The Two Latvian e's

The letter e can stand for a pronunciation like the vowel in English bet or the one in English bat. The vowel of the first example word is said with the lips slightly apart; the vowel of the second example word is said with the mouth even more open. Thus, the two types of e's are traditionally know as the 'close' e (šaurais e), and the 'open' e (platais e), respectively.

The 'close' e

Although there are exceptions, the choice of pronunciation does follow some rules. Thus, the close pronunciation is used when:

  1. the e is the last letter of a word
    Examples: zāle 'grass', svilpe 'whistle', bite 'bee'

  2. the vowel of the following syllable is i or e
    (Note: the vowels i or e are said with the front of the tongue raised towards the hard palate.)
    Examples: zeme 'land, soil', ābele 'apple tree', ezis 'hedgehog', četri 'four'

  3. the following consonant is palatal(ized) - that is, said with the front of the tongue raised/near the front of the hard palate. In Latvian, these are the consonants represented by the letters ķ ģ č dž š ž ņ ļ j.
    Examples: ceļš 'road', mežs 'forest', dzeja 'poem'

These same rules apply if the letter stands for a long vowel ē:

  1. ē is last letter of a word: 'no'

  2. the vowel of the following syllable is i or e
    Examples: klēpis 'lap', ērglis 'eagle', sēdēt 'to sit', mērcēt 'to soak'

  3. the following consonant is palatal(ized)
    Examples: sēņot 'to pick mushrooms', mērķis 'goal', tēja 'tea'

The 'open' e:

In the other circumstances, the pronunciation of e or ē is typically open:
  1. when NOT at the end of a word
    Examples: zelts 'gold', dēls 'son', plecs 'shoulder', bērzs 'birch tree'

  2. when the vowel of the following syllable is u, o or a
    Examples: cena 'price', elpot 'to breathe', deguns 'nose', bēda 'sorrow'

  3. when the following consonant is NOT palatal(ized)
    Examples: svēts 'holy', zēns 'boy', tēvs 'father', krekls 'shirt'

The Alternation in Pronunciation

The reality of these rules is most evident when you compare words which have the same roots:

root meaning close e meaning open e meaning
cep- cook, fry cepetis fried chop cepums cookie
deg- burn degviela fuel degu I'm burning
vec- old vecis old man vecs old (adj.)
veči old people vecums old age
ēd- eat ēdiens food ēdams edible
bēg- flee, run bēglis refugee bēgums ebbing/low tide
bēgšu I shall flee bēgu I am fleeing
slēg- close, lock slēdzis a lock atslēga key
lēn- slow lēnītēm slowly bit by bit lēnām slowly
tē(v)- father tētis Dad tēvocis uncle (lit. 'little father')
dzer- drink dzēriens a drink dzeru I'm drinking
vē(j)- blow vējš wind vētra storm

Possible Exceptions:

However, there are a fair number of words which do not follow these rules, as the following table shows:

close e meaning open e meaning
telts tent zelts gold
svērt to weigh lēts cheap
pērt to flog, whip bērns child

Nevertheless, even the words which behave exceptionally follow certain patterns:

close e meaning explanation open e meaning explanation
telts tent foreign borrowing zelts gold
svērt to weigh verb infinitve lēts cheap adjective
pērt to spank verb infinitve bērns child

Thus, words which at first blush appear to be exceptions can be accounted for if one looks at the type of word involved.

Classed according to Part of Speech

If we look closely, we can see that certain parts of speech (i.e. syntactic categories) and certain morphemes (prefixes, suffixes, etc.) typically exhibit certain preferences:

Close e:

  1. pronouns: es 'I', mēs 'we'
  2. conjunctions: bet 'but'
  3. prepositions: zem 'below'
  4. verb infinitives: svērt 'to weigh', ēst 'to eat', vemt 'to vomit'
  5. foreign/borrowed nouns: telts 'tent', ceremonija 'ceremony', delegācija 'delegation', marmelāde 'marmelade'
  6. prefix ne- meaning 'not': nezāle 'weed; lit. not-herb', neaug 'doesn't grow'

Open e:

  1. adjectives: vecs 'old', lēts 'cheap', svēts 'holy', sens 'ancient', cēls 'noble'
  2. adverbs: ērti 'comfortably'
  3. nouns with diminutive suffix -ēns: dēlēns 'little son'

True Exceptions

Nevertheless, there are still exceptions. The following pairs of words belong to the same syntactic category, and still exhibit different pronunciations of e:

part of speech close e meaning open e meaning
noun klēts barn, granary spēks strength
noun mēness moon ūdens water

There's not much that can be done about this except to start memorizing!

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This page created and maintained by
A. Steinbergs

Last revised September 16, 2009