Tag Archives: Bulgarian

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!”

Стъпка по стъпка —Step by step

When you learn a foreign language in your junior high or high school in your home country surrounded by your native language, it is very hard to grasp the culture behind the words and grammar. When you are learning a foreign language as an adult not in school but in country, it is altogether different. On the one hand, you have no textbooks, no instruction of a formal kind—though plenty of the informal, offhand kind that friends and strangers offer you intentionally and unintentionally—there is no lingua franca roadmap.

On the other hand, you hear the word да as you see the head move from side to side, and you hear it said not one but twice or thrice, as in да, да or even да бе да. You hear somone derided as луд and see the speaker’s hand raised parallel to the head, palm facing you and wagging side-to-side. You go to someone’s house and take off your shoes just inside the door. You learn not just how to set the table with seasonal appetizers, but oh how very long the appetizer part of the meal can go on before the main course is served. One could argue, and I do, that you might never learn all your tenses properly as you would in a high school language course, but you will learn the language intrinsically because each word absorbed has a context and an experience tied to it. Immerse yourself long enough and you find that the language eventually is no longer at all foreign. Instead it has nestled itself into you in an organic and irrevocable way.

Learning culture along with language means that you can appreciate a good joke and laugh at it even when you can’t tell the joke yourself. That’s why understanding humor in another language is such a marker not merely of linguistic ability but of real cultural comprehension. Within one year of beginning my journey of Bulgarian language learning, I began to joke with friends and family that I had discovered all of Bulgarian culture could be condensed to the advice I heard continuously from all and sundry. It goes like this:

Стъпка по стъпка, малко по малко, лека полека, ще стане, ще стане, има време.

Step by step, little by little, lightly more lightly, it will happen, it will happen, there’s time.

Book Archeology at 37 Han Krum Street

We had been living in our rented apartment at 37 Han Krum in Sofia for some time before I paid much attention to the bookshelves the owner had left behind. Then one day, I began examining and sorting them out. They were published during the period 1950-1990. In some way, they represented Bulgaria during these 40 years—and not just in the world of literature and publishing. In some way, these book titles, subjects, authors and publishers had something to say about what people and/or their government were thinking or being told to think, experiencing or not being allowed to experience.

Зигмунд Фроид

From finding a book I might read, I moved to viewing the volumes as a literary archeological dig. Instead of stratified layers of dirt, the books offered their subjects and publishers. Instead of looking for soil shapes and colors, I looked at titles and themes. Instead of the context of found objects being their physical location, the context of the books was the political mood of the time. The impact of over 40 years of communism in Bulgaria as well as the changes since 1989 was clear. Highly censored were each and every book and publishing house, but I had free rein to sort the books as I saw fit. Without the experience of growing up in what was a totalitarian state—one in which the Sigmund Freud book my husband for years requested in the national library was always dutifully reported as being “out for repair”—I felt free to sort the books into categories as I saw fit. I didn’t have the knowledge or reference points to be able to recognize books or authors or ideologies, but on the other hand I was free from emotional baggage as I sorted away according to my own ideas and sensibilities. Here are some sample finds.

Layer 1: Publishing Houses

Милан Асадуров

Despite the Bulgarian state being the only legal publisher and the owner of all publishing enterprise, it mimicked the appearance of a varied publishing industry with multiple players by establishing not only publishing organizations with individual names and specialties, but distinct series or “libraries” within. In 1979 Milan Asadurov had an idea for a new series of popular fiction, the Galactic Library, and procured 500 books from the United States for this purpose. For this idea and the 500 books, he and his colleagues were held for several months by the secret state security apparatus. Released after Asadurov provided evidence that these same titles were translated and published in the Soviet Union, he apparently had not bothered to mention that the staff of the Moscow-based Young Guard publishing house had been dismissed 11 years prior for ideological sabotage.


For 19 years, the Galatic Library published over 120 works of science fiction and crime/detective novels by Bulgarian and foreign authors including Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendevous with Rama, Arthur Hailey’s Airport, Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely—thus managing to survive for nearly a decade after the state system that birthed it had itself ceased to survive.

