Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Juni 2004

6.1. Standardvariationen und Sprachauffassungen in verschiedenen Sprachkulturen | Standard Variations and Conceptions of Language in Various Language Cultures
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Rudolf Muhr (Universität Graz)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Four norms – one culture: Doukhobor Russian in Canada

Gunter Schaarschmidt (University of Victoria, Canada)



In addition to the Doukhobor dialect spoken in Canada, there are three standard languages in use today: 1) the rapidly disappearing "religious" language, i.e., a form of Russian Church Slavonic; 2) the literary language of the Russian Federation with putative Doukhobor innovations; and 3) Canadian English. Of the three, both the Russian literary language and English have increased in importance in proportion to the loss of both the dialect and the language of hymnody. The dialect is considered by many of the frequent visitors from Russia to be archaic and somewhat "artificial" and "lacking"; this downgrading is amplified by the Doukhobor speakers' self-evaluation of their dialect.


0. Introduction

The term duxoborcy seems to have been coined in 1786 by Nikifor, Archbishop of Slovenia (Inikova 2000:2). Apparently the term was initially used in a pejorative sense: Archbishop Ambrosius of the Russian Orthodox Church implied by the term that a group of dissident Russian peasants fought against the Spirit of God (Russian dux "spirit", borec "wrestler"). The Doukhobors eventually adopted the term (also in a newer variant duxobor, with the feminine form duxoborka, and two alternate plural forms, viz., duxobory and duxoborcy), but understood it in the meaning "wrestling with and for the Spirit of God" (Popoff 1983:113). The Doukhobors are not a religious sect - perhaps it would be more adequate to label Doukhoborism as a "social movement" (Ewashen & Tarasoff 1994:34); more importantly, however, Doukhoborism is a philosophy - the movement "inherited the spiritual tradition of Russian philosophical thought" (Momonova 1995:6). The essence of the Doukhobor belief system has been summarized aptly by Vladimir Tchertkoff (1854-1936), co-founder with Leo Tolstoj and others of the publishing house Posrednik (The Intermediary) and Free Age Press, exiled to England in 1897 because of his publicizing of the Doukhobors' plight in the Caucasus. As there are many misconceptions about the Doukhobor belief system, it may be worth quoting a few excerpts from Tchertkoff's summary (1900 [1993]:2):

The foundation of the Doukhobors' teaching consists in the belief that the Spirit of God is present in the soul of man, and directs him by its word within him.... Worshipping God in the spirit, the Doukhobors affirm that the outward Church and all that is performed in it and concerns it has no importance for them. The Church is where two or three are gathered together, i.e. united, in the name of Christ. They pray inwardly at all times...they assemble for prayer-meetings, at which they read prayers and sing hymns, or psalms as they call them... The teaching of the Doukhobors is founded on tradition. This tradition is called among them the "Book of Life," because it lives in their memory and hearts. It consists of psalms, partly formed out of the contents of the Old and New Testaments, partly composed independently....they hold all people equal, brethren. They extend this idea of equality also to the Government authorities; obedience to whom they do not consider binding upon them in those cases when the demands of these authorities are in conflict with their conscience...They consider murder, violence, and in general all relations to living beings not based on love, as opposed to their conscience, and to the will of God. The Doukhobors are industrious and abstemious in their lives, and always truthful in their speech, accounting all lying a great sin.

