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Latvian phonology

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Latvian phonology

This article is about the phonology of the Latvian language. It deals with synchronic phonology as well as phonetics.


Table adopted from Nau (1998:6)
Labial Dental/Alveolar Palatal Velar
Nasal m n ɲ [ŋ]
Stop p b t d c ɟ k ɡ
Affricate t͡s d͡z t͡ʃ d͡ʒ
Fricative (f) v s z ʃ ʒ (x)
Approximant central j
lateral l ʎ
Trill r

/n t d t͡s d͡z s z/ are denti-alveolar, while /l r/ are alveolar. The consonant sounds /f x/ are only found in loanwords. [ŋ] is only an allophone of nasals before velars /k/ and /g/. Latvian plosives are not aspirated (unlike in English).

Voiced and unvoiced consonants assimilate to the next-standing consonant, e.g. apgabals [ˈabgabals] or labs [ˈlaps]. Voiced consonants don't get devoiced word-finally. At the same time single voiced consonants (d, t, z, g, dz etc.) don't get devoiced word-finally: dzied [ˈdzie̯d], dedz [dæd͡z].

Doubled consonants are pronounced longer: mamma [ˈmamːa]. Same with plosives and fricatives located between two short vowels: upe [ˈupːe]. Same with 'zs' that is pronounced as /sː/, šs and žs as /ʃː/.

Palatalized dental trill /rʲ/ is still used in some dialects (mainly outside Latvia) but quite rarely, and hence the corresponding letter Ŗ ŗ was excluded from alphabet.


Latvian has six vowels, with length as distinctive feature:
Latvian vowels
  Front Central Back
short long short long short long
Close i   u
Mid e   (ɔ) (ɔː)
Open æ æː a  

/ɔ ɔː/, and the diphthongs involving it other than /uɔ/, are confined to loanwords.

Vowel length ratio is about 1/2.5. Vowel length is phonemic and plays an important role in the language. For example koka [ˈkuɔka] means 'made of wood', kokā [ˈkuɔkaː] means 'on the tree'; pile [ˈpile] means 'a drop', and pīle [ˈpiːle] means 'a duck'.

Latvian also has 10 diphthongs (/ai ui ɛi au iɛ uɔ iu (ɔi) ɛu (ɔu)/), although some diphthongs are mostly limited to proper names and interjections.

Pitch accent

Standard Latvian and, with a few minor exceptions, all of the Latvian dialects have fixed initial stress.[1] Long vowels and diphthongs have a tone, regardless of their position in the word. This includes the so-called "mixed diphthongs", composed of a short vowel followed by a sonorant. There are three types of tones:

level (also drawling, sustained) tone (stieptā intonācija)
high throughout the syllable
e.g., loks [lūa̯ks] ('spring onion')
falling tone (krītošā intonācija)
brief rise followed by a long fall
e.g., loks [lùa̯ks] ('arch') (pronounced "lùoks")
broken tone (lauztā intonācija)
rising tone followed by falling tone with interruption in the middle or some creakiness in the voice
e.g., logs [lûa̯ɡz] ('window')

Besides the three-tone system of the standard variety, there are also Latvian dialects with only two tones: in western parts of Latvia, the falling tone merged with the broken tone, while in eastern parts of Latvia the level tone merged with the falling tone. Hence, the Central Latvian traũks, dràugs, raûgs corresponds to Western Latvian traũks, draûgs, raûgs, and to Eastern Latvian tràuks, dràugs, raûgs.[2]

This system is similar to the ones found in Lithuanian, Swedish, Norwegian and Serbo-Croatian. The broken tone is similar to the Danish stød.


Latvian roots may alternate between [v] and [u] depending on whether the following segment is a vowel or a consonant. For example, the root Daugav- ('Daugava River') in the nominative case is [daʊɡavə], but is pronounced [daʊɡaʊpils] in the city name Daugavpils. In this example, the vocalic alternant [u] is realized as the off-glide of the diphthong /aʊ/. However, when following a vowel that does not form an attested Latvian diphthong (for example, [iu]), [u] is pronounced as a monophthong, as in [zius] ('fish-NOM.SG.'; cf. [zivis] 'fish-NOM.PL.').


  1. ^ On the possible origins of fixed initial stress in Latvian, in contrast to Lithuanian, see Sarah Grey Thomason and Terrence Kaufman, Language Contact, Creolization, and Genetic Linguistics, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992, p. 122.
  2. ^ Derksen (1996:11)


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