Why You Will Almost Definitely Have to Change Your Name When Speaking Latvian

by Will Mawhood, RIGA

At some point during their first visit to Riga, many foreigners notice that there’s something a bit weird about the language they see written all around them. It’s very unfamiliar. Nothing so strange there, perhaps – few expect to find much familiar in the languages of small countries that they visit, or to recognise many of the names or faces of people on posters or in newspapers. But in Latvian, something strange happens even to the names of those people we foreigners do recognise. For me, visiting for a weekend a few years ago, it was spotting a poster featuring a familiar pair of glasses and mop of orange hair, and above them, the unexpected legend “Eltons Džons”. Huh? I didn’t think much more about it, but it seemed odd.

A year later, I moved to the city to take up a job teaching English, and there I experienced further surprises. I quickly picked up that Latvians were passionately attached to the letter “s”, in particular at the end of men’s names – the first people I met there were called Ivars, Oskars, Normunds. But it was still a surprise when during a discussion about favourite music in my very first lesson, a student declared she was partial to “Michaels Jacksons”. I was given my weekly timetable the same day, and was similarly baffled when I found the almost-familiar name “Viljams” was written at the top. Could it really be that these people didn’t understand that I (not to mention Michael Jackson) was not Latvian? As I quickly learnt, they were under no misconceptions – “that’s just how we do things here”, I was told.

I remembered saying to a friend a few days after moving to Riga that it seemed a little bit like Latvians couldn’t cope with the non-Latvian outside world. Why else add these unwanted appendages to our names? Why couldn’t I just be William? This article will attempt to explain why.

First of all, Latvians are obviously not the only people to have tweaked and reshaped the names of foreigners in order to make them slightly easier to pronounce. To choose just a couple of examples, the Russian Emperor Catherine the Great would have been somewhat baffled to be so called: her Russian name was “Yekaterina”. The Georgian dynasty of the English royal family was begun by a king Brits called George Louis, a Hanoverian duke who never learnt English and would only have answered to “Georg Ludwig”. And the same thing has happened to the names of English-speakers in other cultures – Poles still refer to England’s greatest writer as “William Szekspir”. But this habit has become increasingly rare over the last century or so, largely a victim of improved communication and increased knowledge about other cultures – few in the UK today would call the current French president “Frank Holland”.

Of course, languages using non-Latin alphabets still need to find a way to accurately convey foreign names using the resources they have at their disposal (and vice versa), even when letters may not exist to match all of the sounds. In Russia, for example, the two principal songwriters of The Beatles are Пол Маккaртни and Джон Леннон (Pol Makkartni and Dzhon Lennon, back-transliterated). What is so unusual about Latvian (and, historically, Lithuanian, but we’ll get onto that later) is that it is written with the Latin alphabet, and always has been, and yet it still requires all foreign names to be altered to fit with Latvian spelling and grammatical conventions (which include “s” endings for almost all male names, and “a” or “e” endings for women) – i.e., essentially, to be written as though they were Latvian names. Thus, were The Beatles ever to have played in Latvia (a fairly unlikely situation, given the Soviet occupation and all), they would have been fronted by Pols Makartnijs and Džons Lenons.

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A statue of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin in the centre of Riga – “Aleksandrs Puškins” in Latvian. The Latvian text declares “Puškinam” (to Pushkin)

And this is compulsory; if I were to write “mani sauc Will” (my name is Will) in a test of my Latvian ability, it would be marked as incorrect – Vils it must be. I once asked a friend why it was that she had no trouble saying “Will” when speaking to me in English, but switched to “Vils” in conversation with a Latvian friend. She looked a bit perplexed by the question, which it appeared she had never considered before, but eventually answered “if I said Will, it would sound like I had suddenly said something in a foreign language”.

The standard explanation is that this is necessary so that people can decline nouns correctly. Latvian has an unusually rigid grammatical case system, so much so that it’s possible to express every possible variant in an (admittedly, very complicated) table – and most nouns can end in a dozen or so ways depending on their function in the sentence and relation to the surrounding words. Hence my own Latvian name, Vils, can also change in many ways. If I am addressed directly – e.g. “hey, Will – come over here”, it would be “Vil”; “with Will” would be “ar Vilu”; and in the unlikely event that I am with a large group of others called Will (or Vils), perhaps at some kind of convention, I could say I am “ar Viliem”. If I am receiving something, my name would instead be rendered as “Vilam”.

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A declination table for the Latvian words for “this” and “that”

Resident foreigners tend to find this either infuriating or endearing, but few would argue that it certainly can be entertaining. My favourite “Latvianised” name right now is the faintly derogatory-sounding Donalds Tramps. Others are barely penetrable – both “Džordžs Klūnijs” and “Hoakins Fīnikss” are names I saw on film posters and took a long while to puzzle through.

All of this might make it sound that this kind of inflexibility derives from a lack of familiarity with other cultures, other customs, other ways of arranging sounds. In fact, it couldn’t be further from the truth: Latvian hasn’t been the sole language in this part of the world for eight hundred years. Neither is it that they are stubbornly holding onto outdated grammar or spelling rules, in the same way that English speakers continue to write words like “know” and “knee” with entirely superfluous initial letters: the standards for written Latvian have changed so much in the last hundred years that texts in the language from as recently as World War I are a real struggle to comprehend for modern Latvians.

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Pre-WWI Latvian on a building in Riga Old Town. “Widsemes Sawstarpiga Kreditbeedriba” would now be written “Vidzemes Savstarpīga Kredītbiedrība”.

Indeed, for most of the last millennium, Latvian has been a language with very low social status. The Baltic region was the last part of Europe to be Christianised, its remoteness, wildness and forbidding climate meaning it was spared the attention given to lands further south. That changed at the end of the 12th century, when the Teutonic Knights, who were essentially German mercenaries pushing Christianity, launched the Northern Crusade, with the intention of converting the Baltic heathens. They built fortresses along the coast, including what is now the city of Riga, and over a period of almost a hundred years of warfare with the native people, the entirety of the area of modern Latvia (and Estonia) was subdued and its people converted, often with great brutality.

