The Latvian alphabet consists of the following letters:
a, b, c, č, d, e, f, g, ģ, h, i, j, k, ķ, l, ļ, m, n, ņ, o, p, r, (º), s, š, t, u, v, z, ž.
The vowels a, e, i and u are short: the corresponding long vowels are noted
ā, ē, ī, ū. These symbols were sometimes accorded alphabetic status, but more
recent dictionaries no longer distinguish between a and ā, etc., for the purposes
of alphabetic ordering. The same is true of the digraphs ch, dz, dž and ie,
which are now ordered under their initial element. Thus the older ordering was :
a, ā, b, c, č, ch, d, dz, dž, e, ē, f, g, ģ, h, i, ī, ie, j, k, ķ, l, ļ, m, n, ņ, o, p,
r, º s, š, t, u, ū, v, z, ž.
In a few works the digraph uo is used where, in standard orthography, o
appears. The digraph uo, when used, is listed immediately after ū. The student
needs to be familiar with these various conventions in order to be able to
consult the various dictionaries at his disposal.
The symbol r and the digraph ch are no longer
used in the Latvian SSR,
being replaced by r and h respectively, although they are still current in emigrē
texts, and are to be found in older works. In this work we follow the more
recent practice of using r throughout, except where ž occurs in passages quoted
1 See Bibliography.
2 A. Laua's recent Latviešu literārās valodas fonētika (156 pp.), while in
some respects rather elementary, contains much useful information, and
appears to be the fullest treatment available.
3 Svešvārdu vārdnīca, sakārtojis Ed. Ozoliņš. Redidiģējis J. Endzelīns. Pārlabots
un papildināts 3. izdevums. Andreja Ozoliņa Apgāds (Vācijā ,1958).
from Latvian authors. On the other hand, because of the
establishing distributional criteria for the different pronunciations of the new
symbol h, we have preferred to retain ch in the two or three words used in this
book for which the problem arises. However, in view of the tendency for the
older pronunciation of h to be replaced by the pronunciation previously noted
ch,1 it may well be possible at some time in the future to use the symbol h
In the following we attempt no more than an approximation
to a description
of the various Latvian vowels, diphthongs and consonants. More complete
and rigorous description would necessarily be very lengthy and excessively
technical.2 In the majority of cases there is no substitute for the aid of several
native speakers, who may serve as informants for the linguist or as models for
In what follows, the term ENGLISH is to be interpreted as STANDARD
A a as in mati, aka, pats, adata.
An open vowel without perceptible rounding or spreading of the lips,
like the a of English father, but shorter.
Ā ā as in māte, ārsts, rāms, strādā .
As for A a above, but lengthened, similar to the a of English father.
B b as in bende, ubags, stabi, glāb.
A voiced bi-labial plosive, like the b of English butter.
C c as in cūka, muca, krāc, trīc.
A voiceless affricate, like the ts of English pots.
Č č as in četri, lāči, līči, čupa.
A voiceless affricate, like the ch of English church.
D d as in dod, dimd, draud, dārdēt.
A voiced dental plosive, similar to the d of English doubt. The Latvian d,
however, is dental, whereas English d is alveolar.
E e represents two different phonemes, known as "closed e" (šaurais e)
and "open e" (platais e).
(1) "Closed e" as in nest, redzi, pele, debess.
A closed front vowel with lip spreading, corresponding very approxi-
mately to the e of English get. It is similar to the French e in the,
although not quite so closed. This phoneme will be denoted e in vocabu-
(2) "Open e" as in nesam, redzu, vecs, ledus.
An open front vowel with slight lip spreading, corresponding very
approximately to the a of English cat. It can also be compared with the
French ai in laine, although a little more open. This phoneme will be
denoted e in vocabularies.
Ē ē represents, like E e, two different phonemes, "closed ē" and "open ē".
(1) "Closed ē" as in vēl, mēlēm, vēlēt, brēca.
As for "closed e" above, but lengthened. This phoneme will be denoted
ē in vocabularies.
(2) "Open ē" as in lēns, brēcam, aizvērts, jērs.
As for "open e" above, but lengthened. This phoneme will be denoted ē
F f as in filma, fraka, flauta, profesors.
A voiceless labio-dental fricative, like the f of English film. It occurs
only in words of foreign origin.
G g as in draugi, iegūt, graut, deg.
