The confusion of letters | Montpellier, France

Friends who are studying Bulgarian often complain about how confusing the alphabet can be. At first glance, unlike fundametally different scripts (such as Arabic, Japanese or Chinese), the Cyrillic alphabet is easy:

а б в г д е ж з и й к л м н о п р с т у ф х ц ч ш щ ъ ь ю я

A lot of its letters look like their Latin counterparts; some of them even correspond across the two alphabets: ‘A’ is ‘A’, ‘K’ is ‘K’, ‘M’ is ‘M’, ‘O’ is ‘O’ and ‘T’ is ‘T’.

The confusion, though, sets in when the Bulgarian ‘B’ turns out to be the English ‘V’, the Cyrillic ‘H’ actually corresponds to the Latin ‘N’, the ‘P’ is an ‘R’, and the ‘C’ is in fact an ‘S’. [A common joke is that all eateries in Bulgaria carry the unappealingly sounding name PECTOPAHT (a phonetic transcription of the word ‘restaurant’ in Bulgarian).]

What renders matters even more confusing is that letters from the Cyrillic alphabet sometimes look like slightly modified versions of Latin letters but sound nothing like them: the best example is the mirror image of ‘R’- the Bulgarian “Я”, which contains not a trace of a throaty roar but is rather the sound made of combining ‘i’+’a’ (as in the endings of Sofia or Maria). Another case is the flipped ‘N’ – the Bulgarian ‘И’, pronounced like the ‘i’ in ‘hipster’. Or – as in the picture above, the English ‘V’, which – when turned upside down becomes (in certain fonts) the Bulgarian ‘Л’. [Although, in the interest of full disclosure, the signs pictured were in fact not letters but arrows indicating the direction of traffic on two parallel bike lanes.]

Against all odds, it might turn out that the easiest Cyrillic letters to learn are those that have no Latin counterparts or slightly modified twins. Some of them, in spite of their strange appearance, have direct phonetic equivalents in English: the angular Г (as in the ‘g’ in ‘golf’), the symmetricаlly attractive Ж (which sounds like the ‘g’ in ‘genre’) and Ф ( the ‘f’ in ‘February’). Others – to the delight of those learning Bulgarian as a foreign language, are single letters that unify more than one sound, on the same principle as the Latin ‘X’ (a combination of k+s): the rounded Ю (pronounced exactly like ‘you’); the siblinged Ш and Щ (pronounced ‘sh’ and ‘sht’, respectively); the choppy Ч (which would be the first letter if you transcribe the word ‘choppy’ in Bulgarian); and Ц (the first sound in the word ‘Zeitgeist’ if you pronounce it as Germans do).

But perhaps the strangest and most troubling of all is the letter Ъ (pronounced ‘uh’, or like the second sound in ‘Bulgarian’), which is tricky to use for both native and foreign speakers, stands at the beginning of just one single word in the Bulgarian language and yet, it is indispensable.

***This post is part of the alphabet series, which contains photos and stories about letters from various alphabets. For a more systematic and organized run-down of all the letters in the English alphabet, also check out the Woman of Letters page, which is updated continuously with new letters as I stumble upon them.***


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