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The Baltic region following the Northern Crusades (purple indicates control by the Teutonic Knights) [Image: fordham.edu]

With the conquest of the territory of Latvia, a strict ethnic hierarchy was established: the Germans, although never making up more than a small percentage of the population, owned almost all the land and were also disproportionately represented among merchants and city-dwellers; Latvians remained overwhelmingly rural, uneducated and poor. Although it was not unheard of for talented Latvians to better the station, it was generally expected that these intelligent few would adopt German customs and the German language. This societal structure remained remarkably unchanged even after the Livonian Order (the administrative branch of the Teutonic Knights) lost power in the region in the 16th century, and control passed to (in succession), Poland, Sweden and Russia. All ruled mostly by proxy through the Baltic German aristocracy, who retained their privileges in return for loyalty to the foreign monarch. The Baltic Germans retained their monopoly over most aspects of life in the region – to be educated meant to speak German.

With these limited social prospects in mind, it’s not really that surprising that formulating a means to transmit the language of the peasants didn’t appear to be a great priority for anyone. The Latvian language wasn’t transcribed at all until the 16th century, hundreds of years after the arrival of the crusaders, and even after that it was used relatively rarely as a means of written communication. The majority of texts were written by Germans, often priests or teachers, for religious or pedagogical purposes – there are examples of catechisms, schoolbooks and children’s stories. But since most peasants remained illiterate, and it was assumed that educated people could speak German, there wasn’t a great deal of incentive to change the situation. It wasn’t until 1790 that the first play appeared in Latvian – written by Alexander Johann Stender, himself a Baltic German.

This order of things wasn’t seriously destabilised until the 19th century and the onset of the Industrial Revolution, which brought hundreds of thousands of country people into the cities to work in the newly opened factories – with the effect that, by the end of the century, Latvians had, for the first time ever, become the largest ethnic group in Riga. In the decades that followed, a Latvian intelligentsia began to develop – writers, musicians, architects and politicians proud of their origins and disinclined to try to pass as German or Russian. During the period many Germans, in both Latvia and Estonia, also developed a fascination with the indigenous culture and language of the region. But prejudice and stereotypes had not vanished – as late as 1871, a German writer, Keuchel, was able to write “it is not possible to be both Latvian and educated – an educated Latvian is a contradiction in terms”.

This growing national consciousness would culminate in 1918 with the declaration of an independent Latvian state, but there were many battles to fight before this. One of the fiercest, perhaps surprisingly, was over the language – and specifically, how to create a standardised set of orthographical conventions. For the Baltic German authors and translators who had written most texts in Latvian up to this point, this wasn’t a huge problem: they fitted the language to the orthography they knew best – German – but stretched the distinct sounds of Latvian in the process. There was also massive inconsistency over how to represent the fact that in speech Latvians invariably added case endings to all names, foreign or not. German writers tended to make the necessary adjustments to the names of biblical and historical personages, and the rulers of foreign countries, but were much more reluctant to “Latvianise” their own names or those of their fellow Baltic German intelligentsia. Similarly, in Latvian texts, Russian names were transliterated to the Latin alphabet, but Latvian endings were rarely added. The extent of the confusion can be shown by the fact that within a forty-year period, no fewer than eight spellings of the English prime minister Lord Salisbury were recorded in Latvian. Something needed to change.

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Kārlis Mīlenbahs, father of literary Latvian [Image: CC Licence]

The Latvian alphabet that is used today was worked out by two linguists, Kārlis Mīlenbahs and Jānis Edzelīns, in 1908. They had set out to find a form for Latvian that worked on its own terms, and also wanted to limit German influence, and what they came up with was a strikingly elegant set of letters. All curlicues, notches and geometrical lines, it seems a language designed for exquisite calligraphy. It was also strikingly severe and parsimonious – there are only two digraphs in Latvian (“dz”, and “dž”, which is only used in words that have entered Latvian from foreign languages). Clumsy German-influenced compromises like “ih”, intended to indicate a long “i”, were abandoned – replaced by “ī”, in this case. German needed three letters (“sch”) to express the sibilant in the word “show”; henceforth, Latvian would only need one (“š”). Latvian was to be a model of efficiency – just about as close as any language could come to one sound, one letter. But it took some time before it was adopted: German letters like “w” weren’t jettisoned until some time after independence (money printed in the first few years of the republic proclaims that it is from “Latwija”).

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The first banknotes issued by independent Latvia. In modern Latvian, it would read “Latvijas Valsts Kases Zīme – Viens Rublis”

Mīlenbahs also eventually won the other linguistic battle he engaged in: how to represent non-Latvian names. In the seemingly furious debates that took place around the turn of the century, Mīlenbahs advocated the purist solution – they must all be put through a Latvian filter. This was something that would affect him very personally: he, like many Latvians, had been born with a German name – Mühlenbach. How to represent it in his native language was thus a long-standing problem – and at least five other variant spellings have been recorded. At a fiery meeting in 1902, where the question of whether to standardise foreign names was being discussed, an opponent pointed out “then you would also have to use “ī” instead of “ü” in your name!”. Mīlenbahs (or Mühlenbach) responded: “please do write it like that!”. His party carried the day: from now on Latvian would represent all foreign names systematically, as they sounded to Latvian ears, following Latvian phonetic and grammar rules.

So maximum efficiency and consistency in orthography, maximum convenience and simplicity for users, right? Not quite, as anyone working as a journalist or academic in modern-day Latvia can tell you. Latvia is a (fairly) small country geographically, and has a very small population (it is the native language of between one and two million people worldwide). However neatly and precisely the language is arranged, it’s pretty hard to avoid referencing non-Latvian places, things and people. And when they are, the principles elaborated by Mīlenbahs and Endzelīns at the beginning of the last century are still followed – names are squeezed and rejigged to ensure they conform with the norms of literary Latvian. How to do this is not always immediately apparent, since some foreign sounds don’t have obvious parallels in the Latvian language and vice versa. The official legal guidelines for transliterating names run to 152 points, and even then it only covers names of Lithuanian, Estonian, German, English, Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian origin.

So Latvia knows what to do with the languages of its neighbours, as well as a handful of other major European tongues, but what about languages that are less commonly spoken in Europe? In English, and the vast majority of other European languages, this is not a big problem. If I need to mention in passing, say, the capital of Mauritania, Nouakchott, a place I know literally nothing about bar (very approximately) its geographical location, it doesn’t really matter that I don’t know how to pronounce it – I just copy out what I read and think no more about it. A Latvian writer wishing to mention Nouakchott, even in passing, would need to, before being able to render it in Latvian, learn how it is pronounced in the original language and come to a decision about the correct means of transliteration – or consult one of the numerous style guides that exist. (It’s Nuakšota, incidentally).

