1. Forum
  2. >
  3. Topic: Duolingo
  4. >
  5. Intro to Bulgarian, Part 4 - …


Intro to Bulgarian, Part 4 - The Cyrillic letters you *think* you know

Previously on Intro to Bulgarian: Part 3 - The Cyrillic you already know

Also, a Memrise course now exists to show the pronunciation of the words in this lesson.

So it's been smooth sailing so far - we've established Bulgarian is a member of the family (despite the singular sense of style), and we even saw that some of the Cyrillic letters - A, E, O, K, M and T - behave more or less like their Latin alphabet analogs. I think this is the perfect time for Bulgarian to trick you, and nudge you just outside your comfort zone.

In this installment, we look at letters which resemble letters you know, but end up being pronounced differently.

С с

Adapted from Greek lower-case sigma (ς), this letter is always pronounced like the "c" in "Cinderella", "cigar" and "certain", and never like the "c" in "card" or "cop".


  • сет - a set (like in tennis)
  • сос - sauce
  • ски - ski
  • аскет - an ascetic (monk)
  • маса - table (compare Spanish "mesa"); mass (as in weight)

Р р

OK, that wasn't particularly challenging, so I've got something better for you. This is actually our letter R - it comes from Greek "rho" (Ρ ρ), and Cyrillic preserves the original Greek sound. In Bulgarian, "r" is pronounced like in Spanish "caro" and Italian "risotto", not guttural like in French or German. Here are some examples of this sound, including one in Bulgarian.

Some words:

  • ром - rum
  • рок - rock (music)
  • раса - race (like Asian or Native American)
  • ракета - rocket
  • трактор - tractor
  • старт - start (as in "a good start")
  • море - sea (compare Latin "mare", Spanish "mar", German "Meer")
  • сестра - sister
  • камера - camera
  • корсет - corset
  • корт - (tennis) court
  • мотор - motor, engine

Н н

This is our letter N. We really messed up when borrowing that one from Greek. Here is some cool vocab to make you feel better:

  • нос - nose
  • нота - (musical) note
  • контакт - contact
  • монета - coin (compare English "monetary", Spanish "moneda")
  • крона - krona (currency)
  • Монтана - Montana (also a city in Bulgaria!)
  • Монако - Monaco
  • мента - mint
  • Сантана - Santana

В в

This is adapted from Greek "beta" (Β β), and is actually our letter V. It's not that uncommon for the B and the V to get mixed up. Consider Spanish, for example - some people pronounce the letter "v" as a "v", some pronounce it as a "b", and some pronounce it in-between, so "ventana" (window) ends up being [ventana], [bentana] or [βentana] depending on the speaker. Since ancient Greek didn't distinguish between V and B, but Bulgarian did, we picked the letter to represent "v", and we have another one for "b".

  • Варна - Varna (my hometown!)
  • каравана - caravan
  • Венера - Venus (compare Italian "Venere", Russian "Венера")
  • нов - new (compare Latin "novus", Spanish "nuevo")
  • самовар - samovar (borrowed from Russian)
  • Ева - Eve
  • Еверест - Everest

У у

This is our letter U, pronounced like in the Romance languages - e.g. Spanish "puro", French "moulin", Italian "Luigi". Close English equivalents are the "oo" in "boot" or "fool".


  • супа - soup
  • курс - course
  • комуна - commune
  • суверен - a sovereign
  • мустак - mustache
  • мус - mousse

Х х

Adapted from Greek "chi" (Χ χ), it is actually our "h" sound. It is pronounced as if you're trying to say a "k", but you don't let your tongue touch the roof of your mouth. Therefore, it's not as back in the throat as the German "ch" or the Spanish "j". Here are some examples of how to pronounce it, including one from Bulgarian.

And of course, some words:

  • хамстер - hamster
  • Хавана - Havana
  • аха - aha
  • харем - harem
  • хуманен - humane
  • монах - monk
  • крах - crash (as in "the stock market crash")

Here's a challenge! Can you read the following words and figure out what they mean? You can post your guesses in the comments. Note - some are a bit tricky depending on which language you're coming from. But if you're not a bit confused, then you're not really learning ;)

  1. карта
  2. схема
  3. хор
  4. скенер
  5. картон
  6. сума
  7. тур
  8. реактор
  9. Марс
  10. какао
  11. хром
  12. тоник

Up next: Part 5.1 - first of three episodes where we spelunk into the mysterious waters of the remaining Cyrillic letters, which are .... charming :) Stay tuned!

September 14, 2015


  1. probably 'card' or 'chart'
  2. scheme
  3. choir, chorus
  4. scanner
  5. cardboard box, carton
  6. sum?
  7. tour
  8. reactor
  9. Mars (planet)
  10. cocoa
  11. chrome
  12. tonic


Close to what I got! I didn't make the connection with Greek "ch" with "scheme" and "chrome" though. It's cool that Bulgarian borrowed that more closely when the other languages just simplified it. It makes sense now. :)


Yay, congrats! Bulgarian is often consistent with modern Greek pronunciations for Greek loanwords. But keep in mind that in ancient Greek, the "chi" was pronounced like an aspirated "k", so actually English is truer to the original, older pronunciation. Given our proximity to Greece, it's not surprising our pronunciation changed to mirror theirs.

Also, as far as I know, Old Church Slavic didn't have aspirated consonants, so when borrowing the chi from Greek they had to assign it a different sound value than the Greek one. I wonder if the Greek sound had already changed to a [x] by that time. I'll look that up.


The Wikipedia page on Koine Greek Phonology lists the changes as having occurred by the 1st century AD, so after most Latin borrowings would have taken place, but several centuries before OCS is first attested. So it was likely borrowed directly after the changes occurred, as opposed to the Romance and Germanic languages, which mostly borrowed words via Latin. Fascinating!


Right?! The history of languages is my favorite topic in linguistics - I hope that in one of my subsequent lessons I'll have an opportunity to show how some Indo-European roots changed over time to yield, on the surface, very different-looking words in English and Bulgarian, but which nevertheless are actually the same word underneath.

Here's a more detailed account of Greek borrowings into English, along with explanations on the pronunciation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_words_of_Greek_origin


It is! The thing about PIE roots reminded me of this blog which takes English words from classical sources, and reconstructs native Germanic versions based on PIE roots and sound changes. It just started, but it's pretty fun.

I'm a big fan of etymology and linguistic history, so I'm looking forward to one of those subsequent lessons. I'll go read the Wikipedia page now. :)


Awesome! You did very, very well! You're close on "карта" - think about what a cartographer might do for a living ("chart", when used a certain way, is pretty close). You're also very close on "картон", and here's a hint - think of materials rather than shapes.


Then my guesses are "map" and "cardboard", respectively!


Just FYI Н used to be written like N. The change from N to Н only occured later. (and И was written like H or I)


Yep, the three letters are all related and underwent changes in phonetic value like you mentioned. I have to pick and choose my fun facts well though so that I don't confuse the people with less background in Cyrillic. Here's a page from one of my favorite Old Bulgarian pieces of literature, and it shows the older standards well: http://bogeo.net/2014/08/28/o_pismenex/chernorizets_3/


The changes I mentioned are calligraphic, not phonetic.


Хасково също вече може да се добави :)

Learn a language in just 5 minutes a day. For free.