World Savvy: Latgalian: New efforts to keep an ancient language alive

When I first became the consul for Latvia in the US State of Minnesota, right on the border with Canada, I felt confident that I knew a lot about Latvia’s regions, culture and language. Latvian is one of the EU’s 23 official languages and many LSPs offer it — there is machine translation and AI software available in Latvian.    

But another language in Latvia, Latgalian, long thought to be dying, is seeing a rebirth and provides a case history on how other troubled languages and dialects can survive.

Latgale is the most southeastern region of Latvia. It is a verdant and lake-strewn place bordering Russia and Belarus. Mix those language cultures together with Latvian, stir, add a little Polish and borrow words from German, throw in a lot of “standard” Latvian and voila, you have Latgalian. Like many such languages and dialects, it’s fun to hear it spoken and try to trace the linguistic genealogy — where did that word come from?

Latgalian is classified as both its own language and a dialect of Latvian, depending who you ask. There is the cultural generalization that implies that a dialect is something less than a language. As John McWhorter wrote in The Atlantic: “Is a dialect, on some level, unsophisticated, as if it doesn’t have a literature because it is unsuited to extended thought and abstraction?”

Do you Press 1 for Standard English and Press 2 for Appalachian Mountain English?

The Translation People blog got it right (and I paraphrase): the difference between a dialect and language is not clearly defined, is largely the result of perception and is often influenced by political factors. For example, while Dutch and Afrikaans are generally considered to be different languages, Afrikaans actually takes 90% of it vocabulary from Dutch. Conversely, Cockney and Glaswegian are considered to be dialects of English, yet speakers can struggle to understand one another.

Currently, Latgalian is accepted throughout Latvia — as a dialect. Juris Viļums, a member of parliament (Saeima), speaks Latgalian in parliament and maintains a Twitter account in Latgalian. Viļums explains in an interview with Deep Baltic that he is passionate about preserving his cultural heritage, and urges people, “you don’t have to be shy about your language.”

Latgalian has fought many battles to survive. The powers that be tried to kill it off three times and failed. First, the czars banned Latgalian from 1865-1904, and then Latgalian was removed from school curriculum by President Karlis Ulmanis in 1934. And then Latvians had the Soviet occupation (1940-1991) and cultural genocide, which included the prohibition from speaking Latgalian.

But Latgalian now has an official stamp of approval. Far from being a dying language spoken only by bent-over senior citizens, it is being picked up by a younger generation as a source of regional pride; there is even a rock band called Green Novice that sings only in Latgalian. And instead of being just mentioned in arcane academic books on the inflectional morphemes in Latgalian, you can download an app for colorful stickers to paste on your refrigerator or wherever (www.lakuga.lv). There are around 150,000 speakers of Latgalian, who now have a Latvian-Latgalian dictionary to use, and there are many other books in Latgalian.

The most useful word in Latgalian is vasals (vesels is health/good cheer in Latvian). In Latgalian it can be used for hello, goodbye and even cheers — it directly translates to “hale and hearty!”

For you Latgalian-challenged speakers, here is part of the technical description of Latgalian by noted linguist Nicole Nau, professor of Baltic languages and linguistics at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland: “Typologically salient features of Latgalian include morphophonological harmony with an opposition of back vs. front vowels and soft (palatalized or alveolar) vs. hard consonants, a large inventory of nonfinite verb forms … and the existence of a distinct logophoric pronoun referring to the speaker of a reported discourse.” And that’s the short description.

As Latgale resident Piters Locs said in a 2015 interview with The New York Times, “we are a separate people.” This carries not only linguistic ramifications, but geopolitical as well, and pro-Russian groups see this as a wedge to separate Latgale from Latvia. Ironically, Russia is now trying to weaponize regional languages to create divisions within countries.