Latvian Love Words

Valentine’s Day is known among Latvians as Sirsniņdiena, which can mean Sweethearts Day, as in lovers, but also anyone you love. My mother called me, Sirsniņa. My aunt called me, Sirds, which means heart, as a term of affection.

For my Valentine’s Day post I’m writing about the words Latvians use to express love. These words are used much more conservatively than the terms of endearment I wrote about before.

Latvians are a reserved people. It used to be, and maybe still is in some circles that Latvians’ idea of a proper public display of affection was to go to church and get married in front of God and the congregation of family and friends. Latvians don’t say the words “love” or “I love you” lightly. People don’t generally use such expressions as, “I love this pair of shoes” or “I love pizza.” They like the shoes. They like pizza. “I love you” is reserved for spouses or fiancées/fiancés. They’re not even used for one’s parents, children, or other family members. 

An embrace like this should probably be kept private even when married.

I remember overhearing a parent criticize an in-law for saying “I love you” to his young daughter. It’s not a phrase I remember hearing around my house when I was growing up. It should be enough that love is demonstrated by providing food, clothes, and a roof over one’s head. Some might say such an attitude is outdated, Things have changed, the world has changed. But I got criticized in a Latvian social media group for saying people should say, “I love you” much more often. That happened not only in this century but as recently as last year.

Here are those very exclusive words.

Mīlestība = Love

Es mīlu Tevi = I love you

Mīlulis = loved one

Mīlīgs = lovable

Mīļošs = loving 

Mans Mīļiotais = my lover 

These next diminutives are okay to use with adults, children, and even pets.

Mīlulītis = my little loved one

Mīļumiņš = my little loved one (smaller and thus more dear)

Sieva = wife (the diphthong “ie” is pronounced like the “ea” in “ear.”

Sieviņa = my dear little wife. It can be used affectionately, but depending on context can also be belittling.

Vīrs = husband (veers)

Vīriņš = dear little husband. Most likely used only in private. The word could also refer to a little old man.

Possessives:

Mans = (pronounced “muhns”) My. Masculine. But it refers to the subject,  not to the person who is speaking. e.g. “Mans vīrs” is what a woman would say when introducing her husband.

Mana = My. Feminine, also refers to the subject. A man introducing his wife would say, “Mana sieva.” 

A Latvian friend and I had a discussion about whether a declaration of love should include the word, “es” (pronounced like the letter “S.”) meaning “I.” He said that “es” = “I” is understood, so it’s enough to say, “mīlu Tevi.” Technically, in English, the word “I” would also be understood nevertheless people say, “I love you.” To me, just saying “mīlu Tevi” sounds abrupt, like you’re eager to get on to the next thing, maybe “What’s for dinner?” This rule could be a familial difference or a regional one.  My choice would include the first person singular pronoun,

Have fun with these loving words. Use them however you please on Valentine’s Day or any other day you want to tell someone you love them. Some rules are meant to be broken. 

Hearts can break when they don’t hear these words. And stay broken even though hidden.





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Diminutives Controversy, Part 3

My posts on Latvian diminutives have stirred up a tempest in a teapot.

Latvians use a lot of diminutives, not just for family members and friends. Not just for humans but also for animals and inanimate objects. A few people have objected to such usage. They feel diminutives should be used only for loved human beings. These objections are nothing new. Years ago I read a verse by a Latvian writer who made fun of the indiscriminate use of diminutives. Other blog readers felt that employing diminutives in such a manner shows warmth, kindness, and compassion.

To some extent, I agree with both points of view. Diminutives applied willy-nilly can come across as saccharine. Even pukey. But the objectors seem to have overlooked the fact that diminutives aren’t used just to express affection but also to indicate size.

“Vista” is the word for a hen. The diminutive is “vistiņa.” One lady said she objects to eating a “vistiņa.” To her, it felt like she’d be eating someone’s pet. Farmers are far more practical. They can be fond of their chickens, even give them names, but eventually,  cook them up in a stew. For all the woman knows, the “vistiņa.” could be a bantam hen or other small breed of chicken.

