Latvian Language: Lesson 4


This is a telephone conversation between Rita and Linda:

Speaker Latvian English translation
Telefons zvana (The phone rings)
Rita Klausos. Hello (I'm listening).
Linda Labrīt, Rita! Šeit Linda. Good morning, Rita. (It's) Linda here.
Rita Labrīt! Good morning!
Linda Ko tu dari? What are you doing?
Rita Es lasu. I'm reading.
Linda Ko tu lasi? What are you reading?
Rita Es lasu grāmatu. I'm reading a book.
Linda Laba grāmata? A good book?
Rita Jā, bet diezgan gara. Ko tu dari? Yes, but (it's) rather long. What are you doing?
Linda Es rakstu. I'm writing.
Rita Ko tu raksti? What are you writing?
Linda Disertāciju. Ļoti gara! A dissertation. (It's) very long!
Rita Labi. Čau. OK. Bye.
Linda Čau. Bye.

To hear this conversation: click here → Conversation 4


Latvian word English translation Latvian word English translation
Click on word to hear its pronunciation Click on word to hear its pronunciation
bet (conjunction) 'but' labrīt (greeting) 'good morning'
čau (interjection) 'hi' or 'bye' lasīt (verb, infinitive) 'to teach'
darīt (verb, infinitive) 'to do' ļoti (adv.) 'very'
diezgan (adv.) 'rather, somewhat' rakstīt (verb, infinitive) 'to write'
disertācija (fem. noun) 'dissertation' šeit (adv.) 'here'
es ( personal pron.) 'I' telefons (masc. noun) 'telephone'
gara ( 'long, lengthy, tall' tu ( personal pron.) 'you'
klausos (verb, 'I'm listening' zvanīt (verb, infinitive) 'to ring'
laba ( 'good'

Vocabulary notes

(a) čau: this word comes from the Italian word ciao, which can mean either "hello" or "good-bye" (just like Hawaiian aloha). Latvian uses it in the same way, except that čau is a slang word, and is used only in casual situations.

(b) darīt, lasīt, zvanīt: each of these verbs is in its infinitive form (corresponding to English "to do, to read, to ring"). The infinitive is the basic form of a verb; from now on all verbs will normally be listed in the vocabulary in their infinitive forms.

(c) klausos: this word literally means "I'm listening". It is often used when someone answers the phone (as in the above conversation). You would never use it to say "hello" to someone you meet in the street.

(d) telefons: this is not the only word that Latvians use for "phone". They also use the word tālrunis, which literally means "far speaker". Both are commonly used, but if you say telefons you will certainly be understood.

(e) tu: this pronoun can only be used in the singular (unlike English "you" which can refer to one or more people). Furthermore, it is the "intimate" form of the pronoun; you would not address a complete stranger using this pronoun (just like French tu or German du). However, you may address a child with tu, whether you know them or not.

Pronunciation and spelling

Vowel pronunciations

This lesson introduces a couple of additional dipthongs, spelled au and ei. Here's how they are pronounced:

Latvian letter English example words (closest equivalent is underlined) Latvian example word (word links to audio track)
au out, house, doubt tauta 'people, folk'
ei eight, ape, race meita 'daughter, girl'

As well, this lesson introduces the long i; that is, the letter i with a macron (ī). Take a look at the following table:

Latvian letter English example words (closest equivalent is underlined) Latvian example word (word links to audio track)
ī ear, deer, Erie pīle 'duck'

Even better examples of the sound of ī can be found in some of the European languages, as for example:

French dix 'ten', Spanish pide 'it requests', Italian libri 'books'

Finally, we have the third pronunciation of the letter o, as in the word telefons. (To review the three different pronunciations of o, please see:The Latvian "o".) This third pronunciation is illustrated below:

Latvian letter English example words (closest equivalent is underlined) Latvian example word (word links to audio track)
o ore, board, form opera 'opera'

This pronunciation of o is a long, pure vowel (phonetically [o:]). The English examples are not very close approximations. Instead, the best examples come from other languages, such as:

Spanish cantó 'it sang', Italian nome 'name'

As you may remember from Lesson 3, the most common pronunciation of Latvian o is the diphthongal one. The two pure vowel pronunciations (short and long "o") are always found in words taken into Latvian from other languages.

However, for some reason, the Latvian alphabet doesn't use a macron over the vowel to distinguish between the short and long pronunciations. Thus, the words Roberts and hotelis 'hotel' (which are borrowings into Latvian from other languages) are pronounced with a short "o" sound, while borrowed words like telefons and opera are pronounced with a long "o" sound.

How can you tell which pronunciation to use? Here are some guidelines:

  1. For the majority of words, use the diphthongal pronunciation (see Lesson 2: Diphthongal "o")
  2. If it seems to be a word taken from another language (i.e. a borrowed word), most of the time you should use the short "pure vowel" pronunciation (see Lesson 3: Short "o")
  3. If it's a borrowed word, and it has an "o" which in English is pronounced owe, use the long "pure vowel" pronunciation (as in this lesson: telefons "telephone"; additional examples: Latv. opera "opera", Latv. auto "car, automobile")
These guidelines aren't perfect, but they should take care of the majority of cases.

Consonant pronunciations

Now let's look at the two different pronunciations of the letter c, one with a haček (č), and one without:

Latvian letter English example words (closest equivalent is underlined) Latvian example word (word links to audio track)
č chin, cheap, watch či 'bears'
c its, pizza, Mitzi cena 'price'

Please note that the pronunciation of the letter c is dental, just like the pronunciation of Latvian t or s. This shouldn't be surprising, since in Latvian the letter c stands for the sequence [t] + [s].
(Similarly, in English the letter x usually stands for the sequence [k] + [s], as in "tax", which is pronunced identically to the word "tacks".)

