by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

A brief, yet helpful guide to Bulgarian family relations

Happy families may be alike, unhappy families may be unhappy in their own way, but in Bulgaria all these come with a twist: a plethora of hard-to-pronounce names for every maternal and paternal aunt, uncle and in-law that can possibly exist.

Ask any Bulgarian how their recent family gathering went and the answer will probably sound something like this: "A disaster. My Badzhanak got into an argument with my Tashta, my Strinka showed up with her annoying Vuyna, then my Shurey got completely tanked and my sister was really upset."

All those monstrously unpronounceable words refer to your friend's relatives. The above is, in fact, only a small sample of all the baffling kinship terms that exist in Bulgaria. Bulgarians know how to differentiate between paternal and maternal uncles, and their wives, which is far more complicated than a simple "auntie." Throw in some regional variations for many of these terms and you end up with a perfect storm of words that will challenge any foreigner trying to decipher the Bulgarian language, culture and psyche.

Let's start our exploration of the Bulgarian family tree with the straightforward term Lelya, used to refer to your mother's or father's sister. Her husband's title, however, is not simply uncle, but either Svako, Lelincho or Kaleko, depending on what region of Bulgaria you are in.

When it comes to your mother's or father's brothers, the situation gets much more complicated. Chicho can be used only for a paternal uncle, but do not make the mistake of calling his wife Lelya; she is your Strinka or Chinka.

Things are completely different for your mother's brother. He is Vuycho to you, and his wife is your Vuyna or Uchinayka.

The union of two large families gives rise to yet more bewildering terminology. The most important terms refer to the newlyweds' parents.

When a young couple decides to marry, their parents become each other's Svatove, or in-laws. For centuries Bulgarian in-laws called each other by this title but recently this custom has begun to disappear. Nevertheless, an elderly woman might still call up her son and ask after the health of his mother-in-law with the query: “How is my Svatya?”

In Bulgarian the terms Zet and Snaha are the exact equivalents of the English son-in-law and daughter-in-law. Mother-in-law and father-in-law are not so simple. To a Bulgarian wife, her husband's father and mother are her Svekar and Svekarva. When speaking to them she should call them Tatko and Mayko, or dad and mum, but in more recent generations this habit has increasingly disappeared. Her husband, on the other hand, thinks of his parents-in-law as his Tast and Tashta. Traditionally he addressed them with the "affectionate" titles of Dyado and Babo, or grandpa and grandma, but this has been disappearing as well.

Newlyweds typically moved into the groom's home, where his parents, the Svekar and Svekarva, ruled the household. For them the bride, their Snaha, was something like a new daughter, but one that was expected to be even more obedient than their own children.

The difficult life of a young bride living under one roof with her mother-in-law has been immortalised in numerous Bulgarian folk songs and is still a touchy subject for these village women's great-great granddaughters today. Ask any Bulgarian woman of a certain age and she will be happy to launch into a string of horror stories about living with her mother-in-law, usually topped off by a snide joke on the topic. For example, have you seen that picture of Asclepius's snake outside the chemist's? The model for it was "my mother-in-law at a cocktail party."

These feelings are sometimes mutual. Many Svekarvi can spend hours combing through their Snahi's behaviour, criticising how they dress, talk, cook, clean and generally live.

Which is not to say that the relationship between a young husband and his mother-in-law is all wine and roses – especially if for some reason the newlyweds have to move in with the bride's parents. In that case, the poor guy is labelled a Zavryan zet, imaginatively translated as "husband under the carpet," and finds himself the butt of many tired family jokes. In one such tale, the beleaguered fellow has to sleep between the window and a potted fern – so that the draught will not damage the plant. In other cases, however, the Tashta may cherish her daughter's husband even more than her own children, hence the saying "A son-in-law is like honey, and a son like wormwood wine."

All these Svekarvi and Tashti are only the beginning of a complicated familial hierarchy that also includes all the newlyweds' brothers and sisters. The husband should call his wife's brother Shurey, while the latter's spouse is his Shurenayka or Shurolinka. A man calls his wife's sister his Baldaza. When two sisters get married, their husbands become Badzhanatsi to each other. The names for the husband's siblings are equally complex. A woman calls her husband's sister Zalva and his brother Dever, while the wives of two brothers are Etarvi.

