Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juli 2006

1.5. Cultural Dynamism and Language Contact
Herausgeber | Editor | Éditeur: George Echu (University of Yaounde I)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Changes in the Bulgarian Language during the Centuries: Impact of Different Cultures on the Language in the Past

Ivanka Sakareva (South-Western University of Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria)



Language contact not only changes a language, but also enriches it. This paper focuses on the changes in Bulgarian during the Greek and Turkish slavery, and the influence of other cultures that led to a lexical and even semantic change. The paper further emphasizes and shows how often loanwords are used, even more often than Bulgarian words in some regions (and dialects). It reveals how different cultures influence each other, whether such influence is positive or negative.


The Bulgarian language is a member of the large family of Slavic languages which are part of the Indo-European languages. As any other language, Bulgarian is a historic phenomenon. It originated as an independent language with its typical and distinctive features in a determinate stage of the development of the dialects of the Slavic tribe . In its many centuries of existence, the Bulgarian language has experienced a distinguished development . It is neither a result of a precise epoch, nor a peculiarity that is typical to a particular group. Its origin can be found in the far past and its gradual development has gone on in the course of many ages. In its development, there were no sudden leaps and transitions from one quality to another. The changes in the grammatical structure occurred slowly through a gradual and invisible accumulation of new qualities and the gradual withering of old ones.

A remarkable special feature of the language is the uncommon stability of its grammatical structure. With such stability, its main vocabulary also distinguishes itself. These important components of the language change their character very slowly. The fastest are the changes in the common vocabulary because of the changes in the cultural and historical atmosphere, which a certain nation develops and lives in, are reflected in it . In this vocabulary, foreign language influences, which are often a result of language contact, are easily observed.

This study dwells on the changes that occurred due to the impact of different cultures both in the past and today. They are mainly at the level of the lexicon, that is its vocabulary. We will focus on the changes in Bulgarian during the Greek and Turkish slavery period, and the influence of the other cultures and languages that led to lexical and semantic changes in the language. But for such changes to be described, it is necessary to say a word on the history of the Bulgarian language.

Our historical overview will start with the 14 th century when Bulgaria was under Turkish slavery. The oppressors imposed the Turkish language and the Eastern culture in the conquered lands. Furthermore the Turkish people settled in some regions, a situation which encouraged the spread and strengthening of the influence of Turkish on Bulgarian in those regions. There are lots of traces that reveal such influence. Most of the villages and towns are full of Turkish names of streets, market places and neighbourhoods. In the past, everything that was connected with the administrative, commercial and craft life was in Turkish. Gradually a lot of Turkish words entered the vocabulary, especially in the plant and animal fields. There were a great deal of Turkish words on clothing , furniture and cutlery. It was difficult to eradicate them from the vocabulary because they entirely substituted their Bulgarian equivalents. Some of those words are still used nowadays .

In connection with the geographical spread of Turkish words, a certain unevenness was observed. Not all of the Bulgarian districts were equally affected by the Turkish lexical influence. More words succeeded to enter the East Bulgarian vernaculars because of the considerable number of Turkish people who settled there. That explains why some scholars hold that in the Eastern parts of the country not only was the lexicon affected, but the grammatical structure of the language as well. However, this point of view remains controversial.

In comparison with the Turkish nouns, the number of verbs and adjectives taken over by Bulgarian is considerably small. There is a typical sign in verbs of Turkish origin thanks to which one can recognize if it is a borrowing. This is the suffix "s". For example, the word " бояди свам" (in Turkish "boyadim) meaning "paint" has an "s" in its suffix.

As concerns Turkish nouns that entered the Bulgarian language, we should mention, first, the fact that there are three genders in the language: masculine, feminine and neuter; and there is no gender in the Turkish language. That is why Turkish nouns have received a corresponding gender in Bulgarian, depending on the character of their ending. If they end in a consonant, they are turned into masculine nouns (for example: "пазар", meaning "market", " бадем", meaning "almond", etc) . If they end in a vowel, they take the feminine and neuter gender.

As regards Turkish adjectives, most of them have remained unchanged and do not have gender markers. Only in some rare cases when the ending of the Turkish adjective coincided with a Bulgarian suffix, it took on all the peculiarities of the Bulgarian adjective. Thus only a small part of the adjectives were given Slavic suffixes, and in that way they were fully included in the system of Bulgarian adjectives.

The use of Turkish adjectives in the Bulgarian language in an unchanging and invariable way is an extraordinary special feature. It illustrates a significant period in the Turkish-Bulgarian language relations and reveals the intensity of Turkish influence. Because of the stability of Bulgarian adjectives, they could not be greatly affected by this influence. However, Bulgarian adjectives did not lose their qualities. Bulgarian did not succeed to subordinate Turkish loan adjectives to its internal rules.