A voiced velar plosive, like the g of English good. As in English, the
point of articulation varies according to the phonetic environment.
Ģ ģ as in gērbties, soģis, noģist, kuģis.
A voiced dorsal plosive, with no counterpart in English. The occlusion
is effected by the central part of the tongue against the hard palate;
g may therefore be described as a very advanced g, further advanced
even than the g of English geese. English speakers are likely to perceive
it as an odd kind of d.
H h as in Holande, hormons, himna, alkoholisks.
Similar to the h of English Holland. There appears to be a tendency
now to replace this sound by that represented by the digraph ch, q. v.
It occurs only in words of foreign origin.
I i as in ilgi, bildini, pliki, vilcini.
A closed front vowel with lip spreading,1ike the i of English tip.
Ī ī as in īgns, brīdī, trīs, dīķī.
As for I i above, but lengthened, and a little more closed. It is similar
to the ea of English tea, but a little more closed.
J j as in jāja, pilij, dejo, blēj.
A voiced palatal open consonant (or semivowel). Similar to the y of
K k as in koks, krauklis, pirkt, ak.
A voiceless velar plosive,1ike the k of English king, but lacking the
aspiration often associated with the latter. As in English, the point of
articulation varies according to the phonetic environment.
Ķ ķ as in ķiploks, kaķis, noķert, ķiķināt.
A voiceless dorsal plosive, with no counterpart in English. The occlusion
is effected by the central part of the tongue against the hard palate; ķ
may therefore be described as a very advanced k, further advanced even
than the k of English king. English speakers are likely to perceive it as
an odd kind of t.
L I as in liels, laulāt, alkoholisks, vēl.
A voiced alveolar liquid, like the pre-vocalic l of English link.
Ļ ļ as in ļaudis, veļa, dēļ, viļņi.
A voiced dorsal liquid, approximating to the l + i of English million.
Cf. the similar sound of Italian figlio.
M m as in mēmi, māmiņa, mātēm, ciemiem.
A voiced bi-labial nasal sonant, like the m of English meat.
N n as in neviens, nonākt, svin, melns.
A voiced dental nasal sonant, like the n of English neat. The Latvian n,
however, is dental, whereas the English n is alveolar.
Ņ ņ as in ņemt, kaimiņi, ņiprs, viļņi.
A voiced dorsal nasal sonant, approximating to the n + i of English
onion. Cf. the similar sound in Italian ogni.
O o represents three different sounds, although it is dubious whether three
separate phonemes can be usefully postulated.
(1) A diphthong, with first element u and second element somewhat
more open and a little more forward. This second element is subject
to some variation, but in general may be likened to the unstressed
second a of English drama or the u of English up. Exx. ozols, joko, dot,
Attention is drawn to words not having this pronunciation of o in notes
to the vocabularies.
(2) An open back vowel with slight lip rounding, like the o of English
hot. This sound occurs only in words of foreign origin.
Exx. marmors, tomāts, Holande, Londona (first o only).
(3) A closed back vowel with lip rounding, and longer than (2) above,
with no real counterpart in English. It is similar to the French o in rose,
but a little more open. This sound occurs only in words of foreign origin.
Exx. Eiropa, Londona (second o only), hormons (second o only), oktob-
ris (second o only).
P p as in pipari, paprasīt, piepeši, lejup.
A voiceless bi-labial plosive, like the p of English part, but lacking the
aspiration often associated with the latter.
R r as in roka, raksturs, rit, par.
A voiced alveolar trill, with no counterpart in English. It is similar to
the "rolled" r commonly used by Scots.
R r as (for some speakers only) in dzeru, karš, jūra, stūri.
A voiced alveolar trill like R r above, but palatalized through the
raising of the central part of the tongue to the hard palate. There is no
counterpart in English; r may be compared with the Russian palatalized
p as in peka. This symbol is no longer used in the official orthography,
and the sound is heard mainly in dialects of Western Kurzeme.
S s as in salas, stājusies, sausus, stāstīs.
A voiceless fricative,1ike the s of English sin.
Š š as in šeit, šurp, šaubījušies, šūšu.
A voiceless fricative, like the sh of English shin.
T t as in tauta, ticiet, tilts, tīt.
A voiceless dental plosive, similar to the t of English tin. The Latvian t,
however, is dental, whereas the English t is alveolar. The Latvian t also
lacks the aspiration often associated with the English t.
