Common mistakes Latvians make in English

Languages are like arts, they look easy on the eye, but are seriously easy to make mistakes in. Tony Blair once tried to show off his French  by telling the French Prime Minister how much he envied him, but ended up saying in French that he wanted to be his boyfriend.

Hot hot dogs are big in Kazakhstan.

Hot hot dogs are big in Kazakhstan.

I’ve been guilty of similar gaffes myself, mispronouncing the “c” in the word “cūka” had disastrous consequences when I once tried to order pork in a restaurant in my first month here. I even invented new Latvian words like puķot (to pick flowers) which doesn’t exist. However, given that Latvian has verbs like sēņot (to pick mushrooms) and ogot (to pick berries) I don’t think it would be such a bad addition.

Latvia has done amazingly well with foreign languages. Every day I have to tell Latvian civil servants, who already fluently speak Latvian, Russian and often German, that their near advanced level of English is impressive. How many people on this planet can manage such a level in 3 or 4 languages?

Like life though, nothing is ever perfect. Walk round Riga and you’ll see lots of mistakes. It’s understandable when small establishments make them, but you’d really think Stockmann, the biggest supermarket in the centre, could do better than this.

DSC01001

If you showed a “next cash at your service” sign to a native English speaker out of this context, they wouldn’t have a clue what that referred to. (Best guess would probably be something to do with a bank.) The correct translation would be something along the lines of “Checkout (or cash desk) closed. Please use the next available till.” It doesn’t cost *that much* for a big multinational like Stockmann to have someone proofread their sign, so why not do it? I don’t see the point putting it in English anyway. Isn’t it obvious from the context that the checkout is closed?

(Update 22 March 2014: Credit where it’s due, Stockmann have now corrected the sign.)

So here are some of the most common mistakes I hear.

1) “Thanks God.”

An every day one that Latvians say, but something you’d never hear  an English native speaker say to their friends. Thank God is one of the rare cases of a subjunctive mood in English. You’d only ever say “Thanks, God” if you were praying in silence. There’s even a T.G.I. Friday (Thank God It’s Friday) restaurant in the centre of Riga’s Old Town.

2) “Thanks, fine” or “Normal” as responses to “How are you?”

These are direct, but incorrect, translations from Latvian. “Fine, thanks” or “okay” would be the correct forms.

3) “I am living in Riga for 5 years” or “I am civil servant for 2 years.”

Like many mistakes, these come from applying Latvian grammar patterns to English. German speakers make similar mistakes. In these cases “I have been living in Riga for 5 years” would be correct.

4) “I visited gym” or worse, “I was in gym last night.”

There are cases when you can miss articles in English but still be understood, but this isn’t such a situation. This one’s pretty bad. Gym is a homophone of the name Jim. To a native speaker, the first example sounds like you visited your friend Jim. The second sounds like you were doing something naughty with a boyfriend called Jim. You’d need to say “I visited the gym”, as otherwise you’re talking about a person.

No, but a receipt would be nice.

No, but a receipt would be nice.

Latvian and Russian students hate articles, which is understandable since those languages lack them and the rules have lots of exceptions and are often contradictory. I can understand that, but some try and wriggle out with excuses like “native speakers have stopped using articles” (!) or “they’re not so important, can’t I just speak without using them?”

The answer to the first is that no native speaker I know misuses articles. Here’s the lyrics to the song that is the best selling song in the UK this week. It’s not great grammatically (“I rather be”) but the articles are all used correctly.

The answer to the second point is actually yes, you can speak English, like any other language, with a limited vocabulary and limited range of grammar, but it’s like going into a cafe in Riga and saying “draugs un es gribet divi kafija.” You’ll be understood, yes, but it’s not something that sounds the best to a native speaker. Besides, if you just want “to be understood” then why waste time and money in classes?!

4) “If I will” or “If I would.” Conditionals in English are weird (though Spanish has exactly the same patterns as English.) For example…

“If I had time tomorrow, I would meet you.” (Latvians often say “If I would have time tomorrow…” when trying to express that)

It sounds bizarre to a lot of non-native speakers that you use “I had”, a past form, when speaking about a future event. Using past forms to distance reality from hypothetical situations is one grammatical reality that you have to deal with if you want to improve English though.

5) “He told that” or “Can you say me when you are free?”

Say and tell are the same verbs in some languages so this confusion arises frequently. The main difference is that with tell you need an object, you need to know who you tell. So that should be “He told me that.” With say, it’s structures like “He said that” or “He said to me that”

6) “I am writing to You.” / “Please collect Your items”

In Latvian, Russian and several other languages, you is capitalised as a polite way of addressing people. English doesn’t do this. “I’m writing to you” is correct.

7) Pronunciation of sue and suit.

For some unknown reason, teachers in Soviet schools seem to have settled on /sjuːt/ as the best way to pronounce suit. (Sounds a bit like shoot.) While you will find that pronunciation in dictionaries, it’s getting close to extinct among native speakers these days, who almost all say it as /suːt/. The same applies to Sue, which is not pronounced as /sjuː/.

