What happened to Bulgarian’s grammatical cases?

Down by the Black Sea, lies the country of Bulgaria, the primary home of the Bulgarian language. Rather closely related to Macedonian, this Slavic language is part of what is known as the Balkan sprachbund, an ensemble of generally common features shared by languages spoken in the Balkans, like grammar, vocabulary, and phonology. What sets Bulgarian as a rather unique language here in the Slavic branch is its almost complete absences of grammatical cases, how the endings of each noun change based on its contextual use in a sentence or clause. In fact, only two such “cases” remain, although current colloquialisms might further reduce this down to one.

The first “case”, more rather, a noun form, is the nominative. It is generally the form that you would find everywhere in the language. The second form is the vocative, usually used when calling out someone or something to command some sort of attention. While these are the two forms of the Bulgarian noun, there have been colloquial use that replaces the vocative with the nominative, effectively reducing the Bulgarian noun case. This sets it apart from languages like Russian and Polish, with their six or seven noun cases.

However, we see relics of the “grammatical case past” when we look at how pronouns decline with the grammatical case. These normally include the nominative, accusative, and dative, like “I” – “аз – мене/мен/ме – на мене/на мен/ми”. Similar relics are found in the interrogative, relative and universal pronouns as well, although some forms are progressively falling out of use, especially so in the spoken language.

So how did we get here? Why do languages like Bulgarian and Macedonian have a stark lack of grammatical cases in comparison to their Slavic cousins? There are several hypotheses proposed, including the role of the Balkan sprachbund and phonetic mergers. These theories often have their own inconsistencies in one way or another, but can offer additional insight on the evolution of languages like Latin and the Romance languages (and how Romanian deviates from French and Italian, for instance).

The Balkan sprachbund is probably among the most documented linguistic pattern in the region, with studies as early as 1829. Languages like Greek, Latin, Illyrian or Albanian have been proposed as possible sources for these common features, but the most commonly accepted theory is the multiple linguistic sources influencing the linguistic landscape in the Balkans. The rather turbulent history of the Balkan region has resulted in the movement of people (and hence, languages) to other places often inhabited by people of other ethnicities. Linguistic assimilation may have occurred along the way, resulting in several linguistic signatures in the speakers’ newly acquired languages.

Bulgarian is not the only language where the number of cases were reduced, and sometimes replaced with prepositions. In many languages of the Balkans, like Albanian and Romanian, a merger of the dative and genitive forms have been observed, often fusing into a single case ending. These cases may have sounded rather similar, allowing the process of phonemic merging to take place, incorporating elements of the possible “least effort hypothesis”, where the ease of pronunciation would favour the usage of that case ending and attached sound. This merging process is what linguists refer to as “syncretism”, or a rather specific type of linguistic homophony. However, Serbian and Croatian (or Serbo-Croatian) have a way lower extent of case reduction compared to Bulgarian and Macedonian. Questions remain as to what could have influenced the different extents of case reduction in the Balkan sprachbund.

The presence of such case reduction, in Bulgarian, Macedonian, even in English, has shown how languages evolve to facilitate communication between speakers, in a changing historical, cultural, and geographical context. Balkan history is highly likely to contribute a major part in shaping the Bulgarian language, leaving remnants of grammatical cases once widely used in the decades, or centuries past. This shows how interesting historical linguistics can be, as we delve into how languages change or develop over time.

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