In search for that Latvian word

I have a whole bookshelf of Latvian dictionaries ranging from Mīlenbachs-Endzelīns, the nine-volume Latviešu Literārās valodas vārdnīca, to the Turkina favourites, but I find myself consulting them less and less as new online resources and more capable Latvian language software appears—most of which are free.

Several years ago the Rīga-based software company Tilde launched on online encyclopedia called Letonika. Although this is a subscription service, Letonika’s online dictionary is freely available to anyone at This is one of the most comprehensive dictionaries available, with more than 100,000 words, rivaling most printed dictionaries. It works between the Latvian, English, German and Russian languages. If this is not enough, Tilde also offer a Windows-based software package called Birojs 2005 that extends the capabilities to look up and translate whole phrases, search for similar words and add new words. The program fully integrates with Microsoft Office’s spellchecker, so that the red and wavy lines you normally see with your English spellchecker work just the same way in Latvian. But it is money well spent if you are constantly working with Latvian documents.

Tilde also offers an SMS dictionary ( where for a small fee (24 santīms) you can receive a translation of a requested word on your mobile telephone. To translate “maize” into English you would send the text message “la maize” (where la indicates that you want to translate from Latvian into English, or latviesu -> anglu). With diacritics you will need to return to the old method using apostrophes or doubling vowels, because not all mobile phones are able to display the Latvian diacritics. The only drawback is that this service is only available to LMT (Latvijas Mobīlais telefons) subscribers.

The University of Latvia’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, headed by Andrejs Spektors, has since 1993 been publishing and improving its Latviešu valodas skaidrojošā vārdnīca. Entering “tulkot” gives you not only the possible meanings (for example, “1. Izteikt citā valodā” and “2. Skaidrot”), but also shows you some example phrases of how the word is used. For the more grammatically minded it also displays the conjugations or verb forms. If you don’t agree with the results you can use an online form to send the feedback to the lab.

The historical Mīlenbaha-Endzelīna Latviešu valodas vārdnīca has been an ongoing project for the last 12 years. With the help of the Unicode standard (included in all modern versions of Windows and Macintosh), the lab recently updated the dictionary to include intonation symbols, such as the open and closed “e”. To access this dictionary you will need to register.

If you need someone who is hearing impaired, the laboratory has also produced a Latvian sign language dictionary with animation.

What about specialised dictionaries? Computers have only been mainstream for the last 20 years and the Latvian language has needed to catch up. The monthly newsletter “LatDati” produced by Juris Mazutis during the early years had a regular section on translating computer terminology into Latvian. From this and subsequent online discussions (including the mailing list VALODA) new words were born, such as dators (computer) and tīmeklis (the Web), that are now regularly used by the major newspapers in Latvia. The Terminology Committee of the Latvian Academy of Sciences, led by Juris Borzovs, now runs a Web site dedicated to computer terminology at Did you know that “menu” translated is izvēlne, “chat” is terzēšana and “spam” is surogātpasts? However, the dictionary didn’t recognise “Google” or “Skype.”

A dictionary of biological terms can be found at If you want to be the next Latvian version of American billionaire Warren Buffet, the FinanceNet portal offers a dictionary specialising in economics and finance. Enter “trading” and you’ll get vērtspapīru publiskā apgrozība, while “depreciation” will yield either paātrināta nolietojuma metode or amortizācija. We couldn’t find any online legal dictionaries, but no doubt these will also appear with time.

For something a little more light-hearted, check out the Latvian Colloquial Dictionary, first published in 1990 by AIVA in Melbourne, Australia, and supplemented later by Ķikuraina valodiņa, published in 2001 in Rīga. With influences from both the Displaced Persons camps of World War II and the omnipresent Russian language during the last few decades in Latvia, the dictionary is sure to bring a chuckle or two. Who can guess the meaning of džentelbenķis, kumpels and mobiļņiks?

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