Here’s a selection of comments about this

“Speaking as a native British English speaker, the [sjut] pronunciation is old-fashioned to the point of being comical (I would say it if I was imitating an aristocrat or something). Modern English favours almost exclusively “soot”.”

“There is an on-going sound change (Yod-dropping(yod-dropping is the elision of the sound [j])) by which /j/ as the final consonant in a cluster is being lost.”

Other examples of incorrect forms would be writing “in 2008 year” (in 2008 is correct), using Roman numerals for centuries (XX century instead of the correct 20th century) and  using the German style „ ” instead of ” ” e.g. „Microsoft”, instead of the correct “Microsoft.”

8) how long time? / too long time / so long time

The word time isn’t needed in any of those.

9) “No yes” (Nu yes) as an answer to everything.

In Latvian an answer such as “nu jā” sounds fine. The problem is that in English, Latvians usually don’t translate the “nu” part, so say “nu yes” in English. The nu is unknown to English speakers and when they ask a direct question, they expect a yes or no answer. Nu being unknown to them, they match it to the closest equivalent they’ve been expecting to hear, which is “no.” So the “nu yes” sounds like “no yes” and is hugely confusing to an English speaker. It’s a type of aural pareidolia.

Native English speakers would say things like “uh yeah” or “well yes”, we would never say “nu yes.” The “nu” in Latvian goes back to indo-European (one of many Latvian words taken from Sanskrit) , so changing it is about as likely as 20 degrees and sunshine in Riga in February.

10) A few other random examples…

i) confusing so and such e.g. “Riga is so nice city” instead of “Riga is such a nice city”

ii) make and do, in English you do homework, make food and take photos

iii) countable and uncountable nouns e.g. he gave me two advices. In most major European languages you can count advice, in English it’s either “he gave me some advice” or “he gave me two pieces of advice”

iv) To answer a question I was once asked, no, cukurgailitis can’t be translated into English as “sugar cock” and asking for that in England would result in being sent to a *different* kind of shop.

lollipops, Latvian style

lollipops, Latvian style

and I’ll guarantee that Muphry’s law applies to this post. Yes, native speakers do get it wrong sometimes and I’m no exception.

(*Update, August 2014, I’ve created a new blog, which is going to be on the same theme. The first post on that is Words commonly confused by Latvians in English. Another follow up is on common mistakes Latvians make in emails.)

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114 thoughts on “Common mistakes Latvians make in English

  1. Sorry to hear things aren’t so good. You could come on down to Serbia and Bring Linda. I will make up some American Brownies to cheer you up! And supply our national moon shine, Rakija! Great post! I hear lots of the same mistakes here.

  2. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they also have some problems pronouncing the sound “V”, it is not necessarily the pronunciation, but usually the problem is what comes after that sound and makes them unable to pronounce it “right”. My name is Vinicius, what I figured it is a bit too hard for foreigners to understand, so, I am already used to saying that my name is “Vini” (Sounds like Vinnie or Vinny) to make it easier. BUT then, two problems follow: one is that they don’t have words that end with “i” “naturally”, so, either they say “Vinis” with the “V” sound, or they say Winnie, what is just not my name, and it sounds extremely different (at least in my ears!), and the same happens with many nouns, saying “west” instead of “vest”, wikings instead of vikings, etc… sometimes even I “vill” instead of I will, but that is simply a hearing problem, like chinese cannot hear the sound R, latvians (and maybe russians) cannot differ much the sound V and W… 😀

    I loved the post, there are so many things to add, when we live here we notice so many things, because we have to learn how to understand the “english language from here”, what do they mean in certain phrases that could usually mean something else!

    One could write the same about brazilians’ english accent, I believe it is even worse to understand than in Latvia.

    It seems that you have a good Latvian level, where have you learned?? I am currently looking for good and not so expensive teachers, I am tired of
    I am tired of expensive private classes in schools that actually don’t have good methods when teaching linguistics or grammar.

    • V and W is an interesting one. When I listen to many Latvians it sounds like they’re saying wery instead of very and willage instead of village, yet Ventspils to me sounds like it’s pronounced close to the way we would in English.

      As for Brazilians’ English, it’s probably more understandable than Indians, Scots, Texans or Northern Irish speaking it!

      My Latvian level in all honesty is a disaster, that’s why I admire Latvians who have reached high levels in several different languages.

      • Actually we do know the difference between “w” and “v”, as there is a sound “v” in Latvian, we also know that “w” is a rounded “v”. Maybe the problem here is that some people don’t know which words are written with “w” and which with “v”, so they don’t know how to pronounce it properly.

      • Hi Estere, the v sound to me sounds a little softer in some Latvian words than in most English ones, which might explain it. But most students I know can recognisably differentiate between the two, that’s why I didn’t include it among the common mistakes, even though I do hear people saying very as “wery” sometimes.

    • Hi. My major is English (more or less), I’ve worked as a translator, so maybe it’s me and my group of acquaintances, but to my understanding it’s not that ”it’s a hearing thing”. I might see that it could be perceived as a common mistake in this area, but we can tell the difference between v and w very well.

