Some linguistic aspects of Latvian politics

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I was struck by a linguistic aspect of the picture accompanying Ellen Barry's NYT article, "Latvia Is Shaken by Riots Over Its Weak Economy", 1/14/2009:

The vehicle visible in the left center of the picture is labelled, in English, "MILITARY POLICE". I wonder about this history of this inscription.

The article contains another irrelevant but familiar linguistic note — an opposition politician, quoted at length in the article, is a linguist, Krišjānis Kariņš, who got his PhD from Penn in 1996. I was his dissertation advisor.

Krisjanis Karins, a member of Parliament and former leader of the opposition New Era party, said the violence showed that financial woes had injected a new vehemence into old political complaints.

Protests in Latvia, he said, tended to follow a pattern of "standing, singing and just going home," but the young protesters who showed up on Tuesday evening "seem to think the Greek or French way of expressing anger is better," he said.

"In our neck of the woods, this just doesn't happen," he said. "But it did this time. Everyone is trying to figure out how much of this was provoked. Who are these people? Where did they come from?"

Whatever the answer, he said, Tuesday's protests seem likely to force political change.

"In six months, we're going to look back and yesterday will be a watershed," he said. "I would be deeply surprised if it were not."

Kris's accomplishments in linguistics include a dissertation on The Prosodic Structure of Latvian, and some research on vowel deletion in Latvian that (IMHO) deserves more attention that it's gotten. (The fault here is partly the inaccessibility of the archives of the journal that it was published in — another argument for Open Access.) His accomplishments in politics include being one of the founders of the New Era party and serving as economics minister from 2004-2006.

From the title of this post, you might have thought that it was going to be about Language Policy in Latvia; but it isn't. However, I do have an indirect personal connection to that issue — my maternal grandmother was the principal of a Russian-language school in the city then known as Dvinsk, later Daugavpils, before the Russian revolution of 1917. My grandfather had been in the Czarist army, wounded in WW I, and sent to a hospital in Dvinsk to recover. My mother was born there in 1918. After 1920, the newly-independent state of Latvia encouraged the use of Latvian to an extent that led my grandmother to lose her job, and the family emigrated to the U.S. in 1921, settling first in Norfolk, VA, and later near Saranac Lake, NY.

It would have amused Tema Yoffe, I think, to learn that her grandson's student later became the economics minister of a Latvian state that had meanwhile been absorbed and freed again from a Russian empire. And she would have been genuinely pleased to learn that the level of violence represented by some thrown cobblestones and a few molotov cocktails is now viewed as something that "just doesn't happen" in that "neck of the woods". No doubt she would have found a quotation from Pushkin to fit the occasion.



26 Comments

  1. Moacir said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

    What fascinated me about these riots were that the first news I got about them (via Twitter) compared them to the Estonian struggles over a Soviet-era monument from last year, but the first news article I read (sadly I can't remember the source or even the language I read article in) made an effort to point out that the rioters were "Latvian speakers," which I took to be code for "it's not the Russian minority that is exploding with rage here, but a new population wanting a voice."

  2. Moacir said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

    Here we are:

    http://www.delfi.lt/news/daily/world/article.php?id=20059340

    "Portalo delfi.lv reporteriai praneša, kad į parlamento pastatą veržėsi latviškai kalbančių asmenų grupė."

    "Reporters from the website delfi.lv explain that a group of Latvian-speaking individuals tried to force their way into the parliament building."

  3. Jesse Weinstein said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 2:21 pm

    Here's the entry for the picture at Getty Images, the image broker from whom the NYT got the image: http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/84269740/AFP

    It doesn't explain why a Latvian MP truck would have English lettering, though.

  4. Adam said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 3:04 pm

    Is it confirmed that 'MP' does not stand for something in Latvian? I suppose the bigger point is that the letters are Latin rather than Cyrillic. Probably a linguistic form of Latvian nationalism?

