Open Journal of Modern Linguistics
2012. Vol.2, No.3, 90-96
Published Online September 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Saskatchewan Doukhobor Russian: A Disappearing
Veronika Makarova
Department of Religion and Culture, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada
Received June 7th, 2012; revised August 1st, 2012; accepted August 8th, 2012
This paper introduces the history and surveys some features of Saskatchewan Doukhobor Russian, a near-
extinct variety of the Russian language spoken in the Canadian prairie province of Saskatchewan. The
paper also outlines the reasons for the language loss in Saskatchewan.
Keywords: Doukhobor Russian; Minority Language Maintenance; Heritage Language; Endangered
Language; Doukhobor Studies; Slavic Studies
A Brief History of Saskatchewan Doukhobors
The beginning of the 21st century is marked in linguistics by
an increased interest in the topic of minority language mainte-
nance (e.g., Crystal, 2000; Bradley & Bradley, 2002; Janse &
Sijman, 2003), since language is seen as “the key to and the
heart of culture” (Hinton & Hale, 2001: p. 9). Canada plays a
ma- jor leadership role in promoting cultural and linguistic
diversity (e.g., Migus, 1975; Canada, 1993, 1996; Aboriginal
Peoples; Hudon, 2007). Most linguistic studies in Canada con-
centrate on the maintenance of the official languages (e.g.,
Hewson, 2000; Canada, 2007; Johnson, 2006), aboriginal
(Freeden, 1991; Canada, 2005) and Métis languages (Douaud,
1982). However, less attention has been devoted to heritage
languages. Some available publications demonstrate that heri-
tage languages are fundamental to the multicultural nature of
Canada, since they are a part of the “human capital,” and con-
tribute to the group and individual identities of speakers and
their appreciation of different cultures (Anthony, 1983; Cum-
mins & Danesi, 1990; Pendakur, 1990; Chiswick, 1992; Danesi,
McLeod, & Morris, 1993; Edwards, 1998; Jedwab, 2000; Chis-
wick & Miller, 2003). Studies of minority languages contribute
to the development of linguistics and sociolinguistics along
with a number of other disciplines, such as anthropology, soci-
ology, politics, cultural studies, geography, history and lan-
guage history (Aitchison, 1991; Anderson, 1991; Bolinger,
1980). Audio and video re- cords of minority and endangered
languages help to preserve their samples for posterity.
Unique varieties of Russian are spoken in Canada by Douk-
hobors and their descendants. Doukhobors or “Doukhobortsy”
were religious dissenters who split from the Orthodox Church
in the 17th and 18th centuries (Tarasoff, 2002). The Doukho-
bors lived in communes, they rejected private property, ortho-
dox church and all forms of violence (including wars and mili-
tary drafts) which led to their forced resettlements to the out-
skirts of the Russian Empire in the beginning of the 19th century
(mostly to Georgia and Azerbaijan). In the late 1800s until the
early 1900s, about 7500 Doukhobors immigrated to Canada
with the hope of pursuing their ideal of “toil and peaceful life”
(Man- ning, 2005; Rhoads, 1960). They were assisted finan-
cially in this move by Leo Tolstoy and American Quakers
(Таrasoff, 2002; Manning, 2005; Rhoads, 1960).
In Canada, the Doukhobors first settled in what is nowadays
parts of Saskatchewan (in those days Districts of Assiniboia
and Saskatchewan) around North Saskatchewan river, Blaine
Lake and Duck Lake as well as in eastern parts of Saskatche-
wan (then district of Assiniboia) close to the current border
with the neighbouring province of Manitoba (in and around the
modern towns of Veregin, Canora, Kamsack, Pelly, Arran and
Yorkton). Initially, the Doukhobors were given some lands,
they were allowed to have communal ownership of the land and
their own schools, and were exempt from military drafts. In
1905-1907, their privileges were cancelled and 258,000 acres of
their lands (almost all their cultivated land) were confiscated by
the government and reverted back to the crown. Following
these events, many Doukhobors left Saskatchewan and moved
to Alberta and British Columbia. However, a small number of
the Doukhobors remained in Saskatchewan and shifted to the
private (family household) ownership of the lands and cultivat-
ing the land by individual families (i.e., households) (Tarasoff,
2002; Schaarschmidt, 2011).