Finally, let's look at the pronunciation of the letter l with a comma under it ( ļ ):

Latvian letter English example words (closest equivalent is underlined) Latvian example word (word links to audio track)
ļ million, billion, trillion ļoti 'very'

The comma underneath the letter is called a "softening sign" (mīkstinājuma zīme) in Latvian. Its purpose is to indicate that the letter doesn't have its normal pronunciation (e.g. dental), but that it now has a palatal pronunciation. By a palatal pronunciation, we mean that the tongue is raised towards the roof of the mouth; specifically, the front of the tongue touches the middle of the hard palate.

English speakers typically do the same thing when saying the word million; rather than saying a clear [l], followed by a clear [i], they run them together and get a palatal l (phonetically: [ʎ]). This same sound is found in several European languages, for example:

Italian figlio 'son', Portuguese olho 'eye'


In this lesson we have another word which stresses the second syllable (and not the first, as is usual with Latvian). This is the word labrīt which means "good morning". It is typical that greetings are stressed on the second syllable, rather than the first. Any other greetings you eventually learn will also be stressed on the second syllable. Please note that this stress pattern is also used for different ways of saying "goodbye", as well as different ways of saying "hello".

The only exception to this is if the greeting word isn't used as a greeting. How is this possible? Well, if you were to say the Latvian equivalent of "I said 'hello' to him.", then the word "hello" isn't actually part of a greeting; you're just describing a greeting. In this type of situation the greeting word is stressed on the first syllable.

However, all you have to remember for now is that when you say labrīt to someone, you should stress the second syllable.


Verbs: first, second, and third person

The conversation in this lesson provides examples of first and second person verb forms. What do I mean by this? Whenever someone is speaking, there is at least one person present. Even if you are only speaking to yourself, you must be present; you, as the speaker, are the essential person. Thus, if you are describing your own actions or feelings, you use a verb form which is called the first person. In English, this is expressed by the use of the pronoun I. Latvian uses the pronoun es.

The second person describes the person to whom you are speaking. English uses the pronoun you to refer to the person addressed, while Latvian typically uses the pronoun tu.

Anyone who is neither the speaker nor the hearer is known as the third person. For example, take a look at the sentence: I sent you a letter, but Robert opened it. In this sentence the first person is I, the second person is you and the third person is Robert.

However, there is a difference between the way English and Latvian verbs are formed with respect to first and second person. Take a look at the following table:

English to write Latvian rakstīt
1st person I write es rakstu
2nd person you write tu raksti
3rd person Rita writes Rita raksta

In these examples the word write in English has exactly the same form in both the first and second persons; it is only in the third person that it adds an ending. Latvian is different, in that there is an ending for each form of the word, as follows:

Verb suffixes: 1st.p.: -u 2nd.p.: -i 3rd.p.: -a

Because these endings mark what person the subject of the verb is, the personal pronouns aren't always needed. Thus, if you want to say "I'm writing", you can say either Es rakstu or just Rakstu, and it is equally clear either way.

Also note that the infinitive forms of the verbs in this lesson are marked by the ending -īt (lasīt "to read", rakstīt "to write", zvanīt "to ring"). The verb form without this infinitive suffix is called the verb root. To form a (present tense) verb, you add one of the personal endings (i.e. verb suffixes) directly to the root. Thus: zvanīt "to ring" has the verb root zvan-. To say "you are ringing", add the 2nd person ending -i to the root, and you get zvani. Pretty straightforward, right?

Omitting the copula verb ir

Some of the sentences in this conversation could be said either with or without the copular verb ir "is". For example:

With copula Without copula Translation
Šeit ir Linda Šeit Linda. Here is Linda/(It's) Linda here.
Ir ļoti gara! Ļoti gara! (It's) very long!

It is fairly common to leave out the verb ir, leaving behind just a sentence fragment. English occasionally does the same thing. So for example, when someone asks you Where's your brother? you may say In the house rather than He's in the house.

Adjective agreement

In this conversation we also see a couple of adjectives: gara "long" and laba "good". The most common "job" of an adjective is to describe a noun. Look at the following phrases: red rose, old house, and good book. The adjectives red, old, and good are said to "modify" the noun that they apply to. In other words, it's not just any old rose, it's specifically a red rose; it's not any book, it's a good book, and so forth.

In both English and Latvian an adjective typically comes just before the noun it modifies. However, in Latvian the adjective must also agree with the noun it modifies. This means that they must have a certain similarity of form. One of the ways that an adjective agrees with its noun is in gender. If the noun is masculine, then the modifying adjective must have a masculine ending; if it's feminine, then the adjective must have a feminine suffix.

In this conversation the adjectives that mean "long" and "good" happen to modify nouns which are feminine. Thus, both adjectives have the feminine ending -a. However, if I wanted to say something like "good table", then the adjective would have the masculine ending -s: labs galds.

We will talk more about adjectives in future lessons. For now, remember that an adjective must show agreement in gender with the noun it modifies, and that agreement is indicated by the type of suffix used on the adjective.


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

Please translate the following sentences into Latvian:

  1. Good morning! (It's) Robert here.
  2. You are reading the newspaper.
  3. I'm writing a book.
  4. That's a good dissertation.
For each of the following sentences, put the correct ending on the word which lacks one:
  1. Es zvan_ .
    'I'm calling/ringing.'
  2. Tā ir lab_ sula.
    'That is good juice.'
  3. Jāzeps ir lab_ rakstnieks.
    'Joseph is a good writer.'
To check your answers, please click here → Answers to Exercises - Lesson 4.

Ready for Lesson 5? Please click here → Latvian Language Lesson 5

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Last revised May 3, 2010