    Anyway, with the massive number of American MPs in Europe over the past 50 years, it could simply be seen as a new standard. 'SWAT', 'OK', 'Hot Dog' are other good examples of extremely broad words/acronyms used in places with little or no English presence.

  5. Lazar said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

    I've seen stop signs in Italy that say "STOP".

  6. Dan Milton said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 3:29 pm

    1150 Latvian military personnel served with the multinational force in Iraq, the last returning home in November. Could the vehicles have been used there?

  7. Moacir said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 3:29 pm

    @Adam

    I imagine the point of interest is the faint "Military Police" along the edge of the roof of the vehicle to the left, not the giant "MP" in the foreground.

    Incidentally, "Military Police" in Latvian is "Militārā policija," so the acronym would be the same.

  8. Alan Gunn said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 4:34 pm

    I've wondered about the signs in Italy saying "stop," too. I first noticed them in Vicenza, where there's a US Army post, and I figured it was because of that, but there are some in Florence, too. "Autogrill" doesn't seem particularly Italian either, but as those are on the Autostrada the intended audience is probably international.

  9. David Marjanović said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 5:53 pm

    Latvian has been written in Latin letters for a long time. I'm not sure if it ever was written in Cyrillic.

    I've wondered about the signs in Italy saying "stop," too.

    Not just in Italy — all over the world.

  10. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 6:34 pm

    Actually, they say "arrêt" in Quebec (and "Seten" in the Wendake Indian Reserve). ("stop" is there, but much smaller)

  11. mollymooly said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 8:20 pm

    Wikipedia knows about Stop signs

  12. language hat said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 8:53 pm

    Latvian has been written in Latin letters for a long time. I'm not sure if it ever was written in Cyrillic.

    Briefly, in one region: "In the Latgale part of the region of Latvia, which belonged to Vitebskas province, the printing of books was much less intensive and during the period 1870-1904 it was not allowed to print Latvian books in Latin letters there. Instead of them the Cyrillic alphabet was adopted for the Latvian language."

    No doubt she would have found a quotation from Pushkin to fit the occasion.

    Maybe this, from "The Gypsies":

    Мы не терзаем, не казним –Не нужно крови нам и стонов…

    "We do not torment, we do not punish — We do not need blood and groans…"

  13. marie-lucie said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 9:34 pm

    In France too, there are now STOP signs. "Stop" and "arrêt" in this context do not mean quite the same thing: "arrêt" means a designated location where a transit vehicle such as a bus or train is obligated to stop for the purpose of letting down and taking in passengers, while "stop" is an injunction to the driver of a vehicle to stop and look around before starting again: it has an imperative meaning which would otherwise have to be expressed by the longer, complex word "Arrêtez-vous", the purpose of which would be puzzling to a driver. Contrary to popular opinion, many such borrowings in French do not exactly duplicate regular French words.

  14. The other Mark P said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 3:55 am

    then known as Dvinsk, later Daugavpils

    I'm picking that the Latvians always called it Daugavpils and that the Russians still call it Dvinsk.

    [(myl) The linguistic (and political) history is much more tangled than that, as described in the Wikipedia article: there's not only Двинcк and Daugavpils, but also Дзьвінск, Dünaburg, Väinänlinna, Daugpiļs, Daugpilis, Dyneburg, Dźwinów, Dźwińsk, Даугавпилс, Борисоглебск, and דינעבורג.

    The chronology of dominant names is given as Dinaburg (1275—1656) → Borisoglebsk (1656—1667) → Dinaburg (1667—1893) → Dvinsk (1893—1920) → Daugavpils (1920—today). ]

  15. CIngram said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 4:14 am

    In Spain they also use STOP, although most of S. America seems to use PARE.

  16. T.I. said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 7:38 am

    I'm guessing that for most of the world it is more important that a tourist visiting them knows the traffic arrangement and doesn't accidentally kill anyone or themselves, rather than enforcing a form of linguistic nationalism.


