UMD Generation M Virtual Hour: Language, Dialects and Macedonian relations with the EU

Summary by UMD Fellow Evan Nitchov

On Wednesday, June 10, 2020, UMD, and its young leaders’ program Generation M hosted a virtual hour with Professor Victor A. Friedman, Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Humanities with a joint appointment in Linguistics and Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Chicago. The conversation, moderated by UMD President Metodija A. Koloski, was set to cover the significance of the Macedonian language, the Bulgarian government ideology, and the topic of Macedonia’s accession into the EU.

Prof. Friedman’s relationship with Macedonia

Prof. Friedman became interested in the Macedonian and Slavic languages when he was given the chance as a graduate student to go to Bitola, Macedonia in the year 1971 during the years of the Yugoslavian era. He continued his academic career by writing his dissertation in Macedonian and is an advocate for Macedonians and the Macedonian language. Prof. Friedman has recently been involved in the Macedonian Media in regards to the publication of a pamphlet by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences stating that Macedonian is a dialect of Bulgarian that is being circulated among EU membership. Prof. Friedman defends Macedonia’s sovereignty and states that Bulgarian governments throughout history have used an expansionist ideology to distract the Bulgarian people from what is really important, which he believes in this case, is the Bulgarian prevention of EU expansion. Prof. Friedman also states that the more powerful and influential colonial countries such as England and Germany have asserted their dominance over both the Greeks and the Bulgarians, creating inferiority complexes, allowing them to feel superior over them. He also attributes the lack of support for Macedonia to this historical complex.

Slavic Atlas of Dialects and the Macedonian language

To support his stance on the topic of the Macedonian language, Prof. Friedman showed the audience the Slavic language atlas diagram that was published in 2009 mapping the different words for “lips”. In 1982 the Bulgarian delegation declared that they would not participate in the project unless all of the points held by Macedonia were given to Bulgaria, and in 2005, they decided they would participate in the project. Prof. Friedman also suspects that the conditions for Bulgaria’s accession into the EU may have included the resolution of this language issue with Macedonia.

He next shows the atlas created by the Macedonian academy of arts and sciences in collaboration with the Institute of the Macedonian language of selected words from the previous atlas, highlighting the Macedonian regions where the language has been influenced by the Albanian and Turkish. Furthermore, in regard to Macedonian orthography, he discusses how Macedonians took the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet and modified it to support and suit the Macedonian language. The point to be made here is that the Macedonian orthography fits the Macedonian language perfectly, while Bulgarian orthography is a mismatch, concluding his statement by claiming that the Bulgarians “Russianized” their language. The national boundaries of western Macedonia cut through the dialect areas, and the Bulgarians have sent diplomats to Albania and Kosovo and give young people scholarships to study Bulgarian and declare themselves as Bulgarian as well

Prof. Friedman discusses sociolinguistics and refers to a person’s home language, which in this example is Aegean Macedonian, as your Sunday best. A person’s dialect holds the same amount of importance as the clothes you wear such as a tie, which holds value. Therefore your standard dialect holds value just as the clothes you wear every day hold value to yourself.

Bulgaria and their historical opposition to the Macedonian language

Throughout history, it has been shown that Bulgaria has always been an object of Russian expansion and was identified as a Russian protectorate state for nine years, but their relationship with Russian has always been unstable. Prof. Friedman also dates the time in which Tito, the leader of Yugoslavia, broke with Stalin in 1948, which led Stalin to allow Bulgarians to claim that the Macedonian language is the Bulgarian language that is Serbianized; he referred to this claim as “nonsense”. It was also proven that the Bulgarians entered four wars in three decades to gain Macedonian territory and even sided with the Nazis in WWII. Prof. Friedman creates a comparison between Greece and Bulgaria as the Greek government used the issue of Macedonia to distract their population from their economic shortcomings and fallouts, while the Bulgarian government used the issue to disguise the crimes they were committing such as the deportation of Macedonian Jews during WWII.

Prof. Friedman also delves into the Bulgarian language and states that Bulgarian borrows its participles from Russian, and can be described as a Russianized Church Slavonic. He uses the example of Denmark and Norway to explain how two languages can have a high degree of mutual intelligibility and still be recognized as separate languages by civilized nation-states. Although the Macedonian and Bulgarian languages both originate from Slavic, they are not as mutually intelligible as the example, and people that speak either language can communicate with one another if they have a great depth of knowledge regarding their respective languages. Prof. Friedman further highlights that many Slavic states have their language exist in conjunction with their Orthodoxy, as through history countries such as Greece and Serbia have removed those who were either Muslim or Catholic. He believes that it is essential to remove this from Macedonia, as in the case of Albania, their identity lies within being a citizen of Albania, not being a Muslim or Christian within Albania.

In the present day, the President of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences with two others wrote to the head of the Common Slavic Linguistic project, declaring that the Macedonian language is a Bulgarian dialect, further demanding that all the points should be assigned to them, or else they will withdraw and the atlas will be incomplete. In response, the head stated that they will not change the way they operate, having received a letter stating that “politics must not interfere with science”. This was a great sign for Macedonians as this ensures that the Slavic Linguistic project will not bend to the will of ‘democratic’ leaders, which would otherwise further injure Macedonia’s sovereignty

Macedonian/Greek relations and future recommendations for UMD

When asked about the Prespa Agreement and the history of Greece, Prof. Friedman referred to Greek and Russian relations, claiming that the Greek government sees Russia as a fellow Orthodox, where Greece has been receiving money from Russia for a long time. Throughout history, both Bulgaria and Greece have violated the human rights of Macedonians within their countries. They pay the fines and continue as they previously did with no changes being made. The Greek Orthodox Church also denies Macedonians in Aegean Macedonia permits for buildings and businesses as well

When asked about any recommendations that would further promote the Macedonian language and causes, Prof. Friedman suggested that donation money sent to the diaspora should be spent on education and scholarships for students living in Macedonia. He further explained an idea of a specific scholarship funding that would allow a Macedonian student to study abroad with the condition that they would return back to Macedonia once their academic career has been completed. This would hence address the current brain drain in Macedonia.

In conclusion, the failure to acknowledge the Macedonian minority within Bulgaria is a violation of their human rights, as it is not a matter of the Bulgarian government to decide which nationality a person holds or what language they can speak. Prof. Friedman is a greatly appreciated and a much-needed ally of the Macedonian community. We are eager to see what decisions will be made in the future regarding Macedonian/Bulgarian relations within the EU.

Previous UMD VOICE INTERVIEW – YOU DON’T EXIST: Part 2 – Macedonian Activists of Greece


United Macedonian Diaspora
800 Maine Avenue SW Suite 200 Washington, D.C. 20024

Opening Hours:

Mon – Fri: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm

United Macedonian Diaspora © 2024. All Rights Reserved