    • V vs w is a very common problem. To be honest, it really upsets me because I feel like I can’t do it right unless I’m really thinking about it. It is just my Latvian accent. I know it probably sounds stupid but it’s just not a natural sound to make so I all I can do is try. The nicest thing I’ve heard was that my ”v” needs more friction. The nastiest was someone laughing at me and saying that it’s ”video”, not ”wideo” like I’m some idiot who’s deliberately mispronouncing words.

      • Similar issue among Lithuanians, they also find it hard to pronounce v sat the beginning of a word. “Wery” is far more commonly heard than “very”, while “we” often becomes “ve”

        Also, both Baltic peoples struggle a lot with “th”, which is either pronounced “z” or “f”. The resul is often something like “ve fink zat zis food is wery good” instead of “we think that this food is very good”. 🙂

      • To be honest Lāsma, I’ve never heard you make that mistake and you know that I think your English is high enough for 8.5 IELTS / Cambridge Proficiency exam pass.

      • Fabio, the “th” sound is quite rare among languages. Offhand, I can only think of Spanish, English and Greek which have it, so it’s not a surprise that most people struggle with it. Even native speakers of English often don’t pronounce it. Londoners will often say “f” in place in “th” and Irish “t” instead of “th.” A mock Irish accent often involves saying “tirty tree and tree tirds.” The reason in the latter case is that Irish and the other Celtic languages don’t have that sound and the accent of many Irish speakers is a historical legacy of that.

    • I would say that the problem is simply that in Latvian there is no distinction between different ways of prononucing “v”. A “V” is a “v” is a “w”, unless you have been specially trained to distinguish between them. Could be similar to what I hear about Japanese not distinguishing “r” and “l”.

      • I can assure you that both v vs w and ”th” are common pronunciation errors. You will hear Asians making the same mistake. I don’t think it’s very fair to make fun of it, though, because things like ”th” are errors cause by one’s first language. It usually takes years to get rid of foreign accent and some people never manage to do that. You can’t really compare pronunciation errors with their vs they’re. Also, Latvians and Lithuanians are more likely to sound like Americans. I live in London and some people have asked me if I grew up in the US because my accent is a bit American. For example, I used to say ”never” like ”nevər” (which is the American way of saying the word), whereas everyone in London says ”nevə”. My point is, English is not a phonetic language and learning its pronunciation is pretty damn difficult. It’s also annoying when you’re used to one accent and suddenly have to change to another regional accent.

      • Lāsma, it’s fairly standard to hear people with higher levels of English here who speak with North American accents. I think it’s because much of the media and online material comes from there.

      • Yeah, I was actually responding to what Fabio wrote. Imo, many people don’t realize how difficult pronunciation can be. We learn our native language first and when we start learning foreign languages, we imitate what we hear. The problem is, languages have different letters/sounds so we immitate the closest one we have, hence the v vs w issue. Changing the way we speak is a long and difficult process and it’s not as easy as learning the difference between ”than” and ”then”.
        When I was a kid, I used to do the (right!) ”th” sound when I was talking in Latvian. My teachers noticed that so I spent months learning ”the correct Latvian pronunciation” which involved never placing my tongue between the teeth. Did I struggle with the English ”th” later on? Yeah, because Latvians taught me that I should never do that ”unnatural” sound. I would, therefore, never make fun of someone’s accent or post ”ve fink zat zis food is wery good”. It’s not very helpful and actually stops people from trying to perfect the language.

      • Lāsma, I’ve read people before that people can produce just about any sound, but rapidly lose that ability in their childhood and so after the age of 12, achieving a native-like accent in a foreign language is very difficult. My brother couldn’t pronounce “r” at all when he was a kid (it sounded like w) and spent a couple of years at a speech therapist.

        That’s what I mean about the “no yes” business. I know now that what they’re actually saying is “nu yes” but English speakers are expecting either no or yes as answers and map the unfamiliar “nu” sound to “no.”

      • Well, I’d also say that the majority of native Spanish speakers do not have the “th” sound either. It’s “servesa” here, not “thervetha” (cerveza) 🙂 A nice post. I am struggling with my Spanish the same way here (in Argentina).

      • Ark, that’s true. In Spain, Andalusia, the southern part, doesn’t have “th”, mostly for historic reasons. It was occupied by Moroccans for several centuries and there is no “th” in Arabic. Apparently most of the immigrants who first went from Spain to Latin America were from Andalusia and that effected how the Spanish was spoken there. The eastern parts of Spain, the so-called Països Catalans, which include Catalunya and Valencia region, do have “th”, but the regional Valencia-Catalan language doesn’t.

        I’ve heard an urban legend which says that the reason Spanish does have “th” is because one of the early kings had a lisp!

        How are you finding Spanish to learn? It’s my second language and I’ve heard a lot of Latvians say they think it’s easier than English but I think some of the grammar is harder than English, more tenses and more articles for example and those are the things my students struggle with in English.

  3. Well, if you consider that some Americans mix up their/there/they’re, you’re/your, it’s/its and many more, these examples don’t sound that bad.

