The Influence of Polish on the Russian of Old Believers in Erie, Pennsylvania

Jeff Holdeman, Ohio State University

Despite their presence in the United States for more than 100 years and being in the first and largest Old Believer wave of immigration to North America, the Russian Old Believers of Erie, Pennsylvania, have gone almost completely unmentioned in academic literature. American scholars (and the Erie Old Believers themselves) know little specific details of their European history, and European scholars know little of their departure to and fate in the United States. Through linguistic and cultural study, as well as through extensive historical and genealogical research, I have been able to reconstruct their migrations from the Russian Pomor'e region through several points in eastern and central Europe and ultimately to western Pennsylvania. Careful linguistic analysis of the language of the last Russian speakers in the community reveals the influence that each linguistic environment has had on their dialect.

For more than a century preceding their arrival in the United States, the ancestors of the Erie Old Believers lived primarily in an area now in present-day northeastern Poland, where they sought freedom from persecution and ritual isolation from non-Old Believers. This isolation, however, gradually diminished, and contact with their Polish-speaking neighbors increased. Their present dialect shows in its phonology, morphology, lexicon, and syntax the linguistic results of this contact. In this paper, I will first describe their migration and settlement history, then focus on the influence of Polish on their dialect of Russian and discuss the ultimate linguistic and sociolinguistic ramifications of this influence for the current state of language maintenance in the Erie Old Believer community. In the course of this analysis, I will compare my findings to the extensive dialect research conducted by scholars--such as Grek-Pabisowa, Maryniakowa, and Nemchenko--in the second half of the 20th century on the Old Believers still living in Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus.