The Latvian, or Lectic, language belongs to the Baltic branch of the Indo-European language family (see Baltic,). Within the Baltic group, Latvian is more akin to Lithuanian than to the extinct language of the ancient Prussians; the dialect, albeit extinct, of the Curians, seems to have been the link between Latvian and Lithuanian. Of the two living Baltic languages, Lithuanian generally shows a more archaic aspect; Latvian sounds and shapes often indicate a more evolved phase of the linguistic process. One of the main differences between the two languages concerns the position and nature of the accent. The Latvian accent, which is strongly expiratory, generally falls on the first syllable of the word, whereas the Lithuanian accent preserves the original freedom of movement; and while the Lithuanian distinguishes only two “intonations”, the Latvian, already in an epoch prior to its most ancient documents, Stosston of the German grammarians, consisting in the fact that the pronunciation of certain long vowels and diphthongs splits into two moments separated by a moment of arrest or attenuation of the voice). Of the other phonetic and morphological differences we mention only a few. The Lithuanian sounds k ′, g ′, š, ž are answered by Latvian with c, dz, s, z respectively (e.g., lit. kiáuné “marten”, jùngiu “I yoke”, pra šý ti “ask”, ž inóti “to know”: lit. ca ūI, j ¾ dzu, pras ī t, zin ā t); reactions between vowels of neighboring syllables are much more frequent in Latvian than in Lithuanian; in Latvian the neutral gender has disappeared entirely, of which Lithuanian retains some trace in the pronoun and in the adjective, and the dual from the verb, and almost completely from the noun, has also disappeared completely; the “cases” of the declension are the same in both languages, but in Latvian the instrumental is confused, as regards the form, with the accusative in the singular and with the dative in the plural; in the verb the Latvian created a “debitive mood” unknown to the Lithuanian.
Latvian has numerous local varieties that are usually grouped into three main dialects, among which, however, it is not easy to draw precise boundaries, given the existence of intermediate dialects. Today the name of tahmi is reserved for the dialects of the NW Courland, from which, however, those spoken in the same province in the SW cannot be detached. (and designated in other times with the same name), as well as others who speak to each other on the opposite shore of the Gulf of Riga in various parts of western Livonia. High Latvian is spoken in SE Livonia, in Letgallia (in the districts of Daugavpils, Lūdza and Rēzekne, whose languages are also called inflantic) and in the upper parts of Courland. The Middle Latvian, whose territory extends from S. to N. between High Latvian and Tahmo, also holds an intermediate position for linguistic characters. The literary language of the nation is based on Medio-Latvian, more precisely on the dialects spoken between Jelgava (Mitau) and Duobele (Doblen).
The first attestations of the Latvian language consist of names preserved in chronicles and diplomas (from the 13th century onwards) and in two versions of the Pater noster and other fragments (16th century). The oldest surviving texts are translations of a Catholic catechism (1585) and of a Lutheran catechism (1586), of psalms and religious songs (1587) and of the Sunday Gospels and Epistles (with the same date). The history of literature deals with subsequent productions.
The study of the Latvian language, which began as early as the century. XVII, had wide development and acquired a scientific character in the century. XIX – especially thanks to A. Bielenstein (1826-1907), A. Bezzenberger and K. Mühlenbach (1853-1916) – and in our days it received new impetus from the political resurgence of the nation and with the foundation of the University of Riga (1919). Today the most eminent personality in this field is J. Endzelin (Endzelīns), born in 1873, professor in Riga since 1920 after having taught in Dorpat (Tartu) and in Charkov.