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Nouakchott, Mauritania [Image: CC Licence]

But, of course, however exact the usage guides are, it’s a struggle to precisely accommodate all the multifarious sounds possible in foreign languages to the necessarily limited Latvian alphabet. This allows the potential for furious disputes – and this do indeed periodically erupt. Last year, for example, following a spate of stories about the Egyptian resort city Sharm el-Sheikh (which was rendered in the articles as Šarm el-Šeiha), it was pointed out on Twitter – and confirmed in an official statement from the National Language Centre – that the sound transcribed as “el” in English actually sounds more like “esh” in Arabic. Following this news, it was increasingly corrected to “Šarm eš-Šeiha”, causing another storm of accusations of inaccuracy from those who had missed the earlier debate. All of this was summed up by a wonderful laconic headline on Latvian Public Broadcasting’s English-language service: “Spelling of Sharm el-Sheikh Confuses Latvians“.

Where it becomes truly confounding is with names that are pronounced differently across different cultures – English, as a language with native speakers across the globe, and a consequently wide variety of “standard” dialects, is a good example of this. Place names in the United Kingdom are often pronounced in a way that diverges quite markedly from the spelling, while American and Canadian cities and towns which take their names from Old World locations are generally closer to a phonetic pronunciation. Norwich in the east of England, for example, is pronounced “Norrich” – or, in some dialects, “Norridge” – whereas Norwich in the US state of Connecticut is pronounced more or less as it is written, with the “w” sounded. Accordingly, the Latvian version for the two identical names should be different – Noriča/Noridža for the English one; Norviča for the American.

The amount of additional work can be quite considerable, as I learn from a number of Latvians involved in academia and journalism. Helmuts Caune is currently co-editor of Latvia’s premier cultural publication Rīgas Laiks, and has also completed a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in philosophy at the University of Latvia in Riga. Both as a student and now as a writer for Rīgas Laiks, he frequently has to reference – and transliterate – foreign names, a process he describes as “quite often a pain in the ass, especially if they don’t come from English”. For his thesis, the process generally wasn’t too time-consuming, he tells me, since “most of the people I had to mention [in his thesis] were either English or they had already some tradition of being written in Latvia”.

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Image: Rīgas Laiks

Still, he says the rules can be surprisingly inconsistent with regards to sounds that don’t exist in the Latvian language: “the thing that’s quite telling is that even the people who are supposed to know this – linguists, academics, translators, proofreaders, who are supposed to have some method or basic sets of principles on how we should do that, are often very conflicting”. As an example, he mentions the American philosopher John Rawls, who he wrote about repeatedly during his studies; his first name is always rendered as Džons, but there are at least three variants of his surname (Rolss, Rolzs, Roulzs). For his bachelor’s thesis Caune used the first variant, but in his master’s thesis he referred to him by the third. There was no particular reason for the change, he says – “at different periods, some things sounded more right”.

Laura Plūmiņa, who has completed a master’s degree in Art History at the Latvian Academy of Art, mentions French, a language she doesn’t speak, as being particularly problematic and causing a considerable amount of extra work. French names, with their silent letters and troublesome vowels, are notorious for looking totally bizarre in Latvian – case in point, actor and noted Vladimir Putin aficionado Žerārs Depardjē (or as the rest of the world knows him, Gerard Depardieu). If she can find previous citations for “Latvianising” names, she can follows those; otherwise, she’s on her own. For her thesis, she wrote about Marc-Antoine Laugier, a French Jesuit priest who developed some architectural theories in the 19th century. “Is it Marks-Antuāns Ložē?”, she asks, rhetorically. “I still don’t know.”

There is another path, though, and that’s the one taken by Lithuania, Latvia’s southern neighbour and the home of the only other surviving Baltic language, related to Latvian but not mutually intelligible with it. At least in speech, Lithuanian is also highly rigid in its grammatical structures, which are comparable, though far from identical, to those used by Latvian – most things can be expressed in a series of tables. Men’s names will usually gain an “as” suffix; while women’s will almost always end in “a” or “ė”; there are even endings to denote whether or not a woman is married – thus, were the current president of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaitė, to marry, she would have to become Dalia Grybauskienė.

Owing to these similar qualities and conditions, Lithuania experienced a similar debate over how to represent foreign names; in fact, as Daiva Vaišnenė from the Lithuanian National Language Commission tells me, Lithuanian faced an additional hurdle in that for almost fifty years in the latter half of the 19th century, publication in the language using the Latin alphabet was prohibited by the Russian imperial authorities. After independence (achieved at almost exactly the same time as Latvia), the question of whether to “Lithuanianise” foreign names, thus making them easier to fit into the complicated case system, was debated further but never fully settled. That was until 1938, when the State Language Commission ruled against purism – foreign names would stay as they are.

This judgement was overruled after the Soviet invasion and occupation of Lithuania two years later – now, phonetic accuracy was recommended. Access to media from the wider world was suddenly curtailed, and those references to foreign places and people that did filter through would usually come via a Russian version anyway. Accordingly, in Lithuanian texts you will still find references to Josifas Stalinas and Michailas Gorbačiovas. But following the restoration of independence in 1990, the previous system was (mostly) reverted to – as Vaišnienė tells me: “foreign names should be translated in fiction and publications intended for children, taking into account their age and preference, but in research papers, media, adverts and other kinds of information texts, original forms are preferred. Of course, there are no strict requirements – editors can choose.”

That “of course” is revealing: Lithuanians seem to have a more easy-going approach to the question, despite having a grammatical system of equivalent rigidity and complexity. A Lithuanian colleague, Dovilė, tells me that I would usually be “Williamas”, not “Viljamas” in written Lithuanian; a case ending is added, but no further attempt is made to force it into a Lithuanian shape. She thinks even this is going too far.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Lithuanian takes a laissez-faire approach in all respects: where it can be somewhat inflexible is with regards to the personal names of its own citizens. Lithuania has a sizeable Polish-speaking population (at 6% of the total, they’re the country’s largest minority), with whom Lithuanian-speakers have a rather vexed relationship – prior to independence, Polish-speakers tended to have higher social status and were widely resented, and the rightful ownership of the Lithuanian capital Vilnius (Wilno, to Poles) was long disputed. But now, Lithuanian is the dominant language in the country – and the only state language by law, a status confirmed in the Law on the State Language drawn up in 1995 following the restoration of independence. This means that municipalities can be fined for adding signage in another language – something that has caused particular friction in the majority-Polish regions around Vilnius. The law also stipulates that the names of Lithuanian citizens must be written using the Lithuanian alphabet in all official state documents – including passports. As a result of this law, Polish-speakers are unable to use certain letters that exist in the Polish alphabet but not in Lithuanian – “w” being the most obvious one.

