Conjunctions are the little words that make sentences go around. If you’re American, you might even be humming in your head the old kids’ show song from Schoolhouse Rock, “Conjunction Junction (What’s Your Function)”.
Conjunctions are words that help connect phrases and clauses together. They also connect words in pairs and lists. The most familiar of the English conjunctions are: and, but and or. In Latvian, these are called: saikļi.
Latvian has quite a few saikļi, which are classed into different groups by function. In the future, I’ll be writing more about saikļi but for today, I’m just going to talk about the basics.
Saikļi – The Basics
Saikļi are classed as palīgvārdi, or helping words. They cannot be declined nor conjugated. Because they help other words, they don’t answer questions. They are simply there to help the sentence along.
Un means and. Quite simple! You use un anywhere and everywhere you would use and.
Un belongs to the vienojuma group of saikļi. Vienojuma means “of joining” or “of union” and refers to saikļi which bind things together in a list. This can include words, clauses and other grammatical constructs.
As far as comma usage goes, un has some intricacies. Frankly, comma usage gets really complicated in Latvian so I’m not going to get into it right now. There’ll be posts on that in the future when I feel up to digging into it. For now, here’s the easiest rule to remember with using commas and un.
When using un in a list of words, never use a comma immediately before it.
Write lists this way: olas, piens, zemenes un āboli
But not this way:
olas, piens, zemenes, un āboli
Artis’ mnemonic for this is to think of un as the last comma in the list. It doesn’t get a comma before it because it acts like a comma itself.
You can also have repeated usage of un in a list too! However, if you do this, you must put a comma before every repeated un in the list. Completely opposite of normal list behavior. Weird, huh? Here’s what it looks like:
olas un milti, un sviests, un eļļa… — eggs and flour, and butter, and oil…
Note here that the very first un does not have a comma. This is correct. The comma goes before each repeated un. (Luckily, it’s also not that common.) It mimics speech.
Bet means but. Another easy one. It’s just like in English – you can use bet everywhere you use but.
Zibeņos patīk skatīties, pērkonā klausīties, bet arī gan tikai tad, kad tie nestāv virs pašu galvām. –Reinis Kaudzīte
As you can see, bet contrasts the first part of the saying to the second, pretty much how we would expect to do it in English. (I will leave the translation of this saying as an exercise to the reader. Feel free to comment with yours or ask for help!)
Vai is extremely flexible. As such, it can be part of multiple groups depending on its usage. It can mean or but it can also turn a statement into a question! It can also function like “whether” or a non-conditional “if”. Let’s take a look.
There are two ways to say or in Latvian, depending on whether the items you are referencing are identical or not. The vast majority of the time, the items will not be identical, so you’ll mostly be using vai. When they are synonyms, you’ll use jeb.
You use vai for all pairs of words, clauses, phrases and sentences where the objects being compared are not identical synonyms.
Kaķi vai suņi — Cats or dogs
Āboli vai vīnogas — Apples or grapes
When it comes to commas, you can apply the same basic rule with vai when using it in a list as you can with un.
To turn any statement into a question, add vai to the beginning. To make it sound good, sometimes you need to rearrange the words a little, but that’s a topic for another post.
Where the k-words ask specific questions that are answered in a specific case, vai asks for a yes or no response. It is often translated most capably as “Do…”, “Is…” or “Are…”. This is a case where you’re not translating word-for-word but rather for how things are said in each language.
As such, there can be several ways to translate a question beginning with vai; the most important consideration is that the question be answerable via yes or no.
Kaķis ēd peli. –> The cat eats (is eating) the mouse.
Vai kaķis ēd peli? –> Does the cat eat the mouse? Is the cat eating the mouse?
However, it usually doesn’t get translated as “Can…” unless varēt – to be able to or an equivalent verb is in the sentence in the appropriate position.
Es varu izlasīt šo grāmatu. — I can (am able to) read this book.
Vai es varu izlasīt šo grāmatu? — Can I read this book? Am I able to read this book?
As you can see from all of the examples, English largely ignores vai as a word and swaps the position of the noun and verb to produce “Can..?” but translates vai for “Do/Does…?” and “Is…?” Vai doesn’t necessarily have meaning beyond “I make this a question that is answerable by yes or no.” How you translate and understand it is up to you.
Whether and If
This is something I just learned the other day while translating when I had an if to translate. Now, I knew that if is generally ja, but ja is used for if…then statements and I had the type of if that means whether.
Enter vai. You use vai to mean whether or if when it begins a subordinate clause, as so:
Es nezinu, vai es varēšu iegriezties. — I don’t know whether (if) I would be able to drop in.
The key here is the subordinate clause. “Vai es varēšu iegriezties” is subordinate, it can’t stand on its own without becoming a question. It answers the question, “Ko es nezinu?” with “Vai es varēšu iegriezties.” (What don’t I know? Whether I am able to drop in.)
Again, this is because if vai starts a statement, it becomes a question, but if it starts a subordinate clause as part of a statement, it means whether.
Jeb is the form of or that functions as the Latvian version of i.e., the abbreviation for the Latin phrase “id est” or, in English, that is. Jeb can only be used with synonyms when the two words are exactly equal.
Telefons jeb tālrunis
Telefons is the foreign loan-word while tālrunis, lit. far-speaker is the Latvian word for telephone. The two are synonyms for the same object, so we use jeb.
Glāzi jeb krūzi –> Glāzi vai krūzi.
However, because a glass is generally used for the same purpose as a mug but isn’t the same object, you would use vai as the two nouns are not synonyms. They’re alternative choices instead of alternative names.
For the example given, you’d be less likely to hear the nominative forms, so the accusative was given instead for a more real-world feel (think your host asking which you want your kefīrs in). Plus they make immediate sense as a question where the nominative does not if you add a question mark!