Latvian, rooted in Sanskrit and an Indo-European past, one of Europe’s most ancient languages, shares a common bond only with Lithuanian. These two languages form a separate branch of the whole European language classification. For Latvian to have survived, despite invasions by different nations near and far, is nothing short of amazing.
Perhaps we can find an explanation for this unique phenomenon in the ancient traditions and vibrant culture of Latvia. We need look no further than the thousands of poems in the oral tradition of the “Dainas” now listed as part of UNESCO’s world cultural heritage, to see that Latvians have a strong sense of pride in their own language, culture and hold a unique place in Europe’s diverse cultures.
If we draw comparisons with other European languages, be they Germanic, Romance or Slav, we see, very soon, that Latvian is something quite different and unique. Here are just a few words rooted in the distant past – words that are very basic in any language. If we compare Latvian with other European languages, English, German, French, Russian and others, then we can clearly see the distinct nature of Latvian vocabulary.
River, rivière, fleuve, fiume, reka (река) but in Latvian – UPE. Then take the word for milk, lait, latte, milch, moloko (молоко) but in Latvian it is PIENS. Lastly a tree, arbre, baum, derevo (дерево) but in Latvian – KOKS.
For those who wish to engage in serious study and enjoy a challenge in their lives, the Latvian language is a most rewarding exercise, as the intricacies of inflection and case endings can be quite taxing for even the most assiduous of students. But the end reward opens doors to the rich and ancient cultural life of Latvia and the language today has a stronger position than ever as it is now one of the official languages of the European Union.
Milestones of Latvian
First printed text.
Oldest book preserved to this day – „Catholic Catechism” – published.
First grammar book.
Johann Ernst Glück translates the Bible into Latvian.
First periodical – „Latvian Doctoress” – issued.
Latvian becomes highly standardised, rich in press publications and number of native authors.
Krišjānis Barons collects at least two hundred thousand folk songs „Dainas”.
The Republic of Latvia grants official status to the Latvian language.
Latvian loses its status in Latvia due to the occupation.
Latvian regains the status of the official language in Latvia.
Language Policy in Latvia
Latvian language is the cornerstone of Latvian identity. That is why Latvians cultivate their language sparing little effort. Since the independence of Latvia in 1918, the Latvian language formed into a well-developed, multifunctional language with an established system of styles and developed terminology.
The Soviet occupation put Latvian in social bilingualism with Russian – the designated language of communication between Soviet peoples. Latvian was gradually ousted from most of public sector. Massive immigration decreased the percentage of Latvian speakers. By 1989 only 21% of Latvian minorities declared knowing Latvian while most Latvians knew Russian. Russification of Latvia attained preconditions for imminent language shift.
Current language policy protects and develops the languages of Latvia’s minorities while integrating the society via Latvian as the official language. The Latvian government runs programmes for teaching Latvian since the 1990’s. By 2008 about 93% of Latvian minorities acknowledged having some Latvian language skills. In Latvia today, 9 out of every 10 inhabitants of speak Latvian. It is one of only 200 languages in the world with over a million users.
Latvian government covers bilingual education in eight largest minority languages: Belarussian, Estonian, Jewish, Lithuanian, Polish, Roma, Russian, and Ukrainian. In bilingual schools or classes Latvian is taught as a second language to provide command of Latvian and promote social integration.
The Latvian Language is researched by the Latvian Language Institute, the University of Latvia and the universities of Liepāja and Daugavpils. It is taught and studied in several universities throughout the world, such as the University of Washington. Standardisation and codification of Latvian is carried out by the Latvian Language Expert Commission of the State Language Centre.
Latvian language abroad
Support to Latvian language abroad is provided in two fields by the Latvian Language Agency:
Support to the acquisition of Latvian as foreign language in universities abroad;
Support to Latvian language in diaspora.
Support to the acquisition of Latvian as foreign language in universities abroad
Currently, it is possible to study Latvian in 22 universities abroad. For more information, please visit Institutions of Higher Education.
The Latvian Language Agency cooperates with universities abroad and supports the organization of the study process of Latvian as foreign language by:
Sending study materials, dictionaries, academic literature, methodological resources, etc.
Providing consulting and information to teachers about various activities, competitions and events related to popularizing, representing, teaching and research on Latvian language
Providing methodological consulting to teachers, organizing seminars and conferences
Supporting the organization of events related to popularization of Latvian
Organizing competition for instructor vacancies in cooperation with respective representatives in universities abroad, etc.
Support to Latvian Language in Diaspora
The Latvian Language Agency provides support to Latvian schools abroad by:
Ensuring the activity of specialists in most of Latvian schools abroad
Sending methodological and study resources, dictionaries and literature
Preparing and publishing methodological and study resources and materials
Evaluating curriculum, study materials and learning process
Organizing meetings and seminars and providing methodological consulting
Encouraging to award Latvian students and teachers in diaspora
The First Lady of Latvia Mrs Iveta Vējone is a patroness of Latvian diaspora schools upon the initiative of the Education Council of the World Federation of Free Latvians (WFFL), by undertaking to encompass the Latvian children, youngsters, and teachers all around the world with care.
Source: The Latvian Language Agency
Background photo © Aldis Pūtelis/Latviešu folkloras krātuve