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.
There 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.
But 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.