The year 1895 marked an important milestone in the roughly 165-year old history of the Doukhobor movement: a symbolic burning of firearms in the village of Orlovka in Transcausasia, an area to which the Doukhobors had been exiled from the Crimea by Tsar Nicholas I. This pacifist challenge to the authorities, a few years after the introduction of general conscription in Transcaucasia, constituted the proverbial glove thrown at Tsar Nicholas II. The latter promptly responded by launching a massive persecution campaign against the Doukhobors with the avowed goal of their extermination. This campaign would no doubt have succeeded if not for the intervention by Leo Tolstoy and Quaker friends in England who came up with the funds to organize a mass emigration of 7,500 Doukhobors (appr. one third of the total Doukhobor population in Russia at the time) to Canada in 1899. In Canada, the Doukhobors established 61 villages in what was later to become the province of Saskatchewan (Ewashen & Tarasoff 1994:17-18). However, in 1907, the Canadian government insisted on the individual filing of homesteads (anathema to the Doukhobors' communal life) and on an oath of allegiance to the king (in conflict with their conscience concerning authorities). As a result, 5,000 Doukhobors moved to British Columbia between the years 1908-13 - here they purchased land from private owners, an act that did not require an oath of allegiance. At present, there are about 26,000 Doukhobors in Canada (a higher estimate, i.e., 40,000, is given in Tarasoff 2002:ix): 12,300 in British Columbia, 8,000 in Saskatchewan, 3,000 in Alberta, and the rest in other provinces (figures given in Popoff 1983:117).


1. The dialect

Historical sources suggest that the Doukhobors came from various areas of the Russian Empire, including Central and Northern Russia, until they settled mainly in the Ukraine (Kharkov, Ekaterinoslav) and Southern Russia (Tambov). This convergence probably resulted in a mixture of dialects with Southern Russian dialects forming the core (including the Russian dialects of Eastern Ukraine). Beginning with the year 1801, i.e., the settlement in Milky Waters, three generations of Doukhobors lived in a more or less homogeneous speech community (40 years in Milky Waters and 48 years in the Caucasus). Three generations of a language community generally guarantee both a levelling of dialectal differences and the rise of common innovations. Thus, when they emigrated to Canada beginning in 1899, the particular form of Russian as used colloquially by the Doukhobors must have been systematically distinct from other Russian dialects. Three more generations in Canada increased this distinctness in the absence of a direct influence by Standard Russian in the old country. Thus, Doukhobor Russian has some of the typical characteristics of South Russian e.g., h for g, omission of the third person present tense verbal suffix -t, and lexical items not found in Standard Russian (for details, see Schaarschmidt 1995:201-203).

There are two major sources for the borrowing of words into Doukhobor Russian after settlement in Canada: the first is English as described in Harshenin (1964; 1967), the second Ukrainian. Massive borrowings from English are of a relatively recent date - after all, the Doukhobors had come to Canada "to preserve the cultural identity of which their language is an intimate part" (Harshenin 1964:39). Thus, they borrowed from English what was absolutely essential to their work environment, i.e., terms relating to the railroad, the sawmills, gadgets, units of measure, money (see the list compiled by Harshenin 1967:216-230). Conversely, Ukrainian influence stems from the time when the Doukhobors first settled in Saskatchewan - the proximity of Doukhobor settlers to what were then called "Galician" settlers in Saskatchewan as well as apparent cases of intermarriage between Ukrainians and Doukhobors (Young 1931:185) made such interlanguage borrowings unavoidable. After their move to British Columbia (1908-13), such influence ceased as there are no concentrated Ukrainian settlements in the West Kootenay district. The dialect is considered by many of the frequent visitors from Russia to be archaic and somewhat "artificial" and "lacking"; this downgrading is amplified by the Doukhobor speakers' self-evaluation of their dialect. thus, when students from the Doukhobor community get corrected in university-level Russian courses, they are often heard to say "well, our language is really like Ukrainian" (but see below, Section 2.). This self-deprecating attitude is reinforced by visitors from Russia who often view the dialect as archaic, if not somewhat "artificial" and "lacking" (Golubeva-Monatkina 1997:35).

Concerning the assumed Ukrainian influence on Doukhobor Russian, one must carefully distinguish between South Russian dialectal features that are shared with Ukrainian dialects and genuine Ukrainianisms not found in South Russian dialects. Thus, the assumed Ukrainian origin for the Doukhobor pronunciation of Standard Russian g as h (Vanek and Darnell 1971:289) can be rejected on the basis of a detailed phonological description of the dialect. Such a description shows that the Doukhobor has the clearly identifiable features of a South Russian dialect (with a possible admixture of Central Russian features), such as h for Moscow and North Russian g (in fact, one does not have to travel too far outside Moscow in a southern direction to hear h); akan'e (the pronunciation of unstressed o as a); ikan'e (the pronunciation of unstressed e as i); and even moderate jakan'e (the pronunciation of unstressed e as a; see, in this respect, Harshenin 1961:71).