    Here
    's another picture of a Latvian military police car that I found. This time the writing is in large Latvian letters.

    (The photo caption reads, in Estonian: "Visit from the Latvian military police". In Estonian, "army" is "sõjavägi" = "sõja" + "vägi" = "of war" (genitive case of "sõda") + "might, force" (nominal case). So literally, "force of war". "sõjaväe-" ("military") here is just a genitive case of "sõjavägi" ("army"). "Politsei" means, of course, "police".

    I can't remember having seen cars with the words "Military Police" or the acronym "MP" on them in Estonia.)

  17. Jay Lake said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 7:52 am

    Anent the "Military Police" typography, I can attest from personal experience that in Bulgaria in the early 1980s, stop signs were red, octagonal and featured the word 'STOP' on them, exactly as in the U.S. Which was odd, because neither 'STOP' nor (so far as I know) 'СТОП' is a Bulgarian word.

  18. democrat said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 9:36 am

    And doesn't "Military Police" seem to be misapplied in this case, compared to its traditional American use? In this country, MPs police the military, not the civilians, and they certainly are not paramilitaries, SWAT teams, or essentially soldiers.

  19. T.I. said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 10:31 am

    to democrat:

    I'm guessing that given the extent of the riots, all available (legal) forces were used. By legal I mean that I am not sure whether it is legal in Latvia to use military forces to keep peace during riots.

  20. Tim Silverman said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 11:34 am

    I was somewhat disconcerted to see, in the mid-90s, a STOP sign (in cyrillic characters, i.e. СТОП) in central Asia—Kyrghyzstan, I believe.

  21. Nordle said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 11:39 am

    MP? Stands for Militarisch Polis in Latvian

  22. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

    Here's some information about the Latvian Military Police:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latvian_Military_Police

  23. language hat said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 4:17 pm

    MP? Stands for Militarisch Polis in Latvian

    In the first place, no it doesn't, and in the second, you seem to have missed this part of the post:

    The vehicle visible in the left center of the picture is labelled, in English, "MILITARY POLICE".

  24. cm said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 8:53 pm

    I'm guessing that for most of the world it is more important that a tourist visiting them knows the traffic arrangement and doesn't accidentally kill anyone or themselves, rather than enforcing a form of linguistic nationalism.

    If tourists were the prime concern Belgian junctions and Italian roundabouts would be ordered differently.

    I'm not sure that STOP is best understood as an English term. Any more than the NO AUTOSTOP sign at motorway entrances.

  25. Ken Brown said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 10:38 am

    Democrat: "And doesn't 'Military Police' seem to be misapplied in this case, compared to its traditional American use? In this country, MPs police the military, not the civilians, and they certainly are not paramilitaries, SWAT teams, or essentially soldiers."

    I think it varies from country to country. Maybe its just their Hollywood image but the US MPs seem more "military" and less "police" than British ones to me. Here you sometimes see MPs driving around in ordinary police cars with blue flashing lights, and occasionally in plain clothes. The UK RMP do criminal investigation and have detectives. But they don't do things like guarding bases, there are other units for that. Though they do have front line roles as well – something like a dozen of them have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    But in other countries there are police forces organised on military lines who back up the local police – such as the French Gendarmerie Nationale, or the original Canadian Mounties.

    And then there are military units explicitly used for social control. For example the Kenyan GSU who do counter-terrorist operations but are also called in to help out ordinary police with crowd control or operations against armed gangs. Or in Britain the old Ulster Defence Regiment from 1970 to 1992 which was raised to replace a previously discredited police force (The B Specials) and was locally recruited, including many part-timers, but in army uniform, carrying army weapons, and under the command of the UK military in Westminster.

    The nearest to that in the USA is probably the National Guard. Who are neither national, nor a Guard.

  26. baylink said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 9:50 pm

    Isn't Latvia part of NATO?

    That might explain it…

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