an intense week that has concluded a six-month transition project at my job has come to a close. Alongside the strain, fatigue and irritation that I have often felt, I was surprised to discover that over the past days I have gained something else too – a new feeling of focus on and control over what I do, as well as renewed pleasure in the activity itself.
I have even uncluttered and re-organised my desk, which for women is tantamount to changing hairstyles or buying a new perfume (which latter I did too :)). It means something inside me has changed and is yearning for external expression.
Be that as it may, over the past days, I have also thought about the one thing that has contributed the most to my ending up doing what I do. Given that my job has very much to do with writing, this single-largest contributing factor is my love of language and my belief that it should be studied with diligence and used with love and respect. When I started learning English at the age of eight, this idea had already been instilled in me and had been applied to my native Bulgarian.
It is about this – my beautiful, mistreated, largely unknown and unappreciated language that I want to tell you about.
For nearly a century, since western-European language scholars started taking interest in the Slavic and Balkan languages in the 1930s, the Bulgarian language has been alleged to be part of the eastern sub-division of the southern Slavic language family. It is the only member of this subdivision, while members of the western subdivision are the Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Montenegrin and Slovenian languages.
If we take a closer look at the historical evolution of this mysterious eastern sub-division, we see that it consists of:
- the ancient Bulgarian of the 9th century which was sophisticated enough for divine service and colloquial-language literature, unlike any Slavic (or Western-European for that matter) language of the time;
- the 10th-century Russian revision of the same, which gave origin to the Church Slavonic we use today;
- the 12th-century Serbian revision of the same, which gave rise to the written Serbian language used during the Middle Ages;
- the New Bulgarian Language, spanning a vast period between the 12th century and the middle of the 20th century;
- as well as the contemporary Bulgarian language, together with its wayward spin-off – flesh of its flesh – the contemporary Macedonian.
The common vocabulary between the languages of the recently collapsed Ottoman empire and the fact that they all emerged on the European language scene in the second-half of the 19th century, made scholars interested in the subject classify them en gross as Slavic. However, rather than explaining something, this ridiculous classification system is simply stating the obvious – if you look at the map, Bulgarian is spoken more to the east, while Serbian et al. more to the west of the Balkan Peninsula.
To make matters worse, the Slavic refrain has been reiterated, time and again, ever since the Russian Empire adopted its pan-Slavic doctrine in the 17th century to provide grounds for its expansion aspirations. This came on top of many Bulgarians having studied in Russia and having been exposed to Russian cultural influences in the 19th century. In addition, there was the gratitude my people felt towards the empire for having waged a war against the Ottomans that brought about our liberation from the 500-year dominion.
All this created perfect conditions for the theory of the Slavic provenance of Bulgarian to gain strong foothold in the minds of not a few Bulgarians and non-Bulgarians alike.
In addition, the long and culturally very undermining Ottoman rule had successfully instilled in Bulgarians a deep aversion to the rulers, which was transferred to all their attributes – culture, language, clothing, even music. So the idea that we are actually Slavs, related by blood to the blond Vikings of the mighty country that kindly came to liberate us, was more than welcome. It’s only that perhaps it wasn’t true.
After about 50 years of independent state existence between the liberation and 1944, the octopus of USSR-led communism spread its sticky arms over my land – as large as a human palm as the poet says – suffocating all voices that ran contrary to the official doctrine. Thus, the identity of Bulgarian as a Slavic language akin to Russian, became the only permissible one out there. (By the way, having only one permissible line of thought has a somewhat stultifying effect on scholarly enthusiasm. It is also among the reasons for the appearance, during communism, of huge and over-staffed centres for the study of everything, with sinecure jobs that promoted poor work ethics, intrigues and laziness – a bane felt in Bulgaria to date.)
In fact, Bulgaria’s allegiance to the USSR was so pronounced that the communist leadership in Sofia took action twice to turn the country into an official 16th Soviet Republic. This, thank God, never happened, but it is still high treason, though the post-Communism governments never dared officially proclaim it as such. Yet, I hope.
It is true that the Bulgarian and the Slavic languages comprising Russian, Ukranian, Serbian, Czech, Slovak and Polish, among others, share some common vocabulary, but the Bulgarian grammar and the grammars of these other languages are so widely different, that Bulgarians cannot come even close to speaking a semblance of Russian or any of the other Slavic languages without prior instruction. At best we can utter words, whose roots, if Slavic, could be recognised and understood, but there is no chance that we would be using proper grammar whatsoever. The reverse is true as well.
So according to contemporary language scholars, unburdened with the dogmatic restraints of the past, our mother tongue started adopting Slavic vocabulary at around the 6th-7th century AD, when the ancient Bulgarians met the Slavs on the Balkan peninsula. However, the base onto which these Slavic traits were added consisted of an already developed language and grammar that were not Slavic at all. (What they were is difficult to say, but there are many theories.)
According to scholars, vocabulary is flexible, meaning it responds to stimuli from the environment by coining new words and usages all the time, but grammar – the underlying logic behind a language – is very conservative and almost impossible to change. Grammar is like Logos – it is the wisdom, order, reason and judgment which gives meaning, a soul if you want, to what would otherwise be random and lifeless words. Grammar is like the breath of God and is just as eternal. 🙂
The major difference between Bulgarian and the Slavic languages is that Bulgarian is analytical, i.e. it uses prepositions and not cases to express the relationships between the words in a sentence. All the other Slavic languages, without a singe exception, are synthetic, meaning they rely on cases to express the relationships between words in a sentence. Also synthetic are the Balkan Peninsula languages that are not Slavic – Greek, Turkish, Albanian and Romanian.