    • Yep! Not only Americans, British, Irish and other English native speakers make mistakes like that. Writing “of” in place of “have” in modal past expressions like should have / would have / could have is a common native speaker mistake. In Northern Ireland we say “youse” as a plural form of you. It’s not grammatically correct but to me makes the meaning clearer. Other parts of the English speaking world have variants on that like yousuns, y’all and yinz.

      • I’ve started making that mistake as well since I begun working with…..native speakers! As a language learner I never mixed up “their/they’re/his/he’s/…” but now I’m more and more often picking up bad habits from my American colleagues 😦

      • This has always amazed me that a native speaker might mix up their and there etc. It seems such a brutal mistake…

      • Fabio, I’ve occasionally had to stop myself making Latvian influenced mistakes in English and that’s speaking as a native speaker who has taught the language for 11 years. For example, a couple of times, to my horror, I’ve nearly said “make a photo” because I’ve heard that so much in the countries I’ve lived in.

      • Laima, there are also some Latvians mixing up “ka” and “kad”, but it’s less common. And French are by far worse that anybody else in mixing up such things in their language. It just seems that some people lack the right attitude to speak/write correctly.

    • You might be right but the ironic thing is, Latvian schools are supposed to teach us British English. In reality, most Latvian teachers don’t even know the difference between the two apart from the very obvious ”autumn vs fall” thing.

      • Usually when I meet people with high levels of English in Latvia, they haven’t learnt it in school, they’ve learnt much more themselves. I’ve spoken to younger students in Latvia these days who show me or tell me about mistakes that their teachers have made which they’ve had to correct!

  4. I was actually taught, writing capitalized “You” when addressing someone, in elementary. And I think I might say “I was in gym last night” as well. Good to know, good compilation!

    • Yeah, remember correcting my lecturer. I normally wouldn’t do that because I know it’s rude but she was making horrible mistakes all the time (IELTS level 5.0-5.5). She really shouldn’t be teaching English. She said she’s only doing that because she doesn’t want to be a housewife anyway.

  5. My favorite (and I still sometimes use it) is “Whats the clock?”…when I mety bf he was so confused…. make sense in Latvian “Cik pulkstens??”!!:)

  6. I thiink there is another common mistake we, latvians, tend to commmit a lot. Instead of saying ”what do you think?” we always say ”how do you think” as it goes together with the Latvian “kā” (in what way). Well at least I think is is not the most correct what, but please comment if I think the right way.

  7. Not just Latvians make these mistakes. People with other nationalities make exactly the same mistakes when they spell or pronounce.

    • Oh yeah, the spelling even of some native speakers in English is dreadful, though it’s one of the least phonetic languages in Europe. When I hear a word in Latvian I can usually spell it fairly accurately, though there are some exceptions. When I hear some Latvians say “desmit” it sounds more like “desint.”

  8. My English teacher would probably send me to detention if she heard how I speak now, 10 years after I’ve graduated high school. But the main point what I want to say is that, yes, people who don’ t use English every day or often enough – just forget those small things. OMG, there are some things even in Latvian grammar with tricky rules which I don’ t remember and have to Google if needed, so don’ t even mention English. :))) And many people use English in the exactly same manner as they hear in movies, youtube videos or song lyrics – and you said yourself – language there is not perfect.
    But it was nice to freshen up some knowledge, though, I bet I’ll forget everything I read by the end of the day. 🙂

  9. This article actually made me feel really good about myself! I make none of these mistakes in English. 😀 OK, I sometimes do, but I correct myself immediately, because I just hear that something doesn’t sound correct. However, there is one thing written that I’ve never heard from a Latvian and that is also explained wrong… it’s the “nu jā” – the translation of it is “well yes”, not “no yes”. Maybe what they say (and mostly Russians, not Latvians) is “nu yes”, without translating the “nu” at all?

    • But that’s what I said, the “nu jā” in English is “well yes” or “uhhh yes.” There are two problems though, the first is that they usually don’t translate the “nu” part, so say “nu yes” in English. The second is that the nu is unknown to English speakers and when they ask a direct question, they expect a yes or no answer. Nu being unknown to them, they match it to the closest equivalent, they’ve been expecting, which is “no.” It’s a type of aural pareidolia.

  10. One more thing. About hot hot dogs. 😀 It’s only half as bad as saying “latte with milk”, meaning “white coffee with milk”, which is already wrong enough. But then there’s more – in Italian “latte” means “milk”, so “latte with milk” turns out to be “milk with milk”, while someone just wanted to be cool and use some fancy words. 😀

    • I’m Latvian and when I say ”nu jā”, it can mean different things. It can mean ”oh well”, ”I kinda agree”, ”whatever” etc. It definitely doesn’t mean ”no yes”. “‘Nu” is never ”no”. Also, “nu ja” and ”nu jā” are different phrases and have different meanings.

      Russians say ”ну дa” which can also mean different things, I would guess that the closest translation is ”yeah”.

    • Nikki, those are all examples of tautologies, saying the same thing more than once. Sahara desert/Gobi desert = desert desert, shitake mushroom = shi mushroom mushroom, chai tea = tea tea, Lielupe river = big river river.

