavic. Its closest and only living relative is Lithuanian language. However, while related, the Latvian and Lithuanian vocabularies vary greatly from each other and are not mutually intelligible.
Latvian is an inflective language with several analytical forms , three dialects, and German syntactical influence. There are two grammatical genders in Latvian. Each noun is declined in seven cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, locative, and vocative.
Latvian emerged as a distinct language in the 16th century, having evolved from Latgalian and assimilating Curonian, Semigallian and Selonian on the way. All of these belong to the Baltic language group.
The oldest known examples of written Latvian are from a 1530 translation of a number of hymns made by Nicholas Ramm, a German pastor in Riga.
Latvian is one of two extant Baltic languages (the other being Lithuanian), a group of its own within the family of Indo-European languages. Latvian and, especially, Lithuanian are considered to be the most archaic of all the Indo-European languages spoken today. The closest ties they have are to the Slavic and Germanic language families.
Historically, Latvian was written using a system based upon German phonetic principles. At the beginning of the 20th century, this was replaced by a more phonetically appropriate system, using a modified Latin alphabet consisting of 33 letters. Latvian spelling has become one of the most perfect Latin script-based spelling systems in the world: Latvian graphemes correspond almost perfectly to the phonemes while observing the morphemic structure of the word.
The Latvian alphabet lacks the letters q, w, x, y, but uses letters modified by a number of diacritic marks:
- A macron over the vowels a, e, i, u, signifying a long vowel (ā, ē, ī, ū, and historically also ō);
- A caron over c, s and z, signifying palatalization (č, š, ž);
- A comma under or over some consonants signifying a "palatal" variant (ģ, ķ, ļ, ņ, and historically also ŗ);
Ö is only used in the Letgallian dialect. It has not been used in the official Latvian language since the 1940s.
The diphthongs (ai, au, ei, ia, iu, ui, ua, oi) are written (ai, au, ei, ie, iu, ui, o, oj).
Every phoneme has its own letter (with the exception of dz and dž, which are nevertheless uniquely identifiable, and the two sounds written as e), so that it is always guess how to pronounce a word when you read it. The stress, with a few exceptions, is on the first syllable.
Language and politics
Latvia has long historic ties with Germany, Sweden, Russia and Poland and it has always been a multicultural country. However during the years of Soviet occupation (1940-1941; 1945-1991) russification policy was applied in the Baltics. All in all during the period of Soviet occupation a total of around 340,000 Latvians were deported and otherwise persecuted. Followed by a massive imigration from Soviet republics of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus etc. the ethnic Latvian population was reduced from about 80% in 1935 to 52% in 1989. Most immigrants settled in the country without ever learning Latvian. Today Latvian is the mother tongue for only about 60% of the country's population.
After re-establishment of independence in 1991 changes have taken place in the language situation of Latvia. The main goal of language policy was integration of all inhabitants against the background of the official state language while protecting and developing the languages of Latvia's minorities. Recognising the problems inherent in the society, the Latvian government has embarked on government programmes for the teaching of Latvian.
A number of minorities in Latvia enjoy bilingual education at government expense. These include Russian, Jewish, Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Belorussian, Estonian, and Roma schools where Latvian is taught as a second language in the initial stages so as to encourage the attainment of competence in Latvian and ensure each resident of Latvia integration into the life of the society and not be hindered by lack of proficiency in Latvian.
The Law on State Language was adopted on December 9, 1999. Several regulatory acts that refer to this Law have been adopted. The observance of the Law is monitored by the Ministry of Justice State Language Centre.
Considering the recent political and demographic processes in the region, Latvia and the other Baltic States are among countries where consistent implementation of reasonable language policy principles is essential for the maintenance of the language. The purposes of the present Law are: the preservation, protection and development of the Latvian language, the integration of national minorities in the society of Latvia while observing their rights to use their native or any other language.