Latvian is a synthetic language, which means it is heavy on inflected forms. Such languages are often viewed as ‘harder’ to learn. Cases and other inflections do present a challenge sometimes. But there is nothing in Latvian grammar that can’t be learned with regular practice.
This article will give you an overview over the key aspects of Latvian grammar to give you the idea of what you should focus on learning.
There are two grammatical genders in Latvian (masculine and feminine) and two numbers, singular and plural.
Masculine nouns end in -s, -š, -is and -us, e.g. koks ‘tree’, cevš ‘path, way’, nazis ‘knife’, tirgus ‘market’. Feminine nouns end in -a or -e, e.g. meita ‘daughter’, roze ‘rose’.
Nouns, adjectives, and declinable participles decline into seven cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, locative, and vocative.
Latvian nouns can be classified as either declinable or indeclinable. Most Latvian nouns are declinable, and regular nouns belong to one of six declension classes (three for masculine nouns, and three for feminine nouns).
There is a group of foreign loan words and proper nouns which are not declined; they do not even have a plural form.
There are no articles in Latvian.
Adjectives in Latvian agree in case, number, and gender with the noun they modify. In addition, they express the category of definiteness.
Latvian has no definite and indefinite articles, but the form of the adjective chosen can determine the correct interpretation of the noun phrase. Consider the following examples:
Viņa nopirka vecu māju — She bought an old house
Viņa nopirka veco māju — She bought the old house
To form the comparative, the final -s or -š ending is removed, the suffix -ak is added, and then the indefinite adjective endings:
mazaks suns — a smaller dog
skaistaka maja — a more beautiful house
In Latvian, the superlative is formed in the same way as the comparative but the definite adjective endings are added. For emphasis, the prefix vis- is usually added but it can also be left off – the definite adjective endings already show that it is superlative:
vismazakais suns / mazakais suns — the smallest dog
visskaistaka maja / skaistaka maja — the most beautiful house
In Latvian, an adverb is formed from an adjective by changing the masculine or feminine adjective endings -s and -a to -i.
labs — good
labi — well
Some words are adverbs by nature. For example: šobrīd (now), patiešām (really) un drīz (soon) are all Latvian adverbs.
Latvian adverbs have a particular use in expressions meaning ‘to speak’ or ‘to understand’ a language. Rather than use the noun meaning ‘Latvian/English/Russian’, the adverb formed from these words is used.
Es runāju latviski/angliski/krieviski — I speak Latvian/English/Russian (literally, ‘I speak Latvianly/Englishly/Russianly’)
Latvian pronouns include personal pronouns (refer to the persons speaking, the persons spoken to, or the persons or things spoken about), indefinite pronouns, relative pronouns (connect parts of sentences) and reciprocal or reflexive pronouns (in which the object of a verb is being acted on by verb’s subject).
Most of the Latvian pronouns are declined as nouns of first (masculine pronouns) or forth declension (feminine pronouns).
There are three conjugation classes in Latvian. Verbs are conjugated for person, tense, mood, and voice.
Latvian has three simple tenses (present, past, and future), and three compound perfect constructions: present perfect, past perfect, future perfect.
Latvian verbs are used in five moods:
- quotative also known as relative or inferential mood
- debitive (for expressing obligation)
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.
Latvian has a wide array of prefixes that can be used to modify nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verbs either in a qualitative sense or a spatial sense. 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
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.
Some common Latvian prepositions are: pie (at, on, to), uz (to, on), ap (around, about), pa (by), par (about), pēc (after), ar (with), uz (to, towards).
This is a very brief overview of Latvian grammar. To truly master it, you will need to study each of the parts of speech in much more detail. However, this overview will hopefully give you a general idea of the Latvian grammatical system and of the main points you should consider when learning.