Layer 2: Bulgarian Authors

The publisher People’s Youth is the former publishing arm of the Central Committee Dimitrov Communist Youth Union (known more commonly as the Komsomol, an acronym formed from the Russian organization it mirrored). Clearly our landlady enjoyed People’s Youth author Angelina Dicheva (or perhaps she was a personal friend) as the author wrote notes and signed three books, Surfing in the Ocean of Workdays, Dreams in Jeans and Safaris and—for publishing house Profizdat—With Palms I Cover the Fire. Bulgaria has no surfing, no safaris or, at the time these books were published, jeans available only from abroad or through special hard currency stores inaccessible to all save western diplomats, visitors and the elite nomenklatura. What became of Angelina Dicheva after Bulgaria’s political and social changes? If she’s active, she’s managed to keep those activities off-line; not even the Bulgarian version of Wikipedia has a contemporary mention of her or her books.


People’s Youth also published artist, author (11 novels and short story collections) and professor Evgeni Kuzmanov’s Seagulls Far from Shore; during a 1999 state visit, Bill Clinton was presented with one of Kuzmanov’s sculptures as a gift from the Bulgarian people.

Publishing house Science and Art released Yaroslav Radev’s Thoughts in 1980, Radev being an academician and “the right hand” of Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, who led Bulgaria for 35 years. Thoughts contains 1127 epigrams by Radev. Epigram number one presents itself as a rather cryptic axiom:“Nature contains in itself everything and is a measure of nothing.” The last, epigram number 1127, is “The community must repent that it doesn’t exterminate in turn the evil-doers.” I prefer Oscar Wilde’s “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” Radev died at age 89, ten years after the Berlin Wall and the Communist dictatorship in Bulgaria fell. His body, already cold, was found in the entrance of his apartment, dark due to the electricity being cut off, while his 80-year old wife explained to the inquiring neighbor that Radev was simply resting.

Layer 3: The Russian Impact

From the time of the 1877-1878 Russian-Turkish war in which the Russian victory gave Bulgaria autonomy after 500 years of Ottoman rule to the end of World War II when the USSR firmly esconsed Bulgaria in its orbit, Bulgaria was heavily influenced by its “Slavic brother” on the other side of the Black Sea. Their shared Cyrillic alphabet and the communist Bulgarian education system’s requirement that all students learn Russian allowed Soviet/Russian culture an outsized presence and importance in Bulgaria. So our landlady’s books include the likely not intentionally ironically named Little Soviet Encyclopedia (1959), all nine volumes of which are over 1200 pages. English textbooks published in Russian, a 1975 hagiographic biography of Nikolai Ivanovich Kuznetzov (per the book cover “the glorious Soviet chekist,” the Cheka being the predecessor of the infamous state security apparatus, the KGB) published by the State Military publishing house under its Invisible Front Series imprint.

Сивата Сова

Russian poet and novelist Mikhail Prishvin (1873-1954) had a particular interest in nature and his 1949 The Gray Owl follows Native American man Gray Owl and his relationship with the animals around him, particularly beavers. An unspecified “state publisher” printed the Bulgarian translation in 1966 under the Neptune Library imprint. Neptune might have been a useful rubric for environmentally-themed books, because the same “state publisher” and “Neptune Library” published the 1971 Bulgarian translation of Slovakian ichthyologists Eugen Balon and Ján Seneš’ Expedition Key Largo: Natural History of the Antilles Coral World. Austrian diving pioneer and zoologist Hans Hass’s 1957 We Come from the Sea was also brought out by the Neptune Library. Unfortunately, Neptune Library, like all of Bulgarian publishing of the time, printed on less than optimum paper with less than optimum legibility and its photo reproduction was extremely poor—truly egregious when one is illustrating the beauty and power of the natural world. The same horrendous photographic quality was evidenced in publishing house Zemizdat, when it published a 1976 translation of Silesian-German zoologist and author Bernhard Grzimek’s Among Animals of Africa. Professor Grzimek fared better with publisher Science and Art’s 1967 translation of his 1964 book Serengeti Shall Not Die; possibly that’s why Science and Art is still publishing.

Named in 1964 “Hero of Socialist Labor,” General Lieutenant Ivan Vinarov was a communist from the time of the first world war, a member of the USSR’s Red Army, an intelligence officer in China, commander in the second world war, one of the creators of the Bulgarian People’s Army, holder of various Bulgarian government positions, principal creator of the Kaylaka park and reserve near his birthplace in Pleven, and apparently had the time to author Fighters on the Quiet Front in 1988. It must have been popular (or perhaps required reading) as the copy on the shelf is from the third printing by Partizdat, publisher of party literature in Bulgaria under the communist government.

