There are three dialects in Latvian: the Livonian dialect, Latgalian and the Middle dialect. The Livonian dialect is divided into the Vidzeme variety and the Courland variety (also called tāmnieku or ventiņu). The Middle dialect, the basis of standard Latvian, is divided into the Vidzeme variety, the Curonian variety and the Semigallian variety. Note: Latvian dialects should not be confused with the Livonian, Curonian, Semigallian and Selonian languages.
The history of the Latvian language (cf. below) has placed it in a peculiar position whereby it is spoken by a large number of non-native speakers as compared to native speakers. The immigrant and minority population in Latvia is 900,000 people, comprised of Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Poles, and others. The majority of immigrants came to Latvia during the Soviet period (1940–1991), supplementing pre-existing ethnic minority communities. In a recent survey, 60% of Latvia's ethnic minorities described their knowledge of Latvian as fluent. Fluency in Latvian is prevalent among the younger generations of the minorities.
The adoption of Latvian by minorities was brought about by its status as the only official language of the country, its prominence in the education system, its sole use in the public sector and by changes in the society after the fall of the Soviet Union that shifted linguistic focus away from Russian. As an example, in 2007 universities and colleges for the first time received applications from prospective students who had a bilingual secondary education in schools for minorities. Fluency in Latvian is expected in a variety of professions and careers.
Latvian is an inflecting language with many analytical forms. There are two grammatical genders in Latvian (masculine and feminine) and two numbers, singular and plural. Nouns decline into seven cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, locative, and vocative. Primary word stress, with a few exceptions, is on the first syllable. There are no articles in Latvian. Basic word order in Latvian is Subject Verb Object, however word order is relatively free.
Latvian in western orthography was first written using a system based upon German phonetic principles, while the Latgalian dialect was written using Polish orthographic principles. At the beginning of the 20th century, this was replaced by a more phonetically appropriate system, using a modified Latin alphabet.
The modern standard Latvian alphabet uses 22 unmodified letters of the Latin alphabet (all except Q, W, X and Y). It adds a further eleven letters by modification. The vowel letters A, E, I and U can take a macron to show length, unmodified letters being short. The letters C, S and Z, that in unmodified form are pronounced [ts], [s] and [z] respectively, can be marked with a caron. These marked letters, Č, Š and Ž are pronounced [tʃ], [ʃ] and [ʒ] respectively. The letters Ģ, Ķ, Ļ and Ņ are written with a cedilla or little 'comma' placed below (or above the lowercase g). They are modified (palatalized) versions of G, K, L and N and represent the sounds [ɟ], [c], [ʎ] and [ɲ]. Non-standard varieties of Latvian add extra letters to this standard set.
Latvian spelling has almost perfect correspondence between graphemes and phonemes. Every phoneme has its own letter so that a reader need not learn how a word is pronounced, but simply pronounce it. There are only three exceptions to this that could cause mispronunciation. The first is the letter E and its long variation Ē, which are used to write two sounds that represent the short and long versions of either [ɛ] or [æ] respectively. The letter O indicates both the short and long [ɔ], and the diphthong [uɔ]. These three sounds are written as O, Ō and Uo in Latgalian, and some Latvians campaign for the adoption of this system in standard Latvian. However, the majority of Latvian linguists argue that o and ō are found only in loanwords, with the Uo sound being the only native Latvian phoneme. The digraph Uo was discarded in 1914, and the letter Ō has not been used in the official Latvian language since 1946. Likewise, the letters Ŗ and Ch were discarded in 1957, although they are still used in some varieties and by many Latvians living beyond the borders of Latvia. The letter Y is used only in the Latgalian language, where it is used to write a distinct phoneme that does not occur in other Latvian varieties. Latvian orthography allows nine digraphs, which are written Ai, Au, Ei, Ie, Iu, Ui, Oi, Dz and Dž.
The old orthography was based on that of German and did not represent the Latvian language phonemically. At the beginning it was used to write religious texts for German priests to help them in their work with Latvians. The first writings in Latvian were chaotic: there were as many as twelve variations of writing Š. In 1631 the German priest Georgs (Juris) Mancelis tried to systematize the writing. He wrote long vowels according to their position in the word — a short vowel followed by h for a radical vowel, a short vowel in the suffix and vowel with a diacritic mark in the ending indicating two different accents. Consonants were written following the example of German with multiple letters. The old orthography was used until the 20th century when it was slowly replaced by the modern orthography.
