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The Latvian language is a moderately inflected language, with complex nominal and verbal morphology. Word order is relatively free, but the unmarked order is SVO. Latvian has pre-nominal adjectives and both prepositions and postpositions. There is no definite or indefinite article, but definiteness can be indicated by the endings of adjectives.
Nouns and adjectives
Latvian has two grammatical genders (masculine and feminine) and seven cases. Adjectives generally precede the nouns they modify, and agree in case, number, and gender. In addition, adjectives take distinct endings to indicate definite and indefinite interpretation:
- Viņa nopirka [vecu māju]. "She bought [an old house]."
- Viņa nopirka [veco māju]. "She bought [the old house]."
Latvian verbs are used in five moods:
- conjunctive (Latvian literature, however, does not make a distinction between conditional and conjunctive. Even if such a distinction is made both of them are morphologically identical - ending in -u.);
- quotative also known as relative or inferential mood (some authors distinguish analytically derived jussive as a subset of quotative, others, however, insist that a simple addition of a conjunction (lai) is not sufficient basis for distinguishing this grammatical construction as a grammatical mood); and
- debitive (for expressing obligation).
The relations between tenses and moods are shown in the following table. (The table does not include quotative.)
Latvian verbs have two voices, active and passive. The passive voice is analytic, combining an auxiliary verb (tikt "become", būt "be", or more rarely, tapt "become") and the past passive participle form of the verb. Reflexive verbs are marked morphologically by the suffix -s.
Unlike, for example, Romance languages where conjugation classes are assigned based on thematic vowels (e.g., -are, -ere, -ire forming, respectively, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd conjugation in Italian) Latvian verbs are classified in conjugations regardless of whether they end in -āt, -ēt, -īt, -ot or -t. The classification depends on whether the verb stem has a thematic vowel, and if so, whether it is retained in present tense.
The first conjugation class is characterized by an absence of the thematic vowel in infinitive, present as well as past. Furthermore 1st conjugation verbs are always monosyllabic and their stems undergo sounds shifts. Based on these sound shifts they are further divided in 5 subcategories.
Celt, es ceļu, tu cel, viņš ceļ, es cēlu, tu cēli, viņš cēla - "to build, I/you/he build(s), I/you/he built." (Sound shifts marked in bold.)
The second conjugation class is characterized by retaining the thematic vowel in infinitive, past as well as present. 1st person singular present and past tenses match.
Strādāt, es strādāju, tu strādā, viņš strādā, es strādāju, tu strādāji, viņš strādāja - "to work, I/you/he work(s), I/you/he worked." (Thematic vowel marked in bold.)
Verbs of the third conjugation class retain the thematic vowel in infinitive and past, however, it is absent in present and the stem takes on the full set of endings unlike 1st and 2nd conjugation where 2nd person singular and 3rd person present endings -i and -a are either absent or have given way to the thematic vowel.
Lasīt, es lasu, tu lasi, viņš lasa, es lasīju, tu lasīji, viņš lasīja. (Thematic vowels are shown in bold.)
The 3rd conjugation is divided into 2 subgroups, the 1st one containing the thematic vowel ī, and a the 2nd subgroup - all other vowels. The only difference between the two subgroups is that verbs belonging to the 2nd subgroup do not take on the 3rd person present tense ending -a. dziedāt, es dziedu, tu dziedi but viņš dzied unlike viņš lasa.
Beside the three conjugations, there are three verbs characterized by different stems in present, past as well as infinitive. These verbs are referred to as "irregular" (nekārtni or neregulāri.) Irregular verbs and their stem changes are:
- būt (esmu, biju) - to be (I am, I was)
- iet (eju, gāju) - to go (I go, I went)
- dot (dodu, devu) - to give (I give, I gave)
A verb's conjugation pattern can be deduced from three base forms: the infinitive form, the present stem and the past stem. The following table shows the correspondence between the base stem and the tense/mood.
|stem||moods and tenses derived from this stem|
|present stem||present indicative, present conjunctive, imperative mood, debitive mood, present participles|
|past stem||imperfect, past active participle|
|infinitive stem||infinitive, future indicative, conditional mood, future conjunctive, past passive participle|
Verb conjugation example
The following table illustrates conjugation of the verb lasīt - "to read."
Lasīt belongs to the 1st subgroup of the third conjugation class, arguably the most regular one. Only present and past tenses differ among the three conjugation classes (see above), the future tense and other grammatical moods (discussed below) are formed regularly for all verbs with only rare exceptions.
|es||tu||viņš / viņa||mēs||jūs||viņi / viņas|
|-||(tu)||viņš / viņa||(mēs)||(jūs)||viņi / viņas|
|—||lasi||lai lasa||lasīsim||lasiet||lai lasa|
|es||tu||viņš / viņa||mēs||jūs||viņi / viņas|
|es||tu||viņš / viņa||mēs||jūs||viņi / viņas|
|man||tev||viņam / viņai||mums||jums||viņiem / viņām|
There is no differentiation between singular and plural of the 3rd person.