      You’ll even get lots of them in the same language. I’ve seen these in writing: Lesbian woman (I saw a lesbian man yesterday) , a young 12 year old boy (lucky him, a lot of 12 year old boys are old), 5am in the morning (you sure it’s not the afternoon?) , unexpected surprise (if it was expected, it wouldn’t be a surprise 🙂 )

      Successfully is often used unnecessarily. Successfully won/beat/elected/qualified/broke a record. It’s not possible to unsuccessfully do those things.

      A lot of people say PIN number, even though that’s saying personal identification number number!

  11. 9) “No yes” as an answer to everything.
    In Latvian an answer such as ”nu jā” sounds fine. In English, it’s super confusing. No or yes? English speakers would do things like “uh yeah” or “well yes.” The “nu” in Latvian goes back to indo-European, so changing it is about as likely as 20 degrees in Riga in February.

    Actually, “nu” in Latvian is a sort-of generic word very distinct from “nē”. “Nē”=”no” and barely anything beyond that. “Nu”, always with a short [u], on the other hand, is a whatchmacallit, a generic particle or something, that has 10 separate entries in the Latvian literary language dictionary http://www.tezaurs.lv/llvv/ . It is used to “fortify the meaining of the word or phrase”, “to weaken the categoricallity of an order” and a lot of other uses.

    So if your students are translating “nu” as “no” into English, they are apparently disorganized not only about English, but about their own Latvian as well, for as you correctly note the most equal translation of “nu, jā” into English indeed would be a “well, yes”.

    • Literally translated, sugar cockerel would be the best translation, since cock in English is usually used for a man’s penis. We don’t have a sweet in English countries shaped like a cockerel, so the literal translation is meaningless. Lollipop is the closest equivalent (i believe it’s a popsicle in the USA.)

    • I think you’ve missed the point Dana, as the Wikipedia article says, one long form of TGIF is “Thank God It’s Friday’s” not the Latvian style “Thanks God It’s Fridays.”

  12. Just a remark: in Russian “you” is not capitalised under any circumstances. That’s just a stupid trend but it is not required by any rule. In Latvian it is so because of the German influence. Cheers.

  13. Thanks God you wrote this. And I mean it…I recognise my common mistakes too….apologies to mine native English speaking friends, but I hope we can still communicate even without articles. Hmm…my blog in Englian must sound funny to a native speaker 🙂

  14. Thank you for the blog! It was very useful for me too as I’ve learned English by myself and I still do a lot of mistakes 😉 and thank you for your discussions here because so far I didn’t noticed the difference between “v” and “w” 😀 I will work on it and I will do my best to pronounce it correctly 🙂
    p.s. : Have you tried to translate the traditional Latvian song “kur tu teci gailīti mans”? 😉 I’ve tried once. I am sure that now you can imagine the reaction of my international friends 😀

  15. I was really confused about the word “gym”. It is absolutely correct, every English and American knows what it is and never would take it as “Jim”. My British bf says he knew the word “gym” since he was a kid and my other British friends use this word “gym” in the same way. Even a gym manager in England used it in the same way! Also, “nu jā” never means “no yes”, it is “well yes” or “yeah yes”. Or, “nu nē” means “well no”.

    • Ilze yes, but the point is, you need an article before “gym.” Native speakers would say either “I’m going to the gym” or “I was in a gym last night.” Using it without the article means you’re speaking about a person.

  16. Thank you for writing this. I live and work in UK at the moment, but I have to admit that I still make some of these mistakes.
    Also I’ve had much trouble with ‘at’ ‘in’ ‘on’ ‘within’ ‘for’ ‘from’ ‘out of’ etc.
    By the way – your grammar is not the worst thing, one can handle it. British pronunciation is a disaster – only after two years in London I was able to understand at least some part of what the train drivers say when trains are held.

  17. Who ever you think you are, you clearly are not as smart as you seem to yourself- T.G.I. Fridays is an American restaurant chain focusing on casual dining (http://www.tgifridays.com/), nothing to do with Latvians. And saying “Thank God” is just an American thing… Learn more about different cultures of the world. And where did you come up with the “fact” that “nu jā” means “no yes”? You really should have given this to a Latvian before publishing.

    • I know that TGI Fridays is an American chain. I even linked to it. The point though is that it has a restaurant right in the centre of Riga Old Town and a common long form of its name is “Thank God it’s Friday’s”, not “Thanks God it’s Friday’s.” Latvians very often say “Thanks God”, which is not correct English.

      Saying Thank God isn’t an American thing. All English speakers do it and none of them ever say Thanks God. Why do you think there was an Australian and British t.v. series called Thank God You’re Here, if that’s only an American expression?

      I also never said that “nu jā” means “no yes.” The problem is that it sounds that way to native English speakers’ ears. I might have to clarify that as people seem to miss the point.

  18. Also, vodka + orange juice is called “screwdriver” in English.
    Saying “in most bars, you can get a screw for 5 euros or so” does NOT help your city’s reputation.

    Source: bitter experience.

    • Most people would see screwdriver as skrūvgriezis. There are a lot of cocktails which have rude names: sex on the beach, screaming orgasm etc, so screwdriver definitely wouldn’t be the worst.

