In 2007, with the accession of Bulgaria to the European Union, Cyrillic script became the bloc’s third official script, along with the Latin and Greek alphabets. The early Cyrillic alphabet was developed in the 9th century at the Preslav Literary School in the First Bulgarian Empire by followers of two brothers, Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius, who had previously created the Glagolitic script.
In Bulgaria, 24 May is a day full of celebration, not to mention the country’s biggest holiday. It is the Day of the Holy Brothers Cyril and Methodius, as well as the Day of the Bulgarian alphabet, education and culture, and Slavonic literature. On this occasion, 3Seas Europe is debunking three myths often connected to the Bulgarian language.
Myth #1: The Bulgarian language is so similar to Russian; it’s practically Russian
Prof. Dr. Nadka Nikolova, lecturer at The Constantine of Preslav University of Shumen
The Bulgarian language is a member of the Slavic language family, but unlike other Slavic languages, it has specific features. While they are defined as synthetic languages – with the presence of the category of case, with the infinitive in verbs and other distinctive features, the Bulgarian language is analytical – the cases and the infinitive have died out.
Also, in the Bulgarian language, the verb system is highly developed – there are nine verb tenses (in other Slavic languages, there are from three to seven), and there is also a special category for restating events that the speaker has not witnessed. Thus, it is defined by scholars as both classical, i.e., the first written Slavic language, and exotic.
It cannot be claimed that Bulgarian descended from Russian – I find this claim puzzling. On the contrary, Bulgarian was, for many years, the written language of the East Slavic peoples (the so-called Russians). After the 15th century, it was partially adapted to the phonetics of the Russian language, and since it was used primarily in worship, it was called Church Slavonic. With this, the Bulgarian literary language became the international language of Orthodox Slavic for a long time. Today, of course, Church Slavonic is an archaic language and is not functioning.
Myth #2: The Bulgarian alphabet was borrowed from Russia
Prof. Dr. Veselin Panayotov, lecturer at The Constantine of Preslav University of Shumen, Head of the Preslav Literary School Research Centre
Frankly, the claims that the Cyrillic alphabet was created in Russia are ridiculous. I also laugh when someone claims that the Bulgarian language originated from Russian. Back in the 1950s, to highlight Bulgaria’s proximity to the then-Soviet Union, this was suggested to the Bulgarian public. But there’s nothing of substance to support these claims. While the Cyrillic alphabet was created and adopted in the mid-9th century, in the First Bulgarian Empire, it spread northeast, to the lands known today as Russia in the 10th century, along with the introduction of Eastern Christianity on this territory. It’s as simple as that.
Myth #3: If you speak one Slavic language, you understand all Slavic languages
Robert Rubaj, a Pole living in Sofia
I started learning Bulgarian during my first year of studies in Slavic Studies at the University of Warsaw. Under the influence of a stereotype, I chose it as a major language – the similarity of alphabets, ergo, the Russian and Bulgarian languages seemed to me at the time similar, if not – almost identical, which is not true.
These languages, upon closer acquaintance, turn out to be completely different from each other. Poles listening to Bulgarian will certainly be able to pick up a few understandable vocabulary words even before they start learning. This also works the other way around, though words that are similar at first glance can become potentially “dangerous” and appear as false friends.
Moving forward, we will also encounter many differences. Perhaps the most important difficulty, especially at the beginning of dealing with the language, is the difference between the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. Other theoretical difficulties include phonetic differences. Polish has a very weakly expressed fixed accent, whereas Bulgarian has a strong expressive, moving accent.
Another difficulty is the issue of the residual inflection of Bulgarian against the very elaborate inflection of Polish. Bulgarian, as an analytic language, is characterized by a complex temporal system (multiple grammatical tenses or witness and non-witness modes). This category can be difficult to understand for a person who only uses the distinction between past, present and future tenses in his native language. The lack of inflection also results in a multiplicity of verbs, which is important even when learning at a communicative level, such as the multiplicity of verbs of motion in Bulgarian in opposition to the few forms of 3-4 basic verbs of motion in Polish.
An important aspect of learning is also understanding the cultural context. Among the most basic ones, we can include, for example, the division into three times of the day when greeting in Bulgaria (good morning, good day, good evening) instead of two in Polish (good day and good evening). There are also more complex ones, like the multiplicity of borrowings from Turkish in everyday speech or ancient Greek borrowings in Bulgarian and their Latin cultural equivalents in Polish.
After completing my master’s degree, I moved to Bulgaria permanently. Phenomenal climate, geography, fascinating culture, people, and the general atmosphere, these are some of the things that reward you for the hardships of overcoming the barriers to learning the Bulgarian language.