It should be noted here that thanks to the struggles, which started even during the Revival, most of the Turkish words have disappeared and others have been replaced with Bulgarian equivalents. That is why some words have remained not in the literary vocabulary, but in the vernacular. Today, words borrowed from Turkish that exist in literary Bulgarian can be subdivided into four subsections:

  1. clothes and adornments: 'елек', meaning 'sleeveless jacket' ; 'басма' - 'cotton print'; 'калпак' - 'cap'; 'халат' - 'dressing gown' ; 'тока' - 'buckle'; 'кеневир' - sacking, etc.

  2. dishes, drinks and taste: 'геврек' - 'pretzel'(sesame ring); 'бюрек' - 'cheese pasty'; 'боза' - 'millet-ale'; 'хайвер' - 'spawn' ; 'пастърма'- 'dried meat'; 'саздърма' - 'corned-beef/pork' ; 'таратор' - 'cold yoghurt and chopped cucumber soup', etc.

  3. agricultural life and furnishings: 'тенджера' - 'pot' ; 'торба' - 'sack / bag'; 'ютия' - 'iron'; 'тава' - 'large baking dish'; 'тиган' - 'pan'; 'кофа' - 'bucket'; 'казан' - 'cauldron'; 'бурма' - 'screw'; 'капан' - 'trap' and others .

  4. Relatives: 'балдъза' - 'sister-in-law'; 'баджанак' - 'brother-in-law', etc.

In addition, there are three more spheres where some Turkish words are found in Bulgarian. These are names of places and objects of inanimate nature such as 'балкан' - 'mountain' ; 'баир' - 'rising ground, hill'; 'канара' - 'cliff', etc. The other concerns animals and fishes, for example: 'катър' - 'hinny'; 'паламуд' - 'belted bonito'; 'хамсия' - 'sprat', etc. And the last sphere has to do with plants and trees - 'арпаджик' - 'onion seed'; 'зарзала' - 'apricot tree'; 'чинар' - 'sycamore' ; 'чимшир' - 'box shrub/boxwood', etc. These borrowings reveal the impact of the Turkish language on Bulgarian during the period of slavery.

It should be mentioned here that not all of the Turkish loanwords do have a Turkish origin. A great number of them are Arabic or Persian words. But, of course, there are words in Bulgarian that come from these two languages. Here the question arises as to how these words penetrated the Bulgarian language, given that there has been no interaction among these cultures and languages and Bulgarian. The answer is that Arabic and Persian borrowings entered Bulgarian through the intercession of Turkish. Arabic words that penetrated through Turkish and that are used in the Bulgarian literary vocabulary are, for example, 'ереген' - 'bachelor'; 'еснаф' - 'guild'; 'късмет' - 'luck'; 'халка' - 'wedding ring'; 'везни' - 'scales'; 'макара' - 'reel', etc. Persian borrowings used in Bulgarian, that entered the language through Turkish are: 'дюшек' - 'mattress'; 'килим' - 'carpet'; 'лале' - 'tulip'; 'памук' - 'cotton'; 'чадър' - 'umbrella'; 'чаршаф' - 'bed sheet'; 'шал' - 'scarf', etc.

Apart from the Turkish slavery period, there is also the Greek slavery period. Here, two sub-periods could be distinguished. The first one is connected with the acceptance of Christianity and the building of the Old Bulgarian language in the 9 th and the beginning of the 10 th century. The borrowings were in connection with the Christian religion: 'ангел' - 'angel'; 'икона' - 'icon'; 'манастир' - 'monastery', etc. Most first names of people that exist nowadays entered during this period: Стефан - Stephen ; Георги - George ; Петър - Peter; Александър - Alexander, etc.

The second sub-period is considered to be the period of the slavery which dates from 1108 to 1187. A lot of loanwords penetrated mainly through the spoken medium. The Greek influence continued up to the 14 th century as can be seen by words such as 'магданоз' - 'parsley'; 'майстор' - 'master hand'; 'колиба' - 'shack'; 'ливада' - 'meadow' . Later, in the Revival some of the school subjects had Greek names: 'география' - 'geography'; 'физика' - 'physics'; 'морфология' - 'morphology'; 'театър' - 'theatre', etc.

Coming to the Balkan Peninsula, the Slavic got in touch not only with the Greek culture and language but with Latin, too. For example, the names of months are Latin. Other loanwords include 'кукла' - 'doll'; 'палат' - 'palace'; 'порта' - 'gate', etc.