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Proportion of Poles in different areas of Lithuania [Image: Robert Wielgorski under a CC 2.5 Licence]

In Latvia, a similar law holds force – the names of both places and persons must conform with the nation’s language laws. But, in Latvia’s case, the largest minority is Russian (26%, according to the most recent survey), and it is Russian-speakers who have objected most strongly. One, Leonid Raihman, took his case to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, objecting that in documents issued by the Latvian state following the restoration of independence, he was referred to as “Leonīds Raihmans”. The court ruled in Raihman’s favour, stating “while the question of legislative policy, and the modalities to protect and promote official languages is best left to the appreciation of the State parties [..] the forceful addition of a declinable ending to a surname, which has been used in its original form for decades, and which modifies its phonic pronunciation, is an intrusive measure, which is not proportionate to the aim of protecting the official State language.” The objection was disregarded. On another occasion, a Russian-speaking family in Liepāja requested (unsuccessfully) to have the name of their child officially registered as simply “Miron” because of the similarity of its Latvianised form to “mironis” – a corpse.

It’s not only ethnic minorities who have objected – on one occasion several years ago, a Latvian woman objected when her young son Mark, who had been born in Germany and held dual citizenship, had his name written as “Marks” on his Latvian passport. She argued that the discrepancy between his documents in the two countries could cause problems. This was also rejected, with the court pointing out that original forms of names can be mentioned later in the passport – but not on the initial page. There can be at least a degree of flexibility on the part of the authorities, though, as Todd Rossman, an American who has lived in Latvia on and off since the early ’90s, attests. When he got married in Latvia in 2000, he was given two possible options for how his surname would officially be transcribed, both ending (of course) in “s” – Rasmens and Rosmanis. He tells me he went for the second option, because it was an established Baltic German surname, and because of “the endearing cognate ‘manis'”.

Many might feel though, judging by the strife and inconvenience which these conventions seem to cause, that this level of linguistic purism simply isn’t worth it. But when I put this to Professor Juris Baldunčiks, who has written a number of articles about the subject, he disagrees, pointing out that Latvian is not only a phono-graphemic language (i.e. things will be written, almost always, how they sound), but also, highly unusually, a fully inflected language, with mandatory endings for nouns even in the nominative case. He says that thus if words were not respelled, they simply would not fit into sentences – “and using apostrophes – John’u, John’am, John’ā – is simply ugly.”

He also observes that, unlike most speakers of other languages, Latvians will have a fairly accurate idea of how to pronounce even place names that they are unfamiliar with. Referring to the former US president’s visit to Latvia in 2005, he comments “just imagine how long President Bush rehearsed the correct pronunciation of [then] Latvian president Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga (and still did not get it right)”. This is not an unreasonable point: I’m in Chișinău, the capital of Moldova, as I’m writing this article – a name which I would estimate well under 1% of native English speakers could pronounce correctly (it’s Kish-in-o).

A reason that no one I speak to mentions, but that I suspect does carry a lot of weight, is the sense that this is simply the Latvian way of doing things, and it should be protected for that reason. This is not purely reducible to intolerant nationalism – although it’s certainly true that many intolerant nationalists do indeed hide behind this excuse. Latvia has spent centuries struggling against domination by its neighbours, and it is in many ways remarkable that the language remains in daily use at all – in many other small countries bordering great powers, the native language was sidelined over time and eventually used only by the poor and uneducated (think of Ireland or Belarus, to take just a couple of examples).

Indeed, even in Latvia, it was often assumed during the second half of the twentieth century that the long-term prospects for the language were poor, due mostly to the increasing dominance of Russian and the tendency of Soviet-era immigrants not to learn the language (even though Latvian remained the native language of almost all ethnic Latvians, they were only just in the majority in the republic by the late ’80s, and the proportion of inhabitants who understood Latvian was greatly outnumbered by the proportion who understood Russian). Correct use of Latvian and resistance to the Russian loan words that increasingly entered the language became a means of passive opposition for the educated Latvian classes. Lithuania’s experience of the Soviet Union was also traumatic – but due to lower levels of immigration and a larger overall population, the primacy of the language wasn’t threatened nearly as much as in Latvia (it always remained the native language of over 80% of the population), perhaps explaining why scrupulous accuracy seems much less important to people there.

Sensitivities over correct language use continue to run especially high in Latvia, especially concerning anything that smacks of Russification. Earlier this year, a member of the Latvian parliament publicly complained about the owners of Leningrad, a Soviet-themed bar in the central of the capital, because the name above the door was only in Cyrillic. Similar, and even more baffling for outsiders, was the angry reaction among some sections of the population at the temporary alteration in 2014 of the four iconic signs that welcome visitors to Riga at the various entry points to the city by road. To coincide with the capital’s year-long stint as European Capital of Culture, the diacritical mark above the “i” (the city is properly written “Rīga” in Latvian) was switched for a heart decorated with the city colours. In response, a number of prominent figures wrote an open letter to the mayor, protesting this act of “destruction and banality”. The author of the signs, the artist Valdis Celms, also commented that the change was “tasteless” and “kitsch”, and that the icon had been degraded. The State Language Centre imposed a fine on the relevant official from the transport department, citing it as an example of incorrect language use.

Because it was the specifically Latvian element of the sign that had been removed, it also drew accusations of globalisation, and even Russification (Riga in Russian is рига – also transliterated as “Riga”; the mayor, Nils Ušakovs, is of Russian origin). With this in mind, the justification given by an official from the transport department may not have been especially sensitive: “It’s nothing new. This is just as in Amsterdam, New York – these kinds of symbols are written there. Of course, we want to popularise our city not only at the level of the EU, but all over the world.”

