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Number of Speakers: Approximately 2 million
Key Dialects: West Latvian, East Latvian
Geographical Center: Republic of Latvia
Latvian is the official state language of the Republic of Latvia, where about 1.7 million people speak it as their first language. A significant number of Latvian speakers live in the United States (50,000), Russia (29,000), Australia (25,000), and Canada (15,000). Small communities of speakers live in Germany, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Lithuania, Ukraine, Brazil, Estonian, Belarus, New Zealand, and Venezuela as well.
Latvian belongs to the Baltic branch of the Indo-European language family. The Baltic Branch consists of two groups: East Baltic, which consists of Latvian and Lithuanian, and West Baltic whose only attested member is Old Prussian, which has been extinct since about 1700. The closest relative of Latvian is Lithuanian.
Although spoken over a small area, Latvian has a number of local variants. The major dialectal variations within Latvian are regionally based. Some confusion exists in the literature over how these dialects should be named. A long tradition in Latvian linguistics divides these dialects into two major groups: Low Latvian and High Latvian. Low Latvian is made up of the Central dialect and the Tamian dialect. Another popular view in the literature recognizes these two main groups but refers to them slightly differently, namely as West Latvian (also known as Central Latvian or Tamian) and as East Latvian (also known as High Latvian or Latgalian).
The West and East Latvian dialect groups are quite similar, but each has a separate literary tradition. West Latvian forms the basis of standard Latvian. Although speakers of Latgalian (now called East Latvian) at one point hoped to establish it as a separate language, this never took place, and today Latgalian is still considered a regional dialect of Latvian.
The present-day orthography has been in use since 1908. Its basis is the Roman alphabet. For the most part it follows the language's pronunciation. The Latvian alphabet has forty-eight letters. A distinguishing feature for standard Latvian is the use of the macron over vowels to indicate vowel length.
The evolution of Latvian orthography went through three periods: Old Latvian (sixteenth century to mid-nineteenth century), New Latvian (mid-nineteenth century to the 1880s), and the present-day standard Latvian. Standard Latvian began to emerge during the time the country was an independent republic from 1918 to 1940. It underwent radical and sudden changes in the twentieth century particularly with regard to the spelling of borrowed foreign words.
Latvian orthography and those used in neighboring countries have certain features in common. Early influences on the Latvian orthography are Finnish, Polish, and (Low) German. Modern orthography has borrowed some basic principles of spelling and symbols from Czech.
Latvian has a pitch accent system; that is, the meaning of a word depends on the pitch of the vowel. A vowel may have lengthened (or level) tone, falling tone, or broken tone, where the voice is creaky in the last half of the syllable. Unlike closely related Lithuanian, in which pitch accent only occurs on stressed syllables, any long syllable has pitch in Latvian. The first syllable in a word is always stressed.
There are six nominal cases in Latvian. There are two grammatical genders, masculine and feminine and two numbers, singular and plural. Case, grammatical gender, and number are represented by a single marker suffixed to the noun.
Word order in the sentence is subject-verb-object, although some flexibility in word order is possible because of the rich case-marking system. Participles can be used as main verbs if the speaker does not want to commit to the truth of the sentence; such sentences are often used in fairy tales, for example. There is also a separate verb form that is used if the speaker wishes to imply doubt about the truth of the sentence.
ROLE IN SOCIETY
Latvian has constitutional status as the official state language of Latvia, and is used in all official spheres of activity, although any other languages can be used in government meetings by agreement. In 1988, the first independent publications began to appear and they represented a diversity of political views by the beginning of 1990. The dominant language of the mass media is now Latvian, although newspapers and broadcasts are also created in Russian, English, Swedish, and other minority languages. Latvian is used in the school system at all levels. Russian and English are also used at the university level.
The use of Latvian on radio and television, as well as in schools, helped to consolidate standard Latvian. Translations of literary works into Latvian have also been important in expanding, as well as "latvianizing", the vocabulary of the language.
Recently, the Latvian language has experienced an increase in borrowings from Russian (Estonian Encyclopedia Publishers 1991). Some Latvians argue that these borrowings are causing a decline in the standard of the language. A law giving Latvian the status of the official state language was passed in 1989, prior to the country's independence in 1991.
Most Latvians are bilingual or trilingual. The Latvian-speaking population also speaks Russian in the eastern part of Latvia, Lithuanian and Russian in areas near the southern border, Polish and Russian in the eastern portion of the country, and Estonian in sections near the northern border (Asher 1994).
The oldest known records of written Latvian can be traced back to the thirteenth century. However, the earliest extant texts date from the sixteenth century. Most of these early works were manuscripts of church texts and sermons. The oldest surviving printed book in Latvian is a Catholic catechism. The first printed secular book did not appear until the seventeenth century.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Latvian language was standardized. The Latvian translation of the New Testament in 1685 served to stabilize the orthography. An important stage in the further development of the Latvian standard language is linked with the National Awakening movement in the middle of the nineteenth century when outstanding poets of the period attempted to purify, enrich, and develop Latvian into a vehicle for poetry and science. Since this period, the development of the Latvian language toward a standardized modern form has proceeded rapidly.
Since Latvia has been annexed by a succession of countries-- Germany, Poland, Sweden, and Russia--the various languages spoken in these countries (which were used for administration, religion, and literature) have all influenced the formation of Latvian.
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