Letters and letter namesEdit
The Latvian language is written using the Latin alphabet, along with a few special characters: vowels with a macron (ā, ē, ī, ū), consonants with háček (č, š, ž), and consonants with cedilla (ģ, ķ, ļ, ņ). A few older letters are no longer used (ch, ō, ŗ, uo). The letters q, w, x, y are never used in Latvian, not even in the transcription of foreign names of people and places: these are always obligatorily transliterated and changed to conform to Latvian declension patterns.
|letter name(s)||IPA value|
|O||o||o||[uə̯], [o], [oː]|
Pronunciation of lettersEdit
Latvian spelling reflects rather well the actual pronunciation of words, with only a couple of problems:
- The letter E/e (like its long counterpart Ē/ē) represent two sounds, [ɛ] — šaurais e (“narrow e”) — and [æ] — platais e (“broad e”). In principle, [ɛ] is used when there is a palatal element (the vowels i, ī, e, ē, the diphthongs ie, ei, and the palatal consonants j, ķ, ģ, ļ, ņ, š, ž, č, dž, and, in the old spelling, ŗ) either in the same or in the following syllable; otherwise, [æ] is used. Unfortunately, some historical changes have obscured this pattern by removing some previously existing palatal elements; as a result of that, for a number of words the actual pronunciation of the letter e — [ɛ] or [æ] — must be memorized.
Letters with diacritics are considered independent letters and are listed as such in the Latvian alphabet (in tables, literacy materials, etc.). However, in alphabetized lists (e.g., in dictionaries), only the letters with háček (Č, Š, Ž) and with cedilla (Ģ, Ķ, Ļ, Ņ) are ordered independently, after the basic letter without the diactritical mark; the letters with macron (basically, the vowels: Ā, Ē, Ī, Ū) are not distinguished from their counterparts without macron (A, E, I, U). For example, čiekurs is listed after cukurs, and ķermenis is listed after kodols; but āpsis is listed between apse and apstāklis.
The current Latvian alphabet was proposed by a scientific commission headed by K. Mīlenbahs in 1908, and was already taught in schools in 1909 (though this would become systematic only after WWI, when the Republic of Latvia was created). That first version included a few extra letters and digraphs that were since then dropped: ch, ō, ŗ, and uo.
The letters o and ō were used to represent the short /o/ and long /oː/ sounds (found only in borrowings), and the letter /uo/ the diphthong /uo/, /uə̯/ (found in native Latvian words), from 1908 to 1919, when P. Stučka's government decided to make the 1908 spelling official, but without length marks (macrons), except in cases of homophony, and with the letter o being used to represent both /uo/ and /o/, /oː/ (as was usual before 1908). In 1921, the government of the Republic of Latvia reintroduced the length marks, but kept o for both /uo/ and /o/, /oː/, thus eliminating uo and ō.
The letter ŗ and ch were used to represent the palatalized r (/ɾʲ/) and velar fricative /x/ sounds. In 1946, following the advice of Soviet specialists, these letters were dropped, since in most dialects (and also in the literary language) the palatalized r had merged with the normal r (both /ɾ/), and the velar fricative /x/ with h (the glottal fricative /h/). The letter r replaced ŗ, and the letter h replaced ch, in all their uses. Outside of Latvia, however, the Latvian diaspora continued to use ŗ and ch until 1991, when the independent Republic of Latvia was restored. Some members of the diaspora continue to use these letters even today (an example is the weekly newspaper Brīvā Latvia “Free Latvia,” as can be seen in their website.