The lady with objections has a dog. I don’t know if she speaks to him in Latvian, as many Latvian pet owners, including me, do. If she speaks Latvian to him does she call him, “sunītis” or “suņuks,” “šunelis,” or other diminutives for the word “suns”?

Doesn’t this sweet little critter deserve a pet (!) name?

My late great kitty (!) went by the name of Mincis, a Latvian word meaning, kitty cat, so she had a term of endearment for her proper name. Yes, I know the name has a masculine suffix but the suffix is used for both male and female cats (and people and other critters) Male cats would be called “runcis,” or “runcītis” or “runčuks.” Heaven forbid that someone might call a pet “mīluls,” (loved one) “mīlulītis” or “mīļumiņš.” Those terms of endearment should be reserved for humans. Maybe. Maybe not. I’m not one to judge.

My Minčuks

Not just domestic animals, but wild animals too get diminutive, e.g. “stirna” a.k.a. “stirniņa.”

A dear deer.

Diminutives are used for the names of body parts. Mostly in regards to children, but also adults, who can be fond of their own body parts. It’s okay. “Acs,” eye, becomes, “Actiņa” or “Ačele.” Hair = “mati” (pl) diminutive, “matiņi,” Hand, “Roka” = “rociņa” = “roķele,” and so on. This also goes for people you’re fond of no matter their age. As Rodolfo sang in “La Boheme” to a young woman he’s just met and is falling in love with, “Che gelida manina.” “What a cold little hand.” “Cik auksta rociņa.” Lovers are a whole other story.

Inanimate objects aren’t left out of the affection/size equation. The same lady who objected to “vistiņa” also had issues with things such as spoons, “karote” (s) “Karotīte” and books “Grāmata” (s) = “Grāmatiņa,” Some of us are more fond of our spoons and books than others. Of course, spoons and books come in various sizes. I don’t recall my parents, who learned the

language while living in Latvia, using diminutives when speaking of spoons, books, or other household objects. Their use of the diminutive suffixes for these things was indicative of the item’s size. That’s how I’ve always spoken of most inanimate objects. But as always, there are exceptions to the rule and people’s personal preferences.

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Latvian Terms of Endearment, part 2

As a couple of readers pointed out, the use of endearments is a cultural thing. In college, the brother of one of my American friends lived and worked in South America for a while. His wife was of the opinion that Spanish speakers were childish because they used so many diminutives in everyday speech.

Years later, I still remember one of my Spanish classes where we were required to think up a sentence, using a diminutive, and speak it out loud going in turn around the room. The translation of one student’s sentence was, “My Mamacita is five feet tall.” She didn’t understand that a diminutive doesn’t just refer to something or someone small. Your mother can be six feet tall and weigh three hundred pounds, but you still call her Mamacita because you love her, not because of her size.

In Latvian the word for mother is “māte.” pronounced, maah-te. Common diminutives are, mamma, mammīte, mammiņa, and māmmuļa. I hate the latter; to me, its associations make it seem saccharine. A couple of my relatives called their mother mammsis. I sometimes called my mom mammele. (nothing to do with mammals, as auto-correct would have it.) Mammukiņš is another option. Families have a way of coming up with their own variations.

Dacīte un (and) Mammīte,

The word for father is “tēvs,” pronounced, tehvs. Fondly known as tētis, tētuks or tētukiņš. However, tētiņš means “little old man” so not necessarily an endearment. Some Latvians call their father “papa” but that word comes from German. It, too, has its diminutives, “papiņš” among them. My father was a stickler for using the Latvian language instead of borrowed words so he was tētis, not paps (German for “pop.”)

Dūdiiņa un tētis.

The word for “little old man” is “vecītis.” It’s sometimes used as an endearment, too. Latvians call Santa Claus, Ziemassvētku vecītis.(Little Old Man Winter Holiday) Yeah, it’s turned backward, but works better that way.

Grandfather is vectēvs but that’s too formal. Affectionately he’s known as vectēiņš, a.k.a., granddaddy. Opa, opaps, opiņš also come from German.