The future is practically always formed regularly, by replacing the ending -t with the corresponding future ending (-šu, -si, -s, -sim, -siet (-sit), -s), e.g., lasīšu, strādāšu, celšu. The only exceptions are first conjugation verbs that end in -st or -zt and undergo sound shift to -s-, -z-, -t- or -d-, e.g., sviest, sviedīšu - "to throw, I will throw."
2nd person singular imperative is the same as present distinguished by omitting the pronoun tu, e.g., tu lasi, lasi! - "you read, read!" The putative 3rd person imperative is formed with the conjunction lai (etymologically a contraction of laid! - "let!") 1st person plural imperative mirrors the future of that same person and number omitting the pronoun mēs. Only the 2nd person plural imperative has a "unique" ending of its own -iet instead of indicative -at, -āt.
Further, subjunctive in all persons and numbers without exceptions is formed by the addition of -u to the infinitive stem.
Quotative (relative) follows the same agglutinative pattern. It is formed by adding the ending -ot ([uɔt]) to the first person stem either in present or future, in fact, addition of the ending -ot to the first person present stem follows the same pattern that gerund is formed in Latvian and the only irregular form - that of the verb būt ("to be") - esot corresponds to both the gerund ("being") and the quotative ("supposedly is") sense of the word (except, quotative unlike gerund can be derived from future stems as well.) In the case of compound tenses (which are not shown in the above table) the auxiliary verbs will take the -ot ending, e.g., es lasot, es esot lasījis, es lasīšot, es būšot (iz)lasījis - "I'm supposedly reading, I have supposedly been reading, I will supposedly read, I will supposedly have read."
The putative jussive mood (a reported order) is formed introducing a quotative subordinate clause with the conjunction lai. Viņš teica, lai mēs lasot - "he supposedly said (ordered) us to read." However, jussive is not usually recognized as a distinct mood in Latvian literature.
Debitive similarly follows the pattern. All persons are formed by declining the pronoun in the dative case and using the 3rd person present stem prefixed with jā-. Auxiliary verbs in case of compound tenses do not change, e.g., man jālasa, man bija jālasa, man ir bijis jālasa, man būs jālasa, man būs bijis jālasa - "I have to read, I had to read, I have had to read, I will have to read, I should have read" (literally "I will have to had read" where the future expresses rather a wish and replacing the future with subjunctive (man būtu bijis jālasa) would be less unorthodox.)
More complex compound tenses/moods can be formed as well, e.g., quotative debitive: man būšot jālasa - "I will supposedly have to read," and so forth.
Some authors question the status of Latvian debitive as a mood on the grounds that a mood by definition cannot be combined with another mood (as can be seen above.) Some speculate that the failure of the Latvian language to develop a verb "to have" has contributed to the development of debitive. To express possession of something as well as necessity Latvian uses similar constructions to those used by Finnic languages, for example:
- Latvian: Man vajag iet (I:dat. need:3.pres.ind. go:inf., literally "to me needs to go" using the modal vajadzēt that can be conjugated only in the 3rd person)
- and Livonian: Minnõn um vajāg lǟdõ (I:dat. be:3.pres.ind. necessary:nom. go:inf., literally "to me is necessary to go.")
Quotative is considered to owe its existence to Livonian influence as well.
- Past active
- Past passive
- Present active in -dams
- Present active in -ošs
- Present active in -ot
- Present passive
Latvian has a wide array of prefixes that can be used to modify nouns, adjectives, adverbs and verbs either in a qualitative sense (e.g., paliels - "kind of big") or a spatial sense (e.g., ieiet - "to enter; to go in.") In the context of verbs, however, some authors identify the role of Latvian prefixes as preverbs. That is, instead of conveying qualitative or spatial meaning they mark a grammatical aspect. Similarly to Slavic languages preverbs are used to indicate a perfective (completedness) aspect in simple past. The simple past without a perfective preverb can usually be translated in English using past continuous while the prefixed form could be translated using simple past or past perfect.
- Viņš cēla māju – "he was building a house."
- Viņš uzcēla māju – "he built a house."
- Viņš strādāja savu maiņu – "he was working his shift."
- Viņš nostrādāja savu maiņu – "he did his shift."
- Viņš lasīja grāmatu – "he was reading a book."
- Viņš izlasīja (to) grāmatu – "he read the book through."
