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How to Build a "Folk" Song: Socialist Bulgarian Song Texts and Folkloric Language in the South Slavic Context

  • Author(s): Girvin, Cammeron Harper
  • Advisor(s): Alexander, Ronelle
  • et al.

This dissertation attempts to investigate the notion of folkloric language in Bulgarian and other South Slavic languages by problematizing the position of newly composed “folk” songs in the cultural imagination of socialist Bulgaria. Ostensibly sung by Bulgaria’s new socialist “folk” and published alongside preindustrial texts in volumes of national “folk songs,” these texts were presented as a new part of Bulgaria’s national folklore canon. But although their content describes recent events of World War II and “modern” socialist ways of life, their linguistic structures often seem to have been modeled on those of more traditional texts. It is argued that the nonstandard linguistic features that characterize these socialist-era works were employed in order to lend the texts the air of “authenticity,” which marked them as legitimate representations of Bulgarian folk culture.

One finds a number of interesting linguistic features in these songs, including nonstandard orthographic representations of phonology, marked morphological and syntactic patterns, a distinct lexicon, and special poetic structures. Although folkloric texts in Bulgarian are often said to contain “dialectal” language, one finds in these songs relatively few representations of language representative of true regional dialects, that is, linguistic traits of a limited geographic area. Instead, most marked features of the texts seem to be archaic in nature: generally, either from Bulgarian as it was spoken in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, or from older Slavic and even Indo-European poetic traditions. It is supposed that these features are some of the salient markers of folkloric language in Bulgarian.

To test this hypothesis, a survey was conducted with native speakers of Bulgarian that asked informants to respond to prompts containing sample lines from folk songs both with and without the linguistic devices in question. Speakers did, in fact, generally find the marked prompts to sound folkloric, which supports the idea that the special linguistic features carry folkloric stylistic marking. When similar features were tested with song lines in Serbian, however, they seemed to have little effect on native speakers’ perceptions of folkloric qualities. This suggests that folkloric language is primarily conceptualized within culturally specific national linguistic traditions.

As an additional point of comparison, two more song corpora were examined. One consisted of actual folk songs of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (“folk” but not socialist), and the other was a 1969 album from a popular Bulgarian singer (socialist but not “folk”). The traits originally identified as folkloric were found in abundance in the former corpus but were mostly absent from the latter, further confirming the theory that these traits are primarily limited to folkloric genres.

It is proposed that the specific bundle of nonstandard traits identified in the socialist songs form a linguistic register in Bulgarian that can be used to mark language as folkloric. However, speakers often refer to this register (imprecisely) as “dialectal” language. One consequence of this fact is that Bulgarians often have conflated perceptions of not only “folkloric” and “dialectal” language, but also of Macedonian. Nonetheless, the evidence suggests that this register has robust stylistic resonance, both in the socialist texts of the previous century as well as in the contemporary language.

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