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Nobody in Bulgaria
Is Calling You a Hobo

by Joyce McGreevy on February 27, 2017

A Bulgarian street prompts the thought that learning a second language will mean learning a second alphabet, Cyrillic. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Not all who wander Bulgarian streets are lost, just the non-Bulgarians.
© Joyce McGreevy

When Learning a Second Language
Means Learning a Second Alphabet

Your mission? Walk to the store. The one with signs that say “HOBO!” Funny, many stores in Bulgaria display that word. Why? You’re learning a second language, but hobo is nowhere in your phrasebook.

Even more mystifying to an English speaker? Bulgarian maps.

A Bulgarian map helps the author understand that learning a second language will mean learning a second alphabet, Cyrillic. (Image in the public domain.)

Should I turn наляво or надясно? And which is which?

Someone tells you, “Bilingual signs are everywhere.” So off you go, innocent as the day you were born. Sure enough, you find a sign with two versions of a street name.

Breakthrough? Nope. Because the sign isn’t actually bilingual. You’re looking at two distinct alphabets showcasing one common language.

Oh sure, the Roman script looks familiar because, it’s used for English. You can even sound it out: Ulitsa Sveti Kiril I Metodiy. But the language is Bulgarian.

And that other script?  Кирил И Методий ул. That’s Cyrillic. If it were in English it would say Saints Cyril and Methodius Street.

You don’t just have a language barrier—you have an alphabet barrier.

Bulgarian lettering on a beer glass helps the author understand that learning a second language will mean learning a second alphabet, Cyrillic. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Do I “ask for it by name” or keep pointing
at the cute horsey on the menu?
© Joyce McGreevy

Surprising Cyrillic

Oh, I see: Sometimes learning a second language means learning a second alphabet.

What to do? Stick to GPS? Staring at your phone while crossing city streets seems unwise.

Brazen it out? Seek directions by speaking only English?  Also problematic.

It promotes a double standard:  “When people come to our English-speaking country they should learn the language, and when we go to their non-English speaking countries we should . . . uh, be able to count on others speaking English.”

Decorative graffiti on a Bulgarian street shows that learning a second language and a second alphabet, Cyrillic, can be fun. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

The plays of Шекспир are popular worldwide, including in Bulgaria.
© Joyce McGreevy

When in Bulgaria . . .

You could copy street names in Roman script and show them to locals while looking pathetic and finger-miming the act of walking. Thing is, Roman script in Bulgaria, like many other Balkan countries, is a relatively recent phenomenon. It’s a linguistic standardization linked to membership of the European Union.

So, unless you’re showing your note to Sofia’s millennials—many of whom speak three or more languages—you’ll find that Roman script is as unfamiliar to many locals as Cyrillic is to you.

In a pinch, there are translation apps. But good luck forging authentic human connections as you stand jabbing the keypad of a device while holding up the line at a café.

My friend, it’s time to learn a little Cyrillic.

Language Geeks and Greeks

Zahari Zograf's 1848 mural of Bulgarian saints Cyril and Methodius show how the Cyrillic alphabet relates to learning a second language. (Image in the public domain)

Men of letters: Cyril and Methodius with alphabet.
Mural by Zahari Zograf (1848)

First, meet Cyril. St. Cyril, to be precise.

Cyril must be the Russian fellow who invented the Cyrillic alphabet, right?

Sorry, no. According to Bulgarian scholars, Bulgaria introduced Cyrillic, not Russia.

So, Cyril the Bulgarian invented Cyrillic?

If only it were that simple.

He was from Thessaloniki, which today is part of Greece, but was then part of the Bulgarian Empire. Cyril  and his kid brother Methodius were monks who liked monkeying around with language.

And so these two Greek Bulgarians (or Bulgarian Greeks) invented the Glagolitic alphabet.

So Many Alphabets, So Little Time

Now I know what you’re thinking:  Aha! Glagolitic must have been the first Slavic alphabet! And you’d be right.

The whole thing was modeled on Ancient Greek. In 850 A.D., there was plenty of Ancient Greek left over just waiting for hotshots like Cyril and Methodius to put it to good use.

The Acropolis reminds the author that learning a second language, Bulgarian, owes much to Ancient Greece, birthplace of Cyrillic. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Ancient Greek, a pillar of the (language) community.
© Joyce McGreevy

Having set up future generations of Greek and Bulgarian scholars with topics for debate, Cyril and Methodius passed mischievously away. Oh, those wacky monks.

