Latvian Language: Lesson 2

Conversation

In this conversation Anna is faced with four thermos containers, which are not labelled. She asks Linda for help:

Speaker Latvian English translation
Anna Kas ir tas? What's that?
Linda Tā ir kafija. That's coffee.
Anna Un kas ir tas? And what's that?
Linda Tā ir tēja. That's tea.
Anna Un tas? And that?
Linda Tas ir piens. That's milk.
Anna Un tas? And that?
Linda Sula. Juice.
Anna To, lūdzu. That one, please.
Linda pours out some juice for Anna
Anna Paldies. Thank you.
Linda Lūdzu. You're welcome

To hear this conversation, click here → Conversation 2

Vocabulary

Latvian word English translation Latvian word English translation
Click on word to hear its pronunciation Click on word to hear its pronunciation
kafija 'coffee' sula 'juice'
lūdzu 'please; you're welcome' tēja 'tea'
paldies 'thank you' , to 'that, that (one)'
piens 'milk' un 'and'

Vocabulary notes

(a) lūdzu: in Latvian the word lūdzu can mean either "please" or "you are welcome". It literally means "I beg". So, when you are asking for something, imagine that you are saying "I beg you to give me this" or "I beg you to do this". On the other hand, if someone has just thanked you, then you respond as if you were saying "I beg you won't give it another thought'. That's how lūdzu can mean both "please" and "you're welcome".

(b) and to: I've translated as "that", and to as "that (one)". They are actually different forms of the same basic word. However, I'm not going to go into detailed explanations about when to use each one just yet. That will have to wait for a later lesson. Just possess yourselves in patience for a while.

Pronunciation and spelling

Let's start with two vowels both spelled with the letter u, one with a macron over the letter (ū), and one without.

Vowel pronunciations

Latvian letter English example words (closest equivalent is underlined) Latvian example word (word links to audio track)
u book, put, full, pudding muša 'fly, housefly'
ū jury, lure, Uriah dūmi 'smoke'

The short u has a fairly straightforward pronunciation; however, the long ū sound is not that close to the English examples. If you speak any other languages, here are a few example words with a long [u] sound that are closer to the Latvian cases:

Equivalents in other languages: Spanish uno 'one', French tout 'all', German Buch 'book'.

One of the big problems that English speakers have with learning Latvian (or French, or Spanish, or German, for that matter) is that most of the vowel sounds in these languages are pure vowels, whereas, most common English vowels are diphthongs.

The word "diphthong" goes back to Greek: a prefix di- meaning 'two', and a root phthong meaning 'voice' or 'sound'. Thus, a diphthong is a "double sound". Specifically, it's a speech sound that (a) moves quickly from one vowel position to another, or (b) from a vowel position to a semivowel position.

Let's take the second definition. A semivowel is a sound like [w] or [j]; for this lesson, let's concentrate on [w]. There are lots of diphthongs in English which go quickly from a vowel position to [w] sound. Here are a few examples:

Dipthong
(in phonetic transcription)
English example words
(diphthong is underlined)
Beginning vowel sound
[aw] cow, now, bough, loud [a] as ah or arm
[ow] show, dough, go, oats [o] as in ore or door
[uw] ooze, room, ruse, shoe, glue [u] as in mooring

In each case the tongue and lips start out at a vowel position ([a], [o], or [u]), and quickly move to the position for a [w], which is: (a) lips rounded and forming a circle, and (b) back of tongue raised towards the (back of the) roof of the mouth. You can test this out by saying the word wet (for example) very slowly. Pay attention to where your lips and tongue are just before you say the [w] sound, you'll notice that (a) your lips are rounded and forming a circle, and that (b) the back of your tongue is raised up, close to the roof of the mouth (specifically, the soft palate).

In order to show that there is a [w] sound in English words like ooze, doom, coot etc., listen to the recording of the English words, as listed below. For each recording I first say each word correctly (with the vowel pronounced as a diphthong, i.e. the vowel is followed by a [w] sound), and then incorrectly (with the vowel pronounced as a pure vowel, i.e. the vowel is NOT followed by a [w] sound):

Try to learn to say Latvian ū as a pure vowel - that is, without a [w] sound following it.

