History of the Bulgarian language

The History of the Bulgarian language can be divided into four major periods:

Bulgarian as a written language dates back to the end of the 9th century, i.e. from the time of Old Bulgarian.

Old Bulgarian

Old Bulgarian was the first literary period in the development of the Bulgarian language. It can be described as a highly synthetic language with a rich declension system. The language is attested by a number of manuscripts from the late 10th and the early 11th century written at the Preslav and the Ohrid Literary School or some of the smaller literary centres surrounding them. It was the medium of a rich literary activity — chiefly in the late 9th and the early 10th century — with writers such as Constantine of Preslav, John Exarch, Clement of Ohrid, Chernorizetz Hrabar and Naum of Preslav (Naum of Ohrid). None of the works of those writers has, however, been preserved in the original; they are all attested by later copies.


The name “Old Bulgarian” was extensively used in the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century synonymously with Old Church Slavonic to describe the literary language of a number of Slavic peoples from the 9th until the 12th century. Although "Old Bulgarian" is still used in a number of sources with the meaning "Old Church Slavonic", there is a growing tendency for the name to be applied only to the language of manuscripts from the First Bulgarian Empire (Bulgarian recensions of Old Church Slavonic), excluding manuscripts from other recensions.


Old Bulgarian is characterised by a number of phonetic, morphological, syntactic and lexical traits (some of which are shared with other Slavic languages and some, such as the reflexes of *tj ([t']) and *dj ([d']), are typical only for Bulgarian and no other language), as follows:

  • phonetic:
    • very wide articulation of the Yat vowel (Ѣ); originally still preserved in the archaic Bulgarian dialect of the Rhodope mountains;
    • Proto-Slavonic reflexes of *tj ([t']) and *dj ([d']):

Proto-Slavic Old Church Slavonic Bulgarian Czech Macedonian Polish Russian Slovak Slovenian Serbian
*dʲ ʒd ʒd z ʣ ʒ ʣ j ʥ
*tʲ ʃt ʃt ʦ ʦ ʨ ʦ ʧ ʨ
*gt/kt ʃt ʃt ʦ ʦ ʨ ʦ ʧ ʨ

  • use of [ra-], [la-] for the Proto-Slavic [or̃-], [ol̃-]
  • use of [s] for the Proto-Slavic [ch] before the Proto-Slavic åi
  • use of [cv-], [dzv-] for the Proto-Slavic [kv’-], [gv’-]
  • morphosyntactic
    • use of the dative possessive case in personal pronouns and nouns: ; ;
    • descriptive future tense using the verb хотѣти;
    • use of the comparative form мьнии (smaller) to mean younger.
    • use of suffixed demonastrative pronouns (тъ, та, то). These developed later into suffixed definite articles.
  • orthographical:
    • original [ы] and [ъi] merged to [ы]
    • sometimes the use of letter 'Ѕ' (dz) was unified with that of 'З' (z)
    • verb forms naricają, naricaješi were substituted or alternated with naričą, naričeši
  • lexical:
    • use of words with proto-Bulgar (Turko-Iranian) origin, such as кумиръ, капище, чрьтогъ, блъванъ, etc.


    Middle Bulgarian

    Between the 12th and 15th centuries the structure of the Bulgarian language changed quite radically. Few of these changes are to be observed in contemporary written records, thanks to the tendency towards archaicism driven by a desire to preserve the purity of the Cyrilo-Methodian tradition.

    However the changes which had affected the Bulgarian language were too great to hide - in many manuscripts from this period there are hints as to the state of the spoken language. Many of the characteristic traits of Middle Bulgarian started to appear in the Old Bulgarian period but reached their full extent from the 12th century onwards.

    • The phonetic features of Middle Bulgarian include:
      • Changes to the nasal vowels, which lose their nasal element in the majority of the Bulgarian dialects. The frequent confusion of the letters for the front and back nasal vowels suggests that the two vowels were phonetically very similar.
      • As in other Balkan Slavic languages /ы/ becomes /и/ (although it is thought this change occurred later in Bulgarian).
      • The yat vowel falls together with /e/ in Western dialects, with some manuscripts confusing it not only with e but also with the back nasal letter. In Eastern dialects the situation is more complex, as is reflected in the treatment of jat in the modern literary language (based on the Eastern pronunciation, i.e. [я] when under stress and before a hard consonant, [e] everywhere else.
      • As for consonants, the East/West distinctions of hardness and softness become more clearly defined, with the hardening of consonants occurring more in the West while the Eastern dialects preserve the opposition hard/soft for most consonants.

    As regards Morphology, during this period a confusion of case endings is to be observed along with the increasing use of prepositions in syntax. This led to the loss of case (scholars dispute whether this has anything to do with phonetic changes such as the confusion of the nasals, or whether it is purely due to the influence of the Balkan linguistic union). Also typical is the use of the prefixes по- and най- to indicate comparative and superlative degrees of the adjective.

    There are also signs of the emergence of a post-positive definite article (the earliest written example is from the Добрейшево Евангелие - "злыотъ рабъ"). The Old Bulgarian relative pronouns иже, яже and еже are replaced by interrogative pronouns with the suffix -то: който, която, което.

    A new class of verbs develops with stems in -a-, conjugating like the old athematic verbs e.g. имам, имаш etc. Another characteristic of this period is the emergence of a shortened form of the future tense marker (ще in the modern literary language and in many dialects, but other dialects have forms such as че and ше, all from the 3rd person singular present tense form of the verb hotjeti). The Renarrative verb form appears, which some scholars say has its roots in Old Bulgarian, while others attribute it to Turkish influence.

    Modern Bulgarian

    See also

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