Latvian Language: Lesson 3


Anna and Linda are having a conversation about some of their friends. Anna wants to know what each of them is doing at the moment:

Speaker Latvian English translation
Anna Ko Roberts dara? What's Robert doing?
Linda Roberts lasa laikrakstu. Robert is reading a newspaper.
Anna Un ko Rita dara? And what is Rita doing?
Linda Rita māca aritmētiku. Rita is teaching arithmetic.
Anna Un Jāzeps? Ko Jāzeps dara? And Joseph? What is Joseph doing?
Linda Jāzeps raksta grāmatu. Joseph is writing a book.
Anna Tiešām? Really?
Linda Jā, Jāzeps ir rakstnieks. Yes, Joseph is an author.
Linda Labi! Good!

To hear this conversation: click here → Conversation 3


Latvian word English translation Latvian word English translation
Click on word to hear its pronunciation Click on word to hear its pronunciation
aritmētika (fem. noun) 'arithmetic' lasa (verb; infinitive: lasīt) 'is reading'
dara (verb; infinitive: darīt) 'is doing' māca (verb; infinitive: mācīt) 'is teaching'
grāmata (fem. noun) 'book' raksta (verb; infinitive: rakstīt) 'is writing'
Jāzeps (masc. noun) 'Joseph' rakstnieks (masc. noun) 'author, writer'
ko (pronoun; acc. of kas) 'what' Rita (fem. noun) 'Rita'
labi (adverb) 'good, well, OK, fine' Roberts (masc. noun) 'Robert'
laikraksts (masc. noun) 'newspaper' tiešām (adverb) 'really'

Vocabulary notes

(a) As you can see from the words above, I have now begun to indicate certain grammatical categories (such as noun, verb, adverb, etc.) after each Latvian word. As your grammatical knowledge of Latvian increases, I may add other descriptions. For example, in this lesson I include the gender of each noun (i.e. masc. = masculine; fem. = feminine).

(b) This is the first lesson which uses any verb other than ir "is". In each case I have added the basic (i.e. infinitive) form of the verb, as well as the form which is actually used above (i.e. the third person form).

(c) This is the lesson where you find out why to and tas (both translated "that") are considered to be different forms of the same word. It's the same reason why I refer to ko and kas (both translated "what") as different forms of the same word. This lesson will also explain why words like "newspaper", "book" and "arithmetic" appear as laikrakstu, grāmatu and aritmētiku in the conversation, but as laikraksts, grāmata and aritmētika in the Vocabulary list. Once you get to the grammar section of this lesson, all will become clear.

Pronunciation and spelling

Vowel pronunciations

First let's look at the pronunciation of o as it occurs in the name Roberts.

Latvian letter English example words (closest equivalent is underlined) Latvian example word (word links to audio track)
o boy, toy, Roy hotelis 'hotel'

You may remember from Lesson 2, that the letter o has three different pronunciations in Latvian. (For an overview of the three pronunciations see: The Latvian Letter "o". The most common one is the diphthongal pronunciation I described in Lesson 2. The other two pronunciations typically occur in words (including names) which came into Latvian from other languages (for example, the name Roberts or the word hotelis 'hotel').

The pronunciation in these words is a short, pure vowel pronunciation; that is, the o is pronounced without a following semivowel (like [j] or [w]). There is no close equivalent in most dialects of English; the example words above (boy, toy, Roy) are diphthongs (ending with a [j] semivowel) — not pure vowels. However, there are equivalent sounds in other languages, as for example:

French homme 'man', German offen 'open', Spanish doctor 'doctor'

If that doesn't help you, just try imitating the recordings of Roberts or hotelis.