The next sound is the diphthong ie. This diphthong doesn't have a close equivalent in North American English. The closest I could come is the pronunciation of upper class speakers of British English; their dialect is called RP, or "Received Pronunciation" because they are typically the ones who were "received" by the queen. Take a look at the examples I have provided below, which show a phonetic [i] vowel followed by the letter r. In this dialect, these r's are not pronounced; instead they are replaced by a very short vowel (called a "schwa"), and the combination of the [i] and the schwa form a diphthong. This diphthong is fairly close to how the Latvian diphthong ie is pronounced:

Latvian letter English example words (closest equivalent is underlined) Latvian example word (word links to audio track)
ie British (RP = Received Pronunciation) beer, fear, mere iet 'to go'

If the British RP pronunciation doesn't help you, try doing the following:

  1. say the vowel [i] (as in ear)
  2. now say the vowel [ʌ] (as in up)
  3. now say [i] quickly followed by [ʌ]
  4. practise saying this more and more quickly until the first vowel blends quickly into the next one
Even if you can't say it as quickly as I do in the example word (iet) above, you will still sound close enough that everyone will understand what you are trying to say.

The last pronunciation we will deal with is the letter o as pronunced in the word to "that (one)". In addition to this word, notice also the Latvian example given below - which actually has two of these o's:

Latvian letter English example words (closest equivalent is underlined) Latvian example word (word links to audio track)
o British (RP = Received Pronunciation) poor, sure, boor ozols 'oak'

This is another one of those dipthongs that has no close equivalent in North American English. However, once again we can refer to the British RP pronunciation. If this doesn't do it for you, here are my tricks for learning how to say this diphthong.

  1. say the vowel [u] (as in poor)
  2. now say the vowel [ʌ] (as in up)
  3. now say [u] quickly followed by [ʌ]
  4. practise saying this more and more quickly until the first vowel blends quickly into the next one
This should have you saying to and ozols like a native in no time.

Unfortunately, o is one of the few Latvian letters that has multiple pronunciations. However, take heart, because we are only learning the diphthongal pronunciation of o in this lesson. (If you are curious and want to learn more about Latvian o's, without waiting for the additional pronunciations which will turn up in later lessons, you can check out my discussion on the Latvian "o").

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)
f fin, fat, full filma 'film'
j yes, yank, you jāt 'to ride'
p spin, spell, spare pats 'self'

The [f] sound is identical to the one in English. It is normally found only in Latvian words which were borrowed from other languages (e.g. filma 'film', fakts 'fact', kafija 'coffee').

In Latvian the letter j is NEVER used to stand for a consonant like the first sound in the English word jet. Instead, it ALWAYS is used to represent the semivowel sound (as in the first sound of yet; this is also the way most European languages use this letter).

Finally, the sound represented by the letter p is basically like the English [p], except that it is ALWAYS an unaspirated sound (just like Latvian t and k). If you need a refresher course on how to make an unaspirated sound, please go back to this appendix → Aspirated vs. Unaspirated Consonants.

Stress

The conversation in Lesson 1 only used words of one syllable. In this lesson we have a few words of two or more syllables: kafija, tāja, sula, lūdzu and paldies. All of these words are stressed on the first syllable, except for paldies.

In English, where the stress (or emphasis) falls on a word is not really predictable. In Latvian it is highly predictable. If in doubt, put the stress on the FIRST syllable of the word. You will be right most of the time.

However, the word paldies is an exception. Whenever you thank some one by using the word paldies, you must put the emphasis on the SECOND syllable. For a more detailed discussion of stress (or "word accent"), please see → Latvian Pronunciation Rules: Stress.

Grammar

Latvian nouns have two different genders. If you are familiar with Spanish or French, this concept will not be new to you. To understand what the term "gender" means, please take a look at my grammatical description of nouns; at the beginning is an introduction to the concept of gender, and how it works in Latvian → Latvian Nouns: Gender.

In the conversation above, you can see that words like kafija and tēja appear with the form of "that"; this is because they have the feminine gender. Compare this to piens and galds (from Lesson 1), which appear with the tas form of "that"; these are masculine nouns. However, when asking the question "What is that?" the masculine form is always used. Why is this? The questioner clearly doesn't know the gender of the noun he/she is asking about, so they use the default form, which is always the masculine form. So remember, if you are asking about something, always use the masculine form.

As you will have noticed, the ending of the feminine nouns is -a, while the masculine one is -s. This isn't always the case, but it is true for the great majority of nouns in Latvian. For example, when a new word is borrowed into Latvian from another language, it is almost always assigned an -s or -a ending. Take a look at the following examples, which illustrate this:

Masculine noun Translation Feminine noun Translation
rums rum filma film
viskijs whiskey baterija battery
marketings marketing Londona London

You don't have to learn these words just yet, but notice that each of them has either a masculine or feminine ending (i.e. -s or -a).

Exercises

Finally, here are a couple of very brief exercises, that you may try if you wish, just to see what you have learned.

Please translate the following sentences into Latvian:

  1. Yes, that is a table.
  2. That is juice.
To check your answers, please click here → Answers to Exercises - Lesson 2.


Ready for Lesson 3? Please click here → Latvian Language Lesson 3


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Last revised January 10, 2010