Learning to read in Bulgarian (vowels)

Learning to read the vowels

(the backbone of syllables)

The vowels in Bulgarian

Bulgarian words are mostly spelled as they are pronounced, with a few exceptions (e.g. at the end of the word the tendency is to pronounce voiced consonants like their unvoiced counterparts: град is pronounced [грат], мраз is pronounced [мрас]).

In connected speech, the vowel sounds are generally read in the same way the names of their letters are pronounced in the alphabet, while the consonants lose the sound ъ which is added to form the names of the letters.

One should first familiarise oneself with the six vowel sounds and their letters:

Aa, Ъъ (a roughly resembles the vowel in car, while ъ roughly resembles the vowel in her)

Оо, Уу (o roughly resembles the vowel in soft, while у roughly resembles the vowel in full)

Ее, Ии (e roughly resembles the vowel in bet, while и roughly resembles the vowel in pill)

The vowels in each pair are clearly distinct from one another only when they are stressed. In such cases it is very easy to distinguish between the two:

прав – пръв

ток – тук

пет – пит

When unstressed, the vowels in the А – Ъ and O – U pairs are pronounced in such a way that each sounds much like its counterpart, so for each pair  we have a single (merged) vowel representing and resembling both, which vowel is usually perceived as the second vowel in the pair:

баща sounds much like [бъща]

вода sounds much like [вуда]

It is important to remember that standard Bulgarian doesn’t allow merging the sounds E and И, so Е should be pronounced distinctly regardless of being stressed or not:



* Because rendering diacritic symbols is difficult in an online environment, especially with the Cyrillic script, stress will be signalled with bold italicised letters where necessary.

Bulgarian word stress is dynamic, so each word should be learned separately.

Stressed syllables are louder and slightly longer than unstressed ones (even though, in general, Bulgarian doesn’t distinguish between long and short vowels), and stress can vary when a prefix, a suffix or an ending is added to the word:

син – сина – синът – синове – синовете

There are cases in which two words can only be distinguished by their stressed vowel:

вълна (wool) <-> вълна (wave)

There are also cases where tense forms of a verb will be distinguished only by their stress:

Детето яде сандвичи всеки ден. (The child eats sandwiches every day).

Детето яде сандвичи вчера. (The child ate sandwiches yesterday).

Stress is not usually shown in written texts, with the exception of the word „и“. It is always written with a grave accent (ù) when it means her (as in казах ù meaning I told her) in order to be distinguished from the conjunction (Том и Тим meaning Tom and Tim).

You can check the stress in any dictionary, e.g the official dictionary of the Bulgarian language, or Wiktionary.

Further reading (sources):

Wikipedia article on Bulgarian phonology