As a native Bulgarian, I remember the hot summers at the Black Sea coast, playing with Russian kids. Although we had different native languages, we were able to understand each other almost without any difficulty.
Generally, the communication between the Bulgarian and Russian people happens with astonishing ease.
Clearly, these are Slavic languages and they share a common origin. But then why do I find it harder to understand Polish tourists than the Russian, for instance?
I assume you might be wondering, too, why these two languages, divided by hundreds of kilometres, have remained so mutually intelligible.
Well, this blog aims to unveil the secret! First, we will look at the historical development of these two languages and highlight the most prominent periods and features.
Then, we will look at the differences and similarities, and finally, we will tackle the mystery surrounding these two languages.
1. Bulgarian vs Russian: Speakers
Indeed, when it comes to distribution, these two languages are extremely different.
Russian has become one of the fastest-growing languages in the world with over 250 million native speakers. It is an official language not only in Russian but also in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan.
What’s more, its spoken in most former Soviet republics such as Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Native Russian speakers scattered all over the world: in Cyprus, Finland, Hungary, Mongolia, Poland, China, the US, Israel, and even in Bulgaria.
Bulgarian, on the contrary, is an official language only in Bulgaria and its native speakers are estimated to be around 8 million people.
Recognized Bulgarian minorities are in Macedonia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Moldova, Ukraine, Serbia, Albania, Romania.
There are big Bulgarian communities in Spain, Germany, Austria, the US, and the UK. Unfortunately, due to the current demographic crises in Bulgaria, experts claim that by 2100 the Bulgarian language might even become extinct.
2. History of the Bulgarian language
You will be surprised to learn that Bulgarian is the first Slavic language that attained a writing system – what we call today the Cyrillic alphabet. Thus, in antiquity, it refers to Bulgarian as the Slavic language.
Generally, the diachronic development of the Bulgarian language can be divided into four main periods:
- Prehistoric period (7th – 8th century): this period is marked by the beginning of the migration of the Slavonic tribes to the Balkans and ends with the shift from the now-extinct Bulgar language to the Old Church Slavonic. This shift initiated with the mission of Saints Cyril and Methodius who created the Cyrillic alphabet. This writing system was based on the Greek one, but a few new letters were added to represent some typically Slavic sounds that were not found in the Greek language.
- Old Bulgarian period (9th – 11th century): during this period Saints Cyril and Methodius together with their disciples translated the Bible and other pieces of literature from Greek to Old Church Slavonic. This was a literary norm of a Common Slavic language from which Bulgarian stems.
- Middle Bulgarian period (12th – 15th century): a new literary norm, stemming from Old Bulgarian, occurred and established itself as an official language of the administration of the Second Bulgarian Empire. During this period the Bulgarian language underwent massive changes in terms of simplification of its case system and the development of a definite article. It was also heavily influenced by its neighboring countries (Romanian, Greek, Serbian) and later on during the 500-year Ottoman rule – by the Turkish language.
- Modern Bulgarian (16th – present): this was an intense period for the Bulgarian language marked by crucial changes of grammar and syntax during the 18th and 19th century which eventually led to the standardization of the language. The modern Bulgarian was heavily influenced by the Russian language, however, during WWI and WWII these Russian loanwords were replaced by native Bulgarian words to a greater extent.
Overall, the historical development of the Bulgarian language can shortly be summarized as the transition from a highly synthetic language (such as Old Bulgarian) to an analytic language (such as Modern Bulgarian).
3. History of the Russian language
As mentioned above, during the 6th century began the migration of the Slavic tribes. Some of them settled in the Balkans, however, others continued to Southern Europe.
By the 10th century, three main Slavonic language groups had established: Western, Eastern, and Southern.
The modern languages that we call today Russian, Ukrainian and Belorussian, in fact, emerged from the Eastern Slavic language. As all Slavonic languages, these also used the Cyrillic (or also called the Slavonic) alphabet.
However, in Russian, the Cyrillic script was written only in capital letters (also caller legible ustav). Later on, the cursive got developed.