Layer 4: Translations

In 1985, the publisher People’s Culture put out Norwegian author and Nobel Prize Laureate Sigrid Undset’s 1911 Jenny. People’s Culture also published German author and Nobel Prize Laureate Hermann Hesse’s 1919 Demian. Publishing acknowledged classics that pre-dated the 1949 Communist takeover was a safe move, less likely to be found to be politically incorrect at a later time. Despite this, publisher Christo G. Danov dared (but didn’t exactly put its neck out) released more contemporary works, like Spanish author Juan Goytisolo’s The Island, first published by Havana’s Revolutionary Edition. Goytisolo likely appealed to both his Cuban and Bulgarian publishers as an outspoken bourgeois-born convert to Communism who had visited Cuba, initially supported Fidel Castro’s revolution, and continues to critique post-Franco Spain in his work. Surprisingly the same publisher did seem to put its neck out by publishing in 1967 Scottish physican and author A.J. Cronin’s memoir Adventures in Two Worlds—though Dr. Cronin’s lineage, upbringing, career, and life choices were as bourgeois as could be.


Bulgarian Agricultural National Union waited until 1990 and the fall of the Communist government to publish French author Henri Troyat’s Snow in Mourning. Troyat was born Lev Aslanovich Tarasov in Moscow of wealthy parents who relocated to France after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Thus the publisher’s notes at the back include the heading “New Themed Series: Banned Books” and list the now possible-to-be-released The Facism by Zhelyu Zhelev, former dissident and first democratically elected President of Bulgaria. The Facism had originally been published in 1982, but the controversial work comparing socialism to fascism was banned and removed from bookstores and libraries only three weeks later. Also listed is Nedialko Geshev’s Belene: Island of the Forgotten about one of the most infamous forced labor and concentration camps in Bulgaria’s homegrown gulag and Yosif Petrov’s Cry from the Penal Colony about the improbable creation of poetry in Belene.

Detective and mystery fiction seem to have been safe from political analysis and judgment. Publisher Fatherland collected stories by luminaries such as Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, and George Simenon and published it as Tangled Trail. Publisher Christo G. Danov had its pulse on Soviet detective fiction, putting out Russian author Arkady Adamov’s Loop, second in a trilogy centered on Inspector Losev.

Hans Helmut Kirst

History is always fraught with problems in a Communist society. The power of propaganda in controlling and convincing the population was crucial to sustaining the system, and that meant utter control over history, Communist and pre-Communist. So Partizdat published German author Hans Hellmut Kirst’s Aufstand der Soldaten about the July 1944 attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler—a safe, anti-fascist choice. Georgi Bakalov published Italian Renaissance scholar and traveler Antonio Pigafetta’s First Voyage Around the World—a safe, staid choice originally published in the late 18th century. Fatherland Front was perhaps offering a warning about criminality when it published French-American Rene Belbenoit’s Dry Guillotine, an account of his imprisonment and escape from the French Guiana penal colony—don’t let this happen to you!

Recently I did some research on the Library of Congress website. In addition to the Bulgarian material available at the LOC, I discovered that you can link directly to Bulgaria’s National Library Saints Kiril and Metodi, precisely the library in which my husband tried to find Sigmund Freud. There’s even an electronic catalog listing 55 volumes by Freud. All but three of these date from 1990, but those published in 1927, 1932, and 1947 have presumably had their repairs completed by now.

To Bulgaria and Back

One Great Country You Need to Know More About

When I first met my Bulgarian artist refugee future husband in St. Louis, I had no idea that the word “family” in that old cliché “You don’t just marry the person, you marry his whole family” was woefully insufficient. In fact, I was to marry the entire country of Bulgaria, a country that, sad to report, I had at that time no clear idea where in Europe it was located.

From East Bloc to E.U.

I first visited the People’s Republic of Bulgaria alone when it was too risky for my then fiancé to return. We got married there when the shelves were bare. We vacationed at the Black Sea when American television shows were blaring in every sidewalk restaurant in Sozopol. We lived there during total economic and political collapse. My daughter was born there. We recently lived there with both children for two memorably wonderful years. I’m quite sure we’ll do it again.

Shake Your Head “Да

So I have a certain point of view about, lots of opinions on, and an enduring interest in Bulgaria. I speak its language, I read its history, I eat its food, I sleep with a Bulgarian every night (the same one)—now that’s commitment!

Share a Bulgarian Story—Имало едно време…

Whether you are Bulgarian curious about a sometime expat’s observations or a not-Bulgarian curious about the country, I hope you’ll find something to interest and entertain you here. Whether you ever travel or live in Bulgaria for real or just want to do it vicariously, please share your thoughts. Bulgaria is a Balkan country with no war or famine or natural disaster, but it has its own compelling stories. I have mine to tell. Please tell yours too.