Doublets in the Russian Lexicon of the Old Believers of Erie, Pennsylvania

Jeffrey D. Holdeman, Indiana University

During their first decades in the United States, the Russian Old Believers of Erie, Pennsylvania, underwent a rapid and intense period of language shift from Russian to English. Arriving from the 1880s until the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the Old Believers of Pennsylvania found work in the mines south of Pittsburgh and on the docks in Erie. Due to a complex web of social, cultural, economic, and linguistic factors, the shift was basically complete among the U.S.-born generations by World War II. Today, only a handful of relatively proficient speakers and partial speakers from the second generation remain to preserve their heritage language.

The dialect of the Erie Old Believers has at its core a Pskovian dialect (17th and 18th centuries) with layers of influence from their residences in the Suwalki region of modern-day northeastern Poland (18th and 19th centuries) and the United States (late 19th century to the present). Also present are influences from a small number of ancestors who lived in regions in present-day Lithuania and from contact in the 20th century with speakers of standard Russian. From these sources have arisen a significant number of lexical doublets (and even triplets): cibulja-luk ‘onion’, borkan-morkovka ‘carrot’, cytryna-limon ‘lemon’, bul′ba-kartoška-kartoflja ‘potato’, doča-doč′-cura ‘daughter’, ded-deda-deduška ‘grandfather’, etc. This paper examines the existence of such doublets, their historical linguistic origins, and the multiple roles that they play in language attitudes and language maintenance.

The data analyzed are drawn from three years of fieldwork in the Pennsylvania Old Believer communities (Holdeman 2002), as well as linguistic research on the related Russian dialects of Pskov (e.g., Ларин et al. 1967-present), Poland (e.g., Grek-Pabisowa and Maryniakowa 1980), and the Baltics (e.g., Немченко et al. 1963).


Grek-Pabisowa, Iryda, and Irena Maryniakowa.  Słownik gwary starowierców mieszkających w Polsce [Dictionary of the Old Believers Living in Poland]. Wrocław-Warszawa-Kraków, 1980.

Holdeman, Jeffrey D.  Language Maintenance and Shift Among the Russian Old Believers of Erie, Pennsylvania. Ph.D. dissertation. Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio State University, 2002.

Ларин, Борис Александрович и др. ред. Псковский областной словарь с историческими данными [Pskov Regional Dictionary with Historical Data]. Ленинград: Издательство Ленинградского университета, 1967-сегодня.

Немченко, В. Н., А. И. Синица и Т. Ф. Мурникова. Материалы для словаря русских старожильческих говоров Прибалтики (Ученые записки, том 51, филологические науки, выпуск 8А) [Materials for a Dictionary of the Old Russian Dialects of the Baltics]. Рига: Латвийский государственный университет имени Петра Стучки, 1963.