Lack of software support of diacritics has caused an unofficial style of orthography, often called translit, to emerge for use in situations when the user is unable to access Latvian diacritic marks in today's computerised media (e-mail, newsgroups, web user forums, chat, SMS etc.). It uses the basic Modern Latin alphabet only, and letters that aren't used in standard orthography are usually omitted. In this style, diacritics are replaced by digraphs - a doubled letter indicates a long vowel; j indicates palatalisation of consonants, except for Š, Č and Ž that are indicated by using h. Sometimes the second letter, the one used instead of a diacritic, is changed to one of two other diacritic letters (e.g. š is written as ss or sj, not sh), and since many people may find it difficult to use these unusual methods, they write without any indication of missing diacritic marks, or they use digraphing only if the diacritic mark in question would make a semantic difference. Sometimes an apostrophe is used before or after the character that would properly need to be diacriticised. Also, digraph diacritics are often used and sometimes even mixed with diacritical letters of standard orthography. Although today there is software support available, diacritic-less writing is still widespread for financial and social reasons.
Standard QWERTY keyboards are used for writing in Latvian; diacritics are entered by using a dead key (usually ", occasionally ~). Some keyboard layouts use the modifier key AltGr (most notably the Windows 2000 and XP built-in layout (Latvian QWERTY)). In the early 1990s, the Latvian ergonomic keyboard layout was developed. Although this layout may be available with language support software, it has not become popular because of a lack of keyboards with this layout.
For example, the Lord's Prayer in Latvian written in different styles:
|Old orthography||Modern orthography||Internet style|
|Muuſze Thews exkan tho Debbes||Muhſu Tehvs debbeſîs||Mūsu tēvs debesīs||Muusu teevs debesiis|
|Sweetyttz thope totws waerdtcz||Swehtits lai top taws wahrds||Svētīts lai top tavs vārds||Sveetiits lai top tavs vaards|
|Enaka mums touwe walſtibe.||Lai nahk tawa walſtiba||Lai nāk tava valstība||Lai naak tava valstiiba|
|Tows praetcz noteſe||Taws prahts kai noteek||Tavs prāts lai notiek||Tavs praats lai notiek|
|ka exkan Debbes tha arridtczan wuerſſon ſemmes||kà debbeſîs tà arirdſan zemes wirsû||kā debesīs, tā arī virs zemes||kaa debesiis taa arii virs zemes|
|Muſze beniſke mayſe bobe mums ſdjoben.||Muhsu deeniſchtu maizi dod mums ſchodeen||Mūsu dienišķo maizi dod mums šodien||Muusu dienishkjo maizi dod mums shodien|
|Vnbe pammet mums muſſe parrabe||Un pametti mums muhſu parradus [later parahdus]||Un piedod mums mūsu parādus||Un piedod mums muusu paraadus|
|ka mehs pammettam muſſims parabenekims||kà arri mehs pamettam ſaweem parrahdneekeem||kā arī mēs piedodam saviem parādniekiem||kaa arii mees piedodam saviem paraadniekiem|
|Vnbe nhe wedde mums exkan kaerbenaſchenne||Un ne eeweddi muhs eekſch kahrdinaſchanas||Un neieved mūs kārdināšanā||Un neieved muus kaardinaashanaa|
|Seth atpeſthmums no to loune||bet atpeſti muhs no ta launa [later łauna]||bet atpestī mūs no ļauna||bet atpestii muus no ljauna|
|Aefto thouwa gir ta walſtibe||Jo tew peederr ta walſtiba||Jo tev pieder valstība||Jo tev pieder valstiiba.|
|vnbe tas ſpeez vnb tas Goobtcz tur muſſige||un tas ſpehks un tas gods muhſchigi [later muhzigi]||spēks un gods mūžīgi||speeks un gods muuzhiigi|
|Plosives||p b||t d||c ɟ||k ɡ|
|Affricates||t͡s d͡z||t͡ʃ d͡ʒ|
|Fricative||f v||s z||ʃ ʒ||x|
The consonant sounds are only found in loanwords. Latvian plosives are not aspirated (unlike in English and other Germanic languages).
Latvian also has 10 diphthongs ([ai], [ui], [ɛi], [aŭ], [iɛ], [uɔ], [iu], [ɔi], [ɛu], [ɔu]), although some diphthongs are mostly limited to proper names and interjections.
There is some evidence to suggest the existence of a Balto-Slavic language group after the break-up of Proto-Indo-European, with the Slavic and Baltic languages splitting around the 10th century BC. However, some linguists: Meillet, Klimas, Zinkevičius oppose this view, providing arguments against Balto-Slavic group, and explaining similarities by one or several periods of close contacts. There exists a number of Baltic words that are similar to Sanskrit or Latin, which lack counterparts in Slavic languages. Latvian with Albanian, slavic and Indo-Iranian languages are grouped as satem languages. While the possession of many archaic features is undeniable, the exact manner by which the Baltic languages have developed from the Proto-Indo-European language is not clear.