Next we have the pronunciation of the short e (i.e. without the macron over it):

Latvian letter English example words (closest equivalent is underlined) Latvian example word (word links to audio track)
e end, mesh, net celt 'to lift'

The only other new vowel pronunciation is the diphthong which is spelled ai. Here are some examples to guide you:

Latvian letter English example words (closest equivalent is underlined) Latvian example word (word links to audio track)
ai ice, right, bite, type aita 'sheep'

Consonant pronunciations

It is in this lesson that you finally hear how the Latvian r is usually pronounced. You'll remember that I said it stands for a "trilled" (or "rolled") [r] sound, which really has no close equivalent in most dialects of English. The exception is Scottish English which typically uses trilled [r] sounds in words like very. As well, this sound is used in Spanish and Italian. Here are a few examples:

Spanish arroz 'rice', Italian tenore 'tenor'

The Latvian r is dental, so it is closer to Italian or Spanish than to Scottish. If none of that is any help, take a look at the following:

Latvian letter English example words (closest equivalent is underlined) Latvian example word (word links to audio track)
r (North American) water, city, daughter, pretty, butter rags 'horn'

In North American English the letter t is typically pronounced as a flap when it occurs between two vowel sounds, where the preceding vowel is stressed. (For example, words like water, or city are usually pronounced with a flap, unlike the [t] sound in words like two, stew, or attend.)

A flap is quite similar to a trill: in a typical trill the tongue very quickly hits the roof of the mouth several times (2 - 5 times), whereas a flap does it only once. If you just can't get your tongue around a trilled r, try making a flapped t instead. It won't be perfect, but it will still be much better than a typical English r.

(However, you should remember that this is the pronunciation of the letter t in words like "city" which normally occurs in North American English, but NOT in British English; so, if you're a speaker of British English, this hint won't help you much!)

Now let's look at š. You can see that it has a funny little v-shaped mark over the s. This mark is either called a haček (pronounced "HAH-check") or a caron. Instead of being pronounced as [s], the letter s with a haček over it is pronounced pretty much the way the sequence of letters sh is pronounced in English. Take a look at the following examples:

Latvian letter English example words (closest equivalent is underlined) Latvian example word (word links to audio track)
š shoe, wash, mission, Chevrolet šeit 'here'

The last few consonant sounds are pretty straightforward. Take a look at the following examples:

Latvian letter English example words (closest equivalent is underlined) Latvian example word (word links to audio track)
m mother, miss, ram mati 'hair'
b brown, black, robber balss 'voice'
z zebra, zero, loser ziedi 'blossoms'

The letters m and b are pronounced almost exactly the same way as they are in English. The only one you have to say a little differently is the z; this has a dental pronunciation (just like Latvian t, d, s, n, l), unlike the typical alveolar pronunciation in English.


Nominative and accusative case

Nouns in Latvian have several different cases. To understand what is meant by "case", please see my section on Noun cases.

All of the nouns used in Lessons 1 and 2 were in the nominative case. (This is the case used when the noun acts like the subject of the sentence.) In Lesson 3, you see some examples of nouns in the accusative case. This is the form the noun takes when it operates as the direct object of a verb. To make this clearer, here are some of the sentences from the conversation:

Subject noun
Nominative case
Verb Direct object noun
Accusative case
Roberts lasa laikrakstu 'Robert is reading a newspaper'
Rita māca aritmētiku 'Rita is teaching arithmetic'
Jāzeps raksta grāmatu 'Joseph is writing a book'

Notice that the word in the direct object form has the ending -u, which marks it as being in the accusative case. Accusative case typically means that the noun is on the recieving end of the action of the verb. For example it is the newspaper that is getting read, or the book that is being written.

In English this is indicated by the order of the words. Thus, "Jack hit Joe" has a different meaning than "Joe hit Jack". However, in Latvian the word order doesn't do this job; it is the endings on the nouns that do the job.

The -s and -a endings that mark gender also mark case. In the conversation above, we know that Jāzeps is the subject of the verb (and, thus, the doer of the action) because the root Jāzep- has an -s suffix. If Jāzep- had a -u ending, this would (usually) indicate that Joseph was the direct object (i.e. the recipient of the verb's action).

