Latvian Verbs

This is an introduction to how verbs work in Latvian. Each of the following sections describes one feature of Latvian verbs:


Person

Let's start with the grammatical term "person". This refers to who is participating in the activity of speaking. First, take a look at the following table which compares some English and Latvian forms of the verb 'to run' in three different persons:

Person English Latvian
First person I ran (es) skrēju
Second person you ran (tu) skrēji
Third person he/she/it ran (viņš/viņa ) skrēja

In grammar, the term person describes who is speaking, or who is spoken to. For example:

Person Definition Example sentence Explanation
First person speaker I ran home. I = person who is currently speaking
Second person person addressed by speaker You ran away. You = person directly addressed by speaker
Third person neither speaker nor addressee She ran very quickly. She = someone who is neither speaking, nor being addressed by speaker (i.e. a third person)

In the English sentences above, the person is indicated by the subject pronoun I, you, he, she or it. Latvian also has subject pronouns (es, tu, viņš, viņa), but, in addition, person is marked by endings on the verb. Take a look at the following Latvian sentences, and notice the verb suffixes (which are separated by dashes from the verb root):

Person Latvian sentence Translation 2nd Latvian sentence Translation
First Skrēj-u. I ran. Las-u. I'm reading.
Second Skrēj-i. You ran. Meloj-i. You lied.
Third Skrēj-a. Somebody ran. Nomir-a. Somebody died.

There are exceptions, but for many Latvian verb forms, the suffix -u marks a first person singular subject, the suffix -i marks a second person singular subject, while the suffix -a marks a third person subject.

Number

Verbs also exhibit number (skaits). Latvian verbs distinguish between subjects which are singular and those which are plural. Singular, of course, means only one person, object, entity, etc. Plural refers to two or more people, objects, etc. Here is a table which shows two different verbs in both singular and plural forms:

skriet 'to run' in past tense lasīt 'to read' in future tense
Person singular plural singular plural
1st person skrēj-u skrējā-m lasīš-u lasīsi-m
2nd person skrēj-i skrējā-t lasīs-i lasīsi-t
3rd person skrēja lasīs

There are several things to notice here:

  1. The 3rd person singular and 3rd person plural forms of the verbs are identical. This is true for all Latvian verbs
  2. The first person plural form always ends in -m
  3. The second person plural form always ends in -t
  4. The third person form doesn't always end in -a. Sometimes there is no ending to mark the third person
Just keep these points in mind. I'll go into it all in more detail when I discuss verb conjugation classes.

Infinitive

Before we go any further, I want to introduce you to the infinitive form (nenoteiksme). The infinitive form is usually considered the most simple, basic form of the verb &mdash it's usually the first form of the verb you see listed in a dictionary. The infinitive is usually considered the basic form of a verb since it does not mark person, number, or tense. Here are a whole bunch of verbs in the infinitive form, both in Latvian and in English:

būt 'to be', dabūt 'to get', darīt 'to do', dot 'to give', dziedāt 'to sing, dzirdēt 'to hear', dzīvot 'to live, ēst 'to eat', iet 'to go', just 'to feel', kļūt 'to become', lietot 'to use', likt 'to put', mācīt 'to teach, mazgāt 'to wash', nākt 'to come', ņemt 'to take', patikt 'to like', redzēt 'to see', sacīt 'to say', taisīt 'to make, trūkt 'to lack', vajadzēt 'to need', varēt 'to be able', zināt 'to know'.

Notice that in English the infinitive is marked by the preposition to, while in Latvian it is marked by the suffix -t.

Tense

Grammatical tense (laiks) is a way languages describe the time at which an event occurs. In English and Latvian both, this is shown by the form of a verb (or of a helping verb). The simple tenses of Latvian are past, present, and future (pagātne, tagadne, & nākotne). Here are some Latvian sentences that illustrate these verb tenses (the verb is shown in orange):

Past tense Present tense Future tense
Es lasīju grāmatu. Es lasu grāmatu. Es lasīšu grāmatu.
I read a book. I'm reading a book. I'm going to read a book.
I'll read a book
I will read a book.

As you can see from these examples, the only difference between the three Latvian sentences is the form of the main verb. Compare this with English which requires the use of a helping verb or phrase (such as 'm going to or will or 'll) to mark the future, and often uses a helping verb and suffix for the present tense (e.g. 'm or am plus -ing).

