by Vineta Vilcāne

In the world there are more than 7,000 languages, of which the Latgalian language is one. This language is spoken in the eastern part of Latvia, the region of Latgola* by Latgalians (the name for the Latvians of Latgola). At present, it is the mother tongue of approximately 164,000 people, which is about 9% of the population of Latvia. The Latgalian language plays the main role in Latgalian identity, and it is strongly connected with Latgalians’ culture.

According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, Latgalian is assessed as vulnerable. Due to tremendous effort from the community, the revitalisation of the language is now taking place.

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A short history lesson

Until Latvian independence in 1918, the territory of Latgola was administratively separated from the other territories inhabited by Latvians. Latgola developed as a region that was different in religious, cultural and linguistic terms. Economic, social and cultural developments happened later in Latgola than in other parts of Latvia. This was one of the reasons why Latgola was the poorest part of Latvia, as people there had less access to education.

Latgola was incorporated into the Vitebsk Governorate of the Russian Empire, while other parts of Latvia were incorporated into other governorates and had more privileges. Laws in Latgola differed and were also stricter; the region was more tightly integrated into the Russian Empire. Moreover, the imperial administration in Latgola instituted a very harsh Russification policy. For example, school books in Latgalian were required to be published in the Cyrillic alphabet, although Latgalians were used to a Latin script.

The Russian Empire imposed a ban on the use of the Latin script between 1864 and 1904. It was forbidden to publish books in Latgalian, while in other parts of present-day Latvia, books could be published in Latvian, because they used the Gothic script.

One other important aspect was serfdom. Among Latvians, including Latgalians, the principal occupation was farming. The landowners in Latgola were mainly Poles and Russians, while in other parts of Latvia they were Germans. Serfs in Latgola were emancipated only in 1861, while in the Courland Governorate and Governorate of Livonia it happened earlier, in 1817 and 1819 respectively.

The territory of modern-day Latvia under the Russian Empire [Image: lsm.lv]

The culture of Latgola is a blend of different cultural influences – Latvian, Jewish, Polish, Russian, Belarusian, etc. Other parts of Latvia experienced greater German influence, and this influence can also be seen in the Latvian language. 

Latvians in Latgola and in other regions practised different religions. Most Latvians in the regions of Kurzeme and Vidzeme were Lutherans, while Latgalians were Catholics; in Latgola also lived Orthodox Christians, Old Believers and Jews. Latgola has always been a multi-religious and multi-ethnic region.

The Catholic Church had an important role in Latgalians’ cultural development and in the development of the Latgalian language. Catholic priests brought about the Latgalian national awakening only at the beginning of the 20th century, while Latvians’ national awakening started earlier, in the middle of the 19th century.

Until the beginning of the 20th century, the Latgalian language was stigmatised. Latgalians usually only used their language at home and at church. They couldn’t use the Latgalian language in communication with landlords or the government, and couldn’t learn their mother tongue at school. The only possibility to learn their language was at home using prayer books and some other literary books.

Throughout the national awakening period, from the beginning of the 20th century until World War I, Latgalian activists promoted the language in different ways. They published poetry and novels in Latgalian, founded organisations, published newspapers, and started to work on standardising the Latgalian language. Many of these activities happened in St. Petersburg as it was the intellectual centre of the movement.

The first Latgalian-language newspaper, published in St. Petersburg in 1905

Latvia, like many other countries in Europe, achieved independence after World War I. In the spring of 1917 the First Congress of Latgola took place, organised by Latgalians, it raised the idea of a united Latvian state and prepared a political and socially educational platform for its establishment. At the Second Congress of Latgola which was held at the end of 1917, the majority of delegates advocated the separation of Latgola from the Vitebsk Governorate and union with the territory inhabited by Latvians. The Republic of Latvia was declared in 1918, and Latgola officially became part of Latvia. It was a new era for Latgalian.

From 1918 until the takeover of the Latvian government by the authoritarian Kārlis Ulmanis in 1934, Latgalian was designated as an official language in local government and education in Latgola. Lots of non-governmental organisations promoted Latgalian, and books and newspapers were published in Latgalian. During the interwar period, the process of standardisation of the Latgalian language began and grammar rules were adopted.

From the establishment of an authoritarian regime in 1934 until World War II, Latgalian use was limited: municipalities stopped using Latgalian, also education was provided in the Latvian literary language, not in Latgalian. Dictator Karlis Ulmanis himself wanted to Latvianise the nation and culture and Latgalian could not fit in with this because it was the “wrong” kind of Latvian. He also limited the cultural and linguistic autonomy of other minorities.

A short video about the design of a coin commemorating the centenary of the Congress of Latgola (English subtitles available)

During World War II, Latvia was first occupied by the Soviet Union, starting in 1940 and the use of both Latvian and Latgalian was severely limited. In 1941, the Nazi German occupation started. Interestingly, during the Nazi German occupation, the use of Latgalian in schools and the publishing of books and newspapers in Latgalian was reintroduced. This was done with the aim of getting support and respect from locals, as this was important for the war effort.