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The sign after its alteration

Given Latvia’s traumatic 20th century, which saw war, deportations and repeated occupations, it’s perhaps rather remarkable that the orthography and conventions still remain more or less exactly as they were established by Mīlenbahs and Endzelīns over a hundred years ago. Those that were compelled by the occupying forces were often rather comical – the only change the Nazis demanded during their three-year occupation of Latvia, apparently, was that Germans should have any case endings tacked onto their names when translated into Latvian segregated by an apostrophe – thus “Gebels’a cepure” – “Goebbels’ hat’. They weren’t fussed about this being applied to others – but for Germans it was obligatory. The changes made under Soviet occupation were also fairly minor – two relatively rarely used letters, ŗ and ō, were formally excluded from the language, and the digraph “ch” was replaced by “h”. No alteration was made to the convention of altering the spelling of foreign names, including Russian ones – and thus the text under the statue of the gesticulating, goateed figure who once stood at the start of the city’s central boulevard read “Ļeņins”.

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“Ļeņins” in the centre of Riga. The statue stood from 1950 until 1991 [Image: labiraksti.lv]

But will this remain the case? Can these conventions really have a future in an increasingly globalised world? Helmuts Caune notes that they are increasingly less rigorously observed with the growth of online media in Latvian – which is, like everywhere else, often low-quality and rarely proofread. He comments that more and more often he notices non-Latvian names left in their original form but placed in italics. It’s increasingly evident from emails and messages on social media that many Latvians don’t bother to transliterate any but the most familiar foreign names. Juris Baldunčiks also claims to have noticed a growth in what he terms “Latglish” among his students – who will usually speak English well, and perhaps one or two other languages as well – and who often express dissatisfaction with the conventions. And with increasing number of Latvians living and working abroad, bringing up children elsewhere, married to non-Latvian partners, there are likely to be many more “Marks”. But none of my interviewees, whether they were in favour of or opposed to the system, could see things changing any time soon. For better or worse, it seems that names like Vladimirs Putins, Bejonse Noulza and Veins Rūnijs are here to stay – at least in Latvia.

Will Mawhood is the editor of Deep Baltic 

Header image – a plaque to Riga-born philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin (or, in its Latvianised form, Sers Jesaja Berlins) – Alberta iela, central Riga

© Deep Baltic 2016. All rights reserved.

 

 

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  1. Dear Will, thank you for such thorough and long explanation on those issues, troubling this country for a long period of time. But I have noticed two ‘factual’ mistakes in your piece.

    In case of ‘Miron’ the story was the following. Parent want to register their son as a just ‘Miron’ explaining that Latvianized form ‘Mirons’ looks and sound quite familiar to ‘mironis’ (the corpse), and it will cause many troubles during son’s childhood and schooltime. But as state institutions are have to follow the rules you’ve mentioned, court stated that ‘Mirons’ is the only possible option to choose from.

    The second, you’ve mentioned that ‘The Language Agency imposed a fine on the relevant official from the transport department’. but it is not correct. Language Agency is in charge for elaborating the policy and widespreading and developing the language in state, Europe and generally worldwide. In turn, State Language Center is in charge for supervision, inspection and punishment for abuse of state-language-related legislation. So correctly it would ‘The State Language Center imposed a fine…’

    Though Latvia has another state institutions regading language — the State Language Comission and Terminology Commmission (Latvian Academy of Sciences), so it’s quite easy to confuse and mix up them.

    The last thing I have to add, that there are a lot of foreigners in Latvia, who has registered in state institutions under their original Latin spellings from their passports, including not just Europeans, for instance, but also migrants from Russia, Belarus (like I am) or even China. In all of the cases when we are dealing with real documents we are obliged to use that particular passport-styled name spelling in applications, forms and so on. And such regime suits everyone here, including officials. Even in case if they want to put a latvianized name form, they obligatory have to put original in brackets right after. Magical transformation of their official name spelling happens just when one want to become a citizen, and receive Latvian passport. Hence such strict rules and requirements seems sort of hypocritical, and at the same time outdated.

  2. Fascinating article. Beautifully written. Thank you.

  3. THANK YOU. THIS IS A SERIOUS PROBLEM, FOR TRANSLATORS AS WELL.

  4. p.s. there is another side. for instance, a known Latvian cartoonist, Gatis ŠĻŪKA, names himself Gatis SLUKA in English. So 3 Latvian letters have been changed. this is equally bad.

  5. I blame the Latin alphabet! It is supposed to be shared by most European languages, but in reality only parts of it are shared. As soon as Latvians are abroad, we loose 11 letters of our alphabet (ā, č, ē, ģ, ī, ķ, ļ, ņ, š, ū, ž). But phonetically in Europe we don’t loose 11 sounds – we mostly loose only “ķ”, “ģ”, “ļ” and “ņ”. As long as English speakers come to Latvia, they loose four letters (q, w, x, y) but very few sounds (“th”) do not find their cousin in Latvian.

    While it is common for cyrillic names to have different forms when they are “latinised” (Пу́тин is Putin in English, but Poutine in French), somehow it is not at all common to try to translate from one latin alphabet to the other, to try to keep at least the sounds that exist in both alphabets, but that might be expressed differently.

    For example, living as a Latvian in French speaking countries, I have by now learned how to recognise the weird sound they utter whenever they want to pronounce my family name (the very Latvian surname Skujiņa becomes “sküzhina”). And I have accepted that foreigners will never understand why Ruta and Rūta are not the same. However, I would really prefer writing my name in French documents as “Routa”, and I could be OK spelling “Skouyina” instead of “Skujina”, as already both “Ruta” and “Skujina” for me is a compromise.

    I have noticed that for most people the “phonetical damage” done to their name in a foreign country is somehow more acceptable than any visual changes. And pehraps I am more OK of the visual dammage only because I come from a country where it is OK 🙂 Sometimes, when I think of very extreme integrations in the foreign culture where the person has decided to live, I remember my Chinese friends that pick their European name when coming here, so that Europeans would not have to struggle with the pronounciation. But I do not think that among European countries that is necessary as we could make the effort of trying to pronounce the name as correctly as we can, without completely changing the flow of the phrase that is unnatural in any language (I would still stress the end of my name when speaking French, as it is just more natural).

