Eva Eckert, Ph.D. is the guarantor of the Central East European Studies program at AAU. Her courses include Language and Mind, Intercultural Communication, and Territorial Studies: The Story of Language. Her essay below has been edited from its original version. Photos by Eva Eckert.
Graveyards represent cultural values and traditions of a community. By their very nature, they are sanctified places where vernacular culture in general, and writing in particular, have been preserved better than elsewhere. My linguistic interest in the Czech cemeteries and tombstone inscriptions has been molded by my search for the living community that produced them. Texas Czechs lived in a culturally rich and self-reliant community that consciously cultivated its language. I confirm this thesis by analysis of their epitaphs, greetings and poems engraved in tombstones as well as their letters, notes and newspaper publications. In the present contribution I focus on tombstone inscriptions as a primary and prevalent written source of data relevant to language change. The inscriptions appear at cemeteries that once evolved around Texas Czech communities in central Texas (the Fayette, Lavaca, Austin and Colorado counties), the area of major Czech immigrant concentration. Language change is documented there for the period of one hundred and twenty years in stone.
The change from language variation to language attrition is expressed in the inscriptions through such linguistic categories as language convergence, lexical borrowing and code-switching. The movement in language is also accompanied by reduction in length and detail of the inscription, selection of data about the deceased and lay-out of the inscription in the stone. Finally, the change is mirrored in non-linguistic properties of the gravestone – its material, size and decoration.
Czech cemeteries in central Texas followed the life cycle of the communities that established them. When a community was settled, its church and a cemetery were typically built in a few years. The Czech immigrants were mainly Catholics although there were also Brethren believers and free-thinkers. A church with its adjacent cemetery was central to the Texas Czech community in the physical as well as social and cultural sense. Walking through the cemetery is like surveying the community history. Signs in the stone point to their homeland origins and changing identity of members. They reveal how they used their own language and also borrowed from the dominant language and culture, and thus changed who they were. As a final outcome, they replaced their creative unpredictable messages with flat monotonous ones, and lavender with plastic flowers. They accepted the dominant patterns and acculturated. Unlike the communities, the cemeteries are here still today to give the witness of life, fruition, contact, shrinkage and shift of a rich culture that added importantly to Texas Czech historical heritage. Today the most telling story of Texas Czechs is spelled out on tombstones in over sixty cemeteries where they were buried and where they are most vividly present and alive.
Just as in the homeland, the rows of graves are symmetrical and the design maintained. But unlike in the homeland where the space is cluttered and grave lots reused the Texas cemetery is an opened space spread over the land and growing by addition rather than substitution. Its visual organization is dictated by the original graves clustered near the church and rows of modern post-WW2 ones removed further. Children graves usually form islands in the middle or to the side but family burial lots do not occur; the community was the family to the Czech immigrants. Almost all graves have curbing; occasionally the land between them is scraped to prevent grass growing over. Crosses with Jesus remind visitors of the religious affiliation of most communities. Cemetery stones are richly engraved with religious symbols and often decorated with photographs of the dead (the perennial lamps and candles of the domestic tradition are exceptional) but local habits of decorating the graves with shells, toys and inverted bottles are rarely adopted.
Metal crosses and stone carvings speak of craftsmanship of skilled carvers and metalworkers. Although originally every burial constituted a separate entity, post-WW2 ones are comprised in 99% of “Father/Mother” gravestones made from granite or marble and decorated by shiny plastic flowers. But the smell of lavender, sites of cedar, juniper and overgrown rose bushes override their anonymity and enhance my memories of Texas cemetery walks.
Despite the unusual setting, cemeteries provide linguists with an ideal environment to study both synchronic variation in language usage and diachronic progression of language change. An advantage of discussing language variation, contact and change in writing is stability of data, in particular those observed in tombstone inscriptions, and availability of several diachronic layers of language showing progressive language contact. I can observe all that within the territory of a single cemetery, while in vernacular language conversations, one must record data at several speech communities as they reflect different stages in the progression. The disadvantage is that the dynamics of given social situations responsible for particular language production are unrecoverable.