Fri, 08/01/2008 - 15:38

If you're learning the lingo - bravo; but you may also notice your native lexis is becoming Bulgarianised

Do your phonecalls consist of one-word answers? Have you culled most modal verb niceties from conversations? Do you now randomly walk away mid conversation? Then welcome to the fold – you speak Bulgrish.

I first discovered I could speak Bulgrish when I arrived at the front door after a night out with my boyfriend and, quite naturally, said: “Give me key”. It wasn't just the tipsiness that resulted in this contortion of the English language as I know it, but the two-year's worth of immersion in Bulgarian society.

English is a very overworded language. This has positive attributes, of course, such as the ability to express something uber eloquently, yet not only does it make it a rather difficult language to learn proficiently, but can make us sound awfully stuffy and overpolite at times.

This means that when we're greeted with a nation that don't overuse the modal verbs Britons are so fond of, we tend to get a bit oversensitive. This linguistic divergence first came to my attention a few years before I became an expat myself. It was when I visited my father-in-law in Vietnam, where he'd served as a teacher for six years and was well versed with the differences of their native tongue. He met us in the centre of Saigon, where a different young street vendor or beggar joined us every dozen steps. “You! Buy gum!” the little critters were saying, “Give me cigarette” or “Want money”! I turned to my host, saying something like if they wanted my custom or charity, they might want to brush up on their Ps and Qs for the foreigners. He replied to me that it was perfectly normal for them to speak that way in their own language, as well as any other. In their country, the vernacular isn't peppered with a load of modal verbs, or verbs that help to incorporate or add levels of necessity. However, in English, we season our sentences with various strains of stipulation, such as “must,” “dare,” “can,” “shall” and “will”. This way of speaking is mostly confined to Germanic languages spoken in northern, western and central Europe, such as English, Dutch, German, Swedish and Afrikaans. Excluding, among various others, the Balkans, whose vocabulary usually extracts these somewhat superfluous, overpolite words.

So what does this mean? I've become desensitised to this more direct way of speaking, whereas initially many Western foreigners consider it as brashness. I've heard many of my fellow expats or visiting tourists saying: “Yes, I like the Bulgarians… But they're a bit rude, aren't they?”

This is most commonly experienced in the customer service sector, where Bulgarians commonly greet and serve customers in the little English that they know, which is a variation of Bulgarian translated word for word into English with a few German words thrown in. We'll call it Englarianman. The result is a bit of a muddled word order, misplaced prepositions and conjunctions, and of course, omitting words that in English, decide the tone of a sentence as friendly – or rude.

In turn, I've found myself, as a budding leaner of the lingo, guilty of leaking these linguistic features into my native tongue. Now, instead of saying, “Could I buy some bread, please?” it's “I want bread” or even just “bread, please”. No problem when in Bulgaria, speaking Bulgarian, but during visits to the UK I have to try very hard not to bark “long coffee” to a waitress else she's likely to spit in it.

In addition, those aforementioned prepositions are confusing my mother tongue. Words like “on,” “in,” “that” and “with” are hard to pin down and directly translate from Bulgarian to English. For example, vuv, can either mean “at” or “in,” and na could be “here,” “at” or “on,” or sometimes even “with” or “and” – all depending on context. As if figuring them out in Bulgarian isn't confusing enough, the fact that I find myself saying stuff like: “dinner is at the oven,” when I'm having an absentminded moment, makes things ever more tricky.

Of course, it's not just the spoken language that I've hybridised – but the body language too. I'm not just talking about wobbling my head from side to side in agreement with something my mother is telling me, only to have her looking at me, hurt-filled at my negativity. I also mean the general facial expressions adopted by Bulgarians during conversation. It's a kind of grave look, with a lot of down-turned mouth and sombre head nodding, even if the topic isn't particularly grim. Having said that, Bulgarians will burst into smile at the very necessary parts of the conversation, but tend to recompose themselves rather quickly. When it comes to concluding meetings, Britons tend to discreetly turn bit by bit and shuffle their feet in the opposite direction, as if afraid of hurting the other person's feelings by leaving. This end of chat awkwardness is avoided in Bulgaria by cutting out goodbyes completely – even in mid-topic. You know the conversation has finished when you see the back of the person's head as they walk away muttering haide or imam rabota.

My telephone etiquette has also been affected. Most of my responses are one word answers, or merely a kind of grunt. I don't answer “hello” – or if I do, I replace the h and e with an a – instead just “yes” or “speak!”. Dramatised endings are cut short over the phone too, so instead of the British way of finding a million different ways to say bye – “alright then, yes, take care, ta ta, see you soon, bye then,” a simple dobre will suffice before the line goes dead. Sometimes, I even go as far as to mumble a barely comprehensible okhaideciao before the conversation ends.

The crossed-language attribute that's been met with the most humorous responses are those little filler words that make everyday speech sound less stilted and planned. You need these when learning a language, else you just sound like you're reading from a book. I made an effort to learn the Bulgarian versions for “um,” “you know,” “right?” and even “ow” – but they too seemed to have intertwined with my first language. Now, for an affirmative answer, I'll say: “ahmi, yes” or confirm something by saying, “You'll have three sugars, nali?”

Nevertheless, I'm sure all these crossed-language creases will be ironed out once I'm fluent enough to switch effectively between English and Bulgarian. If this occurrence is here to stay, however, I'll be sure never to try and learn Chinese.

Issue 23

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