There are just under 2 million people living in Latvia, and they speak a range of languages. Latvian is the official state language of the country, but only 53% of the population use it as their main spoken tongue. Together with Lithuanian, it is is the only modern surviving Baltic language.
Other languages spoken in Latvia include:
The last two are also indigenous to the region. Surprisingly, Latvian was not considered the official state language until 2000. Before then, government documents were published in multiple languages, with local government offices preferring the majority language in their zones.
To a linguist, Latvian presents an intriguing case. It is one of the few surviving languages to preserve archaic forms of Proto-Indo-European – which is so old, it predates writing.
The current form of written Latvian was standardized in 1908 – before then, words were spelled differently from region to region.
The written form employs the latin alphabet, although, with so many Russian speakers, it’s quite common to come across Cyrillic texts as well.
During the Soviet Era, the language was suppressed in an attempt to bring unity to the USSR. This is one reason why a third of the population prefer to speak Russian to this day. However, the tongue became more popular in the nineties thanks to reforms in the education system.
The state effort to achieve “linguistic purity” is not always appreciated by the public – often the government attempts to invent new words for terms that are already commonly used, such as “Eiro” instead of “Euro”.
As a result, there are often 2 or more commonly used words for the same thing – “dators” or “kompjūters” both mean “computer”. Some speakers prefer one form, others like the other. It can be a little confusing for a language student!
This tends to add to the fun of learning Latvian. It’s a rewarding exercise, especially if you are interested in the development of European languages.