So far, we have concentrated on neighbouring countries. We will now turn to the impact of Romanian on the Bulgarian language. Its influence was not as important as Turkish, because it affected only the areas along the Danube and these borrowings are observed in the vernacular of that region. Since they are not used in other parts of the country, we are not going to give examples here.

Among the different Slavic languages that influenced the development of Bulgarian, the most prominent is Russian. This began in the middle of the 19 th century and continues up to now, although its intensity and extent had not been the same all the time.

During the Revival, the Russian language significantly affected Bulgarian as it enriched its literary vocabulary. The extent of the Russian impact was determined not only by cultural and historical reasons, but also by the considerable similarities between the two languages. That is why some elements in Russian words are similar to those of Bulgarian. A lot of Bulgarian verbs that end with " -вам" come from Russian. For example, 'уважавам' - 'to respect'; 'заявявам' - 'to declare'; 'наблюдавам' - 'to watch, to observe'; 'старая се' - 'to endeavour', etc. A great deal of the international cultural vocabulary entered the Bulgarian language through Russian during the same period. Some examples are: 'република' - republic', 'демокрация' - 'democracy', 'революция' - 'revolution', 'парламент' - 'parliament', 'департамент' - 'department', 'култура' - 'culture', 'литература' - 'literature', 'климат' - 'climate', etc.

In the same period, the category of active nouns with the suffix " -тел" increased again thanks to the Russian language. These words are mainly nouns expressing professions: 'изследовател' - 'explorer', 'завоевател' - 'conqueror', 'учител' - 'teacher', etc. Together with that noun suffix also appeared almost the same adjectival suffix '-телен' such as in: 'внимателен' - 'attentive, careful'; 'забележителен' - 'remarkable'; 'изпълнителен' - 'executive', etc.

Russian influence on the Bulgarian literary vocabulary continued after the Liberation from the Turkish slavery in 1878, as it was especially strong in the first two decades. Lots of Russian words penetrated into Bulgarian and have remained in the vocabulary, enriching mainly the terminology in the socio-political, administrative, military and scientific fields. After the October revolution in 1917, new Russian words with a socialist meaning entered the language. These words are no longer in use. Then, with the victory of the September rebellion in 1944, Russian influence was deeply felt in the socio-political, economic and scientific spheres. While some of the new words were built on a Russian model, others got the suffix '-ник' and '-чик'. These were mainly nouns relating to professions that are no longer in use today.

Russian became the main source for filling up and enriching the terminology in all the spheres of science and technology. It also contributed to the large category of verbal nouns with the suffix '-ние': 'вълнение' - 'agitation, emotion', 'въображение' - 'imagination', 'извинение' - 'excuse', 'споразумение' - 'agreement, understanding', etc. Again thanks to the influence of Russian, Bulgarian was enriched with nouns ending with '-ие', such as 'известие' - 'notification', 'безумие' - 'madness', 'изобилие' - 'abundance', 'подножие' - 'foot of mountain', 'премеждие' - 'misadventure', 'предградие' - 'suburb', etc. M ention should also be made of the suffixes '-ост' and 'ство' in the formation of abstract nouns such as 'активност' - 'activity', 'алчност' - 'greediness', 'наследство' - 'heritage', 'количество' - 'quantity', 'качество' - 'quality', 'имущество' - 'property', etc . The Russian impact was also crucial in spreading nouns ending with '-ствие', e. g. 'удоволствие' - 'pleasure', 'присъствие' - 'presence', 'отсъствие' - 'absence', 'произшествие' - 'accident' and so on . A great number of compound nouns were equally taken from Russian: 'параход' - 'ship', 'небосклон' - 'sky, heaven'; 'риболовство' - 'fishing', etc. Lots of verbs ending in "нича" that came from the Russian "-ничать" are observed in Bulgarian: 'безделнича' - 'to idle', 'любезнича' - 'fawn', 'важнича' - 'to be bumptious', etc.

As we can observe, the Russian influence on the Bulgarian language is enormous. The Russian language and culture have helped and contributed hugely in the building and enriching the literary vocabulary of the Bulgarian language. Thus Russian has played and is still playing an important role in the development of Bulgarian.

Other Slavic languages that have contributed in the development of Bulgarian are Serbo-Croatian, Polish and Czech. Influences from the Serbo-Croatian language are noticeable in words such as 'читанка' - 'spelling-book', 'читалище' - 'library, reading-room', 'увод' - 'introduction', and 'речник' - 'dictionary'. Some Polish words also entered Bulgarian mainly through Russian: 'будка' - 'newsstand', 'манерка' - 'canteen for water', 'щик' - 'bayonet', etc. As for Czech, its influence was greater after the Liberation, and it was connected with terms such as 'киселина' - 'acid' and 'водоравен' - 'horizontal'. In all, borrowings from these Slavic languages are limited due to the limited contact that existed between them and Bulgarian.