The heterogeneous origin of various dialectal groups within the Doukhobor community seems to be reflected in other areas as well. Thus, certain words lack the feature of palatalization one would expect in a South Russian dialect, e.g., [retka] 'seldom' has a nonpalatalized r as in Belorussian; [xrest] 'cross' shows not only nonpalatalized r as in Ukrainian and Belorussian, but also x for Russian k (see also Harshenin 1961:68). And in the psalms, especially the Healing Psalms, as presented in Mealing (1972), there are many instances of a Ukrainian-type lack of palatalization and vowel-lowering, e.g., xode 'walks', cf. Russian xodit (for the omission of the third-person singular verbal suffix, see below), in the psalm "Against Fear Brought by the Evil Eye" (Mealing 1972:304); vushke 'ears (diminutive)', cf. Russian ushki, in the psalm "Against Appendicitis" (Mealing 1972:299). When the author of this paper visited the Doukhobor area in British Columbia several years ago, he used the expression okolo dvux chasov 'around two o'clock', much to the surprise of some of his interlocutors who would have used *okolo dva chasa, i.e., the nominative/accusative form instead of the genitive plural as required in Standard Russian Grammar. One might be tempted to view this loss of oblique cases as an example of simplification due to the influence of English. It is also possible, however, that this lack of oblique case government is a relic of the dialect the Doukhobors brought with them to Canada. In the speech (and sometimes written assignments) of Doukhobor students at the University of Victoria, there is a tendency towards generalizing the genitive plural ending -ov for all three genders, i.e., correctly, stolov 'tables', but also *lampov 'lamps' and *ozërov 'lakes' for Standard Russian lamp and ozër, respectively. This feature definitely cannot be attributed to simplification as the result of English influence, but it is a very archaic dialectal feature that also characterizes the morphology of contemporary Russian dialects (see, for example, Barannik and Mizhevskaja 1986:52-3).

The omission of the third person present tense verbal suffix -t appears to be rare in Russian dialects, but it does occur, e.g., in the Nikolaevsk Region (see, in this respect, Barannik and Mizhevskaja 1986:122). When it appears very frequently, as in the healing psalm "Against Fear Brought by the Evil Eye", one can suspect Ukrainian influence: xode 'walks', stixae 'becomes quiet', and utixae 'becomes peaceful' for Standard Russian xodit, stixaet, and utixaet, respectively (see Mealing 1972:304).

In the area of lexicology, it is not easy to identify genuine Ukrainianisms in Doukhobor Russian. In most cases, suspected items, such as shvidko or shibko 'fast, quickly' for Standard Russian bystro, are also characteristic of South Russian dialects. Actually, most typically, certain items of Doukhobor Russian seem to have acquired a Ukrainian-type pronunciation, cf. the above-mentioned vushke 'ears' (with prothetic v and lowering of i) instead of ushki, xrest 'cross' (with x for k and lack of palatalization) for kr'est, or kisa 'pussy' (with nonpalatalized k) for k'isa (see Harshenin 1961:68). It is apparent, however, that this area requires further research in order to determine how general the Ukrainian influence is as opposed to being restricted to individual speakers or groups of speakers (idiolects). In addition, it will be worth while investigating whether such influence dates back to the Doukhobors' settlement in the Ukraine (in which case one would expect it to be general due to the lengthy "common" Doukhobor language history as defined in Schaarschmidt 1995:199-200), or whether such influence came about after their settlement in Canada (in which case one would expect such influence to vary from general to idiolectal depending upon the time of contact). In any case, the Doukhobors in British Columbia have been removed from any Ukrainian influence for almost three generations now.


