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What are Demonstratives?
Demonstratives are a type of word which refer to an object that is near or far in relation to the speaker. The distance can be literal or figurative.
I find it’s pretty easy to work with demonstratives in Latvian. Generally, the rules for Latvian demonstratives are the same as in English. I’ll talk a bit about demonstratives and how they’re used because if you’ve never really thought about them before, well, it can be a little confusing to get started.
We use demonstratives all the time. When you refer to this book or these darn cats on your desk, you’re talking about objects (or animals) that are very close to you. Similarly, when referring to that tree or those buildings, you’re discussing objects that are far from you.
Demonstratives also can reference items being spoken about, which is how we use “this” or “these” in sentences to reference previous statements or clauses. These are called “entities of discourse” and the use of “these” and “this” in this very sentence are examples of its usage.
Latvian demonstratives work generally the same way but with the added complexity of the case and gender system. Šis/šī and tas/tā are declined a little differently from the standard, but when you read the chart, you’ll see similarities to the normal endings that will help you figure out what is what.
A demonstrative can function like an adjective or a pronoun.
A demonstrative adjective modifies a noun and must agree in number, gender and case. This can also be called a determiner because it determines which object you are referencing specifically.
Šis kaķis sēž uz galda. — This cat sits (is sitting) on the table.
Man garšo tās zemenes. — I like those strawberries.
A demonstrative pronoun replaces a noun and must fulfill the same number, gender and case. This is also called a spatial adjective because it can help determine where the object is that you are referencing.
Interestingly, when translating into English, it often makes sense to translate tas/tā as it instead of that. This is due to English’s little idiosyncrasies with “it” usage so be aware that’s a potential translation path. Since Latvian doesn’t have a neuter gender or “it”, it can make sense to do the opposite as well — translate an “it” as a “that” when translating from English. It depends on context.
When there is no noun for the demonstratives to agree with, they need to stand on their own and act like pronouns. Let’s take a look:
Kaķis to atrada zem galda. — The cat found that under the table.
This is an example where, “The cat found it under the table” is also a valid translation. It is equivalent to that in this case, so it works either way.
Types of Demonstratives
Šis un šī
For any type of noun that is literally or figuratively close to the speaker, we use šis for masculine nouns and šī for feminine nouns.
Šis and šī seem to be generally reserved for things being held or possessed by the speaker or, in the case of large things like cars, that are immediately next to the speaker. Often the nearest thing being referenced will be referred to with šis/šī, while everything else gets tas/tā. It is not as flexible as tas and tā and the distance it refers to is very small. Anything within arm’s length works well with šis/šī. Don’t be surprised if the object gets touched while you’re talking about it!
Always keep in mind with šis and šī is that the singular genitive has two possible options.
|Šis un Šī – This|
|Kā?||šā, šī||šās, šīs||šo||šo|
|Ar ko?||ar šo||ar šo||ar šiem||ar šīm|
Tas un Tā
Tas and tā are used for nouns that are literally or figuratively far away from the speaker. Use tas for masculine and tā for feminine nouns.
Tas and tā tend to be very flexible, at least in my experience. They can be used for anything nearby or somewhat far away, so the distance is more ambiguous. Unlike with šis, many objects can be considered “tas” and often something I would consider a “this” in English is a “that” in Latvian. A book sitting on the corner of my desk? Tā. The apple tree in my front yard? Tas. Figure if you can point at it, it’s probably far enough away to be a tas or a tā.
Of course, this is also dependent on the speaker’s preferences and biases. Still, it’s safe to use tas or tā for any object not in your hands or right next to you, so if you’re unsure, err on the side of tas/tā.
|Tas un Tā – That|
|Ar ko?||ar to||ar to||ar tiem||ar tām|
Viņš un Viņa
Now, here is an odd type. I know, I know. Viņš and viņa are already pronouns you’re familiar with! Latvian has a provision for referencing things that are very far away from the speaker and borrows viņš and viņa to do it.
English actually has an archaic form that handles this provision as well – yon and yonder. I still hear yonder in colloquial speech where I live and use it myself, for that matter! It’s quite popular in the Southern dialects and colloquially used in rural Western dialects here in America. Whether it’s used outside the US at all, I don’t really know. Wikipedia implies that it’s become idiosyncratic to dialects of American English. Anyway…
Imagine for a moment that you’re on the banks of the Daugava. (If you’ve never been there, just check out my header image, taken from one coast.) You can point to Vecrīga on the other coast, sure, but if I were to tell you that Vecrīga is “on that side” without you seeing the image, you may not realize just how far I mean. “That” is too ambiguous in distance.
Enter viņš and viņa. I can say “Vecrīga ir viņā krastā” which means, “Vecrīga is on the far coast” or “Vecrīga is on yonder coast” without being ambiguous about it being really far.
Viņš and viņa are also used for time in a general fashion when referring to distant times far from your current time, whether literally or figuratively. If it feels like summer was forever ago, you could use “viņā vasarā”. “A long time ago” is a perfect opportunity to use viņš.
There’s also a caveat with the viņš/viņa construction. This always takes the locative, so it cannot be used to directly reference the object itself, only its location.
Viņš and viņa are included on the full chart for completeness and are declined normally.
Šāds un Šāda, Tāds un Tāda
Similar to the related question words, kāds and kāda, which ask “What kind of?“, these demonstratives identify the answer as “this kind of” or “that kind of“. The traditional reply to kāds is tāds, but it’s not required that you use it.
Unlike šis, šī, tas and tā, which are irregularly declined, both šāds/šāda and tāds/tāda are declined as regular, indefinite adjectives. I have included them on the full chart for completeness.
The locative is where it can get a little tricky. There are three ways you can decline both šis/šī and tas/tā in the locative! Each of them is correct.
How do you know which one to use? Use the one that sounds good or fits the best.
All three can be used interchangeably, which offers Latvians a lot of flexibility and they definitely take advantage of this in poetry and song. So, don’t just memorize one of each and forget the other two — you don’t want to miss out!