Why Do Bulgarians Shake Their Heads for Yes and Nod for No?

They say the language of love is universal, but sometimes, knowing another language helps. A popular story in Bulgaria tells of an American who fell in love with a Bulgarian woman. Alas, the story doesn’t end in “happily ever after” thanks to confused gestures.

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Beautiful young woman outdoors on a sunny day
Bulgarian gestures expressing "yes" and "no" put many visiting foreigners in confusing situations. Photo: iStock.com / pixelfit

Their relationship was like a fairy tale. Overwhelmed by feelings, one day, the American man fell to one knee and popped the question. “Will you marry me?” The woman, believed to be a famous singer, froze up before answering. Not a fluent English speaker herself, she relied on body language to deliver the message. She shook her head horizontally. Frustrated by the answer, the man ran away, leaving the woman to wonder what had gone wrong.

You see, she said yes. Here’s the catch: In Bulgaria, shaking your head for yes is the same as the nod for no elsewhere.

The Bulgarians’ bizarre expressions of “yes” and “no” puts many visiting foreigners in confusing situations. It has gotten so serious that this peculiar trait comes up in guides for investing in Bulgaria. “When a Bulgarian tries to adapt to German gesticulation or a German to Bulgarian body language, the confusion can become even greater,” an article in the German newspaper Die Zeit warns.

Sometimes confusing even native Bulgarians

But Bulgarians living abroad are also not spared the confusion upon returning home for a visit. “At this point, I’m never sure what the answer is, so I’m trying not to shake and nod my head. But I’m still confused when someone resorts to body language only.

So, to be sure, I always ask, “Yes or no? Can you answer with words, please,” shares Viktor Yordanov, who has been living abroad for a quarter of a century. “Most of the times when I say I’m Bulgarian, the question that immediately follows is, “Is it true that you shake your head for yes when you mean no?” It’s true, but to this day, I have no idea how this whole thing started,” Yordanov admits.

Historians believe that the possible answer is hidden in the legacy of Bulgarians’ forefathers, the Bulgars. Khan Asparukh, the ruler of Bulgars, is credited with establishing the First Bulgarian Empire in 681 AD. The Bulgars were Turkic tribes living in the Pontic–Caspian steppe and the Volga region in the 7th century. Some research traces their roots further east, in Central Asia. Over the years, they merged with local Byzantine and Slavic populations.

An imitation of … horses

The Bulgars arrived on horses, and they held them in high esteem. And their unique bond with horses might offer the key to solving this mystery: Today’s shake of the head used by Bulgarians simply copies the horses’ behavior, who shake or nod their heads according to whether there’s or there isn’t food in front of them.

According to Greek chroniclers, Khan Kubrat, father of Khan Asparukh, credited with establishing the confederation of Old Great Bulgaria in ca. 632 AD., instructed his five sons to “never separate their place of dwelling from one another, so that, by being in concordance with one another, their power might thrive.” The sons, however, did separate. But where the Bulgarians were numerous and settled permanently, the habit of shaking their heads persisted.

Determined to preserve their culture, the Bulgars exhibited another trait still recognizable in modern-day Bulgarians: being headstrong. Or stubborn even. Today, when expressing their disagreement over something, small or big, Bulgarians might be heard saying, “Nobody is going to show me how to turn my head!” Here we go again with the head movement.

A trait picked up from the Ottomans

Another theory links this habit with India by way of the Ottoman Empire, of which modern Bulgaria was part. As evidence, some point out that this confusing habit can also be spotted in Albania, Greece, and Turkey. And finally, there’s the story, also linked to the Ottoman rule, of some Bulgarians being forcibly converted to Islam. According to the legend, Bulgarians swapped the meaning of the signs, so when the Ottoman rulers asked whether they wanted to convert, they would shake their heads for yes, when they meant no.

Do you think this is confusing? After visiting Bulgaria, try crossing the border to Greece, where ναι, the Greek word for yes (pronounced ne), sounds exactly like the Bulgarian word for no (не in Bulgarian). You’ve been warned.

Galina Ganeva

a journalist with experience working for some of the most influential Bulgarian publications. She mostly writes about the intersection of society and culture

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