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Breaking the Language Barrier
09.08.2007   Libby Andrews
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The Cyrillic aphabet

The Cyrillic alphabet is the second most used alphabet in the world, yet at first sight it looks like a lot of mumbo jumbo. Letters which look like a circle with a line through it is supposedly an F, a triangle without a bottom line an L and what I would have interpreted as the number 3 is actually a Z. The alphabet was conjured up by two Bulgarian monks, St Kiril and St Methodius in the 9th Century AD. Some of the letters have the same sound as they have in the Roman alphabet; thus letters like A, E, M and O, but others look like Roman letters but their sound is different; C is pronounced as we would pronounce the letter S, B as V and P as R. The alphabet has 30 different letters with blend sounds like CH and SH having a letter to represent them in Cyrillic. It’s crazy when you're driving along in Bulgaria trying to translate the writing into Roman script and then the word in to English. Most major city names are written in both alphabets, but shop names and street names are often only in Cyrillic. Just when you have mastered the Upper case letters you find yourself faced with a whole new lower case alphabet to learn and letters we know as g are pronounced as a d.

Someone once told me that the Bulgarian language is the second most difficult to learn in the world and it is possible to move to Bulgaria and get along without ever learning it. I know many ex-pats who know little more than “da” and “ne” and have lived here for years. Yet with a little effort, it is not too difficult to learn and therefore integrate with the local population. Indeed, local people are so happy to hear a foreigner attempt to speak their language and will shower the speaker with much praise and encouragement. My first forray into the language was to learn life’s necessities; a red wine spritzer and a large draught beer, a packet of cigarettes and “do you have a light please?” My husband, who is linguistically challenged thought he would never speak more than five words, yet two years on he can converse about a variety of topics including football. Our children took private lessons to get a good grounding in the language and they picked it up very quickly. Immersion through school meant that they heard the same commands and phrases repeated daily and soon they began to assemble their own sentences. The best news for them was that spelling tsts would be a thing of the past; Bulgarian is written as it is spoken.

The most difficult part of the language is the grammar. There is no “the” or “a”, every word carries an ending to denote these, and there are stacks of endings to choose from. There are endings denoting gender and case, but there are not three gender endings like in German, oh no that would be too easy, there are three with several subsets. That aside, if you try to chat with neighbours, order meals in restaurants or simply listen to the weather report each night, you start to pick up the correct grammar. As we tried to master more of the language we made the usual howlers that foreigners the world over make. My son came back from a tennis lesson and said he knew how to say, "I'm taking the balls" - “Imam topki“, but when I repeated this phrase to my friend Vili, she told me it meant I was a gay man. It transpires that outside of a gay bar, the tennis court is the only place you could ever use this sentence. Another time I wanted to buy some jam and asked for “preservatif” without realising it meant condom in Bulgarian. My sons Bulgarian teacher had said it was imperative that we as parents tried to learn the language with them and that we should practice what the boys had learnt in their lesson. My first full conversation was with a Bulgarian waiter.
It went something like this:

Me: “What your name?”
Waiter “My name is Boyan”
Me: “How old you are?”
Waiter: “I am 23 years old.”
Me: “Are you…”
Waiter (cutting me off in mid sentence): “No I am not married.” Rather than appreciate that he was merely a guinea pig on which I could practice the few phrases I had learned that week, he thought I was chatting him up!

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Just so you know the cyrillic alphbet you have published here is not the one used in Bulgaria but in RUSSIA. The Bulgarian one has LESS letters.

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