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Basic Bulgarian, Lesson 1 - IPA, or how linguistics pretends to be a beer

For some background on Bulgarian and Cyrillic, and why both of them are awesome, please consider my Intro to Bulgarian series: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5.1 | Part 5.2 | Part 5.3

Some of you might know IPA as a kind of delicious beer. You may be asking yourself, "what does that have to do with Bulgarian? Do I need to have a beer first before I try to speak Bulgarian?" While I will never discourage anyone from having a beer (unless they're driving), that's not what I want to talk about to you today.

One more alphabet?! Puh-leeze...

IPA stands for, among other things, the International Phonetic Alphabet. Let's break this down:

  • International: it is meant to be useful across the variety of human languages, not just for one language or a group of languages
  • Phonetic: it wants to convey the sounds of things, the way language is actually pronounced
  • Alphabet: it tries to do all these things using a set of characters that resemble a familiar alphabet like the Latin alphabet

Although a lot of IPA symbols resemble letters from the Latin alphabet, there are some crucial distinctions. First of all, depending on the language using the Latin alphabet, a single letter may represent multiple sounds depending on context. Compare, for example, the pronunciation of "u" in the English words "put", "use" and "bury". All three are different. In IPA, every symbol stands for a well-defined sound and it never changes. Regular alphabets also have the opposite problem - of multiple letters being able to represent the same sound, e.g. the "k" in "skin" and the "c" in "scope". Again, that cannot happen in IPA - each symbol stands for exactly one sound, and for each separate sound there is only one symbol. This is a bit oversimplified, as we'll see, but IPA tries to have one symbol per sound, and when it fails, it uses additional diacritic marks to say "but really, guys, one sound here".

So why do we care? From now on, I want to give you the pronunciation of all Bulgarian words and expressions we encounter. One way would be to record myself and put the recordings up on some website, and provide links here. I'm not saying I won't do that, but given that I usually do these lessons at night after a whole day of work, I'm not so sure that's the version of my voice you want to hear :) IPA gives me a way of doing that as easy inline text right next to the words we're learning. Also, the whole world does use IPA, and you'll see it all over the place, including Wikipedia and so on.

OK, fine! One more alphabet then...

Great! I'm glad you're on board. Now let's learn the IPA symbols used for transcribing Bulgarian pronunciation. The list below is organized as: Cyrillic letter - IPA symbol - approximate pronunciation in English.

  • А
    • a - when stressed, like the "a" in "yarn" or "father", and the "a" in languages like Spanish and Italian.
    • ɐ - when not stressed, like the first "a" in "again"`
  • Б - b - like the "b" in "bread"
  • В - v - like the "v" in "vase"
  • Г - g - like the "g" in "guest"
  • Д - d - like the "d" in "day"
  • Е - ɛ - uh oh! weird symbol alert! This is IPA for the "e" in "pet" and "met". IPA also has "e", but it is used for a different sound :'(
  • Ж - ʒ - another weird symbol. This one is for the sound like the "g" in "mirage" or the second "g" in "garage".
  • З - z - like the "z" in "zebra"
  • И - i - like the "ee" in "feel", but shorter, like the "i" in "fill".
  • Й - j - don't be confused by this letter. In IPA, it stands for the "y" sound in words like "yes" and "young".
  • К - k - like in "skin", not like in "kin" (remember about aspiration?)
  • Л
    • l - like the "l" in "list" when before "е" and "и"
    • ɫ - like the "l" in "call" and "fall" in all other cases
  • М - m - like the "m" in "mother"
  • Н - n - like the "n" in "never"
  • О
    • ɔ - when stressed, like Spanish or Italian "o". Check the Polish and Italian sound samples here
    • o - when unstressed, midway between an "o" and an "u". Click on the sound sample here
  • П - p - like the "p" in "spin", not the "p" in "pin" (aspiration again)
  • Р - r - this is the "trilled" r like in Spanish, Italian, Russian, not like the "r" in French or German
  • С - s - like the "s" in "song"
  • Т - t - like the "t" in "stop", not like the "t" in "top" (not again, aspiration!)
  • У
    • u - when stressed, like the "oo" in "fool", but shorter, like the "u" in "full". Same as the "u" in Spanish and Italian.
    • o - when unstressed, closer to "o" (see sound sample for O)
  • Ф - f - like in "five"
  • Х - x - ha! IPA agrees with Bulgarian here! This is the "h" sound in Bulgarian - see the Intro to Bulgarian classes for more details.
  • Ц - ts - this is the "zz" in "pizza".
    • But wait! This is one sound with two letters, I thought you said IPA had one letter per sound!
    • In IPA, you'd actually put a half-circle over the "ts" to indicate it's one sound. It's hard to type that, so I'll just use "ts".
  • Ч - tʃ - like the "ch" in "church". Same deal as with "ts" and one-letter-per-sound.
  • Ш - ʃ - like the "sh" in "ship". Notice that the IPA symbol looks like a stretched out "s"
  • Щ - ʃt - like the "shed" in "crashed". This is a letter that represents two sounds, so IPA reflects that.
  • Ъ
    • ɤ - when stressed, like the "u" in "column" or the "a" in "coral". It's similar to the unstressed "a", but a bit further back in the mouth.
    • ɐ - when not stressed, identical to the unstressed 'a'
  • ь - j - remember, this is just another version of й, but used in some specific positions when writing Bulgarian
  • Ю - ju - like the "yu" in "Yugoslavia", or the "you" in "bayou" (basically y + u)
  • Я - ja - like the "ya" of "yard" or "Yamaha"

