Be honest, other than the beauty of Bulgarian girls and the amazing all-inclusive resorts in Bulgaria, on the spectacular coast of the Black sea, you probably don’t know much about Bulgaria – let alone the Bulgarian language.
No judgment here. This small, southern Baltic country is easily forgotten by most of the West.
However, the Bulgarian language has some unique history and characteristics that make it stand apart from the other Slavic languages. More on that later.
But is Bulgarian Russian? Is it difficult to learn Bulgarian? We’re going to learn the answers to these questions – and a lot more in today’s article. First, let’s take a look at its origins.
History of the Bulgarian Language
The Bulgarian language stems from a language called Proto-Indo-European. From that, Proto-Balto-Slavic emerged around the year 3,000 BC.
After about 5,000 years, Proto-Slavic was developed from the Pre-Slavic language. Proto-Slavic gave birth to all modern Slavic languages. Proto-Slavic split into 3 branches.
I hope you’re still here: I promise that this is the only relatively boring part of the article!
The 3 branches of Proto-Slavic are East Slavic, West Slavic, and South Slavic languages.
Under each branch, there are the modern languages spoken today.
Bulgarian is found in the South Slavic branch. The South Slavic branch also includes Serbo-Croatian, Slovenian, Macedonian (which is very similar to Bulgarian), and Old Church Slavonic.
So for those still wondering: no, Bulgarian is not the same as Russian, although they do have a common history.
Similarities in the Slavic Languages
The Slavic languages are much closer together than other language families. This is because the Slavic languages split from Proto-Slavic relatively recently. This makes the languages all relatively intelligible to each other.
People who only speak Russian claim to be able to understand people who only speak Ukrainian or Belarusian, for example.
The amount that you can understand the other language is related to which branches of Proto-Slavic the two languages comes from.
If you speak Polish language (West Slavic family) you will have more trouble understanding someone speaking Russian (East Slavic family), than you would someone speaking the Czech language (also West Slavic family).
This is interesting to note because if you learn Bulgarian, it is like you are also learning a bit of Serbo-Croatian, Slovenian, and Macedonian.
You are also learning to a lesser degree Russian, and the other East Slavic languages. The West Slavic languages being the furthest in similarities and, as we’ve seen in a previous article, the Hungarian language being the completely different one in the block, similar to the romance language spoken in Romania.
And this should be all in terms of technicalities and things to know. A bit boring, I know: but definitely interesting!
The Cyrillic Alphabet in Bulgaria
You take a single look at the Cyrillic alphabet and you feel ready to give up on your mission to learn Bulgarian altogether. At least that is what I’ve heard from foreign friends.
True story: I know a dude that spent over 6 months in Bulgaria without learning how to read properly. How did he survive? That’s a mystery to me.
Much like in neighboring Greece, signs here are supposed to be in both Latin and Cyrillic alphabet but this is not always the case.
Of course, on highways and generally on the road, you probably won’t have to test out your Cyrillic reading abilities (we are in the EU after all, and that comes with the obligation of having street signs in Latin letters too).
With all else (shops, door buzzers…), 9 out of 10 times you will only see the sign in Cyrillic.
Don’t give up on learning the letters, and if you only do one thing before your trip to Bulgaria – make that learning the alphabet. I promise it will come in super handy.
You can thank the Saints Cyril and Methodius for the alphabet, by the way. The Saints Cyril and Methodius were great contributors to the Bulgarian language.
They invented the Cyrillic Alphabet so they could translate the Bible to the Slavic languages.
They are two prominent figures in Bulgaria, and have several monuments in their name around the country.
The Bulgarian language was the first to be written down. At one time even being called “The Slavic Language”.
Unique to the Bulgarian Language
Once you have a handle on the Cyrillic alphabet, the biggest difference between the Bulgarian and the rest of the Slavic Languages is grammatical casing.
Grammatical case is when a noun or pronoun changes form depending on its use in the sentence.
In English, one of the few examples we have of this is I vs Me. In the Slavic language, each noun takes a different form depending on its use in the sentence.
This can make the languages very difficult to learn if you are a native English speaker.
The Slavic languages that this does not occur in is Macedonian and Bulgarian. This makes learning the two languages relatively easy compared to the more popular Russian language.
This also makes Bulgarian a great candidate for those who want to learn a relatively easy to grasp Slavic language.
Another unique characteristic of the Bulgarian language is that it has articles – unlike the other Slavic languages.
Articles in English are words like “the” and “a”. This makes it easier for a native English speaker to pick up Bulgarian quicker than the rest.
A few other points to note about Bulgarian is the ability to stack negatives. In English, two negatives cancel each other out. In Bulgarian, this is not the case.
The addition of more negatives makes the condition you are describing even worse. For example, if you say “I don’t have nothing” that means you have something. In Bulgarian, that means you really don’t have anything.
Functionally Bulgarian has picked up words from other languages. For example, goodbye is “Ciao,” the word for goodbye in Italian.
Another word they’ve picked up is “merci,” the French word for “thank you”. These are the two most common examples, but don’t be surprised if you hear others.
Who Speaks Bulgarian?
Great, Bulgarian is easier to learn than Russian or Polish, but it comes at a cost. The Bulgarian language is only spoken by about 9 million people.
It is the official language of Bulgaria. You won’t be using the language much unless you are specifically planning to live or travel in Bulgaria, even if it sounds a lot like Macedonian too.
While Russian might be harder to learn, it is spoken by some 260 million people. The Slavic languages can be mutually intelligible, but only to a certain degree.
The differences in Bulgarian that make it easier to learn will also make it harder for other Slavic language speakers to understand you.
Final words about Bulgarian language
To wrap up, the Bulgarian has a rich history and an important place in the Slavic language family.
It isn’t spoken by many people, but it can be a great introduction to learning a Slavic language.
So, in conclusion, we can just repeat the key things:
- Bulgarian exists.
- It isn’t Russian, although it has a similar vocabulary.
- It’s certainly not as hard to learn Bulgarian as some people make it out to be.
Go out and try to learn Bulgarian, even if it’s just for a 3-day city break you are having in Sofia.
It will make your life easier, it’s fun and it could help you if you decide to learn another Slavic language.