  19. Thanks for the article. I largely agree with the points made. My 12 year-old son (Latvian native speaker) recently told me that he cannot understand why Latvians mix the pronunciation of “th” and “s” or “z” in English. His observation is true and quite common, but it can be easily explained. There are simply no “th” sounds like “think” or “there” in Latvian, so we often use “s” and “z” instead of what to most of us sounds as a lisp.

    • Most languages don’t have “th.” English, Spanish and Greek are the only three that I can think of, though I’m sure there are more. A lot of Irish people pronounce “th” as “t” due to the influence of Irish language, which doesn’t have “th.”

  20. First of all, the quality of the English language has been seriously deteriorating in English-speaking countries, as well. Secondly, it is absolutely true that Latvians have problems with the letter “v” and often pronounce it “w” even though there are plenty of words in Latvian with the V sound at the start — vijole, vai, Viesturs, etc. And third, in written translations, there is the habit of always putting a comma before any word that is equivalent to “ka” in Latvian. Es domāju, ka … is correct in Latvian. I think, that … is incorrect in English.

  21. Always putting commas before who, that, where etc is one common mistake that I often see. Commas are most often used in English for pauses in speech. In that sentence, if you were saying it, you wouldn’t say “I think that.” The thing is that English has what are called defining and non defining relative clauses. For example, both these sentences are correct in English:

    The student, who is Spanish, needs this book.
    The student who is Spanish needs this book.

    In the first situation, there is only one student, so the “who is Spanish” part could be omitted and the commas are functioning like brackets. In the second situation there are several students of different nationalities, so you need the “who is Spanish” part to identify the student. Another difference is that, in the second situation, you can replace the who with that. You can’t in the first. As a general rule in English, commas never go before the word that.

  22. Puk’ot is a great new word!

    I agree with Karlis that the quality of English has been deteriorating in English-speaking countries. If I had a dollar for every work email I’ve received with a misplaced apostrophe: document’s when the writer is trying to use the plural of document, or similar mistakes, I might not need to work anymore. I know that my own grasp of English grammar could use improvement – it’s just not something that was really taught in the schools I attended.

    I am constantly amazed at both the high level of fluency in English of many Latvians, and some of the poor translations I run across online (seeing as I’ve not visited Latvia for several years). The Stockmann example is a good one. Another one I recall hearing about is a restaurant or pub menu listing “roasted tonsils” as a snack. Confusingly enough, “mandeles” in Latvian are both almonds and tonsils!

    Good post, thanks for sharing!

    • There are quite a few in the restaurant and pub sector that I’ve seen. When I first came here in 2005, lots of Latvian places translated virtuve in their restaurant’s description as “Latvian kitchen”, even though for native speakers of English, that conjures up images of a sweaty, steamy room with cooks shouting at each other. Of course in Latvian, as in so many other languages, the word for kitchen and cuisine is the same, but they often picked the wrong one. In recent years though, I’ve noticed more and more places have got it right and now say “Latvian cuisine.” I’d attribute that to raised standards.

      Attempts to translate more Latvian products into English sometimes raise a smile. Pork carbonate was one I saw. The worst was probably kefirs, which one restaurant in Riga translated as “Traditional Latvian sour milk yoghurt drink.” Mmmm, think I’ll order that.

  23. The quality of English on restaurant menus is a completely different topic. The Riga Hotel way back in the early 1990s actually had a dish called “Lamb cutlet Latvian style (pork chop)”. That was an extreme, but you can still find sweat & sour dishes at Chinese restaurants (or what passes for Chinese restaurants here).

    • In the last 8 years I think it’s got much better, probably a reflection of the people translating the menus having better English skills. I’ve seen menus in Spain which were obviously translated by someone without any English knowledge whatsoever sitting down with a dictionary and translating everything word for word. A lot of the end results would have been a mystery to native speakers (Beef to the iron, rice three delicious) so I didn’t see the point. In countries like that with lots of English native speakers on the ground you can normally find one to translate your menu for a reasonable price.

      Most Chinese restaurants in Latvia these days seem to be glorified sushi bars with a Chinese menu on the side.

  24. Ha, pork carbonate – good one!

    Of course, one could write a long blog post of mistakes that Latvians born and raised in English speaking countries make by translating English language phrases into Latvian. Very popular one, at least in the States: “n’emt dus’u”, i.e. take a shower vs the correct Latvian “iet dus’a’.” Or, “es ies’u uz Latviju” – direct translation of the vague English “I am going to Latvia”, vs needing to use a more specific “es brauks’u/cel’os’su/lidos’u uz Latvijau.” Of course, considering many of these folks are 2nd and 3rd and now even 4th generation, it’s rather amazing that they speak any Latvian at all. That said, and even given that I certainly know my Latvian is not perfect, some of these mistakes do hurt my ears!

  25. My friend told me that the Latvian spoken by a lot of fourth generation Latvians in the states sounded “interesting.” Apparently it’s close to the Latvian spoken in the pre-war Ulmanis era and contains phrases not used in modern Latvian.

    I once saw “make use of” translated as “padarīt lietošanā no.” I might not be a Latvian speaker but that sounds very dodgy to me!

