Innovations and Reproductions in Cultures and Societies
(IRICS) Vienna, 9 - 11 december 2005

<< Reproduktionen und Innovationen in Sprache und Kommunikation verschiedener Sprachkulturen
<< Reproduction and Innovation in Language and Communication in different Language Cultures

Language Shift and Text Types: Reconfiguring the Ritual Language of Doukhobor Russians in Canada

Gunter Schaarschmidt (University of Victoria Department of Germanic and Russian Studies, Canada)



At the beginning of the 21st century, the Doukhobor Russians in Canada find themselves at a crucial stage in the maintenance of their language, i.e., they are facing a shift from a rate of 60% to one of 30% of maintenance, possibly within the span of one generation, at best two generations. There is already significant language shift in the Saskatchewan group of Doukhobors, not to mention even the isolated population segments in Alberta. Thus far, language use has been most vigorous in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia.

Over the past two and one-half centuries, the Doukhobors have developed specific text types suited ideally to an oral tradition. These text types have been maintained well beyond the Doukhobors' emigration to Canada beginning in 1899; they are being maintained today by the older generation of Doukhobors essentially in their original form and in the original Russian Church Slavonic as part of Doukhobor hymnody (see Schaarschmidt 2005) as well as a unique form of autobiographical composition (see Rak 2004). However, in order to allow the younger generations of Doukhobors that have undergone partial or massive language shift to participate fully in ritual activities, much of Doukhobor hymnody is now available in English translation and is often performed in that language at festivals and regular Sunday services.

The present investigation will concentrate on the mnemonic devices that are an essential means for transmitting oral texts across a generation of speakers as well as from generation to generation. Such devices in Doukhobor hymnody, especially the psalms, include alliteration, syntactic/semantic parallelism, and a set of Church Slavicisms as well as foreign-language and folkloristic phrasal elements. While such devices are translatable into English, there is a resulting clash between two levels of Canadian English: a very archaic ritual language and the kind of colloquial English used elsewhere by Doukhobors. Perhaps to avoid this clash, there is at present a tendency towards codeswitching where in translated ritual language texts the devices of original Doukhobor oral texts are inserted in Russian in an otherwise colloquial English translation. These insertions no longer serve as mnemonic devices nor are they due to a lack of proficiency in the English language; rather, they are apparently an effort to maintain lost elements of culture. We may thus predict that this new text type will establish itself as a means of avoiding the death of Doukhoborism that has been said to occur "when the language is no longer spoken by the majority of its members" (Rak 2004:53).


Rak, Julie (2004). Negotiated Memory. Doukhobor Autobiographical Discourse. Vancouver/ Toronto: UBC Press.

Schaarschmidt, Gunter ((2005). Four norms - one culture: Doukhobor Russian in Canada. In: Rudolf Muhr (ed.). Standardvariationen und Sprachideologien in verschiedenen Sprachkulturen der Welt. /Standard Variations and Language Ideologies in different Language Cultures around the World. (Wien et al.: Peter Lang Verlag), pp. 137-150.

Innovationen und Reproduktionen in Kulturen und Gesellschaften (IRICS) Wien, 9. bis 11. Dezember 2005

WEBDESIGN: Peter R. Horn 2005-09-29