Latvian j Palatalization

j Palatalization in 2nd Declension Nouns

Some noun forms appear to have a j at the beginning of the suffix which marks gender/number/case. Take a look at the following examples of 2nd declension nouns:

ending example word
'swan'
example word
'mole'
example word
'cupboard'
example word
'plate'
singular nominative -is gulb-is kurm-is skap-is šķīv-is
genitive -(j)a gulb-ja kurm-ja skap-ja šķīv-ja
dative -im gulb-im kurm-im skap-im šķīv-im
accusative -i gulb-i kurm-i skap-i šķīv-i
locative gulb-ī kurm-ī skap-ī šķīv-ī
vocative -i gulb-i! kurm-i! skap-i! šķīv-i!
plural nominative -(j)i gulb-ji kurm-ji skap-ji šķīv-ji
genitive -(j)u gulbj-u kurm-ju skap-ju šķīv-ju
dative -(j)iem gulbj-iem kurm-jiem skap-jiem šķīv-jiem
accusative -(j)us gulbj-us kurm-jus skap-jus šķīv-jus
locative -(j)os gulbj-os kurm-jos skap-jos šķīv-jos
vocative -(j)i gulbj-i! kurm-ji! skap-ji! šķīv-ji!

As you can see, the j turns up in the genitive singular, and throughout the plural. However, it only occurs with certain 2nd declension nouns. The above examples all have noun roots ending in [ p b m ] or [ v ].

These are consonants which are produced using the lower lip (they are called labial consonants). The j only appears when it follows one of these consonants. After any other type of consonant, we see an effect which is called palatalization. Take a look at the following examples:

nom. sg. example noun ends in palatalization nom. pl. example translation
latviet-is t tj → š latvieši male Latvian(s)
brīd-is d dj → ž brīži moment(s)
lāc-is c cj → č lāči bear(s)
kās-is s sj → š kāši hook(s)
naz-is z zj → ž naži knife/knives
pulksten-is n nj → ņ pulksteņi clock(es)
brāl-is l lj → ļ brāļi brother(s)

Note (1): These days most dialects of Latvian do not have a palatalized 'r': ŗ. However, in those areas speakers who retain this pronunciation will use it in the genitive singular and plural forms of 2nd declension nouns ending in r; thus: būr-is 'cage', but būŗi 'cages'. In all other dialects (the majority), the j disappears; thus: būri 'cages'.

Note (2): Although historically there were nouns ending in k and g in this declension, they have since been altered. Thus, we still see a k in the Lithuanian word for 'bear' lokys, but the k has become a c in Latvian: lācis.

Note(3): Exceptions. There are a number of 2nd declension nouns which do NOT palatalize. These include: (a) surnames ending in ckis or skis (see, for example, a name (provided in nominative and genitive singular forms) such as Novickis, Novicka); (b) first names of two syllables ending in tis, dis or ris (see, for example, names (provided in nominative and genitive singular forms) such as Aldis, Alda or Andris, Andra).

Why is it called Palatalization?

In the previous section I referred to the effect whereby tj → š, or dj → ž, (etc., etc.) as palatalization. Why?

First, take a look at the sounds represented by the letters: t, d, c, s, z, n, l. All of these consonants are produced by the tip of the tongue touching or approaching the back of the upper teeth. These are known as dental consonants.

However, the consonants represented by: š, ž, č, ņ, ļ are all produced by the tongue approaching or touching some part of the hard palate. These types of sounds are called palatal consonants. The [ j ] sound itself is a palatal consonant.

Thus, when a (non-palatal) consonant sound (such as n takes on a (more) palatal pronunciation (such as ņ), under the influence of a palatal sound (such as j), this process is called palatalization.

j Palatalization in 5th and 6th Declension Nouns

The j which causes palatalization also appears in certain genitive plural forms, namely those of 5th and 6th declension nouns. Here are some examples which illustrate this:

5th Declension nouns 6th Declension nouns
palatalization nom. sg. example gen. pl. example translation nom. sg. example gen. pl. example translation
tj → š sieviet-e sieviešu woman kūt-s kūšu animal shed, stable
dj → ž atbild-e atbilžu answer sird-s siržu heart
cj → č skolniec-e skolnieču female pupil
sj → š klas-e klašu class
zj → ž glāz-e glāžu glass
nj → ņ sakn-e sakņu root krāsn-s krāšņu oven
lj → ļ pel-e peļu mouse pil-s piļu castle

Note (1): Just because I couldn't find any examples of 6th declension nouns ending in c, s, or z which do palatalization, that doesn't mean there aren't any. I just haven't been able to find any. If you find some, please let me know; send e-mail to: A. Steinbergs. On the other hand, the 6th declension class is one of the smaller classes of nouns. Maybe there just aren't any.

Note (2): When there are two "palatalizable" (i.e. dental) consonant sounds in a row, the following palatalized sound affects the preceding one, as the following examples show (the examples are in the nominative singular and genitive plural forms): krāsn-s, krāšņu 'oven' , kāpsl-is, kāpšļu 'tread, footboard', lell-e, leļļu 'doll', maiskst-e, maikšu 'pole, prop', viln-is, viļņu 'wave', zizl-is, zižļu 'staff, wand, sceptre' zvaigzn-e, zvaigžņu 'star', etc.

Note (3): As with everything, there are exceptions. The following 6th declension nouns do not palatalize (the examples are in the nominative singular and genitive plural forms): acs, acu 'eye', auss, ausu 'ear', balss, balsu 'voice', brokastis, brokastu 'breakfast', mute, mutu 'mouth', zoss, zosu 'goose'.
The following 5th declension class noun also does not palatalize: pase, pasu 'passport'.

j Palatalization in First Conjugation Verbs

Some of the verbs in the First Conjugation Class show a j at the end of the verb root (before the person/number suffix). These are normally referred to as verbs of the Fourth Subclass of the First Conjugation. Here is a chart showing all the endings in the three simple tenses, which uses the verb kāpt 'to climb' as an example:

singular plural
1st p. 2nd p. 1st p. 2nd p. 3rd p.
present kāp-j-u kāp kāp-j-am kāp-j-at kāp-j
past kāp-u kāp-i kāp-ām kāp-āt kāp-a
future kāp-š-u kāp-s-i kāp-si-m kāp-si-t kāp-s

The -j suffix is visible in this example, as it is in all fourth subclass verbs which have a verb root ending in p, b, or m (Note: these three are labial consonants). Other 4th subclass verbs like this are glāb-t 'to save', kop-t 'to tend', stum-t 'to push', stiep-t 'to stretch', and streb-t 'to gulp', etc.

In other fourth subclass verbs one sees the effect of j-palatalization, although not the j itself. Here is another example using the verb celt 'to lift':

singular plural
1st p. 2nd p. 1st p. 2nd p. 3rd p.
present ceļ-u cel ceļ-am ceļ-at ceļ
past cēl-u cēl-i cēl-ām cēl-āt cēl-a
future cel-š-u cel-s-i cel-si-m cel-si-t cel-s

This verb illustrates the effect of j-palatalization on the final consonant of the verb root; in this case the effect is: l → ļ Here are some examples which illustrate additional palatalization effects:

infinitive translation Root final consonant j-palatalization effect 1st. p. sg. past 1st p. sg. present
pūs-t to blow t š pūt-u pūš-u
svies-t to throw d ž svied-u sviež-u
dzēs-t to extinguish s š dzēs-u dzēš-u
bāz-t to shove z ž bāz-u bāž-u
kult to thresh l ļ kūl-u kuļ-u


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This page created and maintained by
A. Steinbergs

Last revised September 18, 2008