  26. I really enjoyed your post and read all the comments as well. ThankS You! *wink, wink*
    At the moment I’m learning German (in Berlin!), and have realized just how ridiculously many German loanwords there are in Latvian. I was aware there were many, but not AS many! It’s starting to seem I can’t say a single sentence in Latvian without resorting to imported German words. (Examples of widely used German loanwords in Latvian: “amats” (“Amt”), “ārsts” (“Arzt”), “slikti” (“schlecht”), “skāde” (“Schade”), “bišķiņ” (“bisschen”), “brilles” (“Brille”), “dienests” (“Dienst”), “kaste” (“Kasten”), “kleita” (“Kleid”), “stunda” (“Stunde”), and lots of others (I’m compiling a list). Some of those words don’t even have a “proper” substitute in Latvian!) This is all really exciting for me. I also find that not only words are borrowed—apparently German has had a great influence on new word formation in Latvian, because some phrases just appear to be a direct translation from German.
    A funny and true story: a German doctor told me my name wasn’t Latvian because it didn’t end in “s”. He had been to Riga and left with the impression that all Latvian names end in “s” (I can see where he’s coming from). I explained to him that in general this applied to male names only.
    Recently I’ve been listening to the radio series “Fry’s English Delight” by Stephen Fry, it’s a real treasure. I love Stephen’s take on language. It was through Stephen (and Hugh Laurie) that I discovered British comedy (A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Blackadder, Monty Python, and the lot). I think it has helped me improve my English considerably.
    You mentioned that the “nu” goes back to the Indo-European. How did you find out about this? Do you know of any good online resources where I could read more about this and related linguistic-y stuff?
    Ah, yes—and compliments on your level of Latvian. Respect!

  27. It’s interesting that you say that. I’ve never learnt German, but I visit Berlin every year and I noticed that as well. Also words like kürbis, apotheke, kirsche, gurke, forell or even words like nudel. Compare the last word to Russian лапши or Spanish tallarines and it’s clear that Latvian got the word from German rather than Latin or Slavic. I sat in Dusseldorf once and was able to read most of a menu in German due to similar words in English and Latvian (and kartoffel would be understandable to anyone who had lived in Riga.)

    I once did the first level in Swedish and noticed quite a few similar words: byxor (pronounced biksor = bikses), dator, pojke (=puika), skåp (=skapis), barn (bērni, from indo-European bher), torg (marketplace) sill (siļķe) etc.

    Your doctor did well to notice that 🙂 I’ve been told before that I’m not real Irish because my name doesn’t start with O’ (O’Neill, O’Brien, O’Connor for example.)

    As for nu, I read it in the comments section of this blog about common Russian mistakes and then checked it. It has many Sanskrit meanings, but one would be “indeed”, which is what people are basically saying when they say nu yes in English. There are links here and here about Latvian~Sanskrit similarities.

    Maybe when you finish your research you can do a blog about German ~ Latvian similarities? 🙂

    • Thank you for all the links!

      When I have compiled a critical mass of German loanwords in Latvian, as well as other similarities, I’ll certainly try to write it up and make it available online. It may take some time though, since I still need to learn German (I’ve been here for 3 months).

      This week I had to call for a repairman to fix my washing machine. He was telling me something in German that I didn’t quite understand, but was able to get the meaning from his gestures, and because he said “Blech”, which I recognized as being the same word as “bleķis” (a metal plate in this case), although I hadn’t heard it used before.

      Regarding Swedish—incidentally, I’ve spent some time in Sweden, and have noticed the similar words as well. The most astonishing one for me was “pojke”, because I hadn’t known of any other language that had this word. Recently I found out that it exists in Finnish (“poika”) and Estonian (“poeg”, “poiss”), so most likely it was borrowed from the Finnic neighbours in both Swedish and Latvian (probably from Finnish in the case of Swedish, and Livonian in the case of Latvian). As far as I know, the pattern to stress the first syllable of each word (which I think is a blessing—the language is complicated enough without having to worry about where the stress falls) also comes from Livonian (it doesn’t exist in Lithuanian).
      Here’s a short but nice compilation of some of the loanwords from different languages in Latvian, as well as some info on the process of new word formation: http://www.laikmetazimes.lv/2013/06/10/valoda-valodina-1dala-aizguvumi-un-jaunvardi/. (I think one can read it in English with the help of Google.)

      • Great links! That made for interesting reading. I’m sure there are quite a few more words that Latvian took from it’s Estonian neighbours but Estonian is mostly unknown territory for me. I know that Latvian took a fair number of words from Slavic languages, due to the Russian imperial history and so on, but I’ve heard that Russian also took one or two from Latvian, Skumbrija (allegedly) is one of them, but don’t quote me on that, a teacher friend told me that once. One that I always found interesting is rollercoaster. In Baltic and Slavic languages it’s “American hills”, whereas in Latin languages, it’s a “Russian mountain!”

