Bulgarian language and Cyrillic

The Bulgarian language is not only one of 24 official languages of the European Union, it is our mother tongue, used for centuries to preserve the history and traditions of our people. This is the first language our children learn, the language we scribble our first words in, the language in which we whisper our last words to the people we leave behind.

Bulgarian is the official language in the country. It is spoken not only by seven and a half million Bulgarians in the country, but also by nearly the same number of people of Bulgarian origin in Europe and all around the world.

Bulgarian is the first Slavonic language with its own alphabet introduced in the 9th century. From 1 January 2007, the Cyrillic alphabet is the third official alphabet in the European Union after the Latin and the Greek alphabets.

The language

Bulgarian is the language of the Bulgarian ethnic group which emerged in the period between the 7th and the 9th century AD when Slavic tribes together with the indigenous Thracians and Illyrians and the Bulgarians led by the khans Asparukh and Kuber established a new state. The adoption of Christianity helped to unite the Bulgarians in Misia, Thrace and Macedonia and facilitated the formation of the Old Bulgarian language.

The Bulgarian language belongs to the big family of Indo-European languages and is a branch of the Eastern group of the South Slavonic languages. It is characterised by its lexical richness. Bulgarian has more than 200,000 words and their different forms are ten times more than that. The verb "read" itself has 52 different forms. Bulgarian has Slavic words as well as words from the classical languages and also from Russian, Turkish, Arabic and Western European languages. More than 5000 new words, phrases and idioms have entered Bulgarian only in the past decades.

The holy brothers Cyril and Methodius and the alphabet

The Bulgarian alphabet known as glagolitic was created by Constantine-Cyril The Philosopher. The glagolitic alphabet is a completely original graphic system in which every letter stands for a single sound and the letters for sounds with similar characteristics have similar graphic designs. Proof of that could be found in the so-called Salzburg memorandum from 871 which states that "Methodius arrived in Pannonia with newly created Slavic letters".

The Bulgarian word for alphabet (азбука) originates from the first two letters of the glagolitic alphabet – az and buki.

It is believed that the first learners of the new script memorised it in its text version – ‘Az, buki, vedi, glagolati!’ etc. which translates in modern Bulgarian as "I know the letters and I can speak well".  In present day, the glagolitic alphabet has been poetically described as "the signs that speak" because glagolati actually means "speak".

The second Bulgarian alphabet known as Cyrillic was created at the end of the 9th and the beginning of the 10th century at the Preslav literary school. Cyrillic consisted of 24 letters based on Greek signs and 12 letters similar to the glagolitic script which correspond to specific sounds in Bulgarian such as b, zh, z, sh, sht, ch, ts, etc. For a long period of time both alphabets were in use by Old Bulgarian men of letters until the 12th century when the more economic and easier to transcribe Cyrillic alphabet completely replaced the glagolitic one.

As a result of the development of the Bulgarian language and after the introduction of several reforms implemented by laws in the 20th century, the modern Bulgarian alphabet has 30 letters.

The Cyrillic alphabet is a Bulgarian contribution to world heritage.  At present, more than 300 million people on two continents use it. That is why the great Bulgarian poet Ivan Vazov wrote at the end of the 19th century: "We have also given something to the world, the gift to read to all Slavs".


The content of this article is prepared with the assistance of the Institute for Bulgarian Language, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.

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