According to some glottochronological speculations, the Eastern Baltic languages split from Western Baltic (or, perhaps, from the hypothetical proto-Baltic language) between 400 and 600. The differentiation between Lithuanian and Latvian started after 800, with a long period of being one language but different dialects. At a minimum, transitional dialects existed until the 14th century or 15th century, and perhaps as late as the 17th century.
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 hymn made by Nikolaus Ramm, a German pastor in Riga.
Until the 19th century, the Latvian language was heavily influenced by the German language, because the upper class of local society was formed by Baltic Germans. In the middle of the 19th century the first Latvian National Awakening was started, led by “Young Latvians” who popularized use of Latvian language. Participants of this movement laid foundations for standard Latvian and also popularized latvianization of loan words. However in 1880s when tsar Alexander III came into power Russification started. During this period some Latvian scholars even suggested adopting the Cyrillic alphabet for use in Latvian. After the tsar's death, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, nationalist movements reemerged.
In 1908, Latvian linguists Kārlis Mīlenbahs and Jānis Endzelīns elaborated the modern Latvian alphabet, which slowly replaced old orthography used before. Another interesting feature of the language, in common with its sister language Lithuanian, that was developed at the time is that proper names from other countries and languages, no matter how obscure, are altered phonetically to fit the phonological system of Latvian. Even if the original language also uses the Latin alphabet, this process takes place. Moreover the names are modified to ensure they have noun declension endings, declining like all other nouns. For example a place such as Lecropt (a Scottish parish) is likely to become Lekropta; the Scottish village of Tillicoultry becomes Tilikutrija. This is a good example of linguistic purism in this ancient language.
During the years of Soviet occupation (1940–41 and 1945–91) the policy of Russification greatly affected the Latvian language. Through these periods many Latvians and Latvia’s other ethnicities faced deportations and persecutions. A massive immigration from the Soviet republics of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and others followed, largely the result of Stalin's plan to integrate Latvia and the other Baltic republics into the Soviet Union by means of Russian colonisation. As a result, the proportion of the ethnic Latvian population within the total population was reduced from 80% in 1935 to 52% in 1989. In the Soviet Latvia, most of the immigrants who settled in the country didn't learn Latvian. Today, Latvian is the mother tongue of more than 60% of the country's population.
After the re-establishment of independence in 1991, a new policy of language education was introduced. The primary goal declared was the integration of all inhabitants into the environment of the official state language, while protecting the languages of Latvia's ethnic minorities.
Government-funded bilingual education is available in primary schools for ethnic minorities. These include Russian, Jewish, Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Estonian, and Roma schools. Latvian is taught as a second language in the initial stages to encourage proficiency in the language, aiming to avoid alienation from the Latvian-speaking linguistic majority and to facilitate academic and professional achievement. Since the mid-1990s, the government may pay a student's tuition in public universities only provided that the instruction is in Latvian. Since 2004, the state mandates Latvian as the language of instruction in public secondary schools (Form 10–12) for at least 60% of class work. (Previously, a broad system of education in Russian existed.)
The Law on State Language was adopted on December 9, 1999. Several regulatory acts associated with this law have been adopted. The observance of the law is monitored by the State Language Centre run by the Ministry of Justice.
To counter the influence of Russian and English, government organizations (namely the Terminology Commission of the Latvian Academy of Science and the State Language Center) try to popularize the use of Latvian terms and linguistic purism. Purism is often observed in the coining of new terms, which are usually disputed by the public — although purists have invented some euphonic words, many neologisms are widely seen as 'alien' and unnecessary, as pre-existing words could be used instead; for example, a heated debate arose when the Terminology Commission suggested that “eira”, with its 'latvianized' ending, would be a better term for euro than the widely used “eiro”. Other new terms are literal translations or new loanwords. For example, Latvian has two words for "telephone" – "tālrunis" and "telefons", the former being a direct translation into Latvian of the latter international term. Still others are older, more euphonic loanwords rather than Latvian words. For example, "computer" can be either "dators" or "kompjūters". Both are loanwords (the native Latvian word for 'computer' is "skaitļotājs"). However, for some time now “dators” has been considered an appropriate translation.
There are several contests held annually to promote correct use of Latvian. Notably, the State Language Center holds contests for language mistakes, named "Gimalajiešu superlācis" after an infamous incorrect translation of Asiatic Black Bear. These mistakes, often quite amusing, are both grammatical and stylistic; sometimes also obvious typos and mistranslations are considered to belong here. Organizers claim that mistakes are largely collected in areas heavily populated by Russians-speakers, as well as from Lithuanian-owned chain stores. Mistranslations are not necessarily grammatical, but also stylistic and vocabulary mistakes, such as literal translations from the English language.