is a Baltic language spoken in the Baltic region.
As a Baltic language, Latvian is most closely related to neighboring Lithuanian. In addition, there is some disagreement whether Latgalian and Kursenieki, which are mutually intelligible with Latvian, should be considered varieties or separate languages.
Latvian first appeared in Western print in the mid-16th century with the reproduction of the Lord’s Prayer in Latvian in Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia Universalis (1544), in Latin script.
The Baltic languages are of particular interest to linguists because they retain many archaic features believed to have been present in the Proto-Indo-European language.
According to some glottochronological speculations, the Eastern Baltic languages split from Western Baltic (or, perhaps, from the hypothetical proto-Baltic language) between 400 and 600. The differentiation between Lithuanian and Latvian started after 800, with a long period of being one language but different dialects. At a minimum, transitional dialects existed until the 14th century or 15th century, and perhaps as late as the 17th century.
Latvian as a distinct language emerged during several centuries by language spoken by ancient Latgalian tribe assimilating the languages of other neighboring Baltic tribes – Curonian, Semigallian and Selonian, which resulted in these languages gradually losing their most distinct characteristics. This process of consolidation started in the 13th century after the Livonian Crusade and forced christianization. These tribes came under Livonian rule thus forming a unified political, economic and religious space.
The oldest known examples of written Latvian are from a 1530 translation of a hymn made by Nikolaus Ramm, a German pastor in Riga. The oldest preserved book in Latvian is a 1585 Catholic catechism of Petrus Canisius currently located at the Uppsala University Library.
The Bible was translated into Latvian by the German Lutheran pastor Johann Ernst Glück (The New Testament in 1685 and The Old Testament in 1691). The Lutheran pastor Gotthard Friedrich Stender was a founder of the Latvian secular literature. He wrote the first illustrated Latvian alphabet book (1787) and the first encyclopedia “The book of high wisdom of the world and nature” (1774), the Grammar books and the Latvian-German and German-Latvian dictionaries.
Until the 19th century, the Latvian language was heavily influenced by the German language, because the upper class of local society was formed by Baltic Germans. In the middle of the 19th century the First Latvian National Awakening was started, led by “Young Latvians” who popularized the use of Latvian language. Participants in this movement laid the foundations for standard Latvian and also popularized the Latvianization of loan words. However, in the 1880s, when Czar Alexander III came into power, Russification started. During this period, some Latvian scholars suggested adopting Cyrillic for use in Latvian. After the czar’s death, around the start of the 20th century, nationalist movements reemerged.
In 1908, Latvian linguists Kārlis Mīlenbahs and Jānis Endzelīns elaborated the modern Latvian alphabet, which slowly replaced the old orthography used before. Another feature of the language, in common with its sister language Lithuanian, that was developed at that time is that proper names from other countries and languages are altered phonetically to fit the phonological system of Latvian. Even if the original language also uses the Latin alphabet, this process takes place. Moreover, the names are modified in order to ensure that they have noun declension endings, declining like all other nouns. For example, a place such as Lecropt (a Scottish parish) is likely to become Lekropta; the Scottish village of Tillicoultry becomes Tilikutrija. This is a good example of linguistic purism in this language.
During the Soviet occupation (1940–1991), the policy of Russification greatly affected the Latvian language. Throughout this period, many Latvians and Latvia’s other ethnicities faced deportation and persecution. A massive immigration from the Soviet republics of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and others followed, largely as a result of Stalin’s plan to integrate Latvia and the other Baltic republics into the Soviet Union by means of Russian colonization. As a result, the proportion of the ethnic Latvian population within the total population was reduced from 80% in 1935 to 52% in 1989. In Soviet Latvia, most of the immigrants who settled in the country did not learn Latvian. According to the 2011 census Latvian was the language spoken at home by 62% of the country’s population.
After the re-establishment of independence in 1991, a new policy of language education was introduced. The primary declared goal was the integration of all inhabitants into the environment of the official state language, while protecting the languages of Latvia’s ethnic minorities.