Latvian nouns don't have one ending for gender and a different one to mark case. The same ending marks both functions. Take a look at the following chart:

Nominative (subject) endings Accusative (direct object) endings
Masculine Feminine Masculine Feminine
-s -a -u -u

As you can see from this chart, even though the subject suffixes for masculine and feminine nouns are different, the suffixes marking direct object for these nouns happen to be the same. That isn't always the case, so enjoy it while you can. There are lots more cases coming up!

This also explains why the pronoun tas and to has two different forms, even though both are translated as "that": the pronoun tas indicates the (masculine) nominative case, while to marks the (masculine or feminine) accusative case. Similarly, the pronoun translated as "what" is kas when nominative but ko when accusative.

Subjective completion

Now let's take a look at the sentence Jāzeps ir rakstnieks "Joseph is a writer". You may wonder why the noun rakstnieks isn't in the accusative case. That's because it isn't acting as the direct object of the verb.

Typically the direct object noun is the recipient of the action of the verb, but the verb ir doesn't work this way; ir is a form of the verb meaning "to be". This verb is known as a "linking verb" or a "copula". It doesn't perform an action; it describes an identity, or an equivalence, like: "Susan is a doctor", or "Charles is sick". You can think of it as the linguistic equivalent of an equal sign: "Susan = doctor", "Charles = sick". Any noun (or pronoun) on on the other side of that "equal sign" is going to be in the nominative case, just like the subject of the verb is. Thus, you have sentences like Tas ir piens "That is milk", where both tas and piens are in the nominative case. (Nouns like this are known as "subjective complements", rather than direct objects.)

The only other thing to remember is that the two words which are held to be equivalent must also have the same gender. Thus, you must say Tā ir tēja "That is tea", because the noun tēja is feminine.

Question formation with interrogative pronouns

Finally, let's consider how questions are formed. So far you've only seen examples of questions which contain the interrogative pronoun kas or ko, meaning "what?". (The word "interrogative" just means "questioning".) In English these are known as wh- questions, because they contain an interrrogative word that (usually) begins with the letters wh- (for example: who, what, when, where, why and, exceptionally, how. As a comparison, most interrogative words in Latvian begin with the letter k.)

In both Latvian and English you have to put the interrogative word at the beginning of the questionning sentence. However, in English you sometimes have to mess around with helping verbs as well. For example, you can't have a sentence like "*What Rita teaches?" or "*What Robert writes?". English requires a helping verb like do or be to come right after the interrogative word.

Latvian is actually much simpler. You put the interrogative word at the beginning of a sentence, and the rest of the sentence remains the same. Take a look at the following examples:

Sentence type Role questioned Question word Subject Verb Direct object Translation
Statement Roberts lasa laikrakstu 'Robert is reading a newspaper'
Question Direct object Ko Roberts lasa 'What is Robert reading?'
Question Subject Kas lasa laikrakstu 'Who is reading the newspaper?'
Statement Rita māca aritmētiku 'Rita is teaching arithmetic'
Question Direct object Ko Rita māca 'What is Rita teaching?
Question Subject Kas māca aritmētiku 'Who is teaching arithmetic?'

The interrogative pronoun will have the nominative case when it questions who/what is taking on the role of the subject, but it will be in the accusative case when it questions who/what takes on the role of the direct object of the verb. Thus, kas is used when inquiring about the subject of the sentence, and ko is used when asking about the recipient of the action of the verb.


Finally, here are a few exercises, to help you practise what you've learned so far:

Please translate the following sentences into Latvian:

  1. What is Robert teaching?
  2. Who is reading the book?
For each of the following sentences, put the correct ending on the word which lacks one:
  1. Aritmētik_ ir laba.
    'Arithmetic is good.'
  2. Roberts dzer sul_.
    'Robert is drinking juice'.
  3. Jāzeps taisa gald_.
    'Joseph is making a table.'
To check your answers, please click here → Answers to Exercises - Lesson 3.

Ready for Lesson 4? Please click here → Latvian Language Lesson 4

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Last revised May 3, 2010