Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Latvia

In our last country profile, we looked at the languages of Botswana, a country in southern Africa with over two dozen native languages. This week we'll be focusing on Latvia, a Baltic state in northern Europe which is home to considerably fewer languages.

Gauja National Park in Latvia
The Official Language

Latvia's one and only official language is Latvian, which is the native language of nearly 1.5 million Latvians and a second language of another 500,000. It is a member of the Baltic language family, which only contains two living languages: Latvian and Lithuanian, which is the official language of neighboring Lithuania.

Another prominent language in Latvia is Russian, due to the country's complex history with the Soviet Union. Russian remains the country's most widely spoken minority language, with nearly 700,000 native speakers and almost 1.4 million second language speakers. In fact, it is so widely used that the country's government held a constitutional referendum in 2012 to determine whether it should be added as a second official language, but nearly 75% of the population voted against the proposal.

Other Languages

The Ethnologue lists four other languages that are used as native languages in Latvia: Latgalian, Baltic Romani, Yiddish and Liv. The most spoken of these four languages is Latgalian, which some linguists consider to merely be a dialect of Latvian, although it is a standardized variety that is protected by Latvian law. There are about 200,000 native speakers of Latgalian in Latgale, the easternmost region of the country.

Latvia is also home to about 8,000 native speakers of Baltic Romani, a group of Romani dialects spoken in the Baltic states, Poland and Russia. It is followed by Yiddish, the Germanic language with Hebrew and Slavic influences which is spoken by around 800 Latvians.

Last but not least, there's Livonian, which belongs to the Uralic language family. While the last native speaker died in 2013, there are still about 200 people who speak it as a second language. This means that instead of being classified as extinct, it's considered dormant, which is pretty fitting for a language also known as Liv.