Monthly Archives: October 2015

More Language Difficulties

When I started to learn Bulgarian in mid-1995, I naturally began with vocabulary closest to home: food I ate, transportation I used, day/date/time, and so on and so forth. And one of the themes, naturally, was the family—my place in my husband’s family and how the people in his family were related. I had no idea then that such a simple thing in English was such a complicated one in Bulgarian.

BG_semeino_rodova_leksika_coverThere are many words in Bulgarian where one word in English suffices. I asked why one aunt is addressed in one way, a second in another, and a third in yet another. Some would answer that these were dialect and regional differences, some would answer that it was a mix of archaic and modern terms, and some would answer it was all semantics and the differing words in fact signified no actual difference in usage. Most people just shrugged their shoulders and said they had no idea. Even my two office colleagues who had finished their degrees in Bulgarian Philology weren’t quite certain and asked for time to reflect and research. It seems there is enough on this subject to literally fill an encyclopedia.

In fact, there are regional differences and there are inconsistencies in use and there are redundancies. While in English we don’t even try to understand exactly how this woman became your aunt (paternal, maternal, blood, marriage), Bulgarian relative vocabulary attempts to do just that. Thus the word “aunt” has at least four Bulgarian terms in active usage:

laylya (леля) sister of one’s mother or father (or as a term of respect for any woman one generation older than oneself)

tetka (тетка) sister of one’s mother

strinka (стринка) wife of one’s father’s brother

voyina (вуйна) wife of one’s mother’s brother

Complicating the already complicated, the first term is simultaneously used for a completely non-familial purpose, something I was in fact familiar with; in my Eastern European-descended family, I too grew up referring to my parents’ closest friends as “aunt” and “uncle.”

Not to be outdone, “uncle” as well parses out the precise relationship in at least four commonly used words:

chicho (чичо) brother of one’s father (or as a term of respect for any man one generation older than oneself)

voycho (вуйчо) brother of one’s mother (or husband of one’s mother’s sister)

lelin (лелин) husband of one’s father’s sister

tetin (тетин) husband of one’s mother’s sister

To cap off this little exploration, I give you two more English terms and their Bulgarian “equivalents:”


zulva (зълва) sister of one’s husband

balduza (балдъза) sister of one’s wife

snaha (снаха) wife of one’s brother (or wife of one’s son)

eturva (етърва) wife of one’s husband’s brother

shurnaika (шурунайка) wife of one’s wife’s brother


shurei (шурей) brother of one’s wife

dever (девер) brother of one’s husband

badjanak (баджанак) brother of one’s wife’s sister

zet (зет) husband of one’s sister (or husband of one’s daughter)

In fact, so deep do I feel I have delved into these minutiae of family terms that I can’t help but noticing that the Bulgarians seem somehow to have missed one. If shurnaika (шурунайка) is the wife of one’s wife’s brother, then shouldn’t there be a word for the husband of one’s husband’s sister? Thankfully, there is only one word for one’s husband and mine was as confounded as I by all of the above and asserted that it was all too complicated even for a Bulgarian native speaker. And being that he has no sister, we need never worry how to refer to the non-existing sister’s husband.

Complaining about the difficulties may be a stock part of learning a foreign language, but there are of course wonderful discoveries to be made. You find unanticipated parallels, direct translations that really work, and idioms that can never be translated but that you can relish for the way they allow you to savor another culture. When taking a photograph in Bulgaria, be sure to encourage the subject to say zele (cabbage), not cheese. A Bulgarian man may admire the мацка (matzka or pussycat) passing by in her short skirt and high heels, but anyone will use пиленце (pilentzsay or chick) as an endearment in the same way an English speaker will use the word “dear.” If you literally translated these words you would confuse people, and possibly insult them.

леля дойдеBut you can literally translate the English expression often used by adults who can’t resist affectionately pouncing on the children in their midst, namely: “I could eat you up.” If language can shape thought, then the fact that here you can precisely translate between English and Bulgarian is linguistic evidence that two cultures of different experience and attitudes share some very important common ground in the expression of love between parents and children.

