Development of a Bulgarian literary language was stalled for centuries thanks to subjugation of Bulgarian culture by forces such as the Greek Church and Turkish political rule.
An awakening of Bulgarian nationalism in the 19th century led the Bulgarian people to make demands not only for their freedom, but also for Bulgarian language education, paving the way for the development of the standardized modern Bulgarian language used today.
Disputed Classification of the Bulgarian Language
The Bulgarian language is classified as a South Slavic language, along with the closely-related Macedonian language. Due to the fact that the two languages are actually so closely related and that linguistic divisions in the area are not finely delineated by geopolitical boundaries, there has been some dispute concerning the classification of the Macedonian and Bulgarian languages.
The country of Bulgaria considers Macedonian to be a southwest dialect of the Bulgarian language, rather than an autonomous language. In contrast, many Macedonian linguists classify the Bulgarian language as a Macedonian dialect. Although such disputes exist, the majority of scholars outside of the Balkans region classify Macedonian and Bulgarian as fully autonomous languages.
Early History of the Bulgarian Language
In the 6th century AD the Slav people migrated from Old Poland, eventually resettling throughout Eastern Europe. Three primary Slavic language groups emerged in this resettlement process: Eastern, Western, and Southern, from which the Bulgarian language originated.
Throughout the 8th and 9th centuries, the Bulgar people who had inhabited the region before Slav migration gradually came to be assimilated by the new Slavic majority. Although there are no concrete records providing information about this time, historians agree that Christianity undoubtedly played a significant role in the assimilation process, as it provided a common culture that all could share.
Old Bulgarian: Influence of Christianity on the Bulgarian Language
The period of the Old Bulgarian language, also known as Old Church Slavonic, dates roughly from the 9th to the 11th centuries. In order to facilitate the spread of Christianity in the region, the Saints Cyril and Methodius designed an alphabet which could be used to write the Old Church Slavonic. Using this alphabet, the missionaries also translated parts of the Old and New Testament into Old Church Slavonic.
Changes During the Middle Bulgarian Period
Dating from the 12th to 16th centuries, the middle Bulgarian period began with Bulgaria’s subjugation by the Byzantine Empire. During this time, a number of linguistic changes occurred which came to set Bulgarian apart as a distinct language. The loss of cases in the noun, for example, was a major development since this characteristic was a dominant trait in the Old Church Slavonic from which the Slavic languages derived.
The Advent of the Printing Press and Development of Modern Bulgarian
Before the 16th century, Bulgarian texts were written in an archaic language combining features of Old Church Slavonic (Old Bulgarian) and Middle Bulgarian. The modern Bulgarian language can be dated from approximately the 16th century onward. The advent of the printing press in the 1500s and subsequent prevalence of published religious texts, which were widely read, played a significant role in the development of modern Bulgarian.
It was not until the 1800s however, that a standardized written Bulgarian language was to be fully established. The early 19th century saw the standardization of the written Bulgarian language, as well as the awakening of a Bulgarian national consciousness and the advent of a Bulgarian literary revival.
Bulgarian Nationalism and the Development of Modern Literary Bulgarian
Throughout the period of Turkish rule over Bulgaria, beginning with the Ottoman conquest in 1396 and lasting until 1878, the development of a standardized written Bulgarian was stalled. Around 1830, movements in Bulgaria called for freedom from both Ottoman rule and the domination of the Greek Church.
This movement found inspiration in the 1762 historical work “Istoria Slaveno-Bolgarska” (“Slavo-Bulgarian History”), written by the monk Paisii of Hilender. Written in a mix of Church Slavonic and the popular spoken Bulgarian tongue, the book encouraged Bulgarians to identify with a uniquely Bulgarian past, distinct from that of other Slav peoples, and inspired a new national consciousness in Bulgaria.
While rallying for freedom, the Bulgarian people also made demands for Bulgarian language schools and educational texts. Bulgarian public education was soon developed and with it, a modern Bulgarian written literature appeared. Known as “novobulgarski” (new Bulgarian), this literary language first emerged around the 1820s and 30s.
Purification of the Bulgarian Language
The modern Bulgarian language that developed from the 16th to 19th centuries included a significant number of loanwords, primarily from the Russian and Old Church Slavonic languages. A renewed sense of Bulgarian nationalism in the early 20th century led to efforts toward purification of the Bulgarian language.
Consequently many of these loanwords were eliminated and replaced with loanwords from the native Bulgarian or other languages. Today, Bulgarian includes words borrowed from the French, German and Greek. The language also has a significant number of Turkish loanwords, thanks to a strong Byzantine heritage and almost 500 years of Turkish rule.
Unique Traits Shared by Bulgarian and Macedonian
Bulgarian is most closely related to the Macedonian language, a fact that has caused disputes about the languages’ classification among linguists in the Balkans region. Macedonian and Bulgarian offer a stark contrast to the other Slavic languages thanks to certain grammatical features adapted from other language families.
One such notable characteristic is the fact that the definite article is placed after the noun or adjective, like in Albanian or Romanian. For example, the word for table, masa, has a “ta” added when specifying “the table”: masata. Another unique trait shared by the two languages is that both have lost case endings for nouns despite the fact that this was a dominant trait in the common Old Church Slavonic.
Bulgarian Language Today
Bulgarian can be classified into two major dialect groups, eastern and western, each divided into north-south subgroups. It serves as the official language of Bulgaria where approximately 90 percent of the population claims Bulgarian as a mother tongue. Overall the Bulgarian language is now spoken by more than 9 million people, most of them located in Bulgaria, as well as in parts of Greece, Ukraine, Moldova, and Romania.
Bulgarian Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Balgarski
Language Family: Indo-European, Slavic, South, Eastern
Official Language of: Bulgaria
Spoken by Approximately 8,955,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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