Contested Boundaries and Language Variants in A Balkan Capital City

Author Information

Grace Fielder,
University of Arizona, U.S.A.

DOI: 10.47298/comela22.5-2
The GLOCAL Proceedings:  The GLOCAL Conference in the Mediterranean and Europe 2022


This paper discusses the ways in which the vernacular language of the capital city of Sofia, Bulgaria, reflects a history of contested borders. A relatively small but ancient settlement, Sofia became the capital of the new principality when the San Stefano borders were redrawn and contracted by the Congress of Berlin in 1878. In response the capital was relocated in 1879 from Veliko Tarnovo in the eastern dialect area to Sofia in the western, a strategically semiotic move intended to re-center the Bulgarian capital with respect to the prior borders and to position the government for future expansion. The government administration relocated en masse to Sofia thereby establishing a new urban elite with a more prestigious eastern dialect that would eventually become the main basis of the standard language. Despite decades of education in the standard language, however, western variants have persisted in the capital to this day, in part fuelled by 20th century waves of migration from what is today Aegean and North Macedonia. With the post-1989 fall of communism and the end of state-controlled media, this western variant now appears in and often dominates public spaces much to the dismay of language codifiers and purist-minded members of the public. Three theoretical approaches are employed to account for this persistence of the western variant. Social network theory will be used to analyze the sociolinguistic dynamics of language variants in Sofia. Critical discourse analysis recognizes the mutually constitutive nature of social practice and language use and the role of power relations — particularly relevant once the western variant of Sofia lost its prestige to the newly arrived eastern variant. Finally, language variation is conceptualized as a social semiotic system in which variants are indexically mutable so that speakers make socio-semiotic moves by deploying variants in certain contexts with certain interlocutors.

Keywords: Standard language, dialect maintenance, social network theory, historical sociolinguistics


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