Tag Archives: language

Bulgaria, When Not In Bulgaria

We returned from our Bulgarian vacation 2½ weeks ago. As is always the case, all too soon one is subsumed in the everyday and the local. The vacation, the sense of place where one was seems immediately substituted for the tasks at hand in the place one is now. And yet, as if one is wearing an unmistakable identifying scent, Bulgarian encounters have a way of happening even outside Bulgaria.

My son and I were at a farmer’s market near where we live in DC. We were choosing from a variety of luscious-looking tomatoes—not yet ready to give up the wonderful taste of garden tomatoes in Bulgaria—and talking, in Bulgarian, about our choices. And then we heard agreement about those choices, in Bulgarian. I whirled around and was greeted by a smiling face. “Здравейте (Hello)!” We did not know this woman, this Bulgarian who told us she had emigrated to DC over two decades ago, but we had a lovely conversation between the crates of tomatoes and the crates of eggplant. After we progressed to the cashier, her American companion told us how happy we’d made her friend by connecting her in this unanticipated way to her language and country.


We were at the pool, having it nearly all to ourselves on a weekday early afternoon. The lifeguard had a familiar accent. Then he heard us talking. He was not Bulgarian, but Serbian, and recognized familiar words. We began to talk about life there, life here. He asked would we want to live in Bulgaria again. Eastern Europeans generally, in my personal experience, often wish to hear the experience of here and there compared and contrasted—assuming that one will confirm the belief that life here is better, easier, richer. I said yes, yes, we did think that someday we would live in Bulgaria again. And as I spoke about the things we valued—the easier, more fluid and informal social life, the balance between work and leisure, the more human pace, less expectation that one must continually strive for more—he found himself nodding in assent. And when I mentioned that the children are dual citizens of the US and the EU, I inadvertently held up Bulgaria as a country to be envied by a Serbia without that advantage.

The other day we attended a funeral for a relative who died after a years-long debilitating illness. At the service, we heard of the love story he and his wife had, people from two sides of the Atlantic meeting in a third country. We heard of how they took a lengthy trip through Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, and on through Western Europe to marry in her English hometown. I had known about this 1967 travel in Bulgaria, but had forgotten it. Later that day Kathy asked me if I’d been to Петрич (Petrich). I haven’t. Then she recounted a terrible summer rainstorm outside of Sofia. “It rains, of course, a lot in England, but not that kind of hard rain. I was very scared.” And I said I had rarely experienced a true rainstorm in Bulgaria, one with thunder and lightening, but we had to stop on the road up to Витоша (Vitosha) Mountain this summer because the rain and the hail made for such dangerous going. “It was probably the same place,” she said. Same Bulgarian experience, nearly five decades later.

Rarely does Bulgaria appear in American media, and I do search regularly on websites of major media outlets. Yet twice last month The New York Times covered Bulgaria, once highlighting a small village, “Bulgarians Hope Che Guevara and Brigitte Bardot Can Save Their Village” and once the Black Sea, “By Bulgaria’s Beautiful Black Sea.” Lucas Peterson, author of the latter article, wondered why he “hadn’t made it to this part of the world earlier.” My mother, who has been to Bulgaria twice and who hasn’t read Mr. Peterson’s article, often wonders why people haven’t made it to this part of the world. She and my father find it as beautiful as my husband and I do.

shaking hands

In a little over a month, Bulgaria when not in Bulgaria will show itself most strongly in our Saturday afternoon Bulgarian school. Българският Образователен и Културен Център “Свети Климент Охридски” (St. Kliment Ohridski Bulgarian Education and Cultural Center) will hold classes in Bulgarian language, literature, social studies, history, and the natural world. There will be classes in theater, national dance, and art. And all will be taught in Bulgarian by native speakers and educators. For a few hours, within the boundaries of the United States capital, children from pre-school through 12th grade will feel they are in Bulgaria. They may or may not ever live there, but something of the country will live in them.

Dr. Seuss, Insects, and Agatha Christie

Деца играят вънIt’s the classic Catch 22 scenario. I find it hard to read in Bulgarian because there are so many words I don’t know, and I can’t learn more words if I don’t read in Bulgarian. The book I ever tried to read in Bulgarian was Деца играят вън (Children Play Outside) by Георги Данаилов (Georgi Danailov). My friend Vessela loaned it to me, certain that I would be able to struggle through it and I did. But it took a long, long time. I made a rule, often broken, that I could not break out the dictionary every five seconds or I’d never finish.

