How Latvian became Latvian

by Kārlis Caune

How did Latvia become Latvia? History is a funny thing. Every country and nation have a different story of how its name came into being. Often these names and their etymology can be traced back hundreds and thousands of years into history. Many linguists  are still struggling  whether the Baltic languages are actually a branch of the Slavonic languages  but one is certain: true Latvians are not getting enough credit where credit is due.

Proto-Baltic tribes , at least  from a linguistic point of view, can certainly be divided into eastern tribes and western tribes – a distinction which has become majorly accepted by both historians and linguists. Galindians, Yotvingians and Prussians  are all  almost unanimously considered to be Western Balts, as opposed to Selonians, Semigallians, Samogotians, Augštaitians and Latgalians considered as the Eastern Baltic tribes. Now, for a reader from Latvia the logical question looking at the list would be: “Why have you left out Curonians?” And this is where the scientific trouble starts.

Curonians (Kurši – in Latvian) are considered to be a linguistic phenomenon. Clearly a Western Baltic tribe from a geographical perspective, the descendants of Curonians are populating modern-day Latvia’s westernmost part. The tribe eventually became isolated from other Western Balts such as the Prussians, which lead to linguistic assimilation.  Latvian language came into existence on the basis on Selonian, Semigallian and Latgalian proto-languages. Even the name of Latvia or Latvians has derived from the name of Latgalia (Lettgalia), leaving the Curonians out of the picture.

However, this “tribe” that was often seen as the most Latvian of all tribes was left out thanks to the “historic superpowers”.

After the Livonian war (1558-1583) it was Courland and Semigallia that formed a duchy leaving Latgalians to form the Inflanty voivodship. In the following centuries, Russians expanded their tsardom and once more, Latgalians were separated from other Balts by being included in the Vitebsk governorate, whiles others had formed the Courland governorate. All these divisions were reflected when the Baltic countries became independent; Latgalians formed a separatist movement, demanding Latgalia to become an independent country. One has to be gifted with a very well working imagination to understand the level of division in people’s minds at that point.

Some of the studies that are currently carried out by anthropologists and linguists in Latvia are trying to distinguish how big this divide actually is. Yaroslav Firsov (Jaroslavs Firosvs – lat.) carried out a study considering the mental and physical feeling of ‘the borderline’ in Latgalia (“Pierobeža”: mentālā un fiziskā – lat). The study  was published in 2009. It shows that the majority of Latgalians still feel left out from the happenings in the rest of the country. That may come as a surprise to some, considering the size and population of Latvia in numbers. People living in Latgalia feel more connected to Russia and Belarus due to the lack of possibilities in their homeland. They are also the ones that feel more sentiment towards the so-called ‘Ulmaņlaiki’ (‘Ulmanis’-times) – period leading up to the Soviet occupation. Firsov explains this in due to the fact that Kārlis Ulmanis (Latvia’s 4th President) drew a lot of attention towards regional integration and life in the countryside.

Returning to the linguistic analysis, the historical separation has left its traces in this field as well. Looking at the Latvian language dialects and divisions in the Atlas of Baltic Languages, which has recently been published by the Latvian University shows an interesting picture. While the phonological differences are quite distinguishable, the etymological are not. For example, while Latgalians tend to use words like ļizeika>[ ʎi.zæ‿i.ka] instead of the Latvian karote>[kɑ.rɔ̹.tæ]- the two are not alike by any linguistic standards.

Words deriving from Latgalia are used throughout Latvia no matter what dialect is spoken. However, people from western parts of Latvia tend to laugh or mimic the Latgalian accents. Though from a linguistics point of view one would assume that it should be the other way around..

This analysis cannot change the historical differences in Latvia, nor can it change the beliefs in people’s minds. However, it is still useful, and by all means fascinating to explore your heritage and to study it from different points of view. One never knows what can be found there…


  1. Yeah the Latgalian case seems pretty interesting. A quick skim on wikipedia says that the Latgalians are predominantly Catholic, as opposed to Lutheran, and have a standardized written form. Perfect ingredients for Latgalian nationalists, especially if the population feel left out.

    Good article !

  2. · · Reply

    There is a mistake about Latgalian “relationship”with Karlis Ulmanis, He forbid the use of latgalian language in schools. So his attention to regions was not always positive. And, therefore, is not viewed by modern day latgalians.
    He was also never elected as president, he took the power in unlawfully manner.

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