In the 10th century, the C&M Brothers’ linguistic start-up was replaced by another evolution of the Bulgarian alphabet. This is the alphabet that scholars named after both brothers—oops sorry, fella—just Cyril.

Alas, there was no Methodius to their fad-ness.

Today, Cyrillic features in more than 50 languages spoken by over 250 million people in Eurasia. Also in Chicago, home to the largest Balkan community outside of the Balkans.

A traditionally dressed Bulgarian woman using a smartphone remind the author that learning a second language means learning a second alphabet, Cyrillic. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Communication has changed with the times
in Bulgaria, but Cyrillic is still going strong.
© Joyce McGreevy

Getting from A to Ж

Let’s begin. There are 30 pairs of letters in the Cyrillic alphabet. Some look and sound a lot like letters in the Roman alphabet: A as in palm, E as in best, O as in order.

Then you have trickster letters, like:

H N No way!
B V Very confusing!
P R Reeeally?
C S Seriously?

And I haven’t even mentioned Д (not to be confused with Л). Or Щ (not to be confused with Ш).

Decorative graffiti in Bulgaria suggests the feeling of learning a second language by learning a second alphabet, Cyrillic. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

One way to decipher two alphabets?
© Joyce McGreevy

Magical Cyrillic

Okay, just dip your toe in. You’d be surprised what a difference even a handful of letters can make. Consider it your magic decoder ring.

Remember: Many letters, including K, A, and E, made it from Cyrillic into Roman unchanged.

Now, look at this letter:  Ф. It sounds like PH in Phone. Knowing that, you can decipher this:

A Bulgarian Cyrillic sign for coffee suggests the benefits of learning a second language by learning a second alphabet. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Okay, so the visual cues help, too.
© Joyce McGreevy

Next, check out these two signs.

Bulgarian street signs in Cyrillic show that learning a second language can mean learning a second alphabet, Cyrillic. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

“These little town обувки are longing to отклоняват…”
© Joyce McGreevy

You’ve learned Ф, so you can read the sign on the green post.

Now check out the sign on the right. Remember:  P (Cyrillic) = R (Roman).

Hooked on Cyrillic

But those are cognates, you say.  What about words that are All-Bulgarian-All-the-Time?

A Bulgarian sign for antiques shows that learning a second language sometimes means learning a second alphabet, Cyrillic. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Shop till ya припадне!
© Joyce McGreevy

Does Aптека mean “antique”? Look again, knowing that п (Cyrillic) = P (Roman).

Roman lettering makes it APTEKA, which means “Pharmacy.” Handy to know when you have a headache and a 17th century vase just won’t help.

As for HOBO, many a tourist out shopping for souvenirs has misinterpreted it—because they mistook the letters for Roman. But—say it with me —they’re Cyrillic.

Seriously, Nobody in Bulgaria Is Calling You a Hobo


  • H (Cyrillic) = N (Roman)
  • O is O in both alphabets
  • B (Cyrillic) = V (Roman)

In short, the Bulgarian word HOBO (Cyrillic) is NOVO (Roman), which literally means NEW. As in, “Sale! Buy now!”

Sold on learning a second language? Then consider learning a second alphabet. From Bulgaria to Greece, Eurasia to Chicago, Cyrillic is as easy as АБЦ.

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.


9 thoughts on “Nobody in Bulgaria
Is Calling You a Hobo

  1. I was really enjoying this article, until I got to the last part that says HOBO means SALE. It doesn’t, it means NEW.

    • Много благодаря, Marit. You are absolutely right, of course, and I’ve gratefully clarified the item. Since so many of the “HOBO” signs in beautiful Sofia and Plovdiv were accompanied by discount prices, I trust readers will pardon my imprecision. Thanks for reading!

  2. Hello Joyce, and thank you so much for your informative yet entertaining article on getting around (or trying to get around) in a second alphabet. It brought back my trip so many years ago to Moscow and then-Leningrad, trying to find my way around. What a ride that was, especially behind the iron curtain! Thanks again and, one of these days, I hope to get to Bulgaria, too. Best regards, as always.

  3. If I was trying to learn the language, I’d need to know “Pharmacy” right away–and “aspirin”! Thanks for your enlightening and entertaining article. I’ve been wanting to go to Bulgaria for decades, to listen to their amazing choral music.Here’s a taste:

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