U u as in uts, mucu, šuvusi, uguns.
A closed back vowel with lip rounding,1ike the u of English push.
Ū ū as in ūdens, krūms, brūns, kļūst.
As for U u, but lengthened. Similar to the oo of English fool, but a little
V v as in v vāvere, vīns, brīvi, virtuve.
A voiced labio-dental fricative, 1ike the v of English vine.
Z z as in zēns, kāzas, blāzma, uz.
A voiced fricative,1ike the z of English zoo.
Ž ž as in žēl, naži, griež, rožu.
A voiced fricative,1ike the s of English pleasure, or the j of French
In addition, the following digraphs should be noted.
Ch ch as in technisks, almanachs. Now widely spelt tehnisks, almanahs.
A voiceless fricative, palatal after a front vowel (technisks) otherwise
velar (almanachs). There is no counterpart in English, although the
palatal variant may be compared with the initial sequence of the English
hue, and the velar with the ch of Scots loch. For the palatal, cf. the ch
of German ich, and for the velar, the ch of German Buch. Like the
symbol h, by which it is widely replaced, it occurs only in words of
Dz dz as in dziesma, redz. Equivalent to d + z, i.e., a voiced counterpart of c.
Cf. the dz of English adze.
Dž dž as in sādža, dadži. Equivalent to d + ž, i.e., a voiced counterpart of č.
Cf. the j of English jug.
Ie ie as in pie, liels. A diphthong, with first element i, and a second element
somewhat more open and a little more backward. This second element
is subject to some variation, but in general may be likened to the un-
stressed second a of English drama. The whole diphthong approximates
to the diphthongal element at the end of the English fear, Philadelphia,
although the first element of the Latvian diphthong is a little more
Uo uo Used only in specialized works. An alternative representation of O o
(1) above, g.v.
In addition to the above digraphs, the following diphthongal combina-
ai as in daiļai, aitai. Equivalent to a+i. Cf. English fine.
au as in tauta, maurs. Equivalent to a+u. There is no counterpart in
English. Cf. German Haus.
ei as in meita, puķei. Equivalent to "closed e"+ i. There is no counterpart
in English, the ay of day having a somewhat more open first element.
eu as in pseudo-, pneumatisks.
Equivalent to "closed e"+u. There is no counterpart in English. Cf.
however the initial diphthong of Italian Europa. The spelling eu occurs
only in words of foreign origin, in which both spelling and pronuncia-
tion now widely appear as ei: cf. pseido-, pneimatisks. In words like sev
and tev, the final v is sometimes vocalized, thus creating a native eu
iu as in šmaukstēt, pliukšķēt. Equivalent to i+u. There is no counterpart
oi as in Oidips, boikots. Equivalent to o (3) +i. Similar to the oy of English
boy. It occurs only in words of foreign origin.
ui as in muiža, puika. Equivalent to u+i. There is no counterpart in
English. Cf. German pfui.
Other combinations of vowels occur, both in native words
and foreign borrow-
ings, cf. for native words paeglis, paost, neass, etc., and for foreign words kakao
boa, neons, radio, etc., but these are bi-syllabic.
The correlation between sound and symbol in Latvian is quite high. Thus in
general Latvian words are spelt as they sound, and vice versa. In spite of
obvious difficulties over e and o, there is a basic regularity in the orthographic
system. A number of departures from this relatively systematic correlation,
however, need to be noted.
A voiced consonant, other than a sonant or a liquid, immediately
a voiceless consonant is normally devoiced. Thus b, d, g, z, ž represent respec-
tively (p), (t), (k), (s), (š) in labs, bads, zirgs, aiztrenkt, mežs.
A voiceless consonant immediately preceding a voiced consonant other than
a sonant or a liquid is normally voiced. Thus c, k, p, s, š, t represent respectively
(dz), (g), (b), (z), (ž), (d) in piecgade, nākdams, kāpdams, pusdivos, trešdiena,
(b) in point of articulation
The dental nasal n occurs as a velar nasal before
the velar plosives k and g.
Thus in banka, banga, etc., the sound heard is that of the ng of English sing,
followed by the k or g.
Before š or č, s is often assimilated to š; thus :
pusčetri is often pronounced (puščetri)
visšaurākais is often pronounced (viššrākais).
