Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What Do They Speak in Riga?

Quite a variety of languages, actually. The official language of the country is Latvian, believed to be one of the oldest Indo-European languages--along with its only living relative, Lithuanian. The two are not close enough for be mutually intelligible though. Beginning in 1908, Latvian adopted the Roman alphabet; its nicest quality is that it is usually pronounced (with first syllable accented) the same way it is spelled. The letters q, w, x, and y are missing but some diacritical marks are added to some letters that contribute additional lengthening and palatalizing sounds (for example ā, ģ, ķ, š and 6 more) making 33 letters in the Latvian alphabet.

If you enjoy linguistics, this link to The Latvian Institute provides more details about the language. At the end of this post, I’ll provide some useful phrases that you could put on a crib sheet and bring on the trip, if you are so inclined.

In the country as a whole, there are about 1.4 million native speakers of Latvian, but more of them are in the countryside and not in Riga. During its days as a major Soviet city, Riga developed a non-Latvian speaking population because of the large influx of workers from elsewhere in the USSR. In fact, in 1989, shortly before the re-emergence of independent Latvia, nearly 65% of the population of Riga had Russian (or another Slavic language) as their first language. Through emigration that percentage has dropped to about 54% Russian and 46% Latvian speakers today.

Since our hotel, Reval Hotel Latvija, is now Estonian owned and seems to be a favorite with Estonians, Finns, Swedes, and Norwegians, we’ll be hearing a lot of the other guests speaking those languages, too. And since we are arriving in the middle of summer, we can expect lots of vacationing Europeans. Many Germans trace their roots to the Baltic Germans who arrived in the city in the 13th century and didn’t leave until forced out after the First World War. Since Ryanair has daily flights from London to Riga starting at £35, we can also expect to hear lots of British English spoken as well.

And English is definitely coming on fast as the favored lingua franca. Knowing English is a prerequisite for employment at Hotel Latvija and for working in the many shops and services catering to tourists. Still, it’s nice to be able to utter a few pleasantries, count to ten, and ask some basic questions in Latvian. Incidentally, the stress goes on the first syllable unless indicated otherwise and a line over a vowel means it’s long:

Yes / No Jā / Nē

Hi! Sveiks (it can also be used when parting)

Goodbye Uz redzēšanos

Good morning Labrīt (stress on 2nd syllable)

Good day Labdien (stress on 2nd syllable)

Good evening Labvakar (stress on 2nd syllable)

Good night Ar labu nakti

Please /You’re Welcome Lūdzu

Thank you Paldies (stress on 2nd syllable)

OK Labi (literally “good”)

Excuse me/Sorry Atvainojiet

Do you speak English? Vai jūs runājat angliski?

How much does it cost? Cik tas maksā?

Please write it down. Lūdzu uzrakstiet.

I don’t understand. Es nesaprotu.

Help! Palīgā!

Go away! Ejiet prom!


0 nulle

1 viens

2 divi

3 trīs

4 četri

5 pieci

6 seši

7 septiņi

8 astoņi

9 deviņi

10 desmit

Wednesday: A Preview of Riga's famed Art Nouveau architecture (see example above)


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