The Latvian Letter o

The Latvian letter o has three possible pronunciations: as a short vowel, as a long vowel, or as a diphthong. To use example words, these pronunciations correspond to the vowels in French homme 'man', French dos 'back', and British English (R.P.) poor, respectively. Using phonetic symbols, they would be rendered as : [ ɔ ] [ o: ] [ ʊʌ̯ ]. Unfortunately, these three pronunciations are not distinguished by the spelling.

The Short o and the Long o

However, both the short and long vowel pronunciations occur only in foreign words; that is, Latvian words which have (relatively recently) been borrowed from other languages. Some examples are illustrated in the following table:

has short o meaning has long o meaning
olimpisks Olympic opijs opium
polka polka proza prose
oktobris October hlors chlorine
komēdija comedy ceremonija ceremony
bronhīts bronchitis kobra cobra

If you know the pronunciation of the "foreign" word in English, then the Latvian pronunciation is usually predictable. Thus, since the o in bronchitis is a short (i.e. pure) vowel, the Latvian loanword is to be pronounced with a short o. On the other hand, since the o in cobra is a long (i.e. diphthongized) vowel, the Latvian loanword is to be pronounced with a long o.

Note: this may not always work, but it's a good guideline to keep in mind.

The Diphthong o

The most difficult pronunciation for most people to master is the diphthong o. However, it is probably the most common of the three pronunciations of o, and is the one which is used in native Latvian words. The following section introduces dipthongs (in general), and goes on to describe the Latvian o diphthong pronunciation specifically.

What is a diphthong?

Normally a vowel sound is the core of a syllable. Thus, in a two-syllable word like react, the first vowel sound is the nucleus of the syllable re- and the second vowel sound is the nucleus of the syllable act.

However, in a word like die there is only one syllable. Nevertheless, two vowel sounds are involved: phonetically die is rendered as [ dai̯ ]. To create this diphthong, your lips and tongue form the shape of the vowel [ a ] (as in art) and then very quickly move towards the shape of the vowel [ i ] (as in bee).

Thus a diphthong can be defined as: a rapid, gliding (lip and tongue) movement from one vowel position to another.

Diphthongs in English

There are quite a few diphthongs in English. Here are examples of just a few:

PhoneticallyExample words
[ ai̯ ]eye, I, my, rhyme
[ ɔi̯ ]oil, boy, oyster
[ au̯ ]owl, bough, towel, round
[ ei̯ ]ail, day, rein, neigh

In all of these English diphthongs the tongue moves from a lower position in the mouth towards a higher position.
(Note: these are often called closing diphthongs because the lips start out in a more open position and, as the jaw moves up, ends they end up in a more closed position)

However, the Latvian diphthong represented by o is rather different: the tongue starts off in a higher position and quickly moves towards a lower and more central position.
(Note: this is usually called a centering diphthong.)

As indicated above, the Latvian diphthong o is pronounced something like the standard British English pronunciation of the word poor. Since the r is not pronounced in this dialect, it is replaced by a quick vowel. This results in a diphthong which is phonetically represented as [ ʊʌ̯ ]. In other words, you start off by saying the vowel sound in book and very quickly move to saying the vowel sound in up.

Here are a number of examples of common Latvian words which contain this diphthong o:

ola 'egg', dot to give, govs 'cow', koks 'tree', logs 'window', zobs 'tooth', kost 'to bite', domāt 'to think', ozols 'oak tree', otrs 'other, second', slota 'broom', to 'that (acc.sg.)', elpot 'to breathe'


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This page created and maintained by
A. Steinbergs

Last revised September 18, 2008