Currently, Saskatchewan has no areas of compact settlement
where Doukhobors could lead their traditional lifestyle. How-
ever, in a few towns, one still finds small functioning Doukho-
bor communities with members getting together for prayers,
traditional festivals and other activities. The history and culture
of the Doukhobors have attracted the interest of historians and
anthropologists (Waiser, 2005; Rak, 2001, 2004; Inikova, 1999;
Tracie, 1996; Klymasz & Tarasoff, 1995; Stupnikoff, 1992;
Sulerzhitsky, 1982) as well as of public media (Manning, 2005;
Wilson, 2010; Saskatoon, 2011). Recently the Doukhobor com-
munity drew the attention of mass media in connection with the
Vancouver Winter Olympic Games, since the Olympic torch
relay route passed through Blaine Lake and representatives of
the Doukhobor community presented the torch runner Brian
Edy with the traditional Russian bread-and-salt
The current number of Doukhobors and their descendents in
the province has been estimated between 8000 and 11,000 peo-
ple (Tarasoff, 2002), whereas only about 450 individuals in
Saskatchewan identified their religion as Doukhobor during the
2001 Census. Saskatoon (the largest city of Saskatchewan by
the number of people) has the Doukhobor community of about
150 people, of whom about thirty individuals are actively in-
volved with the religious rituals, festivals and community
events. The majority of the Doukhobors and their descendents
have lost the command of spoken Russian. While in Canada
overall the index of Russian language maintenance in the
Doukhobor families is estimated at 60% (Schaarschmidt, 2011),
only very few of Saskatchewan Doukhobors maintain a high
level of command of Russian. The number of speakers of
Doukhobor Russian in Saskatchewan rapidly decreases annu-
ally, as the age of the generation still maintaining fluent Rus-
sian speaking ability is between 75 and 95 years. The total
number of fluent speakers of Doukhobor Russian in Sas-
katchewan is about 30 - 40 people. In other words, the unique
language variety of Saskatchewan Doukhobor Russian is on the
very brink of extinction and will disappear completely within
the next 5 - 10 years.
A small number of Doukhobors and their descendants have
retained the language over a few generations (Golubeva-Monatkina,
2004). Saskatchewan Doukhobor Russian variety has never
been described before. No speech samples of Saskatchewan
Doukhobor Russian are available beyond the pilot project of the
researcher (a part of which was conducted jointly with the De-
partment of Phonetics, St. Petersburg University). As noted, the
variety is on the very brink of extinction, since the last speakers
who maintained proficiency in the language are in the age
group over 70 years old. Making speech records of Saskatche-
wan Russian is of crucial importance for preserving this impor-
tant part of the cultural heritage of the province. Although some
attempts to put together bibliographies of Doukhobor-related
sources have been undertaken by Rak (Annotated Doukhobor
Bibliography) and Tarasoff (,
no bibliography of materials related to Doukhobor Russian
(including Saskatchewan Doukhobor Russian) is available.
The Sources of Information about Canadian
Doukhobor Russian
An impressive amount of work at compiling bibliographies
and exploring historic reference materials connected with the
life of Canadian Doukhobors has been undertaken by research-
ers and scholars many of whom are descendents of Canadian
Doukhobors (Rak, 2004; Tarasoff,;
Kalmakoff, Very little information
is available, however, about the language of Canadian Douk-
hobors. A few features of Doukhobor Russian spoken in British
Columbia have been described in papers by Gunter Schaar-
schmidt (Schaarschmidt, 1995, 2005, 2008, 2012). No informa-
tion is available on the language of Saskatchewan Doukhobors.
