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Basic Bulgarian, Pronunciation - Consonants, Round 1

In the previous pronunciation note, we conquered Bulgarian vowels. As you hopefully saw then, the vowel system of Bulgarian is actually a bit simpler than in English. We have one slightly weirder vowel - ъ - but even it has a close equivalent in English.

Now it's time for us to tame the consonants! Let's jump right in.

<h1>What are consonants?</h1>

Last time, we looked at vowels, and defined them as the sounds you produce when air is allowed to flow freely through your mouth, without the tongue trying to touch your lips, teeth, or palate. We also required that to make a vowel, your vocal chords need to be doing work (i.e. you can feel a vibration when you put your hand over your throat).

Consonants are sounds we make when air coming from our lungs has to overcome challenges before it breaks free. One common way of making a consonant sound is by blocking the flow of air completely, and then releasing it. For example, say "p", "t" and "k". In "p", we block the air by closing our lips, and then we open them to let the air out; in "t", the tongue touches the ridge of your mouth (and/or your teeth, depending on speaker), and again the air flow is blocked until you release it by lowering your tongue. In "k", the back of your tongue blocks the flow of air by touching your soft palate. Consonants that are produced by blocking the air completely are called stops (since the air from your lungs stops moving).

There is a special case of stops, where air is not leaving your mouth, but it's leaving through your nose. English has three such stops - "m", n and the "ng" sound in "sing" or "bring" (IPA sign [ŋ]). These stops are called nasal stops or simply nasals, due to how air escapes through your nose.

Another way to make consonants is to squeeze the air from your lungs through a narrow opening in your mouth. Examples of that are the sounds "f", "v", "s" and "z". That kind of consonant is called a fricative. English has two consonants - the "j" in John (IPA [dʒ]) and the "ch" in "chair" (IPA [tʃ]) - which start like a stop (the air flow is blocked) and end like a fricative (the air is released through a narrow opening). Such consonants are called affricates.

A few consonants don't fall into our neat classes of stops, fricatives and affricates. In English, these are "r", "l", "y" as in "yes", and "w" as in "water". We have names for the classes they belong to, but we don't have to worry about that for the moment.

<h1>English consonants</h1>

Class quiz: I've already given examples of stops, fricatives and affricates. However, I didn't list all the consonants of English. For the ones I didn't explicitly call out, I'd like you to try and figure out if they are stops, fricatives, or affricates.

Here are the English consonants, with IPA symbols and example words. Some consonants have more than one "version". In a future lesson, I'll talk in more detail about the difference between a morpheme and a phoneme, but for now we'll just talk about "sounds" and their "versions".

  • [p] - aspirated as in pot, non-aspirated as in spot
  • [b] - as in bring
  • [t] - aspirated as in top, non-aspirated as in stop
  • [d] - as in day
  • [k] - aspirated as in cup, non-aspirated as in scope
  • [g] - as in good
  • [f] - as in five
  • [v] - as in very
  • [s] - as in sip
  • [z] - as in zebra
  • [ʃ] - as in shoe
  • [ʒ] - as in mirage or genre
  • [θ] - as in think
  • [ð] - as in this
  • [h] - as in ham, and also as in huge
  • [m] - as in more
  • [n] - as in name
  • [ŋ] - as in sing
  • [dʒ] - as in job
  • [tʃ] - as in chore
  • [ɹ] - as in red. Notice how it's an upside-down "r". That's because the IPA "r" symbol corresponds to the "r" in languages like Spanish, Italian and - importantly - Bulgarian, where it's produced by the tongue flapping against the ridge of your mouth. In English, it's pronounced by the tongue merely approaching, but not touching, the ridge of your mouth.
  • [w] - as in winter
  • [l] - as in let (bright "l"), also as in wealth (dark "l" = IPA [ɫ])
  • [j] - as in yes

For more information, check out this Wikipedia article.

<h1>Bulgarian consonants</h1>

Bulgarian and English consonants have a lot of overlap, unlike the vowels. Here are some groups of consonants that are pronounced the same:

  • [p, t, k] - always like the un-aspirated English versions (see below for the soft versions before ю, я or ь)
  • [b, d, g, f, v, s, z, m, n] - pronounced just as in English (see below for the soft versions before ю, я or ь)
  • [ʃ, ʒ, dʒ, tʃ, j] - as in English
  • [l] - has the two versions that English "l" has - bright [l] and dark [ɫ].

