Consonant Pronunciation Hints

For the most part, the pronunciation of Latvian is predictable from the spelling. (See the Alphabet webpage for details.) However, there are exceptions. The following sections deal with them, and how you should pronounce them:

Introduction: voicing assimilation in English

In linguistics we distinguish voiced consonants from voiceless consonants.

(Definitions:
Voiced consonants are produced with the vocal cords vibrating.
Voiceless consonants: the vocal cords are not vibrating.)

In English, you see an effect of this difference in the pronunciation of the regular noun plural ending -s. English speakers assume that because the plural -s is spelled "s", that it is always pronounced [ s ] (as in mats, cuffs, cups, ducks, etc.).

However, this is not always the case. In the following examples, the the plural -s is pronounced [ z ]: fogs, clubs, rods, gloves, etc.

In English the "voicing" quality of the plural ending -s depends on the voicing of the preceding consonant sound. In other words, when the last consonant sound in the noun root is a voiceless consonant, the plural ending is also voiceless: [ s ]. Otherwise, the plural ending is voiced: [ z ], as the following chart indicates:

Voicing quality: Example consonant sounds: Plural ending is prounounced: Example words:
voiceless p t k f [ s ] ducks
voiced b d g v [ z ] logs

(Note: this process is called "assimilation" because the consonant -s (because it is voiceless) is more similar to another voiceless consonant sound that precedes it. When the plural -s is pronounced [ z ] (which is a voiced sound), it is more similar to another voiced sound.)

Voicing assimilation in Latvian

We also have voicing assimilation in Latvian, but it works in the opposite direction. Take a look at the following nouns, which all have a nominative singular masculine ending -s:

koks 'tree', prāts 'mind, sense', acs 'eye', auss 'ear'

In all of the above examples, the ending -s is pronounced as [ s ], which is what one might expect, since it immediately follows a voiceless consonant sound such as [ k ], [ t ], [ ʦ ] or [ s ].

However, the ending -s is still pronounced as [ s ] in the following example words:

sirds 'heart', zirgs 'horse', labs 'good'

Instead, it is the final consonant of the root word which is devoiced. Thus, the final sounds in these words are pronounced as follows: [ ts ] sirds 'heart', [ ks ] zirgs 'horse', [ ps ] labs 'good'.

So, you see that, in Latvian, it is the following sound which influences the voicing of the preceding sound.

This also occurs when a prefix is added to the front of a root word - the final consonant sound of the prefix takes on the voicing quality of the following consonant sound. Look at the following example words, which illustrate all of these points:

Spelling of Affected Sound Pronunciation of Affected Sound Example word Translation 2nd Example word Translation
In the following examples, a voiceless sound (like p t k c s š ) is followed by a voiced sound (like: b, d, g, v, z, ž) and, thus, is also pronounced as a voiced sound.
p [ b ] apbbedīt to bury, inter pdams climbing
t [ d ] atzīt to acknowledge atgādinājums reminder
k [ g ] kdams coming rokdams digging
c [ ʣ ] piecgade five-year period piecgadīgs five years in length/age
s [ z ] pusdiena noon, midday trīsdesmit thirty
š [ ʒ ] trešdiena Wednesday trešdaļa one-third
In the following examples, a voiced sound (like: b, d, g, v, z, ž) is followed by a voiceless sound (like p t k c s š ) and, thus, is also pronounced as a voiceless sound.
b [ p ] glābt to save labs good
d [ t ] ods mosquito bads famine
g [ k ] augs a plant zagt to steal
z [ s ] aizpūst to blow away lauzt to break

(Note: although this voicing assimilation is found in numerical compounds, such as trešdiena 'Wednesday, lit. third day', pusdeviņi 'half-past eight', it normally does not occur in regular compound words. Thus, there is no voicing assimilation in compounds such as grīdsega 'carpet, floor covering', pusdzīvs 'half-dead', etc.)

Place of Articulation Assimilation in Latvian

The sounds represented by the letters s and z in Latvian are produced by bringing the tip of the tongue close to the upper teeth; they are said to have a dental place of articulation.

Note: English s and z are slightly different: they are produced by bringing the front of the tongue close to the bony ridge just behind the teeth. They are said to have an alveolar place of articulation.

Compare this to the sounds represented by š, ž, č and (phonetically: [ ʃ ], [ ʒ ] [ ʧ ] and [ ʤ ] respectively). These four sounds are produced by bringing the front of the tongue close to hard palate, just behind the bony ridge which is just behind the teeth. They are said to have an alveo-palatal place of articulation.

When these two groups of sounds are put next to each other (by adding a prefix or suffix to a root word), the s or z adjust by taking on the alveo-palatal place of articulation of the š, ž, č or . This is illustrated by the examples which follow:

Spelling Pronunciation Example Translation 2nd Example Translation
s [ ʃ ] puetri half-past three viaurākais narrowest
z [ ʒ ] iūt to dry out aizdžinkstēt to whiz away

Combination of Voicing Assimilation and Place of Articulation Assimilation

When the Latvian sounds represented by the letters s or z are put next to š, ž, č or (by adding a prefix or suffix to a root word), they may adjust both the place of articulation (i.e. dental to alveo-palatal) and the quality of voicing. This is shown in the examples below:

Spelling Pronunciation Example Translation Explanation
z [ ʃ ] uūt to sew onto [ z ] takes on the voicelessness of the š which follows it; it also takes on the alveopalatal place of articulation of š and is, thus, pronounced identically to š (i.e. as [ ʃ ])
s [ ʃ ] mežs forest [ s ] takes on the alveo-palatal place of articulation of the preceding ž, and, thus, is pronounced like a š (i.e. as [ ʃ ])
ž [ ʃ ] mežs forest the final consonant of the root noun (i.e. ž - pronounced [ ʒ ]) takes on the voicelessness of the following [ s ] suffix, and, thus, is pronounced pronounced like a š (i.e. as [ ʃ ])


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This page created and maintained by
A. Steinbergs

Last revised September 17, 2008