My vectēiņš, Mārtņš Francis. Despite the way his first name is spelled, it’s not a diminutive, it’s Latvian for Martin.

Grandmother must not be left out. More formally, she’s known as vecmāte. She’s also called, “vecmāmmiņa.” That’s a long word for little kids so she’s often called, oma, omi, omīte, omamma.

Mana (My) Omīte, Marija France (in the Latvian language the woman’s names, first and last are given the feminine suffixes “a” or “e.”

Going through the whole family tree would make for a very long post. I thought I could handle this topic in two posts. Who am I kidding? At least one more will be required.

No doubt readers will come up with their own family terms of endearment.

And, yes, as in any language, there are exceptions to the rules. English speakers know this weird rule, “I” before “e,” except after “c.”

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Latvian Terms of Endearment

A Plethora of Diminutives, part 1

Latvian Terms of Endearment

Dacīte and her kaķītis, Tincis, which is not included among the nicknames but is the main character in a Latvian children’s book that I loved.

The other day I was editing a chapter of my novel, As Wind to Flame. One of the characters is named Louisa. Rereading the chapter reminded me of the time I read it to my critique group. They wanted to know who Lu was. Who was Lulu? Since there were only three characters in the scene, one of them a guy and the other Louisa’s sister, Thea. It seemed obvious to me that when Thea said Lu or Lulu she was talking about Louisa. I had one character call Louisa “Baby” because the girl is Thea’s younger sister and often behaves like a baby. I was the only one to whom the nicknames seemed an obvious reference to Louisa.

Too many different nicknames was the group’s consensus opinion. Only three nicknames were too many? I felt sorry for the members of my group. Such a paucity of nicknames. Unlike other European languages, English has a shortage of diminutive. I’m a Latvian. Multiple nicknames are common among us. Over the years I’ve had many nicknames. I counted a total of fifteen terms of endearment that people who are fond of me have called me. The poor Americans had only one, maybe two nicknames.

Some of my nicknames are diminutive variations of my first name, Dace. Dacīte and Dačuks. Both are common variations. The “-īte” suffix is a common way to turn a name into a diminutive for girls and women whose names end with an “e.” One friend came up with his own original version, Dacele. I thought that was kind of sweet. The diminutives for women’s names that end with an “a,” as in Ausma, the suffix becomes, “-iņa,” Ausmiņa. The “N” with the “tail” is pronounced like the Spanish “N” with a tilde.

Men’s names, both first and last end with an “-s” or an “-is.” Diminutives follow the same rule. I have a half-Latvian friend with an Anglo name, Scott. He was pleased when I gave him the Latvian nickname, “Skotiņš.”

(note: Unless they have a diacritical mark, letters in the Latvian alphabet have only one pronunciation. Since in the name Scott, the “c” is pronounced like a “k” that’s how it’s said and how it’s spelled in Latvian. The Latvian “c” is pronounced almost like the “ts” in tsar.)

Back to terms of endearment.

Dūda is a popular nickname for girls and women. It derives from the word, dūdo, the cooing sound made by doves. I guess that to parents Dūda must have seemed like a fitting endearment for cooing baby girls. I’ve been called by every single variation of Dūda–Dūdele, Dūdiņa, Dūcītis (yes, sometimes masculine suffixes show up in girls’ nicknames) and Dūc. My cousin and I were both called Dūda by our mothers. It’s sad that neither of us has a mother to call us Dūda and other endearments anymore.

Dūja, a dove.

Oops! I left out a couple of variations of my name. The rule for diminutives is, “the smaller, the dearer.” Dačuks is small. Dačukiņš is even smaller and thus more dear. Dacele could become Dacelīte. 

I’ve lost count of the various variations.

Some nicknames are the same as the ones Anglos use. For instance “Kitten,” which becomes Kaķītis, and also Mincītis, Pincītis, and Incītis. My mother called me Kaķītis and Mincītis. I once knew a Latvian woman called, Pelīte, little mouse. The names of birds also come into play. Dūjiņa, little dove. Cālītis, little chicken. Pūcīte, little owl for when a child is being a crosspatch. I guess to Latvians owls look grumpy.

