Latgalian, a journey into the unknown

united-kingdomWell! It feels like I’ve been teasing this post for a while, so it feels strange to actually sit down and write it. As many of you who are regular readers of my blog, I mentioned (somewhat obliquely) towards the end of last year that I had been taking language classes online – but I was uncharacteristically quiet about it on Twitter and my other social media. Now, obviously, learning a new language isn’t something I’m a stranger to, as most of you will know. This certainly ain’t my fist rodeo. But I’d never taken classes online before, everything I’ve learned has been either on my own with a textbook or in an actual classroom – so this was a new experience for me, but I have to say, a thoroughly enjoyable one. But I’m getting ahead of myself, if I’m going to tell this story, I should do it properly – let’s go back to the very beginning.

A couple of years ago, a dear friend of mine asked for some help proofreading a card game he was working on – the goal of this card game was to help improve knowledge of Latgalian within Latvia, and to show Latvian speakers the ways in which Latgalian and Latvian were similar, and in which ways they differed. Now, before this, I had never even heard of Latgalian, and some of you may be in the same boat now – so here’s a little bit of a primer.

Namnlöst-1Latvia is considered to have three indigenous languages: Latvian, Livonian and Latgalian, with Latvian being the most dominant (for reasons I daren’t even begin to go into until I’ve educated myself further on the matter). Latgalian is nowadays mostly spoken in Latgale (or Latgola in Latgalian and sometimes referred to as Letgallia in English), one of the historic regions of Latvia (of which there are five: Courland, Semigallia, Selonia, Vidzeme and Latgale). It is spoken natively by around 150,000-200,000 people (according to census data in 2009 that I harvested unceremoniously from Wikipedia). There is some debate as to whether Latgalian is a language in and of itself or a dialect of Latvian, but over the years there would have been so much influence from Latvian (with almost 2 million speakers) that it would be near impossible to tell. Legally, it is protected by the Latvian Language Law, but is regarded therein as ‘a historical dialect of Latvian’, rather than a language in its own right, and as such, cannot be used in some official settings – the letter Y, for example, is a common feature of Latgalian, but it does not exist in the Latvian alphabet and therefore cannot be used on legal or government forms, which means that some Latgalian speakers have even had to change their names to fit with the more rigid Latvian spelling rules.

A couple of years ago, I dabbled a little with another of Latvia’s minority languages – Livonian (which you can read about here, where I blogged about it). Livonian is much more clearly separate from Latvian, bearing much more resemblance to its northern neighbours Estonian and Finnish – Latgalian shares much more of a family resemblance with Latvian, and I dare say a native Latvian speaker wouldn’t have so much trouble understanding either written or spoken Latgalian, apart from maybe a relatively small number of words which don’t share a common root. So when the same friend who I had helped with he card game mentioned that he was writing a textbook for learners of Latgalian, I was desperate to help. I saw a little of the project as it progressed, but then the chance to test the material first hand – and join an online course to learn some basic Latgalian. Obviously, I was sold immediately.

The classes were organised by Valodu māja (or House of Languages), a company based in Riga which offers a multitude of services related to language teaching, translation, publishing, and is even in the process of setting up Latvia’s first language museum, in addition to producing the aforementioned textbook. Having cooperated with them on numerous occasions over the years, I knew immediately that this would be the best chance I was ever going to get to learn any Latgalian. The course was designed for the A1 level of the CEFR, so I knew I wasn’t going to leave it discussing the ins and outs of classical Greek philosophy, but even at that level, the breadth of material we covered pleasantly surprised me. The textbook, however, will cover more material and will cover up until A2, so that’s something else to look forward to!

Skärmavbild 2022-02-01 kl. 16.40.37The first class was definitely something of an awakening. We were asked what our motivations for learning Latgalian were, and I was the last to speak. This made me feel like a bit of an oddball – most people on the course had some family connection to Latgalian speakers, or to the Latgale region itself, whereas I was there as a sort of linguistic tourist. But this didn’t count against me, thank goodness, and I suppose every new speaker is something of a win. The teacher, whose name I won’t be sharing to respect their privacy, was incredibly enthusiastic and knowledgable – being from the area themselves and having worked in the Latgalian-language media in the past, I loved hearing their perspective, whether it be about preferred word choice or historical issues affecting the language today, their insight was absolutely invaluable. One of the most interesting parts from my perspective was a discussion we had about the availability of resources. This course was designed for people with no prior knowledge of Latvian, which is quite unusual, so resources are a little… well, thin on the ground, shall we say. At least until this textbook is published, most of the things that have been written about Latgalian are solely in Latvian, which is not the most helpful thing in the world if you’re a learner who doesn’t speak Latvian.When we asked what the best online dictionary to use was, and learned that there actually wasn’t one. Honestly, I don’t know how it happened. The rusty cogs of my brain started whirring, and before I knew it, I’d been sitting staring at my laptop in the dark for six hours compiling a list of every word I could find in the course materials and arranging them into a sort of rudimentary dictionary, an extract from which you can see above left. You know, I do this every time I learn a language, even though I don’t really know the first thing about compiling a dictionary. But it made me think that maybe corpus linguistics and documentary linguistics might actually be something I’d be interested in studying in the future – so I can add this realisation to the growing list of reasons I’m grateful to have been part of this course.

I have to be honest, since the course ended, I haven’t done a lot with my Latgalian. Other projects have taken priority – I’ve been continuing with Welsh and taking some preliminary Korean notes in preparation for my new textbooks arriving. That being said, I do plan on digitising the piles of notes I took and that should hopefully help to relight the spark in time for the textbook coming out, so I can continue my journey into this beautiful language. In fact, in preparation for writing this blog post, I had a go at writing a short paragraph to introduce myself. Are you ready? Okay, here goes:

Latgale (Resized)Vasali! Mani sauc Volūdys Žogota. Es asu angļs i es dzeivoju Anglejā. Maņ ir treisdesmit vīns gods. Maņ pateik volūdys, es asu tulkuotuojs. Es breivi runoju angliski, zvīdriski, dāniski, i norvegiski, i es nadaudz runoju latgaliski. Latgalīšu volūda ir šmuka! Maņ ari pateik gruomotys – maņ pateik skaiteit i roksteit. Maņ garšoj japaņu i korejīšu iedīņi, eipaši suši.

…okay, so it’s not exactly War & Peace, but I’m honestly pretty proud of it – after only three months, building up from a foundation of absolutely nothing, I dare say it’s almost readable. I’d also be interested to know if there are any Latvian speakers out there, and if you can understand it – my dodgy grammar aside. Honestly, I’ve got some pretty high hopes for Latgalian – as you may be able to tell by the fact that I’ve gone to the trouble of commissioning another flag for the blog! I’ve sort of fallen in love with it. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll manage to reach a stage where I’ll be writing whole posts in Latgalian! …one day after the year 2030, but still!

I’d like to go into more detail about the things we learned in the class, but I’d hate to step on the toes of the upcoming textbook – if this has sparked some interest in Latgalian, you might like to check out the audio materials for the textbook at Oratastic, or indeed Lakuga.lv, a portal for cultural news all in Latgalian, they have videos and articles, and honestly it’s just nice to see and hear Latgalian, even though the closest I’ve been to Latgale is Stockholm. But maybe I’ll be able to change that at some point soon. In any case, thank you for reading – I’d love to hear about your stories of learning lesser-learned languages, it can be frustrating, but ultimately I think it’s probably one of the most rewarding learning experiences I’ve ever had. Now all I need to do is… well, remember it. As always, if you’d like to reach out, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram (I’m @sprakskatan on both), or of course you could leave a comment here. Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you all next month.

– J.

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