Here are the Bulgarian vowels that don't appear in Standard American English:

  • [x] - like the "ch" in the Scottish pronunciation of "loch", or the German pronunciation of "Bach"
  • [ts] - in English, it's only found in loanwords, e.g. the "zz" in "pizza"
  • [r] - pronounced trilled like in Spanish, Italian and Russian. The English version is probably the hardest sound for Bulgarians to learn how to say correctly.

And finally, here are the English consonants that don't exist (or are rare) in Bulgarian:

  • [θ, ð] - these are also very hard for Bulgarians to learn. That's why you'll hear a lot of "tink" and "dis" instead of "think" and "this".
  • [w] - English is actually one of few European languages that has this sound. In Bulgarian, it only occurs in loan-words, often from English, like the Windows operating system.
  • [ŋ] - in Bulgarian, it only appears as a version of "n" before "k" or "g", as in танго [tɐŋ'gɔ] (tango).
  • [ɹ] - see above discussion of [r].

Soft and hard consonants

Consider the following English pairs of words, paying attention to the highlighted consonants:

  • view - voodoo
  • puke - pool
  • canyon - canon
  • mute - moot
  • argue - good
  • few - food

Notice that in the first word of each pair, what you have is somewhat like a combination of "consonant + y", and the back of your tongue is a bit closer to the ridge of your mouth (say each pair back and forth and notice how the back of your tongue moves when you do that). Those consonants are called "soft" or "palatalized", whereas the other versions (as in voodoo and moot) are called "hard".

Bulgarian has soft consonants as well, and the difference with English is where they can occur. In English, soft consonants are more like variants of hard consonants before certain vowels and [j], whereas in Bulgarian they can occur before more of the vowels and are considered to be independent sounds of the language. That's because you can completely change the meaning of a word just by pronouncing it with a soft consonant vs a hard one.

There are no separate letters for soft consonants in Bulgarian, but you can figure out whether they are soft by seeing if they are followed by ю, я or ьо (IPA [ju, ja, jɔ]). For example:

  • бял [bjaɫ] (white) - бал [baɫ] (ball, as in "dance party")
  • лют [ljut] (spicy, hot) - луд [ɫut] (crazy)
  • позьор [po'zjɔr] (poser, inauthentic person) - позор [po'zɔr] (shame, disgrace)

Note: IPA, being precise about sounds, actually has separate symbols for soft consonants - for example [pʲ, bʲ, ʎ, ɲ] for soft [p, b, l, n]. I'm going to cheat by giving these as [pj, bj, lj, nj] in our lessons, because it's a lot easier to type and you have fewer IPA symbols to remember. However, if you prefer precision over convenience, treat yourselves to this explanation of Bulgarian consonants, complete with proper IPA.

Finally, not all Bulgarian consonants have soft versions. The consonants [ʃ, ʒ, tʃ, dʒ, j] don't have soft versions, and [xj] is extremely rare and only found in Bulgarian pronunciations of some loanwords, such as Хюстън ['xjustɐn] (Houston).

Whew, that was a mouthful! I'll create a Bonus Material post where I'll provide pairs of Bulgarian words which demonstrate the soft-hard distinction, so you could practice your pronunciation.

Up next: voiced vs voiceless consonants, and what happens when they live near each other in Bulgarian. Check it out here.

September 28, 2015



Thank you for making your lessons. I like them very much. I have some notes:

  • The bold word should be "consonants" in "Here are the Bulgarian vowels that don't appear in Standard American English" on this page.
  • In Intro to Bulgarian, Part 3 there should be a note for Russian speakers about letter Е (only hard like Э, not soft like Russian Е), similar to the notes about letters Щ and Ъ in Intro to Bulgarian, Part 5.3
  • There is no link from Intro to Bulgarian, Part 5.2 to Part 5.3
  • In Part 5.3 at the introduction of letters Ь, Ю and Я a distinction should be made between dual sound role (й+у/а) and palatial consonant + vowel role (ь+о/у/а), where Ь servers only the second role (so it's not quite like Й) and also in literary Bulgarian Ь is used only before О.
  • In Part 5.3 there might also be a note about the other most obscure sound/digraph: ДЗ.
  • In Basic Bulgarian, Grammar - The verb "to be" there is no forward link to the next page. Actually it's a little confusing if there is no clear sequence of lessons, when "Lesson 2" splits into "Lesson 3" and "to be" and "Lesson 3" splits into "Pronunciation", "to be" and "Lesson 4".

That's all for now ;)


Is there a J sound in Bulgarian? Example: James in Bulgarian would be written how?

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