    • Rūta, thank you for the explanation. The only thing I want to add, that French spelling mostly not based on phonetical model, if to compare to Latvian. Such things apply to your situation with name a lot. But when they are adopting and converting some names from Cyrillic or Arabic, they have to follow their own tradition, as it happens here in Latvia. However names based on Latin alphabet are adopted in their original form anyway. People have to recognize and train themself on such peculiarities. Obviously it is not happening to the vast of population in countries considering themselfs as a centers of French-speaking, German-speaking or Spanish-speaking worlds relatively, for many reasons. People from small countries are tending more to recognize and follow such peculiarities as they facing them in everyday life. Your example is direct proof of that.

      While noticing a lot of names in Hollywood movies, for instance, names of the persons of non-English roots, it is easy to see that diacritical marks are just dropped out sometimes. Previously it happened also because of unavailability of particular accented characters in locally used typefaces. In Western world skills to pronounce French, German, Czech or Latvian names and surnames properly, especially if we are speaking about ones that have accents, is an evidence of academic education, erudition or, not rarely, descent.

      Regarding the constancy of spelling, for sure I would prefer ‘letters’ instead of ‘sounds’. I’m living in a world where I have to identify myself formally, in a written form and consistently. It is related to many apects of my life including but not limited to relations with state, travel, written communication, internet, authorship. To the date I already have four options of my name, that have been used across the documents I have in Belarusian, Russian, English and Latvian language respectively. All four are different. 🙂

  6. While I generally agree with the point that you are making, and join in the comment about what an annoyance it is for translators to try to decide whether someone called Šmits in Latvian is Smith, Schmidt, etc. (parenthetically noting that it’s even worse in French, where you have to recognize the word “Igo” as referring to Hugo, as in Victor), I do have to say that if you looked at the word “Klūnijs” and had to ponder for a long time before coming up with “Clooney,” you must not be very bright about these kinds of things, if you will forgive me for that observation.

    • Thanks for the comment, Karlis. Have to point out that I’m not really making any specific argument in the article – it’s meant to be an overview, not an opinion piece. The “Klūnijs” one was very soon after I had moved to Latvia, and understood nothing of the language at all. Cheers, Will.

  7. When applying for person codes for my children, the Language Ministry (or whatever they’d be called in English) kindly provided several alternatives for the parts of their names that needed Latvianizing. But long before then, I knew my children’s first names would be phoneticized – someday my son will thank me for vetoing my husband’s first choice for his name: Kyle (imagine going to school being called Kails) !

  8. Thank you for the very interesting article, I learnt many interesting facts. Although I am a native speaker and a translator, I have been struggling to explain to my non-Latvian friends why we ‘Latvianise’ place names and personal names. Although I am aware of occasional difficulties to make foreign names sound Latvian and sometimes even illogical cases (as a trainee translator at the European Commission, I recently spent quite some time trying to think of decent Latvian-sounding names for some villages in Ireland with difficult-to-pronounce names of Celtic origin!), I certainly do not think of this particular aspect of our language as some obscurity that we should sooner or later get rid of. I think we can find such ‘obscurities’ in almost every language, and they are what makes languages interesting. I am sure there are issues in other languages, surely those with non-Latin alphabets, that ‘distort’ the original name of a place/person.

    One small correction: you do find ‘dz’ and ‘dž’ in many words of Latvian origin, such as ‘dzenis’ (woodpecker), ‘dzert’ (to drink), or ‘džinkstēt’ (to jingle).

  9. As a latvian native it feels like the language and sound flow has been suddenly interrupted when we hear non native (other native) word pronounciation. The given example “Mani sauc Will ” or “Mani sauc Vils”. All I hear and feel is the flow of the language completely broken. For example Bruce Willis is “Brūss Vilis” we latvians have to hear the word to write it with proper respect to its origin language as we would pronounce original “Bruce” completely unrecognizable reading as latvians read the text, and if you pronounce “bruce” as native latvian, doesn`t help that it sounds like some kind of disease as well.

    I feel that this is the result of constant influx of other completely foreign languages. This way it is easier for a latvian to communicate what what other non latvian has said to his mates and mates still can connect the person when referred in non latvian language without compromising the descriptive advantage of being able to shape the word in the language.

  10. I would also agree that the change of the “RĪGA” sign was tasteless. While the sign might look absurdly simple, the proportions of the original letters were unobtrusive and aesthetically quite pleasing — they felt right. You could put that on a T-shirt (and in fact, somebody did: https://riija.lv/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/T-SHIRT-RIGA-BLACK.jpg ).

    The blue/white heart simply replaced the diacritic mark on the original sign. What was a horizontal dash of right proportions became a bloated pimple when put on the same letter. If it were done the right way by somebody with an artistic ability, the heart might have remained, for all I care. The way it was done, it seemed to be created by some functionary with the creative ability of a broom.

  11. As a teenager, I was deeply troubled at actually having to ‘change’ my name as I was forced to embrace my Latvian heritage in order to gain citizenship. In time, I relished in the name changes and on my visits to Riga almost the first thing I do is pick up the celeb mags to work out who is doing what with who, with those familiar names Latvianised. It has helped me ‘hear’ the language in written form and has given me cohesion between the audible and readable. I now relish my Latvian passport with its ‘foreign’ name.

  12. WHY YOU WILL, ALMOST DEFINITELY HAVE TO CHANGE YOUR NAME WHEN SPEAKING LATVIAN.

  13. Besides this above hat tip to you Will, a few years ago a Latvian court ruled that the ‘Otto’ should be allowed, however initially the state only accepted ‘Oto’ and not ‘Otto’ as the correct spelling. The court concluded:

    “To conclude, the Senate took the view that as a personal name is a part of a
    person’s identity and privacy, even the slightest changes in the visual appearance of
    the name may influence the perception of the name and, respectively, of the person.
    Taking into account the fact that Latvia is the only place in the world where the
    Latvian language is used and preserved, the language itself is a protected value and
    should remain as such. Nevertheless, it is not an absolute rule that any derogation
    from rules and norms of the Latvian language constitutes a threat to the existence of
    the language; therefore, the legitimate aim of preserving the Latvian language is not
    sufficient to impose a restriction on a person’s private life, and there are many factors
    for determining it. Therefore, each case has to be examined independently. ”

    Source: Legal aspects of transcription of personal names in the Latvian language
    Available: http://www.rgsl.edu.lv/uploads/files/Naumova_final.pdf

  14. Very interesting thesis Will, and some excellent comments from people with good Latvian insight. As a native-speaking English teacher/proofreader who’s been living in Riga for 9 years, I can only add that I’m blessed with several variations of my name (Edward, Edvards,Eddie,Edijs,or Ed), and I’m quite happy for people to choose whichever one they feel more comfortable with, but when it came down to the serious business of registering for a personal code I was very happy that my full name Edward James Mantle was kept totally intact by the authorities.

