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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