The speech of Saskatchewan Doukhobors has never been re-
corded or subjected to linguistic inquiry (except for the pilot
projects by the researcher). However, as will be shown in the
next section, it has a number of unique characteristics and it
requires immediate recording and archiving before its complete
disappearance within the next decade or so.
Our study is conducted on the basis of observations of the
Doukhobor community and its ritual gatherings in Saskatoon,
Saskatchewan, informal conversations/interviews with ten Douk-
hobor community members in 2010-2011, as well as examina-
tions of Saskatchewan Doukhobor choir hymns.
Characteristic Features of Saskatchewan
Doukhobor Russian Speech
Dialectal influences from Southern Russia and
This section surveys some features of Canadian Doukhobor
Russian speech and compares them with the observations of
Doukhobor speech undertaken in Saskatoon Doukhobor com-
Already during the formative period in the development of
Doukhobor Russian as a distinctive variety of the language,
after the first compact settlements of the Doukhobors in the
area of the Molochna river (close to the city of Marioupol,
modern Ukraine) in Taurida and Ekaterinoslav Gubernias
(modern Ukraine), the variety acquired some features of south-
ern Russian and Ukrainian dialects. After the forced relocation
of the Doukhobors into the Caucuses Mountains area in the
second quarter of the 19th century, the Doukhobor Russian lan-
guage has been reported to borrow some words from the local
languages (Georgian, Azerbaijani, etc.) (Schaarschmidt, 2011).
However, in the speech of modern Saskatchewan Doukhobors,
we did not encounter any loan words from these languages.
After the Doukhobors moved to Saskatchewan, Canada, the
language came into another round of contact with Ukrainian
(and to a lesser extent Polish) dialects spoken by immigrants
from Ukraine and Poland. According to the words of one of the
Doukhobor informants, “we had some farmhands from Ukraine
working in our homestead, and we understood them really well,
and after a while we stopped noticing which language is which
and started mixing Ukrainian and Russian words”. As noted by
Schaarschmidt (2011), it is often very difficult to differentiate
between southern Russian and Ukrainian influences in Cana-
dian Doukobor Russian. We did observe in the Russian speech
of Saskatchewan Doukhobors some examples of such influences
at the lexical level.
The following dialectal word forms represented in Russian
and Ukrainian dialects were observed in the speech of Sas-
katchewan Doukhobors: “слухать” (hear, imperfective/ref
standard “слушать”), “послухать” (hear, perfective/ ref stan-
dard “послушать”), “гутарить” (speak), “трошки” (a little).
Three informants referred to one’s own and other women’s
husbands as “мой/ee человек” (instead of the standard “мой/ee
муж”), which is analogous to Ukrainian “мой чоловiк”). The
same informant also used the word “пряха” (which in standard
Russian stands for “yarn-spinner”) in the meaning “прялка
(distaff). This word form “пряха” with the meaning “distaff” is
also found in Russian Kursk and Perm dialects (Даль, 1880-
1882). One more lexeme displaying Ukrainian and possibly
Polish influences is the word “налешник” used by some infor-
mants with respect to the traditional Doukhobor dish of stuffed
crepes. Russian southern dialects had an analogous lexeme
налистник” which has recently made its way into standard
Russian; in Ukrainian, this dish is called “налисник”, and in
Polish, the form is “nalеśnik”, i.e., the Doukhobor word form is
the closest to the Polish one. This can be explained either by the
initial Polish influence during the time when some ancestors of
modern Doukhobors lived in Galicia (an area of the Russian
Empire later split between Poland and Ukraine), or by more
recent contacts of the Doukhobors with Polish immigrants in
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 91
Archaic Forms in the Ritual Style
At least two major styles are distinguished in Saskatchewan
Russian: ritual and conversational (Schaarschmidt, 2012). The
term “ritual” used by Schaarschmidt is not very fortunate, as
Doukhobors reject church and rituals. However, by tradition
and for lack of a better term, it is used in current paper as well.