Why are family relations and the words denoting them so complicated in Bulgaria? The explanation is equally perplexing. Traditionally, Bulgaria used to be an overwhelmingly peasant society. Prior to mass industrialisation in the mid-20th century, most Bulgarians lived in villages, so they needed a complex kinship system to regulate relationships within large families living close together.

Looking further back in time at the complicated Bulgarian relations between Strinki, Baldazi and Deveri inevitably brings the 500 years of Ottoman rule. After the Ottoman Turks conquered the Bulgarian lands at the end of the 14th century, they deliberately suppressed all forms of the old leadership. The medieval aristocracy were killed off during wars and subsequent revolts, or else sent into exile, where they were absorbed into the general population. The religious establishment was also destroyed when the independent Bulgarian Church fell under the control of the Greek Patriarchate.

This left the common people with little political representation within the empire. For the next five centuries of Ottoman rule, the family was the primary unit of organisation in rural Bulgarian society. During this time families were generally large and lived together under one roof. To make up for the lack of an external hierarchy and to establish a pecking order within this tightly-knit community, Bulgarians came up with terms to describe every possible type of familial relationship. This also made it easier to remember who fitted where in the family tree; it is much simpler to say "Penka is Maria's Etarva" instead of "Penka is married to Ivan, who is the brother of Maria's husband Peter."

After Bulgaria's independence from the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century and its subsequent modernisation, these old familial structures gradually began to break down. The perplexing system of kinship terms has nevertheless survived as a relic of the times when extended families lived together.

But what about nephews and cousins? Fortunately they are simply Plemennitsi and Bratovchedi, no matter whether they are from mum's or dad's side of the family. The only distinction made is between generations.


Bulgarian kinship dictionary

Bulgarian family relations

Badzhanatsi: The husbands of two sisters. Dimitar and Ivan are Badzhanatsi.

Baldaza: A man's term for his wife's sister. Minka is Ivan's Baldaza, while he is her Zet.

Bratovched: Any cousin. Maria, Desi, Petya and Mina are first Bratovchedi, while Donka and Milen are Vtori bratovchedi, or second cousins to Atanas.

Chicho: Your father's brother; his wife is your Strinka or Chinka. Ivan is Petya's Chicho, and Ivanka is her Strinka.

Dever: A woman's term for her husband's brother. Stefan is Ivanka's Dever.

Etarvi: The wives of two brothers. Ivanka and Stefka are Etarvi.

Lelya: Your mother's or father's sister. For example, Ivanka is Lelya to Ani, Boris and Todor, just as Penka is Lelya to Maria.

Plemennik: Any nephew and niece. Maria is Plemennitsa to Penka, and Boris is Plemennik to Ivan.

Shurey: A man's term for his wife's brother. Rado is Ivan's Shurey, and his wife Radka is his Shurenayka.

Snaha: The wife of your son or your brother. Ivanka is Georgi and Gergana's Snaha.

Svako, Lelincho, Kaleko: Your Lelya's husband. Ivan is Svako to Ani, Boris and Todor.

Svekar and Svekarva: Your husband's parents. Georgi and Gergana are Ivanka's Svekar and Svekarva.

Tast and Tashta: Your wife's parents. Stoyan and Stoyana are Ivan's Tast and Tashta.

Vuycho: Your mother's brother; his wife is your Vuyna or Uchinayka. Ivan is Vuycho to Iliya, and Ivanka is his Vuyna. The same goes for Rado and Radka, who are Vuycho and Vuyna to Petya, Mina and Todor.

Zalva: A woman's term for her husband's sister. Penka is Ivanka's Zalva, while Ivanka is Penka's Snaha.

Zet: The husband of your daughter or your sister. Ivan is Minka's Zet.


Na baba Zlata shureya

Na baba Zlata Shureya, or Grannie Zlata's Shurey is a humorous idiom – remember that a woman cannot have a Shurey. The phrase can express suspicion of an unsubstantiated rumour: "I think you must've heard that from your Grannie Zlata's Shurey." You can also use it to voice indignation: "How dare you speak to me like that! Who do you think I am, your Grannie Zlata's Shurey?" If the phrase is just said on its own, however, it unequivocally expresses one thing: frustration.



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