Latvian and Lithuanian are the two surviving BALTIC LANGUAGES (see map and table of numerals there). Latvian is the official language of the Republic of Latvia, which became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The name of Latvia derives from the speakers' own name for themselves, Latvis. The language was once better known in English as Lettish; in French it is still called Letton.
Latvian speakers, expanding northwards from neighbouring Lithuania, were in this region by the 10th century, and probably rather longer if, as linguists believe, Latvian began to separate from Lithuanian around AD 600.
Latvia was under the rule of the Teutonic knights, largely German-speaking, and then of German landowners and bishops, from 1158 to 1562: during much of this time it was divided between two states, Courland and Livonia. Riga, now capital of Latvia, was in its origin a Hanseatic port and its everyday language was Low German. Poland ruled Courland from 1562; Livonia was ruled by Sweden from 1629. But both territories eventually fell to Russia, which eventually governed the whole of Latvia until 1918 and seized it again in 1940. Germans occupied Latvia in 1941–4. This complex history led to a division in Latvia between Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran Christianity: the majority of the population is Lutheran.
Hundreds of thousands of Latvians died in the Second World War and its aftermath. After 1944 the ethnic situation was complicated by mass deportations of Latvians to Siberia and Kazakhstan, and mass immigration of Russians. The Russian minority amounted to 40 per cent of the population on independence.
A Lutheran catechism was published in Latvian in 1586. In the 19th century Latvian speakers became increasingly aware of their national and linguistic distinctness and their folklore.
Latvian reflects its history in its numerous loanwords, from Swedish, German, Polish and particularly Russian.
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