Fighting words and Bulgaria’s history

NOTE: to read Cyrillic words in Latin letter, just hover the mouse over them.

Given its location, it’s not surprising that Bulgaria has a long and colorful history, and that history is mostly colored bloody, dripping red. I’m talking war, people, and there is no better way to see the effect war has had on the language than by looking at its names for weapons.

тояга-club, staff

From the old Bulgar language, which was not Slavic, but seems to have been either Iranian (Indo-European) or Turkic (Altaic), or both. Likewise, the word тояга may be related to the Indo-European word for “stick” (compare to English ‘twig’), but is more likely from Altaic (compare Turkish ‘dayak’, a rod or a stick). The Albanian word for a club is also “dajak,” which they might have gotten from Turkish, or might be from the same mysterious substrate language that yielded тояга (the Thracians??). With words this old, who can say?

In any case, imagine these guys, somewhere in Central Asia, riding their horses, and hitting people with clubs. Until they settled down and started smithing, at which point they needed…

меч-a sword

This is Slavic (it’s the same in Russian). The Slavs entered what is now Bulgaria in the early 500s, about a century before the club-wielding, possibly Altaic-speaking Bulgars invaded.

Fun fact: the Slavs probably got the word меч from Germanic-speaking peoples (Old English mece), who borrowed it from…nobody knows. But “sword” in Finnish is “miekka,” and “mes” in Mongolian. Oo~ooh!

While the Bulgars probably had their own word for sword, it’s the Slavic word that stuck. That’s because, although there were about as many Bulgars in Bulgaria as Slavs, the ruling Bulgar Clan (the Dulo), promoted Slavic over their own language in order to weaken the rival Bulgar tribes. So while modern Bulgarian still retains тояга, most of its other medieval weapons-vocabulary is Slavic like копие (a spear), and лък (a bow).

арбалет-a crossbow

Or not. Like English, Bulgarian gets its siege machine vocabulary from Latin. Arbalista is an arbalest or crossbow, as a catapulta is a catapult (Bulgarian катапулт).

But then the Roman empire falls and you get…

рицар-a knight

Which must be from some Germanic language (see German “ritter,” and English “rider”). There were Germanic-speaking Goths in Bulgaria from before the Slavs showed up, but I bet this word is more recent, and came with the Fourth Crusade. Of course the Crusaders didn’t just speak German, but also French and other Romance languages, from which comes кавалер, a gentleman (in the sense of a polite man), obviously from Late Latin ‘caballarius,’ a horseman and therefore a gentleman (in the sense of a man wealthy enough to afford a horse).

Of course, the word кавалер might be a more recent introduction, perhaps directly from Italian cavalliere (which is where English gets “cavalier,” although the meaning has twisted around to mean almost the opposite of a gentleman).

And what would Italian-speakers have been doing in the Balkans? Why, trading with the Ottomans, of course.


The Ottomans annexed Bulgaria in 1396. Their secret weapon? An enormous, extremely well-coordinated army. Okay, their other secret weapon? Gunpowder. The word in modern Turkish is also barut, which itself comes from Persian اروت (bârut). Plus you have the thing you put gunpowder in, топ (Turkish top, a cannon), and the thing you light that gunpowder with (кибрит, Turkish kibrit, a match), and the thing that gives you time to run away (фитил, Turkish fitil, a fuse).

пистолет, пушка-a gun

But don’t worry. Other people got their hands on gunpowder, and in 1877, the Russians invaded, their hands full of guns…yay? пистолет comes by way of Russian from French (pistole), which might itself be from a Slavic language (Czech pis’tala, Russian pischal=a pipe). But anyway it was Russians who brought the (Russian/French/Russian) word into Bulgarian.

Things stay Russified for a while after 1877. Bulgaria gained independence, but stayed heavily influenced by Russia, especially militarily (for obvious reasons). However, since Russian and Bulgarian are both Slavic languages, a lot of Russian words make perfect sense in Bulgarian. Пушка (literally “a smoker”) means “gun” in Russian and “rifle” in Bulgarian. Самолет (an airplane) is the same in both languages and means literally “self-fly.”

But the world has changed since 1991, and now we have a new kind of weapon:

компютърното хакерство-Hacking

And look what a good job we’re doing with that.

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