The language is mainly split into two broad dialect areas, based on the different reflexes of the Common Slavic yat vowel (Ѣ). This split, which occurred at some point during the Middle Ages, led to the development of Bulgaria's:
- Western dialects (informally called твърд говор/tvurd govor – "hard speech")
- the former yat is pronounced "e" in all positions. e.g. млеко (mlekò) – milk, хлеб (hleb) – bread.
- Eastern dialects (informally called мек говор/mek govor – "soft speech")
- the former yat alternates between "ya" and "e": it is pronounced "ya" if it is under stress and the next syllable does not contain a front vowel (e or i) – e.g. мляко (mlyàko), хляб (hlyab), and "e" otherwise – e.g. млекар (mlekàr) – milkman, хлебар (hlebàr) – baker. This rule obtains in most Eastern dialects, although some have "ya", or a special "open e" sound, in all positions.
The literary language norm, which is generally based on the Eastern dialects, also has the Eastern alternating reflex of yat. However, it has not incorporated the general Eastern umlaut of all synchronic or even historic "ya" sounds into "e" before front vowels – e.g. поляна (polyana) vs полени (poleni) "meadow – meadows" or even жаба (zhaba) vs жеби (zhebi) "frog – frogs", even though it co-occurs with the yat alternation in almost all Eastern dialects that have it (except a few dialects along the yat border, e.g. in the Pleven region).
More examples of the yat umlaut in the literary language are:
- mlyàko (milk) → mlekàr (milkman); mlèchen (milky), etc.
- syàdam (sit) → sedàlka (seat); sedàlishte (seat, e.g. of government), etc.
- svyat (holy) → svetètz (saint); svetìlishte (sanctuary), etc.
Until 1945, Bulgarian orthography did not reveal this alternation and used the original Old Slavic Cyrillic letter yat (Ѣ), which was commonly called двойно е (dvoyno e) at the time, to express the historical yat vowel or at least root vowels displaying the ya – e alternation. The letter was used in each occurrence of such a root, regardless of the actual pronunciation of the vowel: thus, both mlyako and mlekar were spelled with (Ѣ). Among other things, this was seen as a way to "reconcile" the Western and the Eastern dialects and maintain language unity at a time when much of Bulgaria's Western dialect area was controlled by Serbia and Greece, but there were still hopes and occasional attempts to recover it. With the 1945 orthographic reform, this letter was abolished and the present spelling was introduced, reflecting the alternation in pronunciation.
This had implications for some grammatical constructions:
- The third person plural pronoun and its derivatives. Before 1945 the pronoun "they" was spelled тѣ (tě), and its derivatives took this as the root. After the orthographic change, the pronoun and its derivatives were given an equal share of soft and hard spellings:
- "they" – те (te) → "them" – тях (tyah);
- "their(s)" – tehen (masc.); tyahna (fem.); tyahno (neut.); tehni (plur.)
- adjectives received the same treatment as тѢ:
- "whole" – tsyal → "the whole...": tseliyat (masc.); tsyalata (fem.); tsyaloto (neut.); tselite (plur.)
Sometimes, with the changes, words began to be spelled as other words with different meanings, e.g.:
- свѣт (svět) – "holy" became свят (svyat), spelt and pronounced the same as свят – "world".
- тѣ (tě) – "they" became те (te),
In spite of the literary norm regarding the yat vowel, many people living in Western Bulgaria, including the capital Sofia, will fail to observe its rules. While the norm requires the realizations vidyal vs videli (he has seen; they have seen), some natives of Western Bulgaria will preserve their local dialect pronunciation with "e" for all instances of "yat" (e.g. videl, videli). Others, attempting to adhere to the norm, will actually use the "ya" sound even in cases where the standard language has "e" (e.g. vidyal, vidyali). The latter hypercorrection is called свръхякане (svrah-yakane ≈"over-softening").
Read more about this topic: Bulgarian Language
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