Wordy Wednesday: Wordbuilding with Sētas

Today, let's take a look at some light wordbuilding with compound nouns.


  • galva : head (fem.) [slider title="decline me"] galva , f., 4. dekl.
    vsk.: galva, galvas, galvai, galvu, ar galvu, galvā
    dsk.: galvas, galvu, galvām, galvas, ar galvām, galvās[/slider]
    As with English, head can refer to the head on your shoulders or the head of a company, city or group.

  • pils : castle (fem.) [slider title="decline me"] pils , f., 6. dekl.
    vsk.: pils, pils, pilij, pili, ar pili, pilī
    dsk.: pilis, piļu, pilīm, pilis, ar pilīm, pilīs[/slider]
    There are many pilis scattered around the Latvian countryside. There's even one named "Jaunpils pils"! It's so neat to be able to walk through history. We Americans are so short-changed -- Artis' hometown is older than my entire country, and it is considered "young" at only 386 years old, and that's just when it obtained its town rights! People have been settled in the region for much, much longer, but then again, you could make that case for America too, but that's a history lesson for another day.

  • sēta : yard, courtyard (fem.) [slider title="decline me"] sēta , f., 4. dekl.
    vsk.: sēta, sētas, sētai, sētu, ar sētu, sētā
    dsk.: sētas, sētu, sētām, sētas, ar sētām, sētās[/slider]
    A sēta can also be used to refer to a collection of little buildings enclosed by a yard or fence forming a self-sufficient homestead, however, the more precise term for this is viensēta.

  • pilsēta : city (fem.) [slider title="decline me"] pilsēta , f., 4. dekl.
    vsk.: pilsēta, pilsētas, pilsētai, pilsētu, ar pilsētu, pilsētā
    dsk.: pilsētas, pilsētu, pilsētām, pilsētas, ar pilsētām, pilsētās[/slider]
    This makes a lot of sense, if you think about it in historical terms. When a castle was built, the area inside its walls would fill up with townspeople. The town would grow into a city, with new walls being built as the city expanded (hopefully, but not always). The concept of the sēta or courtyard was well-suited to this, and since it was centered on a castle, a city being called a pilsēta made a lot of sense (and still does)!

If you visit Vecrīga, you can still pass through some of the old city gates and walk along or under portions of the original city walls.

  • galvaspilsēta : capital city (fem.) [slider title="decline me"] galvaspilsēta , f., 4. dekl.
    vsk.: galvaspilsēta, galvaspilsētas, galvaspilsētai, galvaspilsētu, ar galvaspilsētu, galvaspilsētā
    dsk.: galvaspilsētas, galvaspilsētu, galvaspilsētām, galvaspilsētas, ar galvaspilsētām, galvaspilsētās[/slider]
    Yep, a triple compound. It's pretty easy to see how it worked out - the head or leading + castle + courtyard -> capital city.

  • viensēta : homestead, farm or ranch (fem.) [slider title="decline me"] viensēta , f., 4. dekl.
    vsk.: viensēta, viensētas, viensētai, viensētu, ar viensētu, viensētā
    dsk.: viensētas, viensētu, viensētām, viensētas, ar viensētām, viensētās[/slider]

Viens + sēta -> single or alone (independent) + yard = independent homestead

Image of a Latvian viensēta courtesy of Modris Frikmanis, underCreative Commons

Viensētas were common throughout most of Latvia, and consisted of self- sufficient little homesteads generally run by a single extended family. Typically, a homestead would be on a fairly large piece of unfenced land and include both living quarters and purpose-built buildings for running the farm, such as threshing barns, silos, granaries, mills, etc., or any combination thereof as the family saw fit. Interestingly, the yard here implied by sēta may not be fenced but rather enclosed by the buildings themselves.

Unlike the villages common to western Europe, viensētas were independent of each other. The Open-Air Ethnographic Museum (Latvijas Etnografiskais Brīvdabas Muzejs) has a huge collection set up for viewing and touring. They also participated in a Virtual Museum project! You can go on a virtual walkthrough (though nothing beats the real thing) at Virtuālais brīvdabas muzejs.

The concept of a separate, independent homestead is still alive and well in Latvia today, however, viensēta is generally used to refer to historical homesteads rather than contemporary versions.