Ritual style is used during ritual gatherings for the reading of
prayers and singing of hymns. According to previous research,
the ritual language is full of archaic Church Slavonic lexemes
(Schaarschmidt, 2011). However, while examining the songs
and prayers in use by the Doukhobor communities of Sas-
katchewan, we found only a relatively small number of archaic
forms. It may be possible that due to the large extent of Douk-
hobor Russian language loss in Saskatchewan, only relatively
simple texts are selected from prayers and hymns.
Among the examples of archaic lexis, we observed the forms,
such as “испасениe” (salvation/ref standard “спасение”),
сполнившись” (overflown/ref standard “наполнившись”).
Semantic Changes
We have registered the semantic broadening of the word
тулуп” (a loose shaped fur-coat) which in the speech of Sas-
katchewan Doukobors can also mean “upper garment” or “coat”.
Morpho-Syntactic Forms
The analysis of ritual texts displays a range of specific mor-
pho-syntactic features of Doukhobor Russian. The analysis
confirms that the destruction of the Neuter gender category in
the nominal system, which was observed in the speech of the
Doukhobors in British Columbia (Schaarschmidt, 2011), is also
present in Saskatchewan Doukhobor Russian. Nouns, adjec-
tives and pronouns which have neuter gender in standard Rus-
sian acquire forms similar to feminine gender. Examples of this
process from Saskatchewan Doukobor hymns include “да
святится имя твоя” (hallowed be Thy name/ref standard “имя
твое”), “наша зна мя” (our banner, ref standard “наше знамя”),
нашу солнцу” (our sun, Accusative case/ref standard “наше
солнце”). We also found some new and exciting evidence that
points to the fact that some word forms of neuter nouns in cases
other than Nominative and Accusative do not “convert” into
feminine declension, but keep the forms typical of the neuter
declension class, e.g., the form “солнца луч” (a ray of sun).
Thus, although in the Nominative and Accusative cases the
nouns with neuter gender acquire the forms overlapping with
feminine gender, in other cases they may preserve the declen-
sion forms of the neuter nouns, i.e., the paradigm of the neuter
gender has shifted towards a merge with feminine gender, but
this merge has not been completed. It seems like there may be a
separate declension class of Doukhobor nouns which we call
here “X-neuter” (i.e., formerly neuter nouns shifting into a dif-
ferent class and having overlapping forms). We illustrate this
with a comparison of Doukhobor and standard Russian partial
paradigms in example 1 below. Unfortunately, we so far found
only a few instances of the use of X-neuter nouns in cases other
than Nominative and Accusative, so this hypothesis needs more
D X-N Stand N Stand F Stand M (inanm)
N солнца солнце рама стол
G солнца солнца рамы стола
A солнцу солнце раму стол
Conversational Russian Doukhobor variety has morphosyn-
tactic forms found in substandard/dialectal Russian, e.g., “они
хочут, вы хочете” (they want, 3rd pers pl, you want, 2nd pers
Phonological Features and Pronunciation
In both ritual and conversational Doukhobor Russian style,
the use of allophone [ɣ] (voiced dorsal-velar approximant) has
been reported earlier (Schaarschmidt, 2011). While this sound
is typically associated with Ukrainian and Southern Russian
dialects, it has also been found as a free alternant with [g] in
standard Moscow Russian in the word “бога” (Аванесов,
1956). In the speech of Doukhobors from British Columbia, [ɣ]
and [g] were reported to freely alternate in all the words con-
taining the letter “г” intervocalically and in the word beginnings
followed by a vowel (Schaarschmidt, 2011). In the speech of
Saskatchewan Doukhobors, we did find some examples of al-
ternations, such as [dərʌˈɣija], [pəɣiˈbajuʃjix] for “дорогие
(precious, pl), “погибающих” (perishing)” along with [dərʌˈgoj],
[pəgiˈbajuʃjix] (precious, sg). However, [ɣ] has the predominant
usage in these positions, e.g., “Бога” (God, Gen case), “восторгам
(excitements, Instr case) [ˈboɣa], [vʌsˈtorɣam]. This sound is
considered by Saskatchewan Doukhobors to be a “trademark”
which differentiates them from the speakers of standard Rus-
sian. We also observed that in the word end position, the letter
«г» is pronounced not as [k] as in standard Russian, but as /x/,
e.g., [plux] for “плуг” (a plough).