    • Glad you liked it, Edvards. Yes, my experience is the same – for personal code/residency, it’s quite straightforward and they seem to have no problem with foreign names. If you want to take citizenship, though, it’s a very different matter – Will

  15. This is a very thorough, engaging and informative piece. Thank you.

    Had you really never heard of grammatical case before you encountered Latvian? I know that most schools don’t teach Latin or Ancient Greek these days (let alone Russian or Finnish), but the tone of utter shock throughout the article — the grammar is so unusually rigid that they use *tables*! — caught me by surprise.

    • Glad you liked it, Anita. I did one year of Latin at school in England – and that’s not particularly usual, most schools wouldn’t – but I barely remember it. Generally we only learn French, German or Spanish. I’ve never heard of anyone learning Russian – and based on the opinions of others I know, this is a fairly normal reaction to a case-based language. Also, although many languages use tables for declination/conjugation, Latvian does seem to be unusually rigid – there are more or less no exceptions for nouns, as far as I’m aware, plus case endings in the nominative form are very unusual – Will

  16. Very interesting and enjoyable article. Thank you! I wonder how many “conflicts”, time, and funny Latvianized names have resulted from the recent dual citizenship amendments in Latvian law with all the descendants in countries like Brazil or Argentina. Would a Carlos from Brazil that is spelled the same as a Carlos from Argentina but have a different phonetic pronunciation be Latvianized different?

    I personally am one of the Latvian descendants from Mexico that went through the process. My name had only some minor changes and the most “extreme” change was to my mother’s middle name Guadalupe to Gvadalupe. Thankfully the Latvian Language Agency had the task to figure out how to spell our names and luckily I wasn’t given a nahuatl name such as Quetzalli or Ixchel!

  17. Yes, Will, Latvian is a complicated language. Difficult to learn. But it is also a sophisticated language. You can say much more in fewer words in Latvian than in many other languages. You can’t be plain “Will” because you’re in Latvia, not the U.S. or U.K. When you say, “Mani sauc Will,” you’re not saying “My name is Will.” you’re saying “I’m called Will.” And the correct way to say the former is, “Mans vārds ir Vils.” Something meant for Will is said, “Vilim,” not “Vilam.” The woman you are speaking to changes your name from “Will” to “Vils” because she is speaking Latvian. Wouldn’t it be odd if a Latvian speaking English suddenly said, “Hello,Vils, hows are you?”

  18. To complain that Latvian isn’t English is like complaining that apples aren’t oranges.

    • I was sorry to read this comment, Francia, but I think you’ve fundamentally misunderstood my aim in writing the article. I’m not complaining at all – I think Latvian is a fascinating and beautiful language (I certainly wouldn’t have gone to the considerable trouble of learning it if I thought otherwise), and I’d actually be quite sad if this particular feature was dropped from the language – and even sadder if it was superseded by English. All I’m doing is pointing out that many foreigners find it unusual (and in the context of European languages, compulsory case endings for nouns in the nominative form are quite unusual) – unusual doesn’t mean stupid or wrong. I’ve attempted, by detailing the history of Latvian orthography, to show that it is actually not stupid (although that doesn’t mean that it can’t be criticised – and I’ve attempted to include critical voices as well) – it’s a rational reaction to a set of circumstances.

      • Regarding your linguistic points, it’s true that a word-for-word translation of the phrase would be “mans vārds ir…”, but in my experience Latvians don’t generally say that when introducing themselves – they say “mani sauc…”. A literal translation would not be particularly useful in this context, because people also rarely say “I am called x” when introducing themselves in English. As far as the other point goes, I think you’re mistaken – from what I’m aware “Vilim” would be the dative form of Vilis, not Vils (which is how I should transliterate my name, according to the guidelines published by the Language Agency). Nonetheless, thanks for taking the time to read the article and respond. Will Mawhood

  19. Just adding a different perspective. There used to be a saying in English regarding “press” – “I don’t care how you pronounce my name, as long as you spell it correctly.” For Latvians the opposite seems true; pronunciation trumps spelling. Many Latvians who came to English speaking countries as DP’s tried to spell their names to reflect pronunciation. (There is a long story about the person with surname Abele, who listening to his name being pronounced tried to follow that – Eibele, Ihbele, Aibele, etc. ) The clearest example of this can be seen in early NHL’ers whose Latvian names ended with “iņš”, who in past decades had their name on their shirts changed, eg Sandis Ozolinsh. Thankfully that practice has ended.

  20. Well, in Lithuanian you’ll add even two letters in some names like Tomas, Aivaras, Igoris, Viljamas,etc.

  21. Thank you very much for this interesting discussion, but I do have to say that if it took you a long time to get from Klūnijs to Clooney, you must not have been paying much attention.

  22. There are whole youtube videos of English people pronouncing Latvian names. They are hilarious.

    An English speaker pronouncing virtually every north European name with a “j” in it is a joke in and of itself.

    Is that really better than the Latvian way? Spelling a name correctly as in the original language, but when it comes to saying a person’s name it comes out ludicrous?

  23. Reply by Livija (Pelece Karlsone) Carlson, via M. Pelēces acct:

    Will/Vili,

    A most interesting article and comments.
    My background: I was born in Latvia, pre-WWII, lived in the U.S.
    for over 6 decades, been interested in Latvian language all of my life.

    Your article brought back me to Dorren Gaston’s book Lingo. I had a
    similar reaction to his chapter on Latvian, as I did to the beginning of
    your article. Statements like “it seemed a little bit like Latvians couldn’t
    cope with the non-Latvian outside world” and “that’s just how we do
    things here” don’t really address the complex language issue, but rather
    a cultural perception from both sides.