2. Religious language

No doubt the richest source for tracing the development of Doukhobor Russian is the language of hymnody. Singing is very important for the Doukhobor community. In essence, the psalms and prayers contain the main elements of a tradition that is not otherwise fixed in a written form. These oral works are composed in a very ancient, Russian Church Slavonic form of language that is often no longer comprehensible even to educated members of the community. In the last 40 years, since the inception of compulsory schooling, many of the psalms and prayers have been recorded in written form. Until that time, most of them were learnt by heart and enriched with regional elements (for the most part, Ukrainianisms). As Sulerzhitsky (1982:99) puts it:

The Sunday reciting of psalms, besides having an instructive, prayerful significance, is at the same time an ongoing corrective process. If someone reciting a psalm makes an error, not only of a word, but even in the order of words having no significance, he will be sure to be corrected by one or sometimes more voices. In the main, the base of the Doukhobor dogma - their view of the world - is stated in the psalms.

The psalms embody a large part of the Doukhobor belief system, sort of like a basic religious "constitution" (Mealing 1975:51), as, e.g., in the set of ten psalms entitled "From the Common Views of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood", one of which (No. 5) is given below with an interlinear and a free translation (some of the words have been corrected; it is not clear whether these words were typing errors in Mealing's presentation, or whether they were handed down orally in this way).































it strives

to unite











to return

having ripened


to seed

"The world is based upon going forward; all things strive for perfection, and through this process seek to rejoin their source, as ripe fruit yields seeds [probably incorrectly in Mealing 1975:53: "as seeds yield ripe fruit"]".

The psalms also reveal a great deal about the linguistic evolution of Doukhobor Russian; the Doukhobors' oral tradition was composed primarily in a form of Russian Church Slavonic (not Old Church Slavonic, as suggested by Mealing, 1972:16-17, or stylized Russian, as claimed, at least for recitative psalms, by Harshenin, 1964: 39, fn. 3); Even though they are composed in Russian Church Slavonic, they have picked up elements of colloquial Doukhobor Russian in their long oral tradition. Thus, a linguistic analysis can aid a great deal in elucidating many of the "obscure" passages or words that have defied translation or analysis. Two examples may suffice here to illustrate this point. In both cases, the Doukhobor vernacular has made its way into the Russian Church Slavonic of the psalms. The following excerpt is from the psalm "The Trumpets Speak with Thunder" (No. 320 in Mealing 1972:216-7).

"From [the time of] John the speaker-of-God, from [the time of] the Son of Thunder...the Evangelist's Gospel [my translation; Mealing has 'Evangelist of the Gospel']. Let us come [Mealing has 'we come'] into riches [Mealing has, quite incorrectly, 'we faithful ones'], to the Sapphire one we sing praise."










God's word











Let us come



saxvernogo (?)



we sing praise

The phrase saxvernogo voxalim has puzzled the analysts; the word saxvernyj was read by Bonch-Bruevich (1910; quoted here from Mealing 1972:217, fn. 3) to mean 'Sapphire'. Mealing suggests 'honey-eater' (perhaps he was thinking of saxarny 'sugary'), and his translator, Eli Popoff, omits the word altogether. It seems that Bonch-Bruevich had the right hunch here: the correct form of this word in Russian would be safirnogo, an adjective based on the noun safir 'Sapphire' (Fasmer 1971). The xv in the form found in the psalm is easily explained: the phoneme f in Doukhobor Russian alternates freely with xv (see also Harshenin 1961:64).

The third example comes from the healing psalm "Against Appendicitis" (Mealing 1972:299) where the form vikijane is dismissed as an obscure word. The form occurs at the very beginning of the psalm (underlining mine):


Na gore,

na okejane,

na vysokom


On mountain

on sea

on high


"On the mountain, on the sea, on the high sea...".

The form vikijane appears to be a repetition of okejane, but in the phonetic shape as used in the vernacular (cf. also the dialectal form kijan-more 'ocean' that occurs in fairy-tales and charms; see, in this respect, Fasmer 1971). Furthermore, the syllable vik- for ok- might be due to (a) prosthesis of v; and (b) the (in this case incorrect) rendering of o in closed syllables in Ukrainian as i, cf. Ukrainian vikno 'window' (Russian okno).