Pūce. Owl. It does look kind of cross, doesn’t it?

Yep, I’ve been told not to be such a cross little owl.

When I was a baby I must have had pink cheeks because I was known as apple blossom ābeļziediņš and čupčiks. I don’t know where čupčiks came from. Maybe it came from the Kewpie doll-like tuft of hair I had on top of my head. At least that’s what I imagine.

After I posted on Facebook about my many nicknames some of my Latvian and half-Latvian (fractional Latvian) friends wanted me to give them Latvian nicknames. So I did. I hope they enjoy their diminutive Latvian names of endearment. 

If you want to give yourself, your spouse, child, or another loved one a Latvian nickname, you now know where to begin.

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Cherish Your Language

Whether you’re an exile (forced from your home) or a voluntary immigrant, living in a country where you weren’t born, keeping knowledge of your native tongue alive, and passing it on to your children is important. Your language defines who you are. You may take on a new persona in your new home, but you will always also be the person you were born.

Many children of exiles and immigrants, not just Latvians, but exiles from everywhere, resist learning their parents’, native tongue. I was one of those kids. But I didn’t resist very hard when my father insisted that we speak Latvian in our home–perhaps because I love languages and words. Or because speaking our language in public was like speaking a secret code. My father said that someday I’d be glad to be able to speak my mother language. Mother language–mātes valoda–is the Latvian term for your native language. My father’s attitude was–because you’re a Latvian, you must speak the language. If he were here today, I’d tell him that he was right.

Unlike my father, my uncle, who wound up in exile in Australia did not insist. His reasoning was that he and his wife and children had become Australians, therefore, it was important to be able to speak good English. Speaking English with their children would help the parents perfect their language skills. No doubt it did. Even though we spoke Latvian at home, my parents learned to speak English just fine. The fact that they both worked among English speakers helped. Reading American newspapers and watching TV also helped. They still needed my assistance with new words and writing letters, but speaking Latvian did not impede me from learning good English. All my schooling was in English and I had American friends.

It seems to me that my Aussie uncle unintentionally did his children a disservice and not just because scientists have confirmed the benefits of speaking two or more languages have on the development of a child’s brain. When you lose your language you lose your entire culture. You lose a part of yourself. Having two cultures enriches a person’s life.

Losing your language means losing your literature–novels, folklore, poetry, and sayings. Your history is not the same in someone else’s words. Losing your language means losing songs. Latvian culture would be nothing without its songs. We have thousands of folk songs that address every aspect of life–work, play, family, birth, love, death, war, and peace. Songs tie us together as a nation, no matter where we live or what country we’re citizens of.

Losing your language means losing terms of endearment. Latvian is a language rich in diminutives and affectionate nicknames. I feel sorry for my American friends who might have one or two nicknames. For us Lettiņi (a diminutive for Latvians) the more nicknames you have, the more you’re loved, or at least liked. I’ve had Latvian friends whose language skills are weak and who are nickname deprived ask me to come up with Latvian nicknames for them. I’m glad to oblige.

My grandmother stayed in Latvia. Knowing our language meant that I could write to her and read the letters she wrote to me. 

When I visited Latvia, I did not need anyone to translate for me. I could speak with my aunts, uncles, cousins, and other members of my extended family. I can Skype with my cousins in Latvia. We can even sing our favorite folk songs together over thousands of miles and feel connected. 

Another reason to learn the language of your parents is for when they get old. If they develop dementia, they often lose their second language. Many of us children of exiles have to translate for parents and other relatives when they wind up in nursing homes. They’re less lost when they can speak their own language with someone. You can even sing a beloved folk song to them to cheer them up.

I never had a chance to talk with my grandmother. She and my grandfather died before I had a chance to visit Latvia.

Whatever your mother language is, even if you’re not living in the homeland of your ancestors, I urged you to teach your children your native tongue. They’ll be glad you did. I know from Latvian friends who never learned their language that they regret the loss. If you yourself didn’t learn, it’s never too late to start. It doesn’t matter if you don’t achieve fluency, your life will be richer if you learn even a little.