Famous Bulgarian Sayings - Balkan Folk Wisdom

Bulgaria is a land of contrast. While this is the sort of banal cliché that can be said about every country on the planet, it's especially true when talking about Bulgaria and its culture. As a country at the doorstep of Europe, Bulgaria had the chance (and sometimes the misfortune) to be influenced by many cultures. That resulted in a culture with many interesting, wise, and often funny sayings. Here are some of the best ones!

“Let it be health!” or “At least we are still healthy!”

This phrase wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense in English without the proper context. When some misfortune falls upon a Bulgarian, he or she would usually try to look at the bright side. That bright side is often good health. If anything bad is to happen, it's all fine as long as you've got your good health. So, “Let it be health” is the saying that gives Bulgarian perspective when a material disaster happens in their lives. Because, in the end, that’s what matters most to Bulgarians.

Did you drop your banitza? “Let it be health, I’ll get a new one!” Your car broke down? “Fine, let it be health, we will fix it.” Your house flooded? “At least we are still healthy, we didn’t drown!”

“Don’t discuss the bill without the innkeeper!”

This popular saying refers to making negotiations or plans without the person who ultimately decides whether those plans will be carried out. It's especially popular in family life. For example, if the children start planning to go somewhere before getting permission from their father, they are “discussing the bill without the innkeeper.”

“The sick carries the healthy”

This one is the phrase used to call out injustices in society. It can be used literally, but Bulgarians tend to say “the sick carries the healthy” are a way to point out that someone strong is taking advantage of someone weak. For example, when the government taxes money from the poor and the state officials line their own pockets with that money, Bulgarians would say that the sick and taking care of the healthy.

The phrase was popularized by a story of a clever and healthy fox taking advantage of a naive and sick wolf so he can carry her to the next village. Don't feel bad for the wolf, though, as he usually manages to realize his mistakes. 

“No laws for millions, no forgiveness for a chicken”

This saying rhymes in Bulgarians, so its true poetry is lots. The meaning, however, isn’t. Bulgarians often feel as if rich people, especially millionaires, are above the law, while the poor are being harshly punished for the smallest infractions. One popular story tells that a man was sentenced to years in prison for stealing a chicken, while criminal barons and corrupt politicians can make their millions without legal repercussions. So, there are “no laws for millions” and “no forgiveness for a chicken.” The saying was greatly popularized by a catchy 90s song:

“A musician doesn’t feed a family”

Bulgarians tend to be very grounded people, often relying on things with tangible rather than subjective value. If a Bulgarian child wants to become a musician or an artist, a traditional Bulgarian family would use this phrase to give perspective on that career. Of course, there are many rich musicians and artists, but this saying remains useful for staying rooted in reality. Sadly, it’s still hard to raise a family on an unreliable artistic career.

“You can reach Tsarigrad by asking questions”

Tsarigrad was the old name Bulgarians used to refer to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire (present-day Istanbul, Turkey.) Back when Bulgaria was forming, Tsarigrad was the de-facto capital of the world and remained an important part of national folklore after the city fell to the Ottoman invaders in 1453.

Bulgarians use this metaphor to emphasize the importance of asking questions and sharing information. If someone is too stubborn to ask for directions, he’d be met with “You can reach Tsarigrad by asking questions.” In a more metaphorical sense, Tsarigrad can be a placeholder for any desirable goal. You can’t go on a date with a girl you like without asking her out. You can’t get a promotion without asking for it.

“The lamb is whole and the wolf is full”

This is comparable to the English “have your cake and eat it too.” A situation where two seemingly exclusive options can occur. Sadly, that rarely happens, so most of the times you’ll hear that “Its impossible for the lamb to be whole and the wolf to be full.” Meaning that the wolf needs to eat the lamb in order to be full.

“If you don’t want peace, here’s an axe!”

Khan Krum, one of Bulgaria’s most popular medieval rulers, is said to have uttered these words while decapitating the Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros I. Krum then proceeded to make a wine cup out his Nikephoros’s skull. Whether its true or not, this story has captured the imagination of Bulgarians to the point where the phrase “If you don’t want peace, here’s an axe” entered the national lexicon. It’s used to describe a violent response to a violent act.

For Bulgarians, Nikephoros attacked Bulgaria, committed many atrocities, and sacked the capital of Pliska. He didn’t want peace, so Krum responded with the axe.

“A wedge splits a wedge”

Sometimes the problem can also be the solution. This phrase is comparable to “fight fire with fire.” The applications to this phrase are pretty much endless, but the most popular use is to fight hangover by drinking more alcohol. “Wedges splits a wedge” has become more of an ironic phrase to point out a logical inconsistency of unintentionally contributing to a problem by trying to solve it.

When to use Bulgarian phrases?

A lot of meaning is lost in translation, but not all. If you ever want to study Bulgarian, you should definitely take a look at the way Bulgarians think. That way you can understand why we use certain words and phrases. Once you establish that cultural foundation, building up your knowledge on the subject will become trivial. If you want to learn more about the Bulgarian language, make sure to check out our guide on how to learn Bulgarian, and also stay tuned to EUscoop for future stories from the country.

Image by Master Sgt. Kendra M. Owenby, 134 ARW Public Affairs


Alex Dimchev

Alex Dimchev is a writer, editor, and weapons master for EUscoop.com

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