The Latvian language, also sometimes referred to as Lettish, is a language with an unclear history that holds especial interest for linguists today.
Like many other Baltic languages, the Latvian language has retained a number of archaic features in the present-day form and exhibits similarities to the Slavic languages, both facts that have caused a number of disputes among modern linguists.
Early History and Classification of the Latvian Language
Latvian is classified as a Baltic language, within the Indo-European language family. The exact origins of the Baltic language group have been disputed, and there is still no clear-cut agreement as to the exact path of early development of the Baltic language group. Some linguists suggest the existence of a Balto-Slavic language group, a descendent of the Indo-European family, which split into two separate subfamilies (Baltic and Slavic) around the 10th century BC.
Other linguists counter such suggestions of a formerly united Balto-Slavic group, instead claiming that the similarities found between the Baltic and Slavic languages today exist because of historical periods of close contact between Baltic and Slavic language speakers.
Relationship Between Modern Latvian and Lithuanian
The Lithuanian and Latvian languages are closely related. Both have seven noun cases and six verb declensions. Word order generally makes use of the subject-object-verb word pattern. Primary differences between the languages occur in pronunciation; while Lithuanian makes use of long vowels, Latvian uses shorter vowels.
It is believed that the emergence of Latvian and Lithuanian as distinct languages began to occur around 800 AD. Prior to this time, the two were likely seen as different dialects of a single language. Most linguists consider Latvian to be the less conservative of the two languages, as it has undergone significantly more change throughout history.
Early Written Latvian Language
The first evidence of written Latvian dates from the 16th century and is found in religious texts, a Roman Catholic catechism dating from 1585 and a Lutheran catechism dating from 1586. Old Latvian writing was based on a Gothic script commonly used in the area of present-day Germany, the product of German priests who attempted to translate religious texts into Latvian in order to aid their work with the Latvian peoples.
In 1631, a German priest named Georgs Mancelis made an attempt to systemize the writing system, which, before that time, had exhibited a variety of diverse styles. The system introduced by Mancelis included appropriate long and short vowels and diacritic marks, in order to accommodate pronunciation of the Latvian language. This orthography remained in place until the 20th century, when it was replaced by a modernized writing system.
Purification of the Latvian Language in the 19th Century
Due to the fact that the upper class of Latvian society was made up of Baltic Germans, Latvian retained heavy German language influences until the 19th century. This began to change in the mid-1800s in accordance with an awakening of Latvian nationalist sentiment.
The Latvian National Awakening popularized the use of a purely Latvian language, an effort that mostly involved the “latvianization” of foreign loanwords (primarily German) that had been adopted into the Latvian language.
Russification Under Alexander III
The nationalist movement of the early and mid-1800s was cut short in the 1880s, when Tsar Alexander III took power, instituting a process of Russification throughout Latvia. Linguistic influences were seen in the adoption of various Russian loanwords and, most significantly, in the suggestion that the Latvian language adopt a Cyrillic alphabet like the one used in the Russian language.
This period of Russification continued until Alexander III’s death in 1894. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, nationalist movements began to reemerge in Latvia, rejecting and eliminating many of the changes that had developed during Alexander’s reign.
Modern Development of the Written Latvian Language
The writing system developed by German priest Georgs Mancelis was used until the early 20th century. In 1908 Latvian linguists began to develop a more elaborate modern Latvian alphabet based on a modified Latin language alphabet. Developments and efforts toward standardization continued throughout the early 20th century.
Since 1922, the Latvian language has made use of a Latin alphabet, with diacritical marks (dots and symbols which give letters different sounds) added to create certain sounds difficult to create using a standard Latin alphabet.
Latvian Independence: Latvian as an Official Language
In 1917, Latvian nationalists declared an independent Latvian republic, taking advantage of the chaos caused by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the final days of World War I. Within months, however, Red Army troops had overrun Latvia, part of a Bolshevik campaign to establish a communist regime in Latvia and other former territories of the ex-Russian Empire.
German and Estonian forces aided the Latvian army in pushing back Red Army troops, and in 1920, a treaty between Latvia and Russia confirmed that Russia would respect Latvia as a sovereign state. Latvian was declared the official language of the newly independent state. In 1920 Latvia’s first president was elected and in 1922 the first constitution was drafted.
Latvian Language Developments under the USSR
Soviet occupation of Latvia from 1940-41 and 1945-91 resulted in an increased influence of Russian on the Latvian language. In addition, the deportation and persecution of many native Latvians resulted in a decreased Latvian population and a lower number of Latvian speakers.
After Latvia gained independence in 1991, the government introduced a new language education policy designed to integrate the Latvian state language more securely into the school systems and everyday life.
Modern Latvian Language and Dialects
Three dialects exist within the contemporary Latvian language: West, also referred to as Central Latvian or Tamiam; East, also referred to as High Latvian or Latgalian; and Central, a more conservative dialect that served as the basis for a modern Latvian literary language.
“Standard” Latvian is based on the West Latvian dialect. The Latvian language now serves as the official state language of Latvia, where it is spoken by an estimated 1.4 million people.
Latvian Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Lettish, Lettisch
Language Family: Indo-European, Baltic, Eastern
Official Language of: Latvia
Spoken by Approximately 1,544,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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