Our analysis of the pronunciation of ritual Doukhobor texts
also revealed a number of differences in the pronunciation of
the letter “e”.
1) word-final letter “e” in inflexional suffixes tends to be
pronounced like [ja]:
a) Adjectival (and pronomial) inflexional suffixes contain-
ing the final letter “e” are pronounced not as [je], as in stan-
dard Russian, but as [ja], e.g., “дорогие” (precious),
никакие” (none) [dərʌ'ɣija, nikʌ'kija]
b) Imperative plural аnd 2nd person plural, indicative pre-
sent forms of verbs ending with the inflexional suffix “-те
are pronounced not as [tjɪ], as in standard Russian, but as
[tja], e.g., “давайте” (lets), “слышите” (hear, 2nd Pers pl),
are pronounced as [dʌ'vajtja, 'slɨʃɨtja] Similar forms are
found in some Ukrainian and Belorussian dialects.
2) In other word classes, word-final “e” is pronounced not as
a reduced raised and fronted [e] or [ɪ], but as [i], e.g., “вместе
(together), “свете” (world) ['vmjesjtji, 'svjetji].
3) The pronouns “своей”, “ему”, “всей” , “моей” are pro-
nounced not as standard [svʌ'jej, jɪ'mu, fjsjej], but as [svʌ'joj,
jʌ'mu, fsjoj, mʌ'joj].
4) The letter “e” after a vowel is pronounced not as [je], but
as [i] “обещает” (promise, 3rd pers sg) [əbɪ'ʃjaɪt]. This feature
is found in northern Russian dialects.
5) In some cases, word-final “e” letter is pronounced as [a],
e.g., “тоже” ['toʒa].
The words with the “devisive” soft sign are pronounced
without [j], e.g., страданья, упованья [strʌˈdanja, upʌˈvanja] as
opposed to standard [strʌ'danjja, upʌ'vanj ja]. This feature is
found in Ukrainian and Belorussian dialects.
Inflexional suffix of adjectives “ый, ий” are pronounced аs
[aj], e.g., “яркий” (bright), “старинный” (ancient) ['jarkaj,
Word-final palatalization is weaker than in standard, e.g.,
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
любовь” [ljuˈbofj] (love) is pronounced like [lju'bof].
The Language Loss and Its Reasons
As mentioned, the Russian language of Saskatchewan Douk-
hobors is on the brink of extinction. According to Gunter Scha-
arshmidt (2006), “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, pos-
sibly 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 popula-
tion segments in Alberta. Thus far, language use has been most
vigorous in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia”.
However, our observations of the Saskatchewan Doukhobor
community have shown that language is almost extinct with the
shift range approaching 0% maintenance, as the only group of
fluent speakers of Doukhobor Russian in the province are in the
age group between 70 and 95. Even within this group of fluent
speakers, Russian is no longer the dominant language. The
speakers use English in the majority of everyday language
functions; they are more comfortable speaking English than
Russian, and all of them exhibit features of strong Russian lan-
guage attrition. The Doukhobors in Saskatchewan have a lim-
ited use of Russian for prayers and hymns during the ritual
gatherings, as well as use some Russian cliché phrases during
and outside of ritual gatherings. Some Doukhobors also use
Russian in the rare situations when they need to communicate
with members of the local Russian community or visitors from
Russia who do not speak fluent English.