I didn’t even know until very recently that the Yuli around which each of the three parts of the novel revolves are three different, albeit with the same name, characters. But I forgive Mr. Danailov’s creative license for fooling me; I imagine no Bulgarian reader suffered the slightest confusion. I vowed to keep reading in Bulgarian every night, certain that improvement would follow. I broke my vow within days. Improvement by osmosis naturally did not follow.

The Foot BookThen we had our daughter and I was determined she know Bulgarian from the start. I spoke to her only in Bulgarian and began reading to her immediately. We collected Bulgarian board books and fairy tales and naturally these presented no problem. When we ran out, it was easy enough to translate English books on the fly. Since she couldn’t read, she had no way of knowing that Dr. Seuss’s The Foot Book did not really begin ляв крак, ляв крак, дясен крак, дясен (left foot, left foot, right foot, right). Most of Dr. Seuss did not lend itself to such translation—really, what can you do with There’s a Wocket in My Pocket?—but other simple early books did.

When she was in preschool, we went to National Geographic’s enormous Warehouse Sale in the cavernous D.C. Armory. 90 percent off their original prices! Among other things, she just had to have a book about insects. Suffice it to say that I had not previously made насекоми (insects) a focus of my Bulgarian vocabulary enrichment. I knew пчела (bee), мравка (ant), комар (mosquito), паяк (spider—and yes I know, not technically an insect), муха (fly), and хлебарка (cockroach). I put in the time. I did my homework. I learned богомолка (praying mantis), бръмбар (beetle), and щурец (cricket). I learned антена (antenna) and челюст (jaw), and жило (stinger). I couldn’t conduct an adult converation about philosophy or politics, but could talk a good game about the anatomy of various буболечки (bugs).

Discovery KidsHaving conquered the crawling, often flying world, I was ready for the jungle and ocean. Egmont Bulgaria put out Bulgarian versions of Discovery Kids books so we bought Амазонската Джунгла (The Amazon Jungle, published as Rainforest Explorer in English) and Безкрайният Океан (The Infinite Ocean, published as Ocean Explorer in English). So I was able to learn that a тукан (toucan) has a клюн while a папгал (parrot) has a човка.

In English, we’re a bit simpler—all the birds eat with beaks no matter the bird size or the beak size.

I learned that quite a lot can be translated literally—words like clownfish and zebrafish and swordfish. Just switch the adjective and noun order, and translate—presto, chango, you’ve got риба клоун, риба зебра, and риба меч. But that doesn’t always work. Jellyfish is NOT риба слатко, it most definitely is a медуза and the pain from its touch might well make you wish you really would turn to stone.

By this time, we had our son. His interests necessitated learning an entirely new vocabulary. I found myself growing conversant with върколаци (werewolves) and вампири (vampires). I asked the Sofia seamstress making me a skirt to save the extra material so that I could make a наметало (cape) for my little супергерой (superhero). He fell in love with a book on пирати (pirates) so I added плячка (plunder) to the list of words useful with the preschool set at the playground, but fairly useless when going out with other adults.

Harry_Potter_Complete_SetClearly, I needed to find books I could truly read for myself—and vocabulary enrichment of an entirely different order. Having read the entire English-language Harry Potter series aloud to my daughter, I decided that I would embark on reading all seven books in Bulgarian. It took an embarrassingly long time to do it—two years!—but I felt triumphant. I put each successive book on my night table and made a rule that my bedtime reading could only be in Bulgarian. Of course, I do not need to use new words such as котел (cauldron) and мантия (cloak) very often, but I did find myself lost in the story for much of the time and much of the time—though not all—plunging on past the unfamiliar words.

Пет Малки ПрасенцаReading Bulgarian translations of English language books I was already familiar with was my key to getting over the Bulgarian language reading hump. Thus Agatha Christie. Easy to find in any Bulgarian bookstore and straightforward to read. Having read through Пет Малки Прасенца (Five Little Pigs), however, I did not find that I could solve mysteries like Hercule Poirot. It was not possible to know which child broke the plate or took the last cookie before dinner without being present at the scene of the crime.

In just a few days, we will leave for a month-long vacation in Bulgaria. I’ve read through all the Agatha Christie mysteries I had bought on my last trip. Perhaps now I’m ready to read a Bulgarian novel. Do you have any suggestions?




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.