Latvian/Alphabet and pronunciation

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Latvian is mostly pronounced as it is written. Lowercase letters in this section identify English letters; capital letters identify Latvian letters. For vowels, "long version" indicates that the vowel sound is held or sustained appreciably longer than the corresponding basic short vowel.

A as u in cup
Ā as a in car (long version of A)
B as b in boat
C as ts in tsunami or in nets
Č as ch in child
D as d in dog (but pronounced with the tongue pressed to the teeth rather than to the gum above the teeth).
E as a in apple (broad E)
E as e in get (narrow E)
Ē as a in glad (long version of broad E)
Ē as a in glare (long version of narrow E)
G as g in gate (never as in gem)
Ģ like D and J (d and y) run together
H as h in house
I as i in tin
Ī as ee in seen (long version of I)
J as y in you
K as k in skit (not as in kit)
Ķ as T and J (t and y) run together
L as l in line
Ļ as L and J (l and y) run together
M as m in mat
N as n in neat
Ņ as ny in canyon or ñ in Spanish cañón
O as o in boy, without adding on the y sound
Ō as o in morning (long version of O, usually spelled as O instead of Ō)
P as p in spin (not as in pin)
R as rr in Spanish ferrocarril (a trilled R)
S as s in sun
Š as sh in shine
T as t in steam (not as in team)
U as oo in foot
Ū as oo in food (long version of U)
V as v in vacation
Z as z in zebra
Ž as z in azure or s in leisure

Finally, there are two letter combinations that are not included in the alphabet but represent single consonant sounds (not diphthongs):

DZ as D and Z run together (a voiced version of C or ts)
DŽ as j in join or g in gentle (a voiced version of Č or ch)

Note that k, p, and t in Latvian are unaspirated (produce no puff of air), as happens in English when k, p, or t follows an s. Learners may safely ignore the difference.

If two vowels appear next to each other, they are almost always a diphthong. Exception: In neesmu (I am not), pronounce the ee as if a broad Ē (or like the a in glad).

A challenging but very common diphthong is IE. It may be of long or short duration in pronunciation, and the tongue moves forward in going from I to A.

IE as I and A (y and a) run together

Four common diphthongs have simple equivalents in English, or come close to it.

AI as i in bike
AU as ow in now
EI as ey in they
UI as U and I run together (oo as in foot run together with y)

Other diphthongs typically appear only in words of foreign origin.

Positional pronunciation[edit | edit source]

Although Latvian is normally considered to be written as it is spoken, there are some positional sound changes that are not reflected in writing. Such variations in pronunciation are rarely perceived as incorrect by native speakers; ignoring positional pronunciation is far more likely to be perceived as incorrect.

Voiceless consonants between two short vowels are lengthened by a very brief pause before a voiceless stop (p, t, k, c, č); for the voiceless sibilants s, š, the consonant itself is lengthened in duration.

Voiced consonants b, d, g, z, ž, dz, dž are pronounced voiceless p, t, k, s, š, c, č (respectively) before other voiceless consonants. Similarly, voiceless consonants are pronounced voiced before voiced consonants.

Word-ending ds and ts merge to form c, while šs and žs merge into š

Consonants v and j after a short vowel become similar to vowels u and i, respectively. Between vowels or diphthongs, v may become w (as in lauva [lion], pronounced lauwa).

Consonant 'n' before g or K becomes ng, as in sing, followed by the g or k, respectively, similar to nk in bank.

Stress and Pitch[edit | edit source]

Stress in Latvian is on the first syllable. The most common exceptions are paldies [thank you], the informal farewell atā, and greetings (e.g., labrīt [good morning]). Other exceptions typically involve compound adjectives and adverbs, in which the stress falls after the prefix (i.e., where it would fall if the word stood alone, without the compounding prefix).

Latvian also has one, two, or three types of pitch accent, depending on the region. Pitch is needed to sound like a native speaker, but context serves well enough to let the learner understand and be understood. If you ask for medicine (zāles, with one kind of pitch), the native speaker won't offer you concert halls (zāles, with a different pitch), even if you ignore pitch entirely.