Language Difficulties

Anyone attempting to learn Bulgarian (or Russian or Kazakh or Mongolian, for that matter) might well ask—as I do—why the Bulgarians thought they needed a new alphabet when they could have just used one of the already existing alphabets to write their language. I can never get quite a satisfactory answer, but of course it’s a moot point after over a millennium of Cyrillic use. So important do Bulgarians consider their alphabet that they celebrate its creation as part of Day of the Alphabet, Culture and Education each May 24. It’s a very big deal.

It’s hard to overestimate the modern-day presence of brothers Saints Cyril and Methodius. Institutions from the Bulgarian national library to the oldest university in Sofia to the weekend Bulgarian school in Minnesota are named for them. Cyril, the younger brother, was the superior linguist so his name was given to the alphabet used today. The brothers were missionaries to the Slavic peoples and created the Glagolitic alphabet to ease translation of the Bible into Old Church Slavonic—not an easy sell to Rome which insisted only Greek, Latin and Hebrew could be used for religious and cultural purposes. This left the majority of people unable to understand church services, let alone read the limited books available.


The brothers were called to Rome to defend themselves, but they went on the offensive. Cyril asked “And are you not ashamed to recognize only three languages, and to ordain that all other peoples and tribes shall be blind and deaf?” Pope Hadrian II answered by permitting the brothers to use Old Slavonic—and by extension the alphabet used to transcribe it—in the liturgy. That was nearly 1100 years earlier than the 1962 Vatican Council approved the use of the vernacular for everybody else. After the brothers died, Pope Stephen V revoked permission for Old Slavonic’s use and thereby added linguistics to the pressures mounting towards schism between Western Rome and Eastern Byzantium.

The Cyrillic alphabet is actually a visually completely different alphabet than the Glagolitic preceding it. But the development of an alphabet specifically for Slavic-speaking peoples made possible the creation of Cyrillic and so the alphabet’s name is an homage to them. It has 30 letters and can be easily learned. Each letter has just one sound and no two letters are redundant. There are none of the complications with English vowels that have both long and short sounds.


I’ll concede that Bulgarian is not the most difficult Slavic language to learn. Russian, the most widely spoken of the Slavic languages, is far harder. The Russian version of the Cyrillic alphabet even has three letters more than the Bulgarian, and then too Russian uses the infamous case declension that torments students of Russian worldwide. Still there are plenty of aspects of Bulgarian vocabulary and grammar that continue to torment me. For example, Bulgarian has three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. While my brain has absorbed most noun genders as a process of brute memorization, there are some words that continue to trip me up. Reflexively I think of a boy as male and a girl as female, but in Bulgarian these nouns are “neutral” gender. Why is the pronoun “it” the same for the masculine and neuter nouns it substitutes, but different for the female? Why do you have to count masculine nouns altogether differently than female and neuter? And worse, why do you have to count male nouns referring to people (student, teacher, doctor, lawyer, etc.) differently depending on whether you are referring to a specific number of them, a more general many of them, or even a general several of them.

Nouns and their genders are a relative walk in the park, however, compared to Bulgarian verbs. There are two versions of nearly all verbs, depending on whether you are conjugating them as an action in progress or an action that has an end. Unclear? Precisely. And while English uses phrasal verbs, that is verbs modified by adding an adverb or preposition (e.g., write, write out, write down, start to write), Bulgarian verbs add prefixes (pisha, prepisha. napisha, zapisha). That adds to the memorization chore; at least it does for me. I do realize that Bulgarians are equally tasked with approaching English verbs—I have been told many times that the verb “to get” is the hardest verb to get in the English language. But at least one prominent Bulgarian person of letters seems to be sympathetic to my plight.