  28. Regarding Stockmann, in Canada (at least everywhere I’ve lived), “cash register” or “cash” for short is the normal term, not till. (“Take this up to the cash and pay for it,” “I’m not sure how much it costs, ask at the cash,” etc.) I’m pretty sure I’ve seen signs at the grocery store saying “next cash, please” if one register is closed (although I haven’t been back in a while so my memory may be failing me). So it’s not *that* wrong.

    • Laura, but the point is that the English speakers who come to Riga are almost all from the UK or Ireland, there will be at least 50 of them for every Canadian. So putting it in Canadian English, rather than British English, makes no sense. It would be exactly the same as a company in Ireland bothering to translate a sign into Latvian and translating it the way that 4th generation Latvians in the USA speak. According to my Latvian friends, that variant of Latvian contains a lot of words from the pre-war Ulmanis era which sound “strange” to people who live in Latvia today. Why do that when you can translate it a way that the speakers of the language that are actually likely to encounter it will understand? So yes, I think it is a mistake, just in the way that using British English terms in a part of Mexico which Americans like to visit would be a mistake.

      The USA, incidentally, seems to use “next register please” which would be more understandable than Stockmann’s efforts.

  29. I was surprised to not see the one mishap that I find not only extremely common but also very cute. Having lived in Riga for a couple of years, my favourite mistake is the translation of lūdzu. In English, the word “please” is used by the person asking for something. The person giving probably says “you’re welcome”. As the same word is used by both of these parties in Latvia, I can’t even remember how many times I have been given change, food or pretty much anything that has been accompanied with the word “please”. It’s awesome though, don’t stop. 🙂

    • Oh there are loads more which I didn’t include (a part two might be needed 🙂 ) The lūdzu stuff also happens in German: bitte as a response to danke. I guess it would be the same as if you tried to translate “welcome” into Latvian!

  30. Pleasure (and a bit of shame) to read it 🙂 Regarding v or w – probably most of Latvians think that in English its right to say w in every case and that v would sound like Latvian accent.

    • It often sounds like a mixture of v, w and u. The v to me in Latvian sounds softer in some words than others like divdesmit usually sounds like “Diudesint” when people say it.

  31. The mistakes you’ve mentioned are also typical for Lithuanians.I’d also add the Lithuanian word order in English sentences especially in written English.

    • Yes, these mistakes will happen in a number of languages. Lithuanian to me looks even more complicated than Latvian from a grammar point of view, so I’m not surprised.

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    تنظيف منازل تنظيف منازل شركة نقل عفش شركة نقل اثاث
    شركة تنظيف منازل بالرياض تنظيف منازل مكافحة حشرات
    شركة مكافحة حشرات بالرياض
    شركة مكافحة حشرات شركة تنظيف منازل شركة
    تنظيف منازل بالرياض شركة نقل عفش بالرياض تنظيف
    منازل شركة تنظيف منازل بالرياض نقل اثاث شركة
    تنظيف منازل
    شركة مكافحة حشرات بالرياض شركة
    نقل عفش نقل اثاث افضل شركة مكافحة حشرات بالرياض شركة تنظيف منازل شركة تنظيف
    منازل مكافحة حشرات افضل شركة نقل اثاث بالرياض
    مكافحة حشرات افضل شركة تنظيف منازل
    بالرياض شركة نقل اثاث تنظيف منازل شركة تنظيف منازل شركة تنظيف منازل بالرياض شركة
    نقل اثاث شركة تنظيف منازل
    افضل شركة تنظيف منازل بالرياض نقل عفش تنظيف منازل افضل شركة تنظيف منازل بالرياض شركة تنظيف منازل
    بالرياض افضل شركة تنظيف منازل بالرياض تنظيف منازل افضل شركة تنظيف منازل
    بالرياض
    شركة نقل عفش بالرياض شركة تنظيف منازل بالرياض شركة تنظيف منازل بالرياض شركة تنظيف منازل بالرياض شركة نقل اثاث بالرياض افضل شركة نقل اثاث بالرياض افضل شركة تنظيف منازل بالرياض افضل شركة
    مكافحة حشرات بالرياض
    افضل شركة تنظيف منازل بالرياض افضل شركة مكافحة
    حشرات بالرياض نقل عفش تنظيف منازل نقل اثاث افضل شركة تنظيف منازل بالرياض شركة تنظيف منازل
    شركة نقل عفش بالرياض
    شركة نقل عفش مكافحة حشرات مكافحة حشرات
    افضل شركة نقل اثاث بالرياض شركة
    مكافحة حشرات بالرياض نقل
    اثاث شركة نقل اثاث بالرياض
    افضل شركة تنظيف منازل بالرياض

  33. I paged through all the comments to see whether this issue has been addressed yet, and it seems not, so: Is it an example of Murphy’s Law that you have misspelled the word “Murphy’s”? 🙂

    • No, it isn’t and that’s why if you click on the link it will take you to the Wikipedia page on it. Muphry’s law states: “If you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.” The name is a deliberate misspelling of Murphy’s law. 🙂

  34. Gotcha. That’s very true. Back when I was doing a call-in radio show in Latvia, every time someone called to claim that I or a guest had made a grammatical or lexical mistake, it was guaranteed that the person in question would make a grammatical or lexical mistake himself or herself. Thanks for the information.

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