Before ž or dž, z is often assimilated to ž; thus :
izžūt is often pronounced (ižžūt)
aizdžinkstēt is often pronounced (aiždžinkstēt).
At the end of a word the combination -šs becomes (šš) and reduces to (š);
drošs is pronounced (droš).
c) in both sonority and point of articulation
A combination of (a) and (b) above explains such cases
uzšūt pronounced (uššūt)
mežs pronounced (meš).
Apart from the general (and rather misleading) statement
that e is pronounced
closed when followed in the next syllable by a closed front vowel or diphthong,
a palatalized consonant or j, and is otherwise pronounced open, a rather
complex formulation is required to predict the occurrence of open and closed e.
For basic guidance, however, see A Synchronic Approach. These rules do not
extend to bez, ne, etc., used as prefixes, where the quality of e does not normally vary
from the closed pronunciation heard when these words are independently
used. Ne, however, when prefixed to a word beginning with open e or open ē
will itself usually be pronounced with open e; thus:
neesmu is often pronounced (neesmu)
neērts is often pronounced (neērts).
In word final position, or de facto word final
position after loss of a final vowel
(see section 4, Weakening), or immediately before final s, v preceded by a short
vowel is commonly vocalized to u; thus :
savs is normally pronounced (saus)
sev is normally pronounced (seu)
zivs is normally pronounced (zius)
krav(u) is often pronounced (krau).
Note in particular that nav is almost always pronounced (nau).
After a long vowel or diphthong, the vocalization is much less common.
If the following word begins with a vowel, the final or de facto final v is more
likely to retain its consonantal articulation. Notice particularly that under
these circumstances the word jau will often be pronounced (jav).
Many speakers subject final short vowels to considerable
the vowel is merely whispered. Cf. the spelling bij for bija. In some cases this
weakening seems to have led to the complete loss of the vowel, although this
tendency cannot be considered as typical; thus:
bija may be reduced as far as (bij)
meita may be reduced as far as (meit)
klausa may be reduced as far as (klaus).
Short vowels immediately preceding a final s are subject to the same weakening,
and in the case of some speakers, total loss. Thus :
bijis may be reduced as far as (bijs)
meitas may be reduced as far as (meits)
cepures may be reduced as far as (cepurs).
In the present tense of mixed conjugation verbs in -it and -ināt, the endings
containing ā, i. e., -ām, - āmies, -āt, -āties, - ās, are normally pronounced with
Latvian words are stressed on the first syllable. Exceptions
to this rule (e. g.,
neviens, pusotra) are rare, and are indicated in notes to the vocabularies.
Long vowels and diphthongs (and for this purpose sequences of vowel plus
r, l, ļ, m, n, ņ are considered diphthongal) are subject to certain intonation
patterns. In a few areas three patterns are distinguished: the even intonation
(stieptā intonācija), the falling intonation (krītošā intonācija) and the broken
intonation (lauztā intonācija).
The even tone calls for very little comment: the vowel
or diphthong is
uttered on a level tone with no significant variation in intensity. The falling
tone3 begins more loudly, falling off towards the end.
The broken tone4 divides the duration of the vowel or diphthong into two
sections : a rising, tense and loud beginning is followed in mid-syllable by a
noticeable weakening, and a relaxed or weakened, sometimes even whispered,
However, many areas have only a two-way contrast; in some
the falling and
broken intonations are fused, in others the falling and even. These intonational
variations limit the generalization that can be made to the broad statement
that for most speakers the basic distinction is between an even intonation and
a non-even intonation.5
In view of these variations, and the fact that the intonation
patterns of the
literary language have not been fully investigated,6 it would be illusory to
attempt a rigid doctrine, just as it would be impossible to allow for even the
major variations; we have therefore decided to limit our commentary to those
cases where total homophony is prevented only by an intonation distinction,
i.e., where the syllable intonation performs a distinctive function.
T.G. Fennell H. Gelsen, A Grammar of Modern Latvian,
1 See Mūsdienu Latviešu literārās
valodas gramatika, I, p. 37.
2 The classification and description of Latvian phonemes are treated in more
detail in op. cit., pp. 20-37. See also Laua, A., Latviešu Iiterārās valodas
3 See Endzelins, Latvieēu valodas gramatika, p. 35.
4 See op. cit., p. 34.
5 See Mūsdienu latviešu literārās valodas gramatika, I, p. 68.