Stefan Tzanev

Stefan Tzanev is a contemporary Bulgarian essayist, playwright, poet and novelist. In 2009, he completed his four-volume Bulgarian Chronicles, which documents Bulgaria’s history from 2137 BCE to nearly the time of the final volume’s publication. He riffs on a number of grammar constructions unique to Bulgarian, including a pet peeve of mine that, according to Tzanev, even the Russians have not bothered to include as a further complication to their lives. If you want to speak in Bulgarian about something that has happened in the past, the verb tense/conjugation is different depending upon whether you personally witnessed the action or simply heard tell. So I cannot say “my mother went to school” in the same verb construction as my mother can say “my daughter went to school” because I did not witness my mother’s school attendance, while she was there for mine. Tzanev—a Bulgarian native speaker!—writes:

“As we have reached the verb tenses, a panic grabs me, in spite of my being a Bulgarian, and for foreigners this is a real nightmare, because they have in their languages four, five, six verb tenses, but in Bulgarian…

Since I am very weak in definitions—which tense in which form is called what—but as well not to frighten my reader, before his astounded eyes I will conjugate our former…favorite verb “to drink”…in the following 10-20 ways.”

Tzanev goes on to conjugate the verb “to drink” in all its possible forms and in fact ends up with 36 ways.

“Does this luxury exist in other languages? And that last masterpiece [a five-word phrase required for one tense] directly brings each translator to the point of suicide—he will require, poor fellow, two pages to explain what is going on…ah to your health!”

A Human Being Has Been Shot

The details are still being sorted out. But a human being has been shot for crossing a line. He crossed a line that for him was from an impossible life to a possible life. But to the shooter, it was a border and it was illegal to cross.

site of shooting

It might have happened in the UK. There it might have been a Bulgarian shot.

Dave Brown Independent

It happened in Bulgaria. Bad luck for Bulgaria. Because it might have happened anywhere in Europe so pointing fingers is both pointless and disingenuous.


And the worst part is that it is a surprise only that it hasn’t happened before. Because the sole purpose of borders is to divide “us” from “them.” Who’s in and who’s out. “Us” don’t want “Them” to cross the line.

The Guardian

We grieve.


Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

СлънцеIn 1996, I flew from Sofia for a week-long visit to my family in DC. I had made a reservation for a seat in the non-smoking section of the Balkan Air (now reconstituted as Bulgaria Air) flight that would take me on the first leg of the trip. The plane was a small one for this first short flight, the center aisle dividing each row of four seats narrow. Elbows leaning on the aisle armrest nearly touched that of the stranger opposite. It did not take long for the smokers to light up and, as far as I could tell, they populated every row.

When I asked a stewardess why I wasn’t in the non-smoking section, she pointed to the left side of the plane. “The left side is non-smoking, the right side is smoking.” In every row, from the first to the last.

АрдаWhatever your habits, how virulently you may support or resent smokers, you can’t help but notice how much tobacco is used in Bulgaria. Last year, NPR reported that Bulgaria along with Greece and Macedonia were the smoking hotspots. This year, the Sofia news agency’s Novinite confirmed the same. Though now there is a smoke-free law, it’s clear that there is little to no stigma to smoking and violations of the smoking ban frequent. People of all ages and backgrounds smoke, though in villages very few women do.

Smoking’s role in Bulgarian culture has a long history. Smoking is entwined with the Ottoman Empire, the lure of the “Oriental tobacco” trade, the reliability of that tobacco as an economic driver, and the cultivation of cigarette smoking as an affordable and glamorous luxury. In 2012, Mary Neuburger published Balkan Smoke: Tobacco and the Making of Modern Bulgaria exploring this history and its impact on Bulgaria today. So important was tobacco to Bulgaria that the Communists simply centralized and monopolized the trade, but made little change otherwise to this crucial economic driver.

ПловдивIronic, then, after over a century of Bulgaria’s careful cultivation of not only the tobacco leaf, but the tobacco and cigarette export business (not to mention stalwart encouragement of its population to smoke its own product), that the Russian state-owned VTB bank should have bought 80% of the Bulgartabac monopoly in a 2011 “privatization” sale.

It is indubitably a trite analogy, but the Russians elbowed their way from the right across the aisle created by the Black Sea and Bulgarian’s role in Bulgartabac went up in smoke.