Proposition: Latvian is the best modern language to learn to gain an instinctive knowledge of Latin grammar and speech habits

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

I think I've touched on this subject here a bit before, but I would like to lay it out in a bit more detail for readers to comment on and tell me if the proposition is right or wrong. The similarity between Latvian and Latin that I'm proposing here is akin to that between English and French, two languages from different branches of the Indo-European language family but with a very similar word order and style (albeit with some great differences). English and Bulgarian might be another good example.

First a comment on the Romance languages: the Romance languages have a vocabulary composed mostly of words that can be traced back to Latin, but besides verb usage and vocabulary they really don't feel that much like Latin at all:

- Latin is pronounced exactly as it is written while Romance languages always vary to a certain extent. Even Spanish for all its simplicity isn't as simple as 'c sounds like k in kilogram, the end', and let's not even start with French.

- Latin has no articles.

- Romance languages, with the exception of Romanian, do not use cases except in the personal pronouns.

- Romance languages do not have nearly as flexible a word order as Latin.

So what about Latvian? I don't have the time today for a long post on the subject, but there are a few aspects that really resemble Latin.

- Cases and articles are the obvious one. Latin has about six or seven cases, and so does Latvian. Neither of them have articles. Okay, but so do a lot of other languages. What else?

- Spelling, pronunciation and stress. Latvian spelling is nearly identical to its pronunciation (the letter o is the most notable exception), but stress is also almost always regular. Latin stress is also easy to predict. This also is shared by a lot of other languages. Why Latvian? Here's why:

Vowel length. And more importantly, the fact that vowel length plays a role in declension, just like Latin.

Why is this important? Because spoken Latin, to be honest, very often sounds extremely awkward. Vowel length in spoken Latin is usually either ignored or overemphasized to the point of absurdity. With the former the listener has a hard time telling what the speaker is trying to say (was that nominative or ablative?), with the latter you tend to cringe hearing it, knowing that there's no way an ancient Roman ever sounded that awkward.

A table of declension for a few nouns in both languages should demonstrate this a bit. First Latvian:

1st decl. 2nd decl. 3rd decl.
Sing. Plur. Sing. Plur. Sing. Plur.
Nom. vīrs vīri skapis skapji tirgus tirgi
Gen. vīra vīru skapja skapju tirgus tirgu
Dat. vīram vīriem skapim skapjiem tirgum tirgiem
Acc. vīru vīrus skapi skapjus tirgu tirgus
Ins. vīru vīriem skapi skapjiem tirgu tirgiem
Loc. vīrā vīros skapī skapjos tirgū tirgos
Voc. vīr vīri skapi skapji tirgu tirgi

Then Latin.

Nominative dominus –us dominī –ī
Vocative domine –e dominī –ī
Accusative dominum –um dominōs –ōs
Genitive dominī –ī dominōrum –ōrum
Dative dominō –ō dominīs –īs
Ablative dominō –ō dominīs –īs

Nominative bellum –um bella –a
Vocative bellum –um bella –a
Accusative bellum –um bella –a
Genitive bellī –ī bellōrum –ōrum
Dative bellō –ō bellīs –īs
Ablative bellō –ō bellīs –īs

What is interesting is that Latvian's nearest relative, Lithuanian, does not offer the same thing. Lithuanian has an irregular stress (or rather, a stress that apparently is actually regular but based on some very complex patterns), and its locative case is -oje (Amerika - Amerikoje) -e (Kaunas - Kaune), -uose and some other similar forms. But a long vowel at the end, grammatically necessary to denote case but unstressed? That's Latin, and that's Latvian. That is, with Latvian you are constantly learning the difference between vowel length and stress, and how to avoid mixing up the two. Far too often students tend to put them together, stressing long vowels or lengthening stressed vowels.

If I were to recommend two modern languages to aid in one's understanding of Latin, I would recommend Italian and Latvian. The former for vocabulary, the latter for stress, vowel length, case usage and underlying Indo-European feel.

Final note: Slavic languages are not my area of specialty, and I believe there are some like Slovak with a regular stress and different vowel lengths. If anyone believes one of them to be more apt in gaining an instinctive knowledge of Latin grammar and pronunciation (stress and vowel length), let me know. As the title states, this is a proposition and not a conclusion.


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