Understand Latvian through Russian

Understand Latvian through Russian
27 September 2022


Before coming to Riga, I never had any contact with the Latvian language whatsoever. But staying here helped me realize how many common words there are in Russian and Latvian, which made finding my way around much easier. Let´s check out how to understand Latvian through Russian!

1. Introduction

If you decide to study at Liden & Denz in Riga, you will find yourself surrounded by a bunch of Latvian every single day, which can be pretty exhausting given the fact that it isn´t similar to any other European language (except Lithuanian). Latvian is one of the two remaining Baltic languages, a language family which is believed to have split from the Proto-Balto-Slavic language group back in the 1st millennium b.c. Whether this is true or not, one cannot deny the fact that the language has been in contact with various Slavic languages throughout the years, Russian being one of them. Therefore, there is a lot of common vocabulary between Latvian and Russian, which can help you with understanding the world around you a bit better. 

2. Everyday life

When you are on a bus or a tram, you need to be careful when the voice says durvis atveras, which means the same as дверь открывается. Both durvis and дверь (а door) come from a common Proto-Balto-Slavic root *dwírs. If you look around when inside a bus or a tram, there is definitely going to be an emergency button – in case of an avārija (an accident), which is borrowed directly from Russian авария, although it is technically not a word of Slavic origin. Under the button, there is going to be aн еmergency number with the ordinance – zvanīt, and if you speak just a little bit of Russian, you´ll be able to recognize the loan word звонить (to call). Next, if you decide to get some coffee after getting off the public transport, use your Russian to understand Latvian there! You´ll be able to see the price of your coffee written next to the word cena – which is a common Slavic word for price. Be aware that the supermarkets in Latvia also work on svētdiena – a word complied from the words svēts (holy) and diena (а day), both of which you can find in Russian as well – святoй and день.

3. Religion

When it comes to religious terms, there are a number of words in Latvian that are loaned from Old East Slavic – a language that later split into Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian. Latvian krusts is borrowed from OES крьстъ -> today in Russian крест (a cross). The same goes for the word baznīca (a church), borrowed from OES божьница, ultimately from the Proto-Slavic *bogъ (God). 

4. Watch out! 

However, let´s not get carried away. If a person asks you if you strādā (inf. strādāt), don´t just assume they are asking for your life story. The truth is, the verb strādāt means ´to work´ in Latvian, unlike the Russian ´to suffer´(страдать).  So watch out for false friends like this! They can be pretty tricky! 🙂


This text was written by Dina Stankovic, currently studying at Liden & Denz in Riga, Latvia.

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