    If we are to address strictly a language issue, we need to look at the
    complexity of Latvian grammar, Latvian phonetic alphabet and the fact
    that when translating a totally different language for Latvian readers, who
    may not know English (in reality a global language, familiar to younger
    Latvians, but not older ones), we need to realize that the Latvian and
    Lithuanian languages (only two ancient, related ones left in the world)
    are very far removed from most other languages in sound and structure.

    Starting with your title, I would say that instead of “changing your name”
    it should say “changing the spelling of your name” because it gets
    changed so that the pronunciation is close to correct and it fits in the
    grammatical structure in the language.
    If you’re reading an article in Latvian and keep the foreign spellings of
    words, it is like ignoring the possessive, or plural spellings in English,
    except that due to the complexity of the language it is multiplied many
    times over and would make no sense in a Latvian sentence. “Bill car”
    instead of “Bill’s car” for possessive, or “automobile” instead of
    “automobiles” for plural are simple examples. The declination tables,
    which you illustrated in your article are at the core of the Latvian
    language, endings matter! I have not tried translating Latvian/English
    either way, with online help, for a long time, but it used to be impossible.

    Phonetic spelling, Latvian alphabet has only one sound per letter, unless
    you use the diacritic marks, so a “K” is always a “K” as in Kennedy, no
    need to use English “C” or “Q” (Latvian alphabet has no Q) as in “case”,
    or “quiet”, since it is the same K sound. Others have covered this
    territory, but with some errors, also has anyone addressed the fact that
    Latvian is not gender neutral, so another difficulty? But I digress, Latvian
    children do not have to spend time on spelling, when learning to read,
    because of the phonetic spelling, just learn the alphabet. This is due to
    the fact that even though the Latvian language is an ancient one, it did
    not get written in the Latin alphabet until recently, taking from the Latin
    the needed sounds for Latvian, (no need for Q, W, X, Y).

    So back to “Names” – William, I would spell it Viljams (sorry, can’t do
    the W and the neutral gender, but it addressing him, it would be Viljam!),
    but Latvians would have the closest pronunciation to William and
    you would probably know that they were addressing you, because
    this name is not so difficult, but try names that start with G and J and
    have the same sound like Jean and George, a Latvian knowing no English
    would pronounce them in a way that you would have no idea what the
    name was. Written in Latvian, foreign (to Latvians) names really look
    weird, but if you know the Latvian language they sound very close
    to the foreign name. Languages are always changing, the Latvian in
    Latvia has taken on many Russian words and the Latvian in United
    States has taken on many English words, there might be a handful of
    pure languages in the world, but Latvian is not one of them. With the
    younger generation and the Internet exposure to the world, I expect that
    the foreign spelling of names will soon come to pass in Latvia, but I
    can’t visualize it not looking awkward when you read it in a Latvian
    sentence, because it will look like someone not knowing the Latvian
    language/grammar wrote it.

    Gender, male names end is “s”, or “is”, female names in “a”, or “e”,
    Latvian language is gender specific, so “prezidents,” and “prezidente,”
    so prezidents Trumps (like in a card game), or Tramps (“a” like in alone,
    not like “a” in tramp), or prezidente Klintone. Or my name Livija,
    depending on the context (declination table) can be Livija, Livijas,
    Livijai, Livija, Livij (I don’t have Latvian alphabet on my computer,
    so the first “i” in my name has a line over it and also the fourth “a.”

    I have gone on too long, but my basic point is that due to the complexity
    of the Latvian language and vocabulary (not including modern terminology)
    not sounding like anything that most foreign speakers could relate to,
    criticism for not blending in foreign spellings which would make Latvian
    language make no sense and sound ignorant, should be taken with a
    smile and sometimes a correction, or a reminder that sometimes cultures
    can’t blend seamlessly, nor should they.

    I do like the fact that many Latvians are trying to preserve their culture
    in preserving their language, since they cannot exist without each other
    and there are very few Latvians left on this earth.

    I have had many a laugh, even at myself, when I have gone to Latvia and
    misread a sign using either Latvian, or English pronunciation for the other
    language, like “kopija” reading the “o” as the Latvian “kopa” instead of the
    more general “online.”

    I will have to re-read some of your comments more thoroughly, because I
    know some of this has been covered.

    Livija (Pelece Karlsone) Carlson

    Yes, my passport has both Karlsone and Carlson.

    • Hi Livija. Thanks for taking the time to reply to this – I agree with many of the points you make, but I’d emphasise that I’m not advocating that it should be changed or that it is a stupid system – I’ve just tried to detail the historical and linguistic reasons why Latvian deals with foreign names in this particular way. Regarding your points at the top, I wouldn’t totally agree – absolutely, “it seemed a little bit like Latvians couldn’t
      cope with the non-Latvian outside world” is certainly not how I feel now, but that was a bit my sense first moving there, knowing very little of the culture and language – I’m trying to give an idea of my initial reactions. This isn’t meant to be an academic contribution and is aimed mostly at people who don’t know much about the Latvian language. Foreigners, in my experience, do find this feature of the language quite unusual and in many cases very amusing – I certainly did – and that’s not to say that it’s stupid, it’s just a fact. Likewise, I see your point regarding the headline – changing the spelling rather than the name itself, but I would argue that in fact in most cases the name is changed due to the case endings, and the absence of certain letters and sounds. My name is not Vils, it’s Will – it sounds totally different, and few people from England would even recognise the name as being related on first glance. Again, I don’t have a problem with this, but Latvian certainly is unusual as a European language in adding case endings and changing the spelling of names. I’m certainly not opposed to Latvians preserving their culture and language, and I’m not trying to argue anything in particular in this article – just pointing out the history and different opinions on the matter, including that some people feel the conventions causes them inconvenience (and one could argue that another one would cause others). Will Mawhood

  24. looking for an opinion on this. Was always told by my family that my father was of Lithuanian descent. I have never been able to trace the name past my grandparents in New York City and the only listings of anyone with the same last name listed were my aunts and uncles. My only conclussion was that the name had been changed at some point, possibly when my grandparents came to America, perhaps due to a mispronunciation, or a name change by my relatives somewhere down the line.
    After reading some of this discussion, I think this may be the case. If someone could list some of the more common mispronuciations or common changes or spelling changes (like the mentioned v for a w) it would be very helpful.
    thank you

  25. I wonder if someone in this group could please explain to me why in Latvian the dative is always/only used in the plural of nouns for all prepositions? (From a ‘Brits’ struggling to learn the language…)

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