At the Diaspora level, the language loss manifests itself in
the daily communication in English, even during and after the
ritual gatherings and in the shift towards the recital and singing
of psalms and hymns either from English transliterations or in
English translations. The first Doukobor community to shift
towards prayers in the English translation was the community
of Blaine Lake, since the members of this community hoped
that this measure would help to attract the youth. English trans-
literations and translations did not have any effect on attracting
the younger generation (there are virtually no people younger
than in their 60s attending the Doukhobor ritual gatherings), but
they facilitated the loss of the Russian language in general and
of literacy in Russian in particular.
The Doukhobors themselves do not see the dangers of trans-
lating the original texts, since they do not understand what a
gigantic layer of cultural connotations and semantic nuances is
lost in translation. They are however concerned for the quality
of translation: “As long as we get the meaning, it’s OK. What
concerns us more is the poor quality of translations.”
Transliterated variants of prayers and hymns do not follow
any standardized transliteration system, and they inadequately
render “inconvenient” for transliteration Russian letters (like
«ы»). This makes the reading of prayers and hymns more chal-
lenging than solving a crossword puzzle. On the other hand, the
transliterations render rather well the specific features of Duk-
hobor Russian pronunciation (as described above), which
would be lost in the standard Russian orthography. An example
of such a transliteration followed by its Russian reconstruction
is given below. This particular hymn is also used by Evangel-
ists and in other Christian denominations, but the ending is
somewhat different in the Doukhobor variant.
Dahraheeyah meenohteh nahm Boh dahrahvahl
Mhe ooveedeelee brahtev, seestohr
Ah Eesoos dahrahhoy s nahmee beht ahbeeshahl
Mhe dahdehm Yahmoo v sehrtseh prahstohr.
Дорогие минуты нам Бог даровал.
Мы увидели братьев, сестер.
А Иисус дорогой с нами быть обещал,
Мы дадим Ему в сердце простор.
At the level of individual language speakers, we observed
functional narrowing accompanied by the strong interference
from English and code-switching between Russian and English,
particularly in cases when the informant forgets or does not
know some word or expression. For example, one informant
used the English word “accident”, because she did not know the
Russian word for it.
Most reasons for the loss of the Doukhobor Russian language
in Saskatchewan are in common with the typical factors which
have been named in research as decreasing ethnolinguistic vi-
tality of minority languages. These are mixed marriages (a few
Doukhobors mentioned that since their spouse did not speak
Russian, they did not speak Russian with their children either),
the lack of contact with the home country, the lack of the areas
of compact settlement, overall small number of community
members, rural areas of living, etc. (Holmes, 2001). Some other
locally-specific reasons that have lead to the disappearance of
the Doukhobor Russian in Saskatchewan are described below.
The Destruction of the Traditional Lifestyle of the
Doukhobor C ommunities Due to Urb ani zation and
Emigration from Saskatchewan
As was mentioned earlier in Section I, in early 20th century,
a larger part of the Doukhobor community were forced into
moving away from Saskatchewan after they had been prohib-
ited from having communal land property and their lands had
been confiscated. The Doukhobors who remained in Saskat-
chewan had to change to individual homesteads, where one
family worked together on their land. Only Russian was ini-
tially spoken in the families. The work on homesteads in the
conditions of severe Saskatchewan winters where the ther-
mometer often falls below minus 30, and sometimes even be-
low minus 40 degrees Celsius was extremely hard. With the
industrialization of Canada in 1870s-1920s, farming was gradu-
ally becoming less profitable and less prestigious, and the chil-
dren of farmers started moving into cities, where they lost their
Russian speaking networks, and close family contacts were
getting torn. While in the end of the 19th/early 20th centuries,
70% of Canadians lived in rural areas (Оreopoulos, 2005), by
2006 this figure dropped down to 19.8% (Statistics Canada).
