Do You Need to Learn the Bulgarian Language for Traveling to Bulgaria?

Be honest, other than Bulgarian split squats 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. First, let’s take a look at its origins.

History of the Bulgarian Language

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The Bulgarian language stems from a language called Proto-Indo-European. From that Proto-Balto-Slavic emerged around 3000 BCE. After about 5000 years Proto-Slavic was developed from the Pre-Slavic language. Proto-Slavic gave birth to all modern Slavic language. Proto-Slavic split into 3 branches.

The 3 branches of Proto-Slavic are East Slavic, West Slavic, and South Slavic languages. Under each branch 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.

Similarities in the Slavic Languages

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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. 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(West Slavic family) you will have more trouble understanding someone speaking Russian (East Slavic family), than you would someone speaking Ukrainian (East 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.

The Cyrillic Alphabet

Do You Need to Learn the Bulgarian Language for Traveling to Bulgaria - Cyrillic Alphabet

The South and East Slavic languages use the Cyrillic Alphabet. If you plan on learning Bulgarian this will be your biggest hurdle as a native English speaker. You can thank the Saints Cyril and Methodius for that.

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 is Macedonian and Bulgarian. This makes learning the two languages relatively easy compared to the more popular Russian language. This makes Bulgarian a great candidate for those who want to learn a 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.

Who Speaks Bulgarian?

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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.

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.

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.

How it Sounds

Bulgarian is also a language of consonants. This is far from a Romance language such as Romanian. The pronunciation of the language comes across as aggressive and almost downright angry. As you become more fluent you learn that this is only partially true. Many of the Bulgarian people are just downright angry, but don’t take it personally! It’s a cultural thing.

Also, don’t be surprised if you hear someone “clicking” and waving their finger at you! That means you really did something wrong. Bulgarians are very expressive with their language. They aren’t afraid to tell you exactly what they think.

One last thing to note is yes and no. In Bulgaria, they shake their head “yes” from side to side. Not, up and down like we do in the US. Shaking your head up and down means “no”. This takes some getting used to.

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.

PS: Make sure you don’t miss our articles about things to do in Bulgaria or our guide to Bulgarian culture.

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