The second Soviet occupation lasted from 1944 through to 1990, when the independence of the Republic of Latvia was restored. Latgalians and their language were also stereotyped. In Soviet Latvia, Latgalian was officially forbidden and stigmatised. People were ashamed to use the language in public, for instance in schools, and many Latgalian parents chose to speak the Latvian literary language with their children. The Latgalian language was mainly used at home and quietly in the Catholic Church. All of these negative attitudes towards the Latgalian language influenced society’s view of the language in later years and still persist today. 

The status of the Latgalian language

The Latgalian language was formed on the basis of the varieties of the upper part of Latvia, and belongs to the Baltic group of the Indo-European family of languages. The first written version of Latgalian was created at the beginning of the 18th century by leaders of the Catholic Church.

The Official Language Law of the Republic of Latvia states that the Latgalian written language is a historic variant of the Latvian language, which is the state language, and that the state of Latvia shall ensure the maintenance, protection and development of Latgalian.

Latgalian for beginners (teaching the numbers)

Although it is not forbidden to use Latgalian in official communication, ordinary people, clerks and representatives of municipalities in the region of Latgola very rarely do it. The reasons for this are various: apathy and uneasiness, the view that it is not necessary to use Latgalian, a feeling of shame, a sense that the use of Latgalian could cause problems and that there could be consequences, etc.

The current Minister of Justice, Jānis Bordāns, who is Latgalian and who is in charge of Latvian language policy, has encouraged Latgalians to use their language in communication with municipalities in the region of Latgola. Ultimately this will be a decision for the communities themselves – whether to use or not to use the Latgalian language in official communications with governmental and municipal organisations.

Not all of Latvian society realises that Latgalian is part of the state language, and that it can be used in different domains such as in the media, schools and municipalities. Many still view Latgalian as just a variety or a dialect. Despite this kind of prejudice, Latgalian is being used more and more.

The revitalisation of the Latgalian language

The process of the revitalisation of the Latgalian language is not overseen and there is currently no state or non-governmental organisation which could coordinate activities and provide and manage financial resources. Nonetheless revitalisation is happening, because the Latgalian community is very active and people want to save, develop and popularise their mother tongue. People don’t think about their work as a process of revitalisation – they just do what their hearts tell them to do and what is important for them.

The great thing is that Latgalian is visible in the public space and is freely part of the language landscape. The concert hall in the city of Rēzekne has a Latgalian name, GORS, which means “spirit”.

GORS concert hall in Rēzekne [Image: GORS]

Latgalian is used in tourism, and restaurants and shop names, for instance in the town of Ludza is a store called Cymuss (“Flavour”), which sells local products, while in Preiļi there is a shopping centre named Ūga (“berry”). You can buy different food products with the text in Latgalian on them, for instance, white bread named Latgolys Peituo (“Braided Bread of Latgola”) or the coffee producers KUUP, who use Latgalian on their labels. In the town of Kārsava, street names are written in both Latgalian and the Latvian literary language, while a small place with a fancy name near Preiļi greets visitors with the sign “Zalta dybyns” (Golden Bottom in Latgalian). Posters for cultural events also appear in Latgalian. It would not be possible to cover the full story of the revitalisation of Latgalian in one article, and for this reason only the main and most visible domains have been selected.

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Schools

Although almost one tenth of the population of Latvia uses Latgalian on an everyday basis, only a few people have writing skills in the language to a high level. This odd situation is a result of the fact that Latgalian isn’t generally taught at schools in the region. Only at a few schools in Latgola can pupils learn Latgalian and a bit about Latgalian culture. This happens on the initiative of a few teachers and headteachers, but could be implemented more broadly if municipalities would support these classes financially.

Even if all the schools in the region decided to teach Latgalian tomorrow, it would be complicated. First of all, not all teachers’ skills in the language are at a high enough level; secondly, teaching materials are lacking; and thirdly, not all parents would agree with their children taking Latgalian classes.

Zalta Dybyns near the town of Preiļi, Latgola [Image: Vineta Vilcāne]

Music

Nowadays, music has a very important role in Latgalians’ identity and in language promotion. Around 15 years ago, Latgalian youth started to make pop and rock music in Latgalian. Before that, the language was used in traditional folk and schlager (country/easy listening) music. The older generation was more interested in folk and schlager music, but pop and rock singers started to prove to young people that it is normal to speak Latgalian, it is cool to sing in this language, and that they shouldn’t feel ashamed of Latgalian. These singers became idols for a lot of young people and many started their own activities in Latgalian. Very often music is the way people from other parts of Latvia first get to know the Latgalian language.

One of the brightest moments for Latgalian music was in 2006, when the hip-hop group Borowa MC won two national music competitions, relegating the most popular Latvian band Prāta Vētra (known internationally as Brainstorm) to second place. Currently, the most popular Latgalian band, not only in the region but throughout Latvia, is the hip-hop group Latgalīšu Reps (Latgalian Rap). Their most popular song “Žārei Gaļi” has more then 2.5 million views on YouTube, which is the highest number for any Latgalian song on Youtube.