It is actually surprising that the oral tradition persists among today's Doukhobors in spite of the assimilatory effect of compulsory schooling. Canadian educational authorities did their best to impress upon the Doukhobors that "with the absence of a formalized written body of literature, their way of life was void of cultural content" (Friesen 1995: 143). Of course, the Doukhobors were not alone in this process of cultural discrimination on the part of school authorities. The First Nations people in British Columbia shared the same fate, and the result of this denigration of their oral tradition was a concomitant decline in language maintenance.


3. Standard Russian

Although currently there appears to exist no study of the language used by Doukhobor writers, such as P.V. Verigin (1901) or P.N. Malov (1948), a cursory reading of their works suggests that the language of these works is not fundamentally distinct from that of non-Doukhobor Russian writers. However, further research will be needed to substantiate this thesis. An analysis of more recent written sources, such as the periodical Iskra ("The Spark"), shows that aspects of the colloquial language have found their way into the written language as well (see, in this respect, Golubeva-Monatkina 1995). Golubeva-Monatkina (1995:23) cites a number of examples where the rules of Russian government appear to be violated in written Doukhobor Russian, e.g., tol'ko polovina [instead of polovinu] togo, chto my slyshim, my mozhem pripomnit' 'we are able to remember only half of what we are hearing'. However, such cases of the lack of government, especially, when the noun precedes the verb and seems to be focussed, are very frequent in contemporary colloquial Russian as well and may not qualify as Doukhobor innovations (see also Schaarschmidt 2000). Consider, for example, the widespread lack of government (including the deletion of prepositions) in the following cases cited in Zemskaja (1973:246): knizhnyj ja zajdu [instead of ja zajdu v knizhnyj] 'I am going to drop into the bookstore'; Tolstoj ja prochla [instead of ja prochla Tolstogo] 'I have read Tolstoj'; a trjapka voz'mi tam [instead of voz'mi trjapku] 'take that rag there'.

The politeness pronoun vy, which seems to have been modelled on French in Standard Russian, was rejected by the Doukhobors who "believed on religious grounds that all men should be treated equally linguistically and socially" (Vanek and Darnell 1971:272). Thus, vy for them was always plural, never singular; they would accept (4a) and (4c), but not (4b) (the data are slightly modified from Vanek and Darnell 1971:273):

(4) (a) Ty est' xoroshij xlopchik. 'Thou art a fine fellow.'
(b) *Vy est' xoroshij xlopchik. 'You are a fine fellow.'
(c) Vy est' xoroshie xlopchiki. 'You are fine fellows.'

This seems to have been the state of affairs for both the older generation (the old-country Doukhobors at the time of the fieldwork by Vanek and Darnell) as well as the middle generation (persons who grew up in Saskatchewan and moved to British Columbia), although the latter may in fact use (4b) hypercorrectly for (4a). The younger generation (those having grown up in British Columbia) seems to have accepted the distinction between (4a) and (4b), perhaps at first only with Standard Russian speakers, later among themselves as well without making, as Vanek and Darnell (1971:274) put it, "any ideological commitments with regard to the linguistic expression of status relationships".


4. Canadian English

The Doukhobors did not emigrate into Canada in order to learn English. Quite the contrary, they expected to continue to use Russian in Canada, educate their children in Russian, and, for the large majority of them, maintain their dialect as well as their religious language (see Section 2. above). And when their spiritual leader, Peter Verigin, stated in a letter to Leo Tolstoy: "Teaching literacy to the children, including the girls, must be considered a priority right at the start", he had in mind literacy in Russian, not in English (Donskov 1995:43). However, as early as 1900, there arose a need for a grammar of English for Russian speakers to satisfy needs beyond work-place and trading contacts with anglophone Canadians. The author of this grammar, Anna Tchertkoff, wife of Vladimir Tchertkoff (see Section 0. above) subtitled this grammar as being aimed at the "Russian settlers in America" (see Tchertkoff 1900:ii). In her preface, she writes that she wrote the grammar in response to demands by the Doukhobors having settled in Canada. In the late 1930s, a Canadian writer was able to make fun in her diary of the heavily accented English spoken by the Doukhobors, as illustrated in the following passage from her book (O'Neail 1962:104):