We will now focus on the impact of some West European languages such as French, German, English, Italian and Portuguese on Bulgarian.

It is proven that in the first decades of the 19 th century, French words such as 'армия'- 'army', 'брилянт' - 'diamond' and 'етаж' - 'floor' were used in the Bulgarian language. In the next decades their number increased and these words penetrated mainly through literature via Russian, Greek, Turkish or Romanian, and after Liberation they entered directly through French. The borrowings from this language are connected with socio-political life, material and spiritual culture, military life and culinary art. As in the case with Turkish, they can also be subdivided here into several subsections:

  1. Lexis from socio-political life: 'буржоазия' - 'bourgeoisie', 'паспорт' - passport', 'кариера' - 'career', 'бюро' - 'bureau', 'пропаганда' - 'propaganda', etc.

  2. Lexis from material culture: 'гараж' - 'garage' ; 'антре' - 'entrance-hall', 'гардероб' - 'wardrobe', 'басейн' - 'pool', 'гара' - 'station', 'хотел' - 'hotel', 'ресторант' - 'restaurant', 'канапе' - 'sofa', etc.

  3. Lexis for clothes and fashion: 'ботуш' - 'boot', 'блуза' - 'blouse', 'балтон' - 'greatcoat', 'жилетка' - 'waistcoat, vest', 'жакет' - 'jacket', 'мода' - 'fashion', 'крем' - 'cream', 'парфюм' - 'perfume', 'костюм' - 'costume, suit', etc.

  4. Lexis of dishes, cakes and drinks: 'бисквити' - 'biscuits', 'бульон' - 'b о uillion', 'десерт' - 'dessert', 'ванилия' - 'vanilla', 'майонеза' - 'mayonnaise', 'кафе' - 'coffee', 'конфитюр' - 'jam' , etc.

  5. Lexis of technical terms: 'батерия' - 'battery', 'велосипед' - 'bicycle', 'такси' - 'taxi', 'помпа' - 'pump', 'изолация' - 'isolation', 'монтаж' - 'assembly, fitting', etc.

  6. Lexis from the spiritual sphere: 'балет' - 'ballet', 'жанр' - 'genre', 'ансамбъл' - 'ensemble', 'екран' - 'screen', 'режисьор' - 'producer', 'белетрист' - 'fiction writer', etc.

  7. Lexis from banking and commerce: 'аванс' - 'advance'; 'амортизация' - 'paying off (fin.), wear and tear (techn.); 'бордеро' - 'bank statement'; etc.

  8. Lexis from the military domain: 'капитан' - 'captain'; 'казарма' - 'barracks'; 'лейтенат' - 'lieutenant'; 'генерал' - 'general'; 'ескадрон' - 'squadron'; 'парад' - 'march past'; etc.

The number of nouns of French origin found in Bulgarian is greater than the number of verbs and adjectives. From the verbs, we can mention a group ending with '-ирам', such as 'абонирам' - 'subscribe', 'илюстрирам' - 'illustrate', 'бомбардирам' - 'bomb, etc. Among adjectives are 'елегантен' - 'elegant', 'глобален' - 'global', 'дискретен' - 'discreet', 'ефективен' - 'effective', etc.

Loans from German began entering Bulgarian at the time of the Revival, but their role in the enrichment of this Slavic language, as felt mainly in the military and technical spheres, was after the Liberation. Originally, the influence was through Russian, then later through some other Slavic languages and finally Bulgarian borrowed directly from the German language. A considerable number of words of German origin are found in the technical sphere: 'кран' - 'crane', 'клапа' - 'valve', 'винт' - 'screw', 'муфа' - 'muffle', 'месинг' - 'brass', etc. This is closely followed by military terms such as 'офоцер' - 'officer', 'щаб' - 'headquarters' and 'рота' - 'company'. Other fields where German influence is felt include dishes, food, art and culture, and sports. This can be observed in the following examples: 'шунка' - 'ham', 'кренвирш' - 'frankfurter', 'танц' - 'dance', 'бруст' - 'breast stroke', etc.