My head hurts...

I know, I know, but you only need to learn this once! And then it will be useful to you for a long, long time.

One more thing to note - we need a way to show where the stress falls in the word. Bulgarian stress works pretty much like English stress, and it can be anywhere in the word. English and German tend to stress the first syllable of most words (just read this sentence, or the stuff in these brackets, and you will notice it too). In Bulgarian, there is no predominant syllable where the stress falls. Some words are written the same, but they only differ in the stress. You'll know which one is which when you look at the context.

In IPA, stress is indicated by an apostrophe - ' - right before the syllable which has the stress. For example, America - ɐ'mɛrikɐ.

Enough IPA! Give me some beer!

I'd love to! Let me know if you ever visit Seattle!

Up next: Basic Bulgarian, Lesson 2 - Greetings and other good stuff.

P.S. Sorry about the crappy formatting in the alphabetical list, but the Markdown support on Duolingo is ... special.

September 19, 2015



IPA - the best thing that happened to humanity.


The wheel still has my vote, but that's also up there :)


Браво! Само така - продължавай!

Seriously - I'm very impressed at how much thought you're putting into these lessons. Keep it up, and before you know it we'll be able to convince Duolingo that Bulgarian has enough support in the community to be brought to the Incubator.


I'm just about to post the next lesson :) I'm not stopping unless they kick me out of Duolingo ;)


Thanks for this! I'm somewhere between considering and planning a trip to Bulgaria!


You are welcome! I think the Nike slogan is appropriate here - just do it! :)


This is FANTASTIC ! A couple of extra lingots for you. Also I will reference this from my main language index page.
You can check out my Learning Loom here


Thank you! I will check it out!


All vowels are rather lax. И and у are more accurately conveyed as [ɪ ʊ], that is, as in pit [pʰɪt] and put [pʰʊt].


That's not entirely correct. In fact, if "pit" and "put" were Bulgarian words, they would definitely not be pronounced with the English lax vowels, nor with the aspirated bilabial stop. Check this out for more info and references: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bulgarian_phonology#Vowels


Never said they'd have aspirated stops, don't know where you got that from. Wikipedia gives /i u/, but note that that it phonemic transcription, by convention one never writes /ɪ ʊ/ unless they contrast with /i u/. They realisation however is rather lax, unlike English tense vowels.


True, but like I said "i" and "u" aren't pronounced the way an English speaker would pronounce the vowels "pit" and "put". The tense/lax distinction plays out differently in Bulgarian than in English or German.

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