Latvian Tones (or Intonations)

What is tone?

Tone depends on the pitch of your voice. In English it makes absolutely no difference whether you pitch your voice high or low when saying a word like table. It still means "a piece of furniture having a smooth flat top that is usually supported by one or more vertical legs" (or some other appropriate definition!).

However, in some languages, the pitch of the voice can be used to distinguish between words. For example, in Mandarin Chinese, the syllable [ ba ] can mean four different things, depending on the pattern of voice pitch used while saying it. Look at the following examples:

High Level Tone Translation High Rising Tone Translation Low Falling-Rising Tone Translation High Falling Tone Translation
eight to uproot bǎ hold a harrow

(Mandarin examples, with thanks, from An Introduction to Tonal Languages, by Amy Stafford.)

The particular pitch patterns which can make a meaning difference between words in a language are called tones. A language which works this way is called a tone language.

Tones in Latvian

Latvian is a tone language (although, for historical reasons, Latvians tend to use the word intonācija "intonation" when referring to their tonal system.)

In the standard (i.e. north-central) dialect of Latvian, there are three distinct tones. They can be described as follows:

  1. Level tone (stieptā intonācija): high pitch throughout the syllable
  2. Falling tone (krītošā intonācija): brief rise in pitch, followed by a long fall
  3. Broken tone (lauztā intonācija): rising pitch followed by falling pitch with interruption in the middle or some creakiness in the voice
Although tones are not normally inidicated in Latvian spelling, Baltic linguists have a tradition of using accent marks over the vowel of the tonal syllable, as follows:

Name of Tone: Level tone Falling tone Broken tone
Name of accent symbol
used over the vowel of the syllable
tilde grave accent circumflex accent
Example of accent symbol on vowel 'a' ã à â

Example words

Here are some examples of Latvian words with the tones indicated:

Level tone Translation Falling tone Translation Broken tone Translation
lõks green onion, chive lòks arch, bow lôgs window
Phonetically all three of the above words are identical (i.e. pronounced [ lʊʌ̯ks ]) except for the tone.
zãle hall, large room zâle grass, herb
stãvs storey, floor stàvs steep, perpendicular
lãiks time gàiss air mâize bread
lĩepa linden tree lìeta thing, object mîers peace
šũt to sew bùt to be mûžs lifetime
klẽts animal shed, stable spèks strength dêls son

Notice that in the above examples, only certain syllables have tones. Thus, there are no tones on the the final syllables of zãle 'hall, large room', lìeta 'thing, object', or mâize 'bread'. Why is this? Because they are short syllables.

Long syllables

In Latvian tones only occur on long syllables. These are defined as syllables which contain:

  1. a long vowel (e.g. ā, ē, ī, or ū);

    or

  2. a diphthong (e.g. ai, ei, au, ie or o);

    or

  3. a short vowel followed by a tautosyllabic resonant
    (this means: a short vowel followed by an l, ļ, r, m, n or ņ which is in the same syllable as the short vowel)

In the table above I have already provided examples of Latvian words with tones on the first two types of long syllables (i.e. long vowels and diphthongs). The following illustrates tones on the third type of long syllable:

Level tone Translation Falling tone Translation Broken tone Translation
bĩrt to dribble cìrst to chop zîrgs horse, steed
dẽlna palm (of hand) bàlss voice cêlt to lift
bũmba ball vîlnis wave

Finally, please note that Latvians who naturally have a three-way tonal contrast (as described above) typically come from two areas in Latvia. These two areas are indicated by light green shading in the map below:

Map of Latvian dialects with three-way tonal contrast

Other tonal dialects

However, the majority of Latvian dialects only distinguish between two different tones on long syllables.

In the north-western, western, and central dialects, the falling tone merged with the broken tone; thus, the contrast there is now between a level tone and a non-level tone. The pitch of the non-level tone is falling in some of these areas, but in others it is broken.

My father from the parish of Sesava, in the extreme southern part of central Latvia; it is indicated in dark red on the map below:

Map showing parish of Sesava, in south-central Latvia

In his dialect, there was a two-way contrast between a level and a falling tone, as illustrated by the following examples:

Level tone Translation Falling tone Translation
zãle hall, large room zàle grass, herb
stãvs storey, floor stàvs steep, perpendicular
lãiks time màize bread
lĩepa linden tree lìeta thing, object
šũt to sew bùt to be
klẽts animal shed, stable dèls son

However, in the eastern dialects, the level tone merged with the falling tone. Therefore, speakers distinguish between falling and non-falling tones. Once again, the pitch pattern of the non-falling tones is level in some areas, but falling in others.


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This page created and maintained by
A. Steinbergs

Last revised September 20, 2008