Until its recent economic boom, Saskatchewan remained one of
the most underdeveloped economically and industrially prov-
inces of Canada, and the internal (within Canada) emigration
from Saskatchewan was very high. The peak of emigration
occurred in 1989-1990, when in that year alone, 35 thousand
people left the province (Elliott, 2010; Waiser, 2005). The
Doukhobors were striving to give education to their children, so
that their lives would be less difficult. However, after receiving
university and professional diplomas, the young generation
were leaving Saskatchewan in searches for better employment
opportunities; they were no longer interested in the old tradi-
tions, rituals and the language of the older generation. “The life
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 93
has changed”, as the Saskatchewan Dokhobor informant said.
Almost all the members of the Doukhobor community of
Saskatoon (the largest city in Saskatchewan) have children and
grandchildren who live in other provinces of Canada or in the
USA, which prevents frequent communication and passing the
cultural traditions over generations. In our informal interviews,
the Doukhobors expressed regrets that they have nobody to
speak Russian with on the daily basis and that they have little
opportunity not only of talking with their grandchildren in Rus-
sian, but also of seeing them. The Doukhobors understand that
it leads to the language loss, but they are powerless to change
this situation.
Canadian School System
Initially Canadian Doukhobors taught their children at home
or in their own schools where Russian was the language of
instruction. This situation started to change with the introduc-
tion of the obligatory school in Saskatchewan in 1909. First, the
school attendance was required only for children from 7 to 13
years old and it was sufficient to spend only 100 days at school
per year, which made it possible for the children to keep help-
ing their parents with agricultural work. In 1917, the School
Attendance Act was passed, in which children aged 7 to 14
were required to attend school during the whole school year. In
1922, the school age was raised to 15 years (Оreopoulos, 2005).
The obligatory school education meant education in English,
which was made the sole language of instruction (with the ex-
ception of Francophone children attending their first year of
elementary school). Even up to the present day, Russian has
never been taught in any public Saskatchewan school even as a
foreign language. Accordingly, as soon as the children from
Doukhobor families were forced to attend public schools, a ty-
pical three-generation language shift occurred from Russian to
English. As the oldest Saskatchewan Doukhobors recall, begin-
ning with the 1930s-1940s, after coming back from school, the
children continued speaking with each other in English. Even
when their parents spoke to them in Russian, the children re-
sponded in English.
Discrimination of Doukhobors in Canada, Prejudice
and Anti-Soviet Propaganda
While talking about the Doukhobors, Canadian mass media
always refer to their persecutions in Russia (e.g., Saskatoon
Sun, 2011), but fail to mention that the discrimination (although
of a different nature) continued in Canada as well. Besides the
confiscation of the earlier given lands in Saskatchewan in early
20th century, the Doukhobors were pressured into swearing an
oath of allegiance to the British monarch—an act which goes
contrary to the traditional Doukhobor religion as it acknowledges
the authority of God, but not of earthly monarchs and govern-
mental institutions. These measures coincided in time (likely
not accidentally) with the First Russian revolution of 1905-
1907. The Doukhobors who tried to escape from Saskatchewan
to British Columbia to protect their communal lifestyle and
spiritual values, underwent further discrimination. In British
Columbia, they again were forced to abandon some of their
lands. A small group of radical Doukhobors known as “The
Sons of Freedom” tried to fight back for their rights. Their pro-
test methods included burning their own dwellings and be-
longings as well as nude marches. This lead to the perception of
all Doukhobors as communists (due to their communal lifestyle
and disrespect of private properties) and nudists (Betke, 1974: p.
4). The state fought with the “Sons of Freedom” using all pos-
sible force that included taking children away from their “po-
litically incorrect” parents and placing them in orphanages,
reform schools for delinquent children, other Doukobor fami-
lies and training schools ( The provincial gov-
ernment of British Columbia issued a “statement of regret,”
somewhat short of an apology, with no financial compensation
for the victims of these measures ( The Federal
government never acknowledged violations of the human rights
of the Doukhobors in Canada.