A number of changes during the rule of Peter the Great as well as in 1918 led to the simplification and standardization of the Russian language.
Before this standardization, Old Church Slavonic wrote the norm in Russia until the 18th century.
Thus, a new, modern written language was needed to better express “the educated spoken norm”.
According to M. L. Lomonosov, a Russian scientist, and writer, there are three styles in the Russian language:
- High style – Church Slavonic which used primarily in religion and poetry.
- Middle style – used in lyric poetry, prose as well as scientific writing.
- Low style – used in low comedy and personal correspondence.
It was the Middle style, that then used as the basis for the creation of the Modern Standard Russian language.
4. Bulgarian vs Russian : Differences & Similarities
Despite the fact that Russian and Bulgarian speakers can understand each other very well, these two languages are very, very different.
Bulgarian vs Russian: Difference
- Russian has a complex case system, while Bulgarian has lost its case declension almost entirely.
- Bulgarian verbs have no infinitive form, Russian – still have it (e.g. ходить meaning to walk)
- Bulgarian is a synthetic language and as such, the definite article added after the noun or the adjective (e.g. маса or a table becomes масата or the table). Russian has no definite article.
- Russian has a specific way to address people – besides the name of the person, the name of the father added (e.g. If you are called Ivan and your father’s name is Andrej then people in Russian will address you as Ivan Andrejevich)
- Bulgarian is older than Russian and thus, has kept the Old Slavonic personal pronouns (аз, ти, той, тя, то, ние, вие, те) while Russian uses more modern forms of the personal pronouns (я, ты, он, она, оно, мы, вы, они).
- Bulgarian is heavily influenced by Turkish, Romanian, and Greek. Russian by German and French.
- Since Bulgarian is more archaic than Russian, it has kept more vocabulary from the Old Slavonic language. (e.g. to whisper or шепна ( pronounced as /’shepna/) in Bulgarian is a word dating from the 7th century).
Similarities between Bulgarian and Russian
When it comes to similarities, the list is much shorter. Generally, the most obvious common feature between Bulgarian and Russian is that both of them use the Cyrillic alphabet.
However, both languages have adapted it to their own sound systems and thus, there are some minor differences in terms of the letters.
Have a look at the pictures below and compare. On the first image, you can see the Bulgarian alphabet, while on the second one – the Russian.
5. How are Russian and Bulgarian mutually intelligible?
Funny enough, it seems like the differences between the Russian and the Bulgarian languages are more than the similarities. Yet, these two languages have a high degree of mutual intelligibility.
Indeed, Russian people claim that they can understand 70-80% of what they hear or read in Bulgarian. The opposite is true for Bulgarian speakers as well.
But how is this possible?
Some people would say it is simply due to their common origins. Although they belong to the Slavic languages family, they are in two different subfamilies – Bulgarian is part of the Southern while Russian belongs to the Eastern subgroup.
Moreover, these languages separated by hundreds of kilometres, and thus, it is hard to imagine that they have heavily influenced each other.
If I have to be honest, there is no clear answer to this question. There are multiple factors that influence this mutual intelligibility.
On one hand, Bulgarian is much more simple than Russian in terms of grammar and thus, easier to understand by the Russian people.
On the other hand, the Russian languages have been an obligatory subject at school nearly three decades ago and hence, people born during that time are fluent in Russian and are able to understand it very well.
Even the younger Bulgarian people are used to the sound of Russian speech since there are a lot of Russian shows on Bulgarian TV.
Also Read: 10 Untranslatable Bulgarian Expressions
I remember that as a child I used to watched Russian cartoons on the TV.
Thus, it might be the case that Bulgarian people might simply grow surrounded by the Russian language and consequently, have grown accustomed to the sound of it.
Moreover, the common origin of these two languages, the Old Slavonic, might be yet another reason why they are mutually intelligible.
Overall, you can clearly see that there is not a single answer to this question. Also, it should point out that the degree of mutual intelligibility might vary from person to person.
The Bulgarian and Russian people have always been on good terms and have always respected each other’s cultures.
The similarity of their native languages might have as well cultivated this close friendship or it might as well be the other way round.
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