The Livonian orthography or writing system originates with the first published works by linguists documenting Livonian in the 19th century. The present form of the Livonian writing system came into existence during pre-WWII Latvian independence period. Some changes have been made over time, but it is still quite similar to the form it had in the 1930s.
The table below shows the letters of the present-day Livonian spelling system in the left column, the IPA equivalents for each letter in the middle column, and approximations in English for each sound in the right column. These equivalents should only be taken as a fairly general guide, as the sound systems of English and Livonian are quite different. For an interesting recent in depth linguistic analysis of the Livonian sound system see Tuuli Tuisk’s 2016 on this topic.
Prior to WWII, published Livonian texts also included the letters ö, ȫ, y, ȳ corresponding to the front rounded vowels /œ, œ:, y, y:/. These sounds were not, however, in general use during the interwar independence period and in later orthographic reforms were removed from the Livonian orthography. The letters ö, ȫ, y, ȳ correspond to e, ē, i, ī in present-day spelling (e.g., ‘night’ historically spelled ȳö, is now spelled īe).
Linguistic texts use two additional symbols. An apostrophe ’ is used to mark the syllables with stød, the tonal contrast found in Livonian (discussed in the Livonian Grammar section). The long low back vowel ǭ is noted in more recent linguistic scholarship, including Viitso & Ernštreits’ 2012 Livonian-Estonian-Latvian dictionary. As Tuisk 2016 notes, ǭ occurs in the Eastern Livonian dialect and is pronounced as ā in the Western Livonian dialect (e.g., Eastern Livonian mǭ, Western Livonian mā ‘earth’; Eastern Livonian rǭntõz, Western Livonian rāntõz ‘book’; etc.).
The Modern Livonian Orthography
|Livonian letter||IPA equivalent||Approximate pronunciation in English|
|a||/ɑ/||similar to u in ‘cut’|
|ā||/ɑ:/||a longer version of the previous sound|
|ä||/æ/||like a in ‘cat’|
|ǟ||/æ:/||a longer version of the previous sound|
|b||/b/||like b in ‘bus’|
|d||/d/||similar to d in ‘dental’|
|ḑ||/ɟ/||palatalized d, similar to the dy in ‘goodyear” pronounced quickly|
|e||/e/||similar to e in ‘bed’|
|ē||/e:/||a longer version of the previous sound|
|f||/f/||like f in ‘fun’|
|g||/g/||like g in ‘get’, never as in ‘George’|
|h||/h/||like h in ‘hello’|
|i||/i/||similar to i in ‘hit’|
|ī||/i:/||like ee in ‘feet’|
|j||/j/||like y in ‘year’|
|k||/k/||like k in ‘skip’|
|l||/l/||similar to l in ‘lawn’|
|ļ||/ʎ/||palatalized l, similar to the pronunciation of lli in ‘million’ by some English speakers|
|m||/m/||like m in ‘mom’|
|n||/n/, /ŋ/||like n in ‘no’, before k or g pronounced as ng in ‘gong’|
|ņ||/ɲ/||palatalized n, similar to Spanish ñ, also similar to the pronunciation of n in ‘news’ by some English speakers|
|o||/o/||pure o vowel, like in Spanish ‘no’|
|ō||/o:/||a longer version of the previous sound|
|ȯ||/ɤ/||no English equivalent, a sound described as being intermediate between Livonian o and õ.
To approximate the pronunciation of this sound, say u in American English ‘up’ and then form your lips as if you were saying the oo in American English ‘foot’.
|ȱ||/ɤ:/||a longer version of the previous sound|
|õ||/ɯ/, /ə/||In stressed (i.e., usually initial) syllables, like Estonian õ, also similar to Latgalian y and Russian ы.
In unstressed (i.e., usually non-initial) syllables, like u in ‘up’.
|ȭ||/ɯ:/||a longer version of the previous sound|
|p||/p/||like p in ‘speed’|
|r||/r/||a rolled r sound like that found in many European languages, never as the r sound in American English|
|ŗ||/rʲ/||a palatalized r sound, no real equivalent in English, somewhat like a rolled r and y pronounced together very quickly|
|s||/s/||like s in ‘suit’|
|š||/ʃ/||like sh in ‘ship’|
|t||/t/||similar to t in ‘steady’|
|ț||/c/||palatalized t, similar to ty in ‘hit you’ when pronounced quickly|
|u||/u/||similar to u in ‘put’|
|ū||/u:/||similar to oo in ‘boot’|
|v||/v/||like v in ‘very’|
|z||/z/||like z in ‘zany’|
|ž||/ʒ/||like s in ‘pleasure’|
The 19th century Sjögren-Wiedemann orthography
In the first grammar and linguistic study of Livonian, published in 1861 by Andreas Johan Sjögren and Ferdinand Johann Wiedemann, a different orthography was used. This writing system explicitly marks some features not marked in the modern orthography. Correspondences between the Sjögren-Wiedemann orthography (left column) and the modern orthography (middle column) are given in the table below. All other letters can be assumed to have the same value as in the modern orthography. If further explanations are necessary, these are given in the right column. The current summary does not endeavor to explain the differences between two or more letters in the Sjögren-Wiedemann orthography that are written with the same letter in the modern orthography (e.g. the /a/ with a macron above and the /a/ with macron below, written simply as /a/ with macron above).
Correspondences between the Sjögren-Wiedemann and Modern Orthographies
|Sjögren-Wiedemann Orthography||Modern Orthography||Comments|
|ö (no longer used)||The sound /œ/ written with the letter ö prior to WWII. This sound is no longer distinguished in Livonian and all instances of ö are written as e in the contemporary Livonian written language.|
|y (no longer used)||The sound /y/ written with the letter y prior to WWII. This sound is no longer distinguished in Livonian and all instances of y are written as i in the contemporary Livonian written language.|
|ȳ (no longer used)||The sound /y:/ written with the letter ȳ prior to WWII. This sound is no longer distinguished in Livonian and all instances of ȳ are written as ī in the contemporary Livonian written language.|
|ḑ ļ ņ ŗ ț||Palatalization in the Sjögren-Wiedemann orthography with an acute accent mark above or following the palatalized consonant.|
|Palatalized k, p, s. In the modern orthography written as k, p, s before the short diphthong ie.|
|The sound /ŋ/ written with ṅ before k and g in the Sjögren-Wiedemann orthography is written with n in the modern orthography. In other positions, ṅ is typically written as ng in the modern orthography.|