Language scholars have also discovered that Bulgarian and those non-Slavic Balkan languages share many common traits in their grammar, syntax and vocabulary which have arisen as a result of their many centuries of geographical proximity. All this time, however, has not been sufficient to change the grammar, neither of Bulgarian, nor of the others.
In line with this, one of the theories for the provenance of the Bulgarian language is that it is the only indigenous Balkan Peninsula language and is in fact the ancient and long-lost Thracian language. Meaning, of course, that the Bulgarians are the Thracian. 🙂
Other interesting things related to the grammar of Bulgarian and not common to the Slavic languages, is that it does not have an infinitive verb form and uses a full and abbreviated article (like the in English) for its nouns, assigning the full article to nouns which are the sentence subject and the abbreviated one to nouns which are not. If you ask the average Bulgarian, he’d tell you that this is the most annoying and difficult feature of our language. Which isn’t true of course, it’s just that they never learned to tell the difference between subject and predicate. This is first taught to eight-year-old children in the third grade.
Bulgarian also does not distinguish between staying in a location and moving towards a location, both in the question words and the prepositions. For example, Where are you going? and Where do you live? are translated with the same “where” in Bulgarian. In Russian they are not. Also, I am going to Sofia and I live in Sofia are translated with the same preposition. In English, Russian, German, Italian, French and Turkish, to the best of my knowledge, they are not. Not that these, apart from Russian are Slavic, but my personal resources reach up to this far. 🙂
So, not to turn this post into a treatise on comparative grammar – as this is a task totally beyond me – let’s summarise that, according to the current scientific thought in Bulgaria, the Slavic origin of our language is, to say the least, very doubtful. We accept that we have a Slavic component, but not Slavic origin.
Many historical sources available at libraries and museums worldwide have still not been properly studied by Bulgarian language scholars or historians, because of doctrinal restrictions in the past and because of heavy under-funding in the present.
However, what is generally accepted and has always been known, even to communist-time scholars, but which has never become state-supported history (yet), is that Bulgarians are a far more ancient people, whose developed state and language are much older than the year 681, still officially propagated as THE year of the establishment of the Bulgarian state.
…This post got me all emotional, so I will end on a very solemn note with several special treats:
- А 2011 video from the Bulgarian edition of talent show X Factor. The 25-year-old contestant I want you to look at was born in the Philippines, comes to Bulgaria from California, is a Peace Corps volunteer and teaches English in Bregovo of all places – my Wallachian slip of a village located a stone’s throw away from both Serbia and Romania in north-western Bulgaria. This got me interested right away, but in addition, the guy, whose name is Rafael, speaks excellent Bulgarian after having spent only two years in the country, and sings a very beloved old Bulgarian song in a really astonishing way. The song is Я кажи ми, облаче ле бяло and tells of a Bulgarian immigrant who speaks to a white cloud in the sky, asking it whether it has passed above his birth-house and whether it has seen his garden and his mother. Then the immigrant asks the cloud to go back to his birth house and tell his mother it has seen him and he is healthy and doing well. This song brings tears to the eyes of all Bulgarians, immigrants and residents alike.
- A song by rock band Epizod, of whom I talked here. The song actually puts to music a poem by Ivan Vazov, the patriarch of the Bulgarian literature, who quite literally reinvented the Bulgarian language after five centuries of Ottoman rule. The poem is called My Songs and is a monologue of Vazov, who muses on how he will eventually die, to the contentment or sorrow of many, whose feelings will however not change the power and emotional load of his songs, that will go on living forever. How very prophetic. And this song, or poem, is great for waving the national flag and singing at top voice at concerts. 🙂 😛
- A poem by Evtim Evtimov, one of my favourite contemporary poets, who unfortunately passed away this June, aged 83. I haven’t posted poetry translations for quite some time and I hope you’ll like this one. The poem was written in the 1980s and I am not sure which are the enemy forces the author claims are undermining his right to be Bulgarian. On an obvious level, they might be the West and capitalism, considering the historical realities of the time, but on a less obvious level, they might be the domestic communists and the USSR too, who knows.
So I am leaving you the Bulgarian word, which, unlike the Bulgarian sword, has never, ever been broken. And that’s something to cherish and be proud of.
In the still of night would unknown shadows
Descend upon me, never to depart,
The foundations of my soul assaulting,
Bulgaria and me to draw apart.
They beguile me their creed to follow,
Bowing to them, offering them bread
As they the whole of me attempt to swallow,
Making me grow weaker and upset.
They beguile me foreign words to utter
Make my senses summon no more God,
As through my mind a fervent question circles
Am I Bulgarian or am I not?
Now the original:
Дори и нощем сенки непознати
дохождаха до лявата ми гръд,
в душата ми да вдигат атентати,
България и мен да разделят.
Едното ми око към тях да гледа,
едната ми ръка да слага хляб
на тяхната трапеза вяроеда,
а аз да ставам все по-слаб,
неверния им глас и аз да нося,
а моя да загубва своя гръм
и отговор да нямам на въпроса,
дали съм българин или не съм.