Latvian Language: Lesson 1

Each lesson consists of a conversation, which is then followed by sections on vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar. The conversation has been recorded, as have the vocabulary items, and you can hear them by clicking on the link for that item.

Conversation

This is a conversation between two people named "Ansis" and "Tenis". Tenis has built something in shop class, but apparently Ansis isn't too sure what it is supposed to be:

Speaker Latvian English translation
Ansis Kas ir tas? What's that?
Tenis Tas ir galds. That's a table.
Ansis Galds? A table?
Tenis Jā, galds. Yes, a table.
Ansis Nē! No!
Tenis Jā! Yes!
Ansis Galds? A table?
Tenis Jā, galds! Yes, a table!

To hear this conversation: click here → Conversation 1, wait a couple of seconds, and your computer will play a recording of the conversation.

The following vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar sections explain how to say the words and produce the sentences in this conversation.

Vocabulary

Latvian word English translation Latvian word English translation
Click on word to hear its pronunciation Click on word to hear its pronunciation
galds 'table' kas 'what'
ir 'is' 'no'
'yes' tas 'that'

Pronunciation and spelling

Some of the sounds of Latvian are quite close to English sounds. Let's start with some of the letters used for vowel sounds. I've provided examples of English words which contain sounds which are as close as possible (note the underlined letters in the English words), and for each one an example of a Latvian word that contains this sound (which you can hear if you click on the word):

Vowel pronunciations

Latvian letter English example words (closest equivalent is underlined) Latvian example word (word links to audio track)
i it, in, ill, sip pile 'drop'
ē air, mare, fair ēst 'to eat'
a up, under, sofa aka 'well'
ā ah, arm, darling ātri 'quickly'

Note that a couple of these vowel letters have what looks like a dash over them (specifically, the letter "e", and the second example of the letter "a"). Officially, this dash is called a "macron" and it is used to indicate that a vowel has a lengthened pronunciation. This can be very important. For example, in Latvian the following pair of words means two entirely different things:

mati "hair" māti "mother" (direct object)
To hear these two words, and the difference between the two different [a] vowel sounds, click here → mati vs. māti

Consonant pronunciations

Here are some examples that illustrate (more or less) how some of the consonant sounds should be pronounced:

Latvian letter English example words (closest equivalent is underlined) Latvian example word (word links to audio track)
d dim, deal, dish diena 'day'
n neat, knit, name nakts 'night'
s sing, set, seal salds 'sweet'
l lift, let, lease lidot 'to fly'

None of these consonant sounds is pronounced exactly the same way that they are in English. In Latvian, the letters d, n, s, and l designate sounds that are pronounced with the tip of the tongue at the upper teeth. However, in English these letters refer to sounds produced with the tongue at the alveolar ridge, which is the bony ridge running across the roof of the mouth, behind the upper teeth.

These are called dental and alveolar articulations, respectively. In Latvian these sounds have a dental pronunciation; the same is true for Spanish and Italian. This contrasts with English which pronounces these sounds with the alveolar enunciation.

English has dental sounds as well; specifically, these are the th sounds. To feel the difference for yourself, try saying the following English words, and notice where the tip of your tongue is, when saying the first consonant sound in each word:

Dental consonant Alveolar consonant
thin tin

To see diagrams illustrating these pronunciations, please see the appendix on Dental and Alveolar Consonants.

The letter t is another dental sound in Latvian. However, that is not the only difference between the sound of the letter t in English and in Latvian. An additional difference is the absence of the breathiness which linguists call aspiration.

The following examples show how the letters t and k are pronounced in Latvian:

Latvian letter English example words (closest equivalent is underlined) Latvian example word (word links to audio track)
t stop, still, stand tumšs 'dark'
k skin, scan, score kas 'what'

English sounds represented by the letters t and k (and c when it sounds like [k]) are usually produced with a puff of air (called aspiration). However, sometimes the letters stand for consonant sounds without this puff of air. These are called unaspirated consonants. In English they typically occur after an [s] which starts the same syllable. Here are some English examples, with the appropriate letters underlined:

Aspirated consonants Unaspirated consonants
top stop
kin skin

Latvian, like French and Spanish, normally uses only unaspirated consonants. To find out more about the differences between aspirated and unaspirated consonants, please see the appendix on Aspirated vs. Unaspirated Consonants.

The letter g stands for a sound that is basically identical to the one in English (what a relief, eh?):

Latvian letter English example words (closest equivalent is underlined) Latvian example word (word links to audio track)
g get, go, bigger gulta 'bed'

However the letter r stands for a "trilled" (or "rolled") [r] sound. English has no equivalent, unless you speak Scottish English. The Scottish dialect of English uses trilled [r] sounds in words like very. As well, this sound is used in Spanish and Italian.

However, you don't actually have to worry about the [r] sound just yet. Just as in English, which occasionally drops out sounds (for example: the o from the phrase is not drops out to give isn't), so Latvian also will drop out [r] sounds in certain places. If you listen to the conversation above, you actually won't hear any r's. This is because the [r] in the word ir often drops out if the next word starts with a consonant sound (as it did in the above examples).

Finally, please note that the letter d isn't actually pronounced as a [d] sound in the conversation above. Latvians do say the [d] sound, but not when it is immediately followed by an [s]. So, in the word galds, the last two consonant sounds are actually pronounced [ ts ].

This is a very common effect in Latvian. To learn more about it, please see the section on Consonant Pronunciation Hints.

Grammar

You may have noticed that I didn't include a Latvian equivalent for the English word a in the vocabulary. The word a (or an), along with the word the are known as articles. Latvian doesn't have any articles. This is one less category of word for you to learn!

To learn more about how Latvian gets by without any articles, please see the section on Articles.


Ready for Lesson 2? Please click here → Latvian Language Lesson 2


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This page created and maintained by
A. Steinbergs

Last revised August 22, 2009