As regards English, its lexical influence on Bulgarian is considerable. A lot of English words are used in the fields of sports, technology, socio-political life and navigation. During the Revival period, the influence was not so strong. It increased after Liberation, especially after the Second World War. Words such as 'футбол' - 'football', 'мач' - 'match', 'волейбол' - 'volleyball', 'баскетбол' - 'basketball', 'гейм' - 'game' , and 'голф' - golf' are a common feature of Bulgarian. Some technical and naval terms have also entered Bulgarian through English: 'джип' - 'jeep', 'бойлер' - 'water heater', 'танкер' - 'tanker', 'яхта' - 'yacht', etc.

Nowadays the influence of English in the area of tourism and hotel management has spread intensively and fast. More and more English loanwords are used instead of their Bulgarian equivalents. This is because they are shorter in length and easier to be written. Some examples are 'рецепция' - reception desk', 'паркинг' - 'parking', 'резервация' - 'booking', etc.

It should be noted that there are some other fields such as the legislative as well as clothes and music where English words have substituted their Bulgarian counterparts, for example 'парламент' - 'parliament', 'клуб' - club', 'партия' - 'party', 'митинг' - 'meeting', 'джаз' - 'jazz', 'рокендрол' - 'rock and roll', etc.

Other West European languages and cultures such as Italian also had a certain impact on the Bulgarian language. Examples of Italian words found in Bulgarian include 'дамаска' - 'damask', 'панталони' - 'trousers', 'капаро' - 'deposit', 'капела' - 'hat' and 'салата' - 'salad'. A huge amount of Italian words entered the following domains:

- Art: " карикатура' - 'caricature'; 'скица' - 'sketch'; 'гротеска' - 'grotesque'

- Music: 'концерт' - 'concert'; 'дует' - 'duet' ; 'виолончело' - 'violoncello'

- Literature: 'новела' - novel'; 'сонет' - 'sonnet'

- Banking: 'банка' - 'bank'; 'валута' - 'currency'; 'капитал' - 'capital'; 'нето' - 'net weight'; 'бруто' - 'gross'

- Nourishing products: ‚ бира' - 'beer'; 'лимон' - 'lemon'; 'макарони' - 'pasta'; 'пица' - 'pizza'; 'олио' - 'cooking oil'

- Civil and social life: 'документ' - 'document'; 'секретар' - 'secretary'; 'канцелария' - 'office' ; 'гвардия' - 'guard'

As regards Spanish, some of the Spanish words that entered the Bulgarian language include 'цигара' - 'cigarette', 'пура' - 'cigar', 'тиранти' - 'suspenders', etc.

As for Portuguese, just a few words such as 'портокал" - 'orange', 'фламинго' - 'flamingo', and 'кашалот' - 'sperm whale' have remained nowadays in Bulgarian .

These are not all the languages that have affected Bulgarian but the others left in Bulgarian very little impact . They include Norwegian ( ски -ski ) , Sweden (каюта- cabin), Chinese ( чай- tea) , Japanese ( кимоно - kimono) and Dutch ( вахта - watch; дрейф- drift).

All these languages have affected Bulgarian, since most of their lexis entered Bulgarian not only through borrowing but also through loan translations and neologisms. Examples of loan translation include под-разделе-ние (French sub-division), съзвучие (Greek symphonia), кратко и ясно (German kurz und gut), небостъргач (English skyscraper) and many others.

In all, the Bulgarian vocabulary has changed a lot over the centuries. But these language contacts not only change the vocabulary but also enrich and develop it. The paper shows that a great deal of the Bulgarian lexicon disappeared because loanwords are used very often and have in several cases replaced their equivalents in Bulgarian. It is worthwhile mentioning here that in the course of these contacts, the different cultures influenced one another so much so that not only did Bulgarian borrow from the other languages but the other languages also borrowed from Bulgarian. Sometimes this influence may be a negative one because through loanwords, loan translations and neologisms the language loses the beauty of its vocabulary and its authenticity. However, the positive note is that through borrowing a language can develop and enrich itself. Finally, while lauding language and culture contact as being beneficial, not too many loanwords should penetrate the language if its typical special features are to be preserved.

© Ivanka Sakareva (South-Western University of Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria)


Andreychin, L. (1973) Language Problems, Sofia: Education and Art.

Mirchev, K. (1964) The Bulgarian Language through the Centuries, Sofia: Education and Art.

Mirchev, K. (1967) Historical Grammar of the Bulgarian Language, Sofia: Education and Art.

Vladimirova, T., K. Dimchev and Hr. Parvev (1972) Questions about the Language Culture, Sofia: National Education.

1.5. Cultural Dynamism and Language Contact

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For quotation purposes:
Ivanka Sakareva (South-Western University of Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria): Changes in the Bulgarian Language during the Centuries: Impact of Different Cultures on the Language in the Past. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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