Alphabet Day: In Praise of Bulgaria’s Letters

A billboard in honor of Alphabet Day.

A billboard in honor of Alphabet Day.

On May 24th, Bulgaria celebrates one of its most impressive and enduring contributions to the world: the Cyrillic alphabet. The enthusiasm is contagious: after only a few weeks here, I was referring to it as the Bulgarian alphabet with the latent pride of the locals. For a plucky country of 9 million worldwide, it’s an impressive accomplishment to have created the script used by 250+ million people. Some big-shot countries in this neighborhood make a big deal  out of adopting alphabets that they didn’t even invent–looking at you, Turkey!

Cyrillic was created by the two handsome guys pictured on the billboard above: Saints Cyril and Methodius. In the 9th century, the two evangelists spread Christianity throughout the Balkans and the Middle East before Cyril created the Glagolithic script. A student of Methodius’s adapted Cyrillic from Glagolithic and Greek, and it caught on because Glagolithic is a beast of an alphabet. Seriously, scholars don’t even know how many characters there are, but they know there are at least 41, and most of them look like secret Hobo glyphs or crop circle patterns.

They managed to narrow the new alphabet down from this less manageable form.

They managed to narrow the new alphabet down from this less manageable form.

Bulgaria’s celebration of Cyrillic has a lot to do with the fact that it’s a largely Bulgarian accomplishment. This is a neighborhood of the world where a lot of different countries lay claim to many local cultural innovations–ask anyone in the Balkans what they call their national alcohol, a strong fruit brandy that Bulgarians call rakiya. According to Wikipedia:

there is no defined origin of rakia but there are many who claim to be the origins of the drink, most vocally Bulgaria, Serbia and Turkey. These countries and their people will to this day argue that it is their country that invented the popular drink but no one has concrete proof of its origins.

That’s the case with most things in the region…except Cyrillic (or, should I say, Bulgarian)! Cyril and Methodius’s followers developed the script at the Preslav Literary School in what was then the First Bulgarian Empire. Of course, the First Bulgarian Empire encompassed what is today Macedonia, and Cyril and Methodius were Greek–there, see how all these competing nationalist claims get started?

So, though it’s celebrated throughout the Slavic world, it might be biggest here in Bulgaria. At the People’s Library in Sofia, a building dedicated to the two saints, people gather to leave garlands of flowers by a statue of the two.

Those girls aren't actually in folk costumes, they just happened to be dressed the same way.

Those girls aren’t actually in folk costumes, they just happened to be dressed the same way.

As the progenitors of the Cyrillic alphabet, Bulgarians have what looks to my non-linguist eyes like the simplest one. To a non-native speaker, most of the letters map easily onto English sounds. It seems like the farther away you get from Bulgaria, the more letters each country tacks onto their alphabet. I mean, Ls and Hs with blobs attached (Љ & Њ)? And who decided these things were a good idea: Ћ Ђ? Get your house in order, Serbian! It could be worse: some of our Caucasian neighbors like Georgia and Armenia have alphabets that look ancient in comparison, and have more than 30 letters a piece. 

But there I go: see how easily it is to slide into this nationalism thing?

Now, I should say that when moving to Bulgaria became a sure thing, having to

See, I'm a damn natural! That'll be $29.95.

See, I’m a damn natural! That’ll be $29.95.

learn Cyrillic seemed really daunting. Granted, learning another alphabet would be really cool, and give me a leg up in the hyper-competitive faux-cyrillic T-Shirt market. If anyone should give some thanks to Cyril and Methodius, it should be me, because they made at least one aspect of learning Bulgarian easier. As someone who learned it in a month: this script is easier than it looks.

When I told people I had learned Cyrillic, a few asked me to sing the song. Unlike in English, there is no song, you just sound out the letters, and they’re phonetic. Thank Бог for small things; I still only know 4 days of the week. Beyond just remapping the letters that we have in English, there are only about a dozen new ones. A few of them are easy when you keep in mind the Greek connection–I’m referring to the scripts Greek origins, rather than Nico, my connection to counterfeit Libyan cigarettes and pure Taliban dope. Л, П, and Д are the Cyrillic letters for L, P, and D. Kind of new, but they’re just Lambda, Pi, and Delta (from Revenge of the Nerds, geometry class, and the airline; respectively).

Ж, which I’ve called “left-and-right K” since I was a kid and I heard Jackie Chan call it that in a movie, is zh, a.k.a. the ʒ sound. Our J sound is made with the characters Дж, so consequently names like “John” and “James” end up looking a lot cooler in Cyrillic than such vanilla monikers deserve.

ShhШ is sh, and in my head I pictured someone holding up three fingers to someone’s lips and quieting them with a reproachful shhh! Щ is sht, so I pictured the same person holding a thumb, too, for a more emphatic shtop it!

That left only a few letter left to learn. The cool backwards R / Я is ya, and the yu looks like: Ю. This looks like the Starship Enterprise to me, which doesn’t help but is neat.


12 responses to “Alphabet Day: In Praise of Bulgaria’s Letters

  1. Lorenzo- You really have got your IIIit together. Bravo!!!

  2. What a fun article on how fun it is to learn a new alphabet!

  3. Really interesting. Their alphabet seems really daunting to me, but you’ve done a fabulous job breaking it down for yourself. So glad to hear it!

  4. Who du thunk. Alphabets are big accomplishment. Fun facts.

  5. Dude, that Tshirt. GENIUS. I’d buy it!

  6. There are some minor errors here- Cyril and Methodius are not Greek but Slavik, i.e. Bulgarian.
    And Macedonia was a region in Bulgaria for hundreds of years before Bulgaria lost this territory as a payoff in the Serbian-Bulgarian war. Then Macedonia wanted independence from Jugoslawia as they are not Serbs. The language spoken in Macedonia is still Bulgarian with a dialect and every Bulgarian can understand it.

  7. Haha, I also always thought Ю looks like the Enterprise.

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