Finding Your Grammatical Center

One thing my husband continually nags me about is guessing the content of the sentence without really working through it. Especially when I start applying English grammatical rules to Latvian sentences because I'm tired.

Why is this bad? Because Latvian is highly flexible when it comes to word order, thanks to their system of cases and endings. Poetry is even more flexible. (I hate translating poetry right now. Don't do it until you're very comfortable with all the endings and have a decent vocabulary.)

When in doubt, find the grammatical center and fan out from there; remember to always look at the endings to decide which part it can be.

Latin is very similar - I used to take apart sentences all the time in class. Each word would get labeled with its case, tense, type and number (as applicable), then its English translation underneath. Finally, the English would be rewritten and rearranged to make sense. (Translating word for word is usually not wise.) In each case, finding the grammatical center was the first step.

Grammatical Centers

The grammatical center is comprised of the subject (in nominative) and the verb. Either one can be implied. Missing verbs are usually a form or variant of "to be" - context will give you the correct tense.

If you know what the subject and main verb are, then you're on your way to understanding the rest. Next you'll identify the direct object or noun in accusative, for or to what/whom the action occurs (dative), and where (locative). Not all parts will be in every sentence, obviously.

Let's take apart a sentence and mark each type of word in a different color. Vocabulary's at the bottom of the page.

Viņi paņēma miltus, pienu, olas un sajauca kopā.

Find the noun or pronoun in the nominative case:

Viņi paņēma miltus, pienu, olas un sajauca kopā.

Now find the verb or verbs in the sentence:

Viņi paņēma miltus, pienu, olas un sajauca kopā.

We'll add in the conjunction so it makes more sense in English. The grammatical center is as follows:

Viņi paņēma un sajauca

What can we figure out from this?

  1. The subject of the sentence is viņi, the 3rd person plural pronoun. It refers to a group that is either all males or mixed gender.
  2. Thus, the verbs should also be in the 3rd person plural form.
  3. Pa- and sa- are both prefixes that modify the meaning of the verbs. We need to look at the verbs ņemt and jaukt to identify the tense.
  4. Both paņēma and sajauca are in the past tense:
    1. In ņemt, the 3rd person plural is ņema in present and changes to ņēma for past
    2. In jaukt, the 3rd person plural is jauc in present and changes to jauca for past
  5. Un is a contraction that means "and". I put it in now because it makes things easier to understand.

So far, our sentence center makes some sense, but we need to know what the verbs act upon, which means we need at least one direct object. Those will be in the accusative case.

Viņi paņēma miltus, pienu, olas un sajauca kopā.

Only one word left! Now, the ending ā would imply locative, but this isn't a noun. It's an adverb and plays by somewhat different rules.

Viņi paņēma miltus, pienu, olas un sajauca kopā.

So, now we can translate it as follows:

They took flour, milk, eggs and mixed (them) together.

The (them) is implied, it's not as necessary to add in a pronoun like you would in English since we have the whole list right next to it.

This sentence turned out pretty straightforward and uses the same word order as English. The thing is though, we could scramble all the words up just about and still arrive at the same translation. While many Latvian sentences do fall into the format of subject-verb-object, it is not required in any way. That's the power of cases and why finding the grammatical center is important.

[slider title="Vocabulary used in today's post"]

  • kopā : together
  • milti : n., flour (almost always used in plural)
  • ola : n., egg
  • paņemt , paņemu, paņēmu: v., to take or grab
  • piens : n., milk
  • sajaukt , sajaucu, sajaucu: v., to mix together, stir
  • un : conj., and
  • viņi : pro., they