Bez PVN (“Without VAT”) are well-known for their meaningful lyrics and tuneful music, and fans of folk rock/metal enjoy the work of the band Green Novice.

Every two years Latgalian music-lovers can enjoy the music festival Muzykys Skrytuļs (The Music Wheel). Different kinds of musicians perform at this event – performers of pop, rock, country, folk and spiritual music, who sing in Latgalian. This event is one of the key activities in the revitalisation of the Latgalian language.

Literature

Literature is very important in order to maintain and revitalise any language, and Latgalian is no exception. Book publishing is also always a matter of language prestige. 

Every year approximately 10–15 books are published in Latgalian, mostly by NGOs or private publishers. Big publishing houses are very rarely interested in publishing books in Latgalian. Mostly poetry and novels originally written in Latgalian are published, and a tradition of publishing other literary genres hasn’t yet developed.

Last year was a significant one for Latgalian literature. For the first time, a Latgalian poetry book The Last Model/Pādejais modeļs was published in English. The first thriller written in Latgalian, Bruoli (Brothers) by Aldis Bukšs, was also published.

Media and social media

Lately more and more content has been appearing in Latgalian. Started in 2007, the news site Latgalīšu Kulturys Ziņu Portals lakuga.lv (“Latgalians Culture News Website lakuga.lv”) is the only mass media outlet with content exclusively in the Latgalian language. The website publishes news about Latgola and Latgalian cultural events in Latvia and around the world, and original interviews with well-known and recognised Latgalians, as well as articles about the history of Latgola and the Latgalian written language; it also has a section of articles about grammar.

Also the Latgalian voice is on Latvian National Radio. The radio has a studio in Latgola and they make features in Latgalian; the studio also produces radio shows in Latgalian, including for young people. The Catholic Church has its own radio, which mostly produces religious content in Latgalian. From time to time you can hear Latgalian on commercial regional radio stations, but this usually happens only when they receive special grants. The situation is the same with regional television companies. From time to time you can hear Latgalian on national television too.

Unfortunately, there are no newspapers or magazines solely in Latgalian, but some regional newspapers do publish individual columns in Latgalian.

We live in the era of social media, so Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and other platforms are good tools for language promotion. Latgalian “lives” on all these platforms. Individuals choose Latgalian to express themselves on social media, and regional organisations and companies also run accounts in Latgalian.

The Instagram account @voluuda documents the Latgalian-language landscape [“volūda” translates as “language” in Latgalian]

Projects carried out in Latgalian by high-level professionals also help to take the language to the next level. In 2020 Piļsāta pi upis (“The Town on the River”; promoted in English as “The Sign Painter”) had its premiere – only the second feature film made in Latgalian. A love story, the action takes place before and during World War II, as political regimes in Latgale change and the main character, the painter Ansis, has to repaint street signs in a number of different languages. This movie also portrays what happened to the Latgalian language and Latgalian culture during this period.

Technology

On one hand, Latgalian is a small language, but on the other, it has several digital resources, similarly to languages that are widely used among large populations. This shows that digital resources can be created by users and developers of small languages. In the digital environment, small languages have the same opportunities as big ones.

Between 2007 and 2013, the Special Latgalian Corpus was created. The corpus contains 1 million words from texts typed in the period 1987–2012. It includes three text types (literary texts, technical texts and information texts) and has reference metadata. This corpus allows users to access information about the most used Latgalian words and about word use in different contexts.

Dictionaries are very important digital resources. The Lithuanian-Latvian-Latgalian dictionary was created by a research team. This translation dictionary contains around 10,000 entries.

Linguists are working on creating a spell checker with the aim of helping to improve the orthography of Latgalian texts. One of the activities in this process will be the standardisation of Latgalian.

To find out more about Latgalian culture and personalities and to have some fun, you can play the computer game Īsapazeisim (“Let’s meet!”).

Citadele, the largest Latvian bank, added Latgalian to their mobile app in 2016; this was the first time when Latgalian had been used as a language of communication on a commercial app. One year later the bank added Latgalian as an option on its cash machines.

To make the language appeal more to the younger generation, Latgalian stickers for WhatsApp and Telegram were created by language activists. The stickers pack consists of phrases and words in the Latgalian language for everyday use and for special occasions, such as “Latgola Ruļavoj!” (Latgola Rules!), “Vasala!” (Hi!), “Paļdis”! (Thanks!), and “Pīzvoni maņ!” (Call me!). A total of 42 stickers are available.

Although inside the community there is some scepticism about the future of the Latgalian language, the author of this article is firmly convinced that Latgalian will not disappear over the next generations, but that, on the contrary, it will strengthen its position in all fields. 


*Latgola is the Latgalian name for the region. It is called Latgale in Latvian, and is occasionally referred to as Latgalia in English

Vineta Vilcāne works at the non-governmental organisation LgSC (www.lgsc.lv). Her main interests are related to the revitalisation and popularisation of the Latgalian language. Vineta has a master’s degree in History.

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