Let's take each of these simple tenses individually, starting with the future:

Future tense

Take a look at the following verb forms, which (except for the infinitive) are all in the future tense (nākotne); I have separated the suffixes from the roots with dashes:

infinitive 1st p. sg. 2nd p. sg. 3rd p. 1st p. pl. 2nd p. pl.
rak-t 'to dig' rak-š-u rak-s-i rak-s rak-si-m rak-si-t
skrie-t 'to run' skrie-š-u skrie-s-i skrie-s skrie-si-m skrie-si-t
grib-ē-t 'to want' grib-ē-š-u grib-ē-s-i grib-ē-s grib-ē-si-m grib-ē-si-t
dej-o-t 'to dance' dej-o-š-u dej-o-s-i dej-o-s dej-o-si-m dej-o-si-t

Notice that the future tense is always marked by a suffix , -s, or -si. In order to form the future tense of a verb, you add one of these suffixes to the verb stem, and then add the person and number suffix (-u '1st p. sg.', -i '2nd p. sg.', etc.). Here is a chart of the endings:

future suffix person & number suffix
1st p. sg. -u
2nd p. sg. -s -i
3rd. p. -s
1st p. pl. -si -m
2nd p. pl. -si -t

Past tense

The simple past tense (vienkāršā pagātne) is also marked by the presence of certain suffixes. Take a look at the following verb forms, which (except for the infinitive) are all in the past tense; I have separated the suffixes from the roots with dashes:

infinitive 1st p. sg. 2nd p. sg. 3rd p. 1st p. pl. 2nd p. pl.
las-ī-t 'to read' las-īj-u las-īj-i las-īj-a las-īj-ām las-īj-āt
raud-ā-t 'to cry' raud-āj-u raud-āj-i raud-āj-a raud-āj-ām raud-āj-āt
grib-ē-t 'to want' grib-ēj-u grib-ēj-i grib-ēj-a grib-ēj-ām grib-ēj-āt
dej-o-t 'to dance' dej-oj-u dej-oj-i dej-oj-a dej-oj-ām dej-oj-āt

As you can see from these examples, some verbs have a long vowel (ā, ē, ī) or diphthong (o) which follows the verb root and precedes the other suffixes. This is called a thematic vowel or theme vowel.

What good is it? Acually, it means nothing whatsoever. There is really no reason for one verb to have a theme vowel (as in mīcīt 'to knead', sacīt 'to say', rādīt 'to show', etc.) and for another to have the theme vowel (as in stāvēt 'to stand', tecēt 'to flow, run', sēdēt 'to sit', etc.). It's just an accident of history.

(Note: O.K. Once in a while it actually makes a meaning difference as to which vowel occurs, as in mācēt 'to know (how to do something)' vs. mācīt 'to teach'. But this is pretty rare, so just memorize which theme vowels are part of which verbs. OK?)

Present tense

The difference between the present tense (tagadne) and past tense (pagātne) of a thematic verb (i.e. a verb which has a theme vowel) can be the absence or presence of the thematic vowel. Take a look at these verbs which (except for the infinitive form) are in the first person singular:

infinitive present tense past tense
las-ī-t 'to read' las-u las-īj-u
raud-ā-t 'to cry' raud-u raud-āj-u
grib-ē-t 'to want' grib-u grib-ēj-u

As you can see from these examples, the thematic vowel does NOT show up in the present tense, but does occur in the past tense. The past tense forms also have the consonant [ j ] after the thematic vowel, but this doesn't mean anything; the [ j ] is present merely to break up the sequence of vowels which would otherwise result. In other words, it's something like this: lasīu → lasīju.

So this means that the thematic vowel always shows up in the past tense, but never in the present tense, right? WRONG!. Here are a few more verbs to look at (also in the first person singular form, except for the infinitive):

infinitive present tense past tense
med-ī-t 'to hunt' med-īj-u med-īj-u
run-ā-t 'to speak' run-āj-u run-āj-u
spēl-ē-t 'to play'' spēl-ēj-u spēl-ēj-u
og-o-t 'to pick berries' og-āj-u og-āj-u

As you can see, the past and present tense forms are identical! What good is that? How do you tell the difference? From the context. So, if someone asks you: "What did you do yesterday?" and you answer: "Es ogoju" &mdash it means 'I picked berries". On the other hand, if someone calls you up and says: "So, what are you doing today?" and you answer: "Es ogoju" &mdash it means 'I'm picking berries". Clear?

So this means that it's only in some verbs that the thematic vowel disappears to mark the present tense. This leads us nicely into conjugation classes. Conjugation Classes What does conjugation (konjugācija) mean? If you list several forms of the same verb, you are said to be conjugating that verb. For example, take a look at the following list:

We have just conjugated the verb 'to walk' in the simple present tense. Here's another list:

I grow, I grew, I will grow

We have just conjugated the verb 'to grow' in the first person singular in all three simple tenses. This is all well and good, but what does it have to do with conjugation classes? We group verbs into different classes depending on how they conjugate. Here's an example from English:

infinitive 1st p. sg. past 1st p. sg. perfect
to sing I sang I have sung
to ring I rang I have rung
to sink I sank I have sunk
to water I watered I have watered
to comb I combed I have combed
to grab I grabbed I have grabbed

It's pretty clear that the first three verbs conjugate differently than the second set of three. Specifically, the verbs highlighted in yellow change the vowel (i ~ a ~ u) to mark a difference in meaning (infinitive, past tense, perfect tense), but the verbs highlighted in pink add the ending -ed (to mark either past or perfect tense). Clearly each group of verbs should be placed in a different conjugation class. Right?

O.K. Now, what about conjugation classes for Latvian verbs? Click here → Latvian Conjugation Classes


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This page created and maintained by
A. Steinbergs

Last revised September 20, 2008