Some classify the prefixed forms as an aorist, that is, a simple past with a perfective aspect as opposed to using present perfect or past perfect (auxiliary verb + participle) to convey a completed action. However, preverbs can be added to participles in present perfect and past perfect as well.
- Viņš ir lasījis (to) grāmatu – "he has read the book (perhaps he didn't finish it.)"
- Viņš ir izlasījis (to) grāmatu – "he has read the entire book."
Unlike Slavic languages Latvian does not have to rely on preverbs to imply future tense (future tense endings serve this purpose), however, preverbs can be added to future tense as well perhaps to stress expected completion of a task among other things.
- Viņš lasīs grāmatu – "he will read a book"
- Viņš izlasīs (to) grāmatu – "he will read the book through"
Latvian has prepositions, and a small number of postpositions. Although each preposition requires a particular case (genitive, accusative, or dative) if the following noun phrase is singular, all plural noun phrases appear in the dative case after a preposition.
- Ceplīte, B.; L. Ceplītis (1991). Latviešu valodas praktiskā gramatika. Zvaigzne.
- Dini, Pietro U. (1997). Le Lingue Baltiche (in Italian). Scandicci (Florence): La Nuova Italia Editrice.
- Endzelīns, J. (1951). Latviešu valodas gramatika.
- Mūsdienu latviešu literārās valodas gramatika. LPSR ZA izdevniecība. 1959.
- Fennell, T. G.; H. Gelsen (1980). A Grammar of Modern Latvian (Vols. 1–3). Mouton.
- Karulis, K. (2001). Latviešu etimoloģijas vārdnīca. Avots.
- Mathiassen, Terje (1996). A Short Grammar of Latvian. Columbus, OH: Slavica. ISBN 0-89357-270-5.
- Petit, Justyna and Daniel (2004). Parlons letton (in French). Paris: L'Harmattan. ISBN 2-7475-5910-6.
- Latvian language materials (en/lv)
- J. Lelis - Basic Latvian - Grammar: Introduction (en)
- Overview of the Latvian Language (en)
- V. Plūdons. Practical Latvian Grammar (Cēsis, 1922) (lv)
- Introduction in History of Latvian Language (lv)
- Andronov A.V. Materials for Latvian-Russian dictionary (rus)
- Ineta Polanska. Zum Einfluss des Lettischen auf das Deutsche im Baltikum (Inaugural-Dissertation, Bamberg, 2002) (de)
- TITUS Texts: Old-Latvian Corpus (en/de/lv)
- Ērika Krautmane. "The Evidential in the Latvian, Estonian and Livonian Languages (Introduction to the Topic)".
Mūsdienu latviešu literārajā gramatikā (..) tiek šķirts atstāstījuma izteiksmes pavēles paveids, uzskatot, ka atstāstījuma izteiksmes tagadnes forma saistījumā ar partikulu lai iegūst atstāstījuma izteiksmes pavēles paveida nozīmi. (..) Vairākās jaunākajās latviešu gramatikās šis viedoklis netiek atbalstīts (..) un palīgvārds lai tiek uzskatīts par pakārtojuma saikli, kas kopā ar verbu atstāstījuma izteiksmē nevar veidot gramatisku formu.
- Martin Harris, Nigel Vincent. Romance Languages. ISBN 9781134712281.
Verbs [in Romance languages] are traditionally divided into three conjugation classes on the basis of which thematic vowels are maximally distinguished.
- John Hewson, Vít Bubeník. Tense and Aspect in Indo-European Languages: Theory, Typology, Diachrony. pp. 144–147. ISBN 9789027236494.
- Darbības vārdu konjugācijas
- Björn Hansen, Ferdinand De Haan. Modals in the Languages of Europe: A Reference Work. ISBN 9783110219203.
(..) seem to be connected with this language's failure to develop a personal verb for 'to have' on which necessitive constructions could be based or modelled. (..) Lai is a truncated form of laid, the imperative of laist 'let'
- Östen Dahl, Maria Koptjevskaja-Tamm. The Circum-Baltic Languages: Grammar and typology. ISBN 9781588110428.
It was Endzelīns who first described the debitive as a mood, an explanation that is not free of problems since as a rule one mood may not be combined with another.
- Nicole Nau. "Gramatikas modulis I daļa 1.-10. nodaļa".
Vajadzēt ir darbības vārds, ko lieto tikai trešajā persona, bet visos laikos un dažās izteiksmēs.
- Thomason, Sarah (1991). Language contact, creolization, and genetic linguistics. University of California Press. ISBN 9789027919151.
Even a simplificatory change like the loss of grammatical gender in the Livlandish dialect of Latvian can easily be established as an interference feature if we also have non-simplificatory changes from the same source, e.g., the so-called relative (inferential) mood and the nominative object also from the Uralic language Livonian. (Comrie 1981b:152, 154)