Francophone lexical influence in Bulgaria

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I write this from Sofia, a delightful city of broad boulevards and amazing churches and friendly people and huge tranquil parks, where I arrived on Sunday afternoon. Within a few minutes I made my first linguistically-deduced hypothesis about the history of Bulgarian technology. I could be wrong, of course, but I have been led to conjecture that the Bulgarians got at least some of their modern architectural, constructional, and engineering technology via the French.

The clues are as follows. At the airport I noticed on bilingual signs near elevators that the Bulgarian word corresponding to the English noun "level", as in the parking garage is on level 2, is ниво (nivo). That's a phonetic dead ringer for the French niveau "level". In my hotel, I noticed that the floors are labeled in the stairwell with a number plus the word етаж (etazh) — identical with French étage. And it was easy to find out that the Bulgarian word for "elevator" is асансьор (asansjor), which is is very close to French ascenseur "elevator".

Bulgarian is very far from being a close relative of French; these are not historical relatives that have come down from proto-Indo-European. The Bulgarians have been creating their vocabulary for levels in buildings and ways of moving between them out of French loanwords.

Now, before some turcophone expert in hotel construction writes me to point this out, I am well aware that the Turkish word for "elevator" is asansör, and Turkey is a lot closer to Bulgaria than France and has had plenty of cultural influence here, so one might imagine elevators came in from the south rather than the west (especially as there is a spectacular elevator in a historic building in Izmir that is actually called Asansör. But of course the word asansör is even closer to French ascenseur than the Bulgarian word is. I'm not an etymologist or a specialist in language contact, but I think it is clearly a French loanword, and I reckon both languages probably got it from French more or less directly.

Why would either Bulgarian or Turkish borrow such words instead of inventing words based on native roots meaning "lift" or "raise"? I don't know. The obvious speculation is that the technology was introduced by French companies or advisers and the technical terms the French used happened to stick.

The one domain in which the no-word-for-it trope isn't completely silly is that of new technology: when you've never had some kind of device or machine before, you naturally don't have a word for it, and when you get one from some other tribe you will probably call it whatever they call it. The English-speaking world apparently got brassieres from the French, and called them what the French called them. And we got kayak technology from the Inuit, and kept (roughly) their word for that (not quite: the Inuit word is qajaq, with uvular stops instead of the velar k; but close enough, given that English doesn't have uvular stops). Same principle. The case looks pretty solid to me.

[Comments are off because to host an unmoderated discussion involving elevators, cultural diffusion, etymology, Turkish influence in the Balkans, women's underwear, and kayaking, you'd have to be crazy; and I'm not crazy. Also Language Log has so many readers now that I just know there will be a Bulgarian elevator engineer with a PhD in etymology out there somewhere who will show me that my speculations are wrong, and I don't want to see that happen before I've even logged out. She can always email me, can't she, and I can read it in the morning. If my speculations are shown to be hopelessly wrong I'll admit it in an update below.]

Update: My best guess at what's really going on, after discussing this with the Bulgarian linguist Tzvetomira Venkova, is that around a century ago, or a bit more (the late 19th and early 20th century), French was very popular and fashionable among the upper classes in urban Bulgaria (so was German), and since that is the period when technology like elevators started spreading and buildings started to be routinely tall enough for étages and niveaux be an issue, all sorts of words for new things and ideas came into the language and stuck. Drago Radev points out that there are (or at least, used to be) words like pensne in Bulgarian. (Think about that one. Hint: not all designs for eyeglasses involve side pieces that fit over your ears; some just clip onto the nose.) Jeremy Wheeler points out this article on the continuing cultural relations with France, which is clearly a long-time friend of Bulgaria.

By the way, the proprietor of our wonderful rival blog Language Hat has pointed out to me that I'm not right about brassieres: we didn't exactly get the word for them from the French: "In French, a brassière is now a baby's undershirt, and back when we borrowed the word in the 1890s it referred to a kind of corset. Marketers of the newfangled garment in English-speaking lands chose an appropriately Frenchy word for obvious reasons of cachet, without worrying excessively about what exactly it referred to. But at least they spelled it right…" What can I say? I made assumptions, and I'm embarrassed they were so wrong. But there we are: I am not a specialist in the engineering history of women's underwear. And this is Language Log, not Women's Undergarment History Log.

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