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Intro to Bulgarian, Part 2 - Brothers, sisters, and your distant Bulgarian cousin

Previously on Intro to Bulgarian: Part 1 - What is it? Why would I want to study it?

For those of you who are interested in the links between languages, and how languages change over time, here's a fun fact - Bulgarian is a member of the Slavic branch of the Indo-European language family. More precisely, it's a member of the South Slavic sub-branch within the Slavic languages.

Whoa, what was all that? It totally went over my head!

It's OK, we can fix this! Let's break that statement down a little bit. Some languages have a lot of similarities - like Norwegian and Danish, or Spanish and Portuguese. Some languages have almost no similarities - like Spanish and Finnish, or Italian and Chinese. Then there are various situations in between - languages that are neither very close, nor completely different, but still somehow "belong together" in some sense. People who study language have come up with the idea of a "language family" - a group of languages that all come from the same "source". For example, Latin is the parent language for Spanish, French, Italian, and several others. Those languages make up the Romance language family, and they have deep ties in both vocabulary and grammar.

There are two other language families that, together with Romance, account for most European national languages - the Slavic and the Germanic families. You are reading this in a Germanic language - English. As the name suggests, German is also in there. So are Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Icelandic and Dutch (and several more). Bulgarian is a Slavic language. So who are Bulgarian's siblings? A few of them have courses either available or soon to be available on Duolingo - Russian, Ukrainian, Czech and Polish. There are also Belorussian, Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian, Slovak and Slovene (the latter two meaning literally "Slavic"). There are a few more in there as well.

So far so good - we've almost cracked my opening line in this post! But what's that Indo-European thing? And what is South Slavic in relation to just Slavic?

The first one - Indo-European - is, to me, one of the most exciting discoveries in all of science. We've already seen that related languages form families, and everyone in a family shares the same ancestor language - the parent language. But it gets better - if you look even further back in time, some of those parents start to look very close to each other, just as if they themselves had a common ancestor. The language family tree can be as deep as a human family tree, and it turns out that Slavic, Germanic and Romance are all branches of the same tree! We call that tree Indo-European, and it has a number of other wonderful branches - Greek, Celtic, Baltic, Indo-Iranian (think Sanskrit and Farsi), Armenian, Albanian, and a few that are no longer spoken.

But what does all that mean?!

English and German are kind of like sisters. English and Bulgarian are more like distant cousins - beneath the surface, they are related, but you can't always tell just by looking at them. Bulgarian's immediate family includes Serbian and Russian, so you would expect there to be a much larger amount of shared vocabulary and grammar (i.e. they look more and more similar-ish). In other words, Bulgarian can be your stepping stone to learning other Slavic languages! And if you're coming from Romance, Germanic or any other Indo-European flavor, you'll see a bit of yourself in Bulgarian as well.

And finally, South Slavic. That's one of the three sub-branches of Slavic, the others being East and West Slavic. Within each sub-branch, the languages are even closer to each other than to the rest of the family. So Bulgarian is really close to Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian and Slovene. Knowing Bulgarian will make the task of learning any of these languages, at least in terms of vocabulary, a lot easier.

Putting it all together (with Bulgarian and Russian rendered in the Latin script):

  1. three: tri (Bulgarian), tri (Russian), tres (Spanish)
  2. sister: sestra (Bulgarian), sestra (Russian)
  3. brother: brat (Bulgarian), brat (Russian)
  4. nose: nos (Bulgarian), nos (Russian), nariz (Spanish)
  5. sit: sedya (Bulgarian), sidet' (Russian), sentar (Spanish)
  6. salt: sol (Bulgarian), sol' (Russian), sal (Spanish)
  7. new: nov (Bulgarian), novyj (Russian), nuevo (Spanish)
  8. day: den (Bulgarian), den' (Russian), dia (Spanish)
  9. beard: brada (Bulgarian), boroda (Russian), barba (Spanish)

Cool, huh? Here's a Memrise link for the pronunciation of these words.

Coming up next: the Cyrillic alphabet, and how it's a lot less weird than you might think. Our exploration begins with Part 3 - The Cyrillic you already know.

September 13, 2015



This is a very fun intro and good explanation of language families!

It's also amusing that you didn't include Polish among those soon to be available on Duo--not sure if that was intentional or not. After more than a year, they're making some progress!


Oops, my bad! Not intentional at all, I'll fix my post. Thanks for pointing it out!


Haha, okay. After their incredible progress these couple weeks, they should get some recognition :) I read your other intro to Bulgarian posts and they're really well written. Seems like you might make a good teacher.


This is just about the best compliment you could have given me! I love teaching language, and I can only hope it is as fun for those who are learning as it is for me to teach.


Колега, браво!

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