Lexical evidence of the homeland of the Russian Believers in Erie, Pennsylvania

Jeff Holdeman, Indiana University

The Russian Old Believers of Erie, Pennsylvania immigrated to the United States starting in the mid-1880s and continuing until the outbreak of World War I in 1914.  They arrived mainly from the present-day Suwałki region of northeastern Poland, but also from parts of Lithuania, Belarus',  Ukraine, and Russia.  Phonetic research on the dialect features of the Old Believers of Poland (e.g., Grek-Pabisowa 1984) and Lithuania indicates that their linguistic homeland was located around the region south of Pskov.  Similar phonetic research on the Erie Old Believers (Holdeman 2002) points to the same conclusion.  Historical research (e.g., Potashenko 2002) supports these findings, as well as adding additional (though statistically less significant) homelands, incuding the northern Pskov region, Tver', Novgorod, Smolensk, Halich, Suzdal', Vorotinsk, Moscow, Ustiug, and Serpukhovo.  The Erie Old Believers themselves have preserved very little memory of their history, beyond the names of some of the home villages of the original immigrants to the United States.

 The present paper is an attempt to support these findings through lexical anaysis of the surviving Russian speech of the Erie Old Believers.  Several hundred words which fall outside the standard Russian lexicon are analyzed, based on the kartoteka of the Pskov Regional Dictionary located at St. Petersburg State University.  The catalog's individual cards (which number over two million) indicate the village, year of collection, context, and meaning of each entry.  Based on this information, the Erie lexical items are plotted on an atlas of the Pskov region.  The resulting map provides an interesting image of the possible Russian homeland of the Erie Old Believers.

 This research is just one aspect of the on-going research to reconstruct the linguistic and migrational history of the Russian Old Believers of the eastern United States.  The numerous problems of such research will be discussed, as well as research from other fields and innovative research techniques which aim to support (or disprove) the current understanding of the history of this important but understudied group.

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 in Pskov (e.g., Ларин et al. 1967-present) and Poland (e.g., Grek-Pabisowa 1984), and on the history of Old Believers in Poland (Iwaniec 1977) and Lithuania (Potashenko 2002).


Grek-Pabisowa, Iryda.  1984.  Pskowskie zjawiska fonetyczne w zapożyczeniach polskich w gwarze staroobrzędowcуw mieszkających w Polsce [Pskovian phonetic phenomena in Polish loan words in the dialects of Old Believers iving in Poland].  Acta Baltico-Slavica, XVI.  pp. 133-135.

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

Iwaniec, Eugeniusz.  1977.  Z dziejów staroobrzędowców na ziemiach polskich XVIII-XX wieku. Warszawa.

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

Potashenko, Grigorii.  2002.  The Russian Old Believers.  In The Peoples of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Grigorii Potashenko, ed.  Vilnius: Aidai.