(5) Eh-h-h-h, how moch monya! And now every mawnt'
Eh, how much money! and now every month
we're gonna gyet like dot moch monya!
we're going to get like that much money
And today mawder-my weell go Nyelson
and today mother-my we'll go to Nelson
and buy la-awtsa t'eengs! E-h-h, how lawtsa
and buy lots of things Eh,how lots of
weell buy!
we'll buy

Eh, how much money [we received], and now every month we are going to receive just as much money! And today my mother and I, we will go to Nelson and buy a lot of things! Eh, what a lot of [things] we will buy."

The above passage shows typical Russian interference phenomena, such as palatalization before front vowels (monya, gyet, Nyelson); rendering short vowels in a stressed syllable as long vowels (mawnt', t'eengs, mawder); t' (aspirated) for voiceless th (t'eengs), and d for voiced th (dot, mawder); and the postpositioning of the possessive, an archaism in Russian but typical of Doukhobor speech (mawder-my).

When Hazel O'Neail returned to the area in 1962, i.e., 24 years later, she was able to note that "the old accent lingers in some cases, though not nearly as pronounced, and in many I caught not a trace at all. Further, the offensive 'and' (see [5] above - GS) which used to preface every remark...seems to have disappeared altogether" (O'Neail 1962:141). Today, more than one generation later, only Doukhobors in their eighties and nineties show traces of an accent in English. All others speak a Canadian English of the Western variety, and for most of them English is their first language.


5. Conclusion

There are at present no large-scale studies of the structure and history of Doukhobor Russian. This can be explained, to some extent, by the small size of the Doukhobor community, but perhaps more so by the special requirements that an essentially oral tradition imposes upon the researcher (see, in this respect, Bouquiaux and Thomas 1992). As Peter N. Maloff writes: "with very few exceptions, the Doukhobors did not write books, nor did they keep systematic records of their history. They preferred to make history and let others write about it" (1948:6; translation mine). There is no doubt that the past 30 years have considerably reduced the maintenance rate of the dialect due to what is known in sociolinguistics as "language planning". Compulsory schooling and, ironically, the inclusion of Russian, viz., Standard Russian, in the curriculum, have resulted in some form of language planning, a process that is generally deemed necessary in modern society in spite of the fact that there is no proof that a speech community that is not "modern" must by necessity lack linguistic maturity and a rich language differentiation (a paraphrase of Jernudd 1972:56).

The possibility of the Doukhobors switching massively to English as the only means of communication is very real; in addition, however, the threat of assimilation from Standard Russian should not be underestimated. In other words, today's Doukhobor pupils and university students, if they retain the language at all, will probably tend to communicate in literary Russian, i.e., the Russian that was reserved for their writers. They will continue to understand their grandparents of today (with their parents already to a large extent monolingual in English), but, except for a few words and expressions, will not be able to respond in the dialect.

To the extent that cultural and spiritual traditions will be maintained, the question is whether these will be carried out using the vehicle of Russian or of English. And if these traditions are maintained in Russian, one must wonder whether language maintenance will be of a sufficient quality to ensure that the maximum possible number of persons will be able to participate in cultural events profitably. And, conversely, if low language maintenance levels make it necessary to carry out most, if not all culture-related activities in English, there is the question whether what is being practiced is still "genuine" Doukhobor culture, i.e., can one really speak of maintaining one's cultural heritage while giving up the language in which it was cultivated for centuries? And, concerning the oral literature," can the psalms convey their true meanings if they are not heard or read in Russian?" (Mealing 1995:41).

© Gunter Schaarschmidt (University of Victoria, Canada)


6.1. Standardvariationen und Sprachauffassungen in verschiedenen Sprachkulturen | Standard Variations and Conceptions of Language in Various Language Cultures

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For quotation purposes:
Gunter Schaarschmidt (University of Victoria, Canada): Four norms - one culture: Doukhobor Russian in Canada. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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