Anti-Soviet and anti-Russian propaganda in Canada during
the Cold War (late 1940s - early 1990s) also strongly contrib-
uted to the negative image of the Doukhobors. As one infor-
mant put it, “Wherever something bad happened, it was the
Russians’ fault.” As the result, many Doukhobors felt ashamed
of their ethnicity and their cultural heritage and were trying to
hide them. One informant pointed out that when he went to
school in the late 1940s, he changed his name and lied about
the place he was from, because the name of his native Douk-
hobor village would have given him away and made him an
object of ridicule and bullying at school, as was the case with
many other Doukhobor children.
Currently, the attitudes to Doukhobors in Saskatchewan are
changing for the better. The Doukhobor community has friendly
exchanges and sometimes combined services with other Chris-
tian denominations. The members of the Doukhobor commu-
nity participate in many public cultural events, such as Christ-
mas Interconfessional Choirs’ performances, Saskatoon Exhibi-
tion, exhibitions of the works by famous Doukhobor artists, like
William Perehudoff, etc. Some Doukhobor descendents study
their history, gather and publish historic documents (e.g., Tara-
soff, Kalmakoff). Unfortunately, for the preservation of Sas-
katchewan Doukhobor Russian, these changes came a couple of
decades too late.
The Consequences of Language Loss
We have observed the following consequences of language
loss in the Doukhobor community:
- Generation gap;
- Discontinuation of the cultural tradition;
- Washing away of the religious traditions and practice.
As explained above, the loss of language leads to translations
and transliterations of prayers and hymns, which decreases their
idiosyncrasies, depletes semantic layers and cultural connote-
tions. The loss of language also leads to the destruction of fam-
ily tradition and family connection. For example, one Doukho-
bor descendent asked the researcher to translate her ancestral
family documents into English (passports and travelling docu-
ments dating back to early 20th century). The Doukhobor de-
scendent could not read them herself and was not even sure
about the names of her grandparents, as their names were an-
One more Doukhobor descendent asked the researcher to
translate the inscriptions on the graves of her parents, as they
were in Russian, and she could not read them. Another Douk-
hobor descendent asked the researcher to transliterate some
Doukhobor prayers so that she could read them to her father
who was on his deathbed in a local hospital.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
One Doukhobor community member rendered her regrets for
the loss of language and the cultural tradition in the following
words: “It is a pity everything is lost. Everything we stood for
will collapse”.
Measures to Document the Language and Culture of
Saskatchewan Doukhobors
The buildings of the Doukhobor community settlement in
Veregin closed in 1917 and were turned into a National Historic
Site in 2006 and are protected by the federal Government.
Unlike architectural constructions, the preservation of the lan-
guage of Saskatchewan Doukhobors never attracted any interest
from the Canadian or provincial governments. Despite the
near-extinct status of the language, all the research applications
aimed at archiving and documentation of the speech of Sas-
katchewan Doukhobors that were submitted by researchers
from the University of Saskatchewan over the last six years
were rejected. In the response to a grant application submitted
to Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation in 2010, the committee
chair responded that “It appears the Board’s priority for the
next while may well be the bricks and mortar of built heritage
conservation initiatives, with other categories being a lower
priority” (from an e-mail addressed to the author). Canadian
governmental bureaucrats do not understand that bricks and
mortar may last for a few more years, but languages disappear
without any trace, whereas the cultural value of a language is
incomparably greater than that of any physical structure, since
“it is through languages that culture is maintained” (Levi-
Strauss, 1963).
Currently, a small joint research project between the linguists
of Saskatchewan and St. Petersburg (Russia) universities is in
progress. The project is aimed at creating and archiving sound
records of Saskatchewan Doukhobor Russian. The project is
financed by the Russian governmental organization “the Rus-
sian World” (Русский Мир), and although it cannot prevent the
loss of Saskatchewan Doukhobor Russian, at least its samples
will be preserved for future generations.
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