Minister calls for end to language barbarization

In a statement sure to raise the hackles of many older Latvian speakers in the diaspora, a government minister is calling for a stop to the barbarization of the Latvian language, saying there is no room for public use of such “anachronistic” symbols as ch, ō and ŗ.

Oskars Kastēns, the special assignments minister for social integration, took exception to a Sept. 3 poster announcing the opening of the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra’s season in Rīga. The poster included the “illegal” use of the long ō in words such as simfōnija (symphony) and mažōra (major), a letter not used in modern Latvian orthography. Kastēns applauded the State Language Center, which discovered the infraction and fined the orchestra, according to a Sept. 27 press release.

“Not in the Latvian alphabet nor in other documents is this symbol recognized as a letter in the Latvian language,” Kastēns said in the press release. “Spelling like this is a weed from the old orthography.”

Before World War II, Latvians were taught the language using standards established by linguist Jānis Endzelīns (1873-1961). His standards included use of symbols ch, which is distinct from k; ō, which is pronouned different than the o without a diacritical mark; and ŗ, the “soft r” found in words such as kaŗš (war) and Gaŗezers (Long Lake, the Latvian center in south-central Michigan). Use of these symbols has been the topic of debate for years, particularly between members of the Displaced Persons generation and Latvian speakers in the homeland.

Kastēns’ office noted the Endzelīns standards were adopted by the state in 1919, even though discussion continued about use of the “soft r.” Correct spelling and use of the language today is found in the Latviešu valodas pareizrakstības un pareizrunas vārdnīca, a dictionary published in 1995, according to the press release.

Use of non-standard orthography confuses native users of the language as well as foreigners, Kastēns said.

“For example, the artist Aivars Vilipsons in public often uses his surname as Vilipsōns, which gives non-Latvians a wrong impression about the spelling of surnames,” Kastēns said in the press release.

Kastēns urged the State Language Center to continue its diligence in punishing those who violate use of the proper orthography. He especially pointed to publications that with impunity use the old Endzelīns forms.

The Secretariat of the Special Assignments Minister for Social Integration did not immediately respond to a question about whether the minister’s pronouncement would have any effect on the secretariat’s work with diaspora organizations, especially those seeking funding from the Latvian government.

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

4 thoughts on “Minister calls for end to language barbarization

  1. The way Strautmanis’ article portrays comments coming from the Special Assignments Minister for Social Integration, Oskars Kastēns, is puzzling and disappointing. The article exhibits a total lack of balance or critical thinking by seemingly endorsing the comments rather than putting them into perspective. The author fails to notice that the “Latvian” language widely used in the press and media in Latvia is rife with foreign “weeds” such as the English letters ‘q’, ‘w’, ‘x’, ‘y’. There are several other languages contributing to the “weeds”. He does not question why the Minister has not commented on such prevalent abuse. The author’s choice of the word “barbarization” is most unfortunate and misplaced when directed to an orthography that was valid in the past, but no longer current. The term could have been more appropriately applied to the foreign “weeds” which the author somehow has ignored. Perhaps the greatest demerit of this article is its apparent readiness to swallow the Minister’s comments and regurgitate them whole, with no attention directed to why a Minister should be expressing views outside his competency and mandate, whilst going out of his way to antagonize a sector of citizenship with whom his mandate is to collaborate. A great opportunity has been missed for drawing attention to an urgent need: language reform, including promoting meaningful debate on this topic.

  2. ENOUGH NONSENSE! How can we be ‘surprised’, or ‘disappointed’? The current Latvian government has approved plans for a noisy Russian “fest” on June 16 next, during the Latvian national week of mourning. Earlier, the Education minister (B. Rivz’a) announced that those unable (or unwilling) to speak Latvian may still obtain valid high-school diplomas. The ‘Integration’ minister (O. Kaste’ns) has now attacked traditional elements of the language itself (which is not his area of competence, or responsibility). If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck… More to the point : why have successive Latvian governments done nothing to correct damage inflicted on our language through five decades of forced Russification? How is it still possible that 90% of government funding for various language institutes, agencies and ‘working groups’ goes to one-time supporters of that Russification, who remain in positions of influence, resisting constructive repairs? Who, if anyone, is in charge of moderating the flood of ‘euroterminology’, mostly (and carelessly) adapted from the English? The on-and-off language ‘debate’ isn’t about ‘archaic’ vs ‘modern’, it is about right and wrong. In doubt? Consult the cogent situation summary by Dr. M. Ruks (go to and then to his article, ‘Laiks izbeigt valodisko pesimismu’). This is required reading for those who imagine that Kastens’ ‘initiative’ is something new, or presents a sudden ‘opportunity’ for intelligent dialogue. Latvia needs breathing room and serious protection of its unique cultural values, language above all. If the American Latvian Association — correctly — has seen fit to condemn the ghastly timing of next year’s “Russian fest”, it, and other organizations ought to rouse themselves to demand coherent action not on language ‘reform’, but on its overdue rehabilitation. Min. Kastens’ drive-by, though typical, is irrelevant and unacceptable. So are tepid reactions to it.

  3. Status of ŗ were never clear from the beginning. Status of Ch… Currently ch is used as replacement for č, where it is not available. There is not much point of using 2 letters (ch), where 1 is sufficient (h). Although use of ō reduces ambiguity, differentiating between “uo” and “o” would be more useful. Letter Q were never used in latvian, it does not fits in. W is a bit more of probem, but use of it is discouraged. Y is legitimate letter in latgalian, athough it does not fits in latvian.

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