Contested Boundaries and Language Variants in a Balkan Capital City

Author: Grace E. Fielder (University of Arizona, U.S.)
Speaker: Grace E. Fielder
Topic: Language and Spatiotemporal Frames
COMELA 2022 General Session


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 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 fueled by 20th century waves of migration of Slavic speakers from what is today Aegean Macedonia 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, which has been applied to the sociolinguistic variation in 15th-17th century London (Conde-Silvestre 2012), will be used to analyze the sociolinguistic dynamics of language variants in Sofia as a capital city with a significant history of immigration. 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 specific contexts with specific interlocutors (Eckert 2012).


Conde-Silvestre, J.C. 2012. The Role of Social Networks and Mobility in Diachronic Sociolinguistics. The Handbook of Historical Sociolinguistics, pp. 332-352.
Eckert, P. 2012. Three Waves of Variation Study: The Emergence of Meaning in the Study of Sociolinguistic Variation. Annual Review of Anthropology 42: 887-100.
Kristiansen, T. and N. Coupland (eds.) 2011. Standard Languages and Language Standards in a Changing Europe.

Keywords: sociolinguistics, linguistic variation, social network theory, semiotics.