OK, in Latvia, do not speak Russian

Language is a funny thing: When you say something wrong, even in a foreign tongue, you don’t have to be told you made a mistake. The reaction says it all.

It comes in the form of a stony face, a pause, and an answer that in itself is a correction.

At least that’s what I was thinking about today. I’m writing this from Latvia, a country that has its own language – Latvian – and a de facto language, Russian, that was the lingua franca here throughout decades of communism.

Unfortunately, I don’t know a word of Latvian. Instead, approaching a shopkeeper a little while ago, I spoke to her in Russian. Zd`rravstvuite, I said, using the basic hello in Russian, and proceeded to ask her how much a scarf cost (it’s **bleeping** cold here!). I speak enough Russian to ask the very basics: how much, where to, what is good.

But I awakened her ire with my Russian greeting. She returned it with something I didn’t understand, and proceeded to answer all my questions decidedly not in Russian.It was a reminder that this is one of the fiercest battling grounds in the former Soviet Bloc for the sustainability of the Russian language.

Sure, you’ve got the countries that were members of the Warsaw Pact, places like the Czech Republic and Poland, who maintained their own language traditions. But the countries that were actually part of greater Russia during communist times spoke their own language merely as dialect, which bowed to the hegemony of Mother Russia’s tongue.

Now, Russia is complaining that its language is under fire in countries like Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Russia is making it a human right’s case: There is a sizable ethnic Russian majority spread throughout the Baltics, particularly in Latvia.

When Latvia achieved independence in the 1990s it quickly began to marginalize the ethnic Russian population that had settled here, giving citizenship to anyone who would claim purely Latvia ethnicity. Yet scores of Russians settled here during the Cold War era and gave birth to children here. Latvia’s position has eased in recent years, but it still will not grant citizenship (not an insignificant thing, given its EU membership) to you unless you can demonstrate a mastery of Latvian history and the Latvian language.

This has incensed Latvia’s ethnic Russian population, which stands at around 30 percent of the population. Latvians haven’t helped things: the government has moved to close ethnic Russian schools and for those that remain open the government has made it mandatory that classes are taught more than half of the time in Latvian.

Is there much of a difference between the two languages? Most Latvians, certainly of a specific age, understand Russians fluently, and a lot of ethnic-Russians living here understand Latvian, if only generally. I have a good background in Slavic languages and I can pick out understanding in both. [Update: Many readers have kindly corrected the erroneous assertion implied in this sentence, specifically that Latvian is a Slavic language. It is not. Still, despite it belonging to another linguistic family, I can still pull out the occasional word (especially spoken numbers) because they sound similar to the Slavic languages I am more familiar with.]

But it’s an illustration of what language means, even in today’s European Union, where you sometimes have to lay claim to a certain background or experience if it means your national identity.

Thinking about this, it certainly explains the cold reception I received, and serves as a reminder that in today’s Latvia, there might be a better way to say hello (Sveiki).