The Sociolinguistics of the Cemetery: Using Gravestones as a Source for Sociolinguistic Data (On the Basis of Three Russian Old Believer Communities in Poland and the Eastern United States)

Jeffrey Holdeman, Ohio State University

The cemetery can provide an informative and interesting diachronic glimpse into linguistic and sociolinguistic issues in an ethnic community. In addition to being the object of a textological and dialectological study, headstones can yield valuable data for analysis of the chronology of language shift, language use as an emblem of ethnic identity, and the negotiation of competing language systems.

The present paper examines the twentieth-century cemeteries of three related Old Believer communities in Suwalki, Poland; Marianna, Pennsylvania; and Erie, Pennsylvania, as examples of a community relatively successfully maintaining its ethnic language, a disappearing community, and a community in the final stages of linguistic shift, respectively. All three communities have their roots in the priestless Pomortsy of the Pskov-Novgorod region—the first directly and indirectly giving rise to the second two at the turn of the twentieth century. The paper develops the methodology of sociolinguistic research in the cemetery, presents data analysis from the cemeteries of the aforementioned three groups, and discusses how such data can be used as part of a larger sociolinguistic study in an ethnic community.