Language of Our Fathers

Dear Reader,

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.

24th September 1955: Women working hard in the typing pool at the Unilever company. Original Publication: Picture Post - 8002 - Leave Youth Alone - pub. 1955 (Photo by Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images)
In many respects, office life has come a long way since 1955 – there are no secretarial pools seething with intrigue and gossip, there is more gender equality as flaunted by unisex bathrooms and less, if any, blatant ogling, now successfully channeled through the office instant messenger. The  desks in my modern, open-plan office are larger than those in the picture and we work on sleek dual monitors, but otherwise, our working space does share something with the one shown above – we do not have desk drawers and have to be very minimal, or creative, about the things we bring to work. Or else, we just stick the jar of honey we use to sweeten our tea, the packets of emergency food, the shoe polishing sponge, the mug, the bottle of water and other necessities behind those monitors and not care how it looks at all. 🙂 (Photo by Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images; Source: Click here.)

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.

The dark-blue area of the map indicates where the Bulgarian-Macedonian dialect continuum, or simply put, the contemporary Bulgarian language, is spoken by the majority of the population. The light-blue colour marks the areas where the same language is spoken by a population minority. Source: Wikipedia.

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.
These are rather cheap paperback editions of classical late-19th-century and early-20th century Bulgarian authors Ivan Vazov and Lyuben Karavelov. There are two books by Vazov – short stories and poems, and one by Karavelov, called Old-Time Bulgarians, or Bulgarians of Yore. It is laugh-out-loud funny, because of the plot, but also because of the quaint language. I have recently bought these from a German budget supermarket chain that operates in Sofia. I was amused that they were on sale as beach literature, alongside chicklit specimens and thrillers of the lowest order. 🙂 Instead of being outraged, I thought this was very cool, because the books were obviously selling, and also because this is how these books were intended to be in the first place – cheap and accessible to everybody, not bound in soft French Maroquin and used as wall decoration. If more people on the beach read the Bulgarians of Yore instead of The Confessions of a Shopaholic, I’d be ecstatically happy.

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.

Something in the same vein: a poetry collection titled 50 Songs and Poems that Make us Bulgarians. This was selling separately or as a supplement to the two most widely-distributed Bulgarian dailies in June.

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.

A modern-day scene from Bulgarian 19th-century play called The Misunderstood Civilisation (Криворазбраната цивилизация) by playwright and teacher Dobri Voynikov (1833-1878). The play is popular to date as theatre repertoire and is also studied in school. It is a comedy, basically telling of Bulgarians adopting the Western European, or alafranga, ways superficially and without a corresponding change in mentality after the liberation from the Ottomans. Many of the nouveau-riche businesspeople and politicians of the post-communism times in Bulgaria acted in pretty much the same way, so the play’s message has not lost its validity. The Misunderstood Civilisation is kind of the Bulgarian equivalent of Moliere’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. 🙂 Source: Click here.

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.

I found this book in my book village – the one I told you about in the Oblivion post. Look how interesting it is – published in Thessaloniki, Greece, in 1890, with inscriptions also in Arabic, with 72 lithographs, old Bulgarian orthography and a title, translated as The Parisian Catholic (meaning encompassing all or belonging to all) Church St. Virgin Mary. Cool, don’t you think?

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.)

Les Classiques Pour Tous! That’s exactly what appealed to me in those Vazov and Karavelov books on sale at Lidl. One of Vazov’s favourite poetry subjects, apart from Bulgaria’s beautiful nature and heroic people, is the Bulgarian language – its expressiveness, richness, melody, power and unjust fate, as similarly to happenings in other countries, the post-liberation nouveau-riche in Bulgaria considered Russian or French superior to Bulgarian, which they disparaged as a peasant and backward language. Well maybe they had poor imagination and vocabulary, because Vazov used the same language to create prose and verse that will go on living for as long as there are Bulgarian hearts beating.

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.

Another interesting book that I took from the book village. It is a longish short story by Henryk Sienkiewicz, called For Daily Bread and published by the Blossom publishing house in Sofia in 1921. The series within which it is published is called A Blossom of Adolescence 🙂 The story is a heart-wrenching tale about two Polish peasants, a young girl and her elderly father, who leave their native village and set out for the New World in search of food and work. Once in America, they face poverty, hunger, loneliness, homesickness and unimaginable hardships. Eventually they both die. So not really that much of a story, but the language is great – very rich and expressive. And I of course judge from the translation, by Dora Gabe, a Bulgarian children’s’ poet and translator of Jewish origin.

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. 🙂

In spite of its delicate name, the Blossom of Adolescence has to appeal to the masses, so if For Daily Bread is not in your line, you can try Mayne Reid’s The Scalp Hunters, translated as The Skull Hunters instead. The contrast between the blossom and the skulls was so high that I giggled when I saw this. 🙂

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.

This is a page of one of my favourite books for reading-and-eating. It’s called How to Behave in Society and was very popular during communism. The regime had a thing for publishing didactic literature, which I adore. 🙂 I like the irony in many of the illustrations too, like the one shown here. It is from the chapter on the culture of speech. I also like how the illustration borrows its style from Picasso. Many children’s books I owned had illustrations in a similar style, it was obviously in vogue at the time. Perhaps I was not cultured enough, as I remember thinking how ugly they were. 🙂

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. 

Albert Long
Dr. Albert Long, Methodist missionary to Bulgaria in the late 19th-century. He held the first Methodist divine service in the old Bulgarian capital of Veliko Tarnovo on Dec 24, 1859. However, the great contribution to Bulgaria of Dr. Long and the British and Foreign Bible Society which was behind him, consisted in supporting, both financially and morally, the first translation of the Bible in contemporary Bulgarian in 1871 . This translation, establishing the literary norms of the contemporary Bulgarian language, was done by a team of two writers. One was a poet and brother of a prominent Bulgarian cleric and the other was Petko Slaveykov, of whose love of good food I told you here. Source: Click here.

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. 

I.5. G17
This is the official Bulgarian coat of arms of the communist times. What really annoys me about it are the two years, written as if on a gravestone. One is the officially accepted year of the establishment of the Bulgarian state, and the other is when communism came and ruined it all. So if you were a historian or a language scholar and you lived in a country with such an year on its coat of arms, would you dare question it? Knowing of the nice little forced-labour camp that happily operated away on the tiny Danube island of Belene? I doubt it…And let me tell you one more thing – one of the first things the communists did after they took power, was to enforce an orthography reform which consisted of removing two letters and one spelling rule from the Bulgarian language, as they were deemed manifestations of Great-Bulgarian chauvinism. Do you know what it means? These letters and the pronunciation they mandated put an equal sign between our language and the spoken norms of the Macedonian. In the same time, Macedonia was part of Tito-led Yugoslavia,which also went to great lengths to erase the Bulgarian identity of Macedonians. Feeling one with a people that was not part of the almighty USSR was definitely ill-advised at the time. Source: Click here.

…This post got me all emotional, so I will end on a very solemn note with several special treats:

  1. 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.
  2. 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. 🙂 😛 
  3. 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.