Scholarly context and contribution
Language contact, shift and change have been discussed in scholarly literature, but no one has used tombstone inscriptions data as evidence. Janak 1987 and Anderson 1993 surveyed Czech Texas cemeteries statistically and geographically, and noted their cultural impact. Jordan published a representative book of various Texas ethnic folk cemeteries in 1982 that included analysis of burial practices, symbols and epitaphs but omitted Czech cemeteries. Machann (1978) and Machann & Mendl (1983) accomplished considerable historical and sociological research in Czech Texas. Baird (1992) published a linguistic analysis of inscriptions produced by Texas ethnic communities other than Czech. But, so far Czech Texas cemeteries and gravemarkers remain neglected as linguistic and cultural monuments and linguistic interpretation of Czech tombstone data has not been attempted.
I aim to give visibility to the inscriptions as unique written documents that shed light on language contact, shift and demise. They speak as eloquently as manuscripts, newspapers or photographs, and provide yet another angle at capturing the history of Texas Czechs. By their very nature gravemarkers represent cultural, historical and linguistic monuments.
The first Czechs came to Texas in the 1850s. Most of them arrived after the Civil War. Between then and the end of World War II they inhabited the black land triangle between Dallas, Houston and San Antonio where they lived on scattered farms centered around churches. They established themselves as a distinct ethnic group and formed socially, culturally and linguistically self contained communities that survived for an unusually extensive time period. The communities were structured around social networks that underlay Czech community life at home as well as church, school, newspaper publishing and various organizations such as theater groups, music bands and reading clubs. These networks were cultivated as long as the communities prospered.
Maintenance of the mother language was the policy of church, school and newspapers until the 1940s. The Czechs were the fourth largest ethnic population in Texas after the Anglos, Spanish and Germans. Today, the population of “Czech extraction” in Texas has been estimated at approximately 700,000 and represents the largest Slavic ethnic community in the Southern United States (Hannan,1996).
The Czech communities were organized as focused in-group communities that separated themselves from their German neighbors and considered the American world as the world on the outside with which they retained contact for practical business purposes. At the same time, the communities were made up of immigrants, who came from villages characterized by slightly different dialects, attended school for varied numbers of years and participated to a different degree in newspaper reading, ethnic organizations, and cultural activities such as music bands or amateur theater performances. Also, they maintained various extents of contact with the American world, due to their age, gender, social/community status, interests and aspirations.
Chronology of tombstone inscriptions
In vain would one search for graves of the very first Czech pioneers. Many died in hospitals as soon as they reached the Texas shore. Others died in the gruesome travel from Galveston due to exhaustion and exposure to weather, and were buried along the way. Their primitive grave markers – wooden crosses or upright flat stones have since rotted or collapsed. The first marked graves with inscriptions appear in cemeteries established along with the first communities in the 1860s. Even there descendants often replaced simple hand fashioned and inscribed gravestones with modern ones.
The chronology of change in language, as gleaned from tombstones, captures basic stages in the community acculturation. This periodization resonates with the social history of the community. The language of tombstone inscriptions can be condensed into clusters of features mirroring the movement from language variation to language shift. The clusters also reflect spatial and chronological distribution of gravestones within a cemetery.
The inscriptions show a break-down into three stages with rather fluid boundaries: the initial pre-1900 period, a transitional language contact stage and an open-ended language attrition and shift stage that began after the Second World War. The initial stage is characterized by variation between the standard and dialect, i.e. usage of both varieties and switching between them depending on writers’ intentions and language skills. The transitional stage is defined by writing in Texas Czech vernacular, i.e. colloquial everyday variety of Czech that incorporated certain elements of English. The final stage spells out collapse of grammatical and lexical rules of Czech and shift to inscribing tombstones in English.
The stylistic and lexical range of language used to inscribe tombstones shows a considerable variation within the limits of a single cemetery. A certain epitaph may be used only once in the whole cemetery while others may recur; a single Czech greeting may be spelled in several different ways; first names may be written in Czech as well as in English within a single year.
Initially, individual tombstone inscriptions varied unpredictably in semantics, grammar, spelling and lexicon and they truly represented interesting texts. Imprints of individual authors and traces of their identities became muddled in some cases, as I walked into the 20th century; it was clear that the leap into English was made earlier by some individuals in response to opportunities, needs and aspirations, and that language choices were quite idiosyncratic; questions about choices that have to do with authorship and individual practices of language retention remained unanswered. Language was stretching across considerable space and chronological boundaries of several generations.
After World War Two the stylistic and lexical range was streamlined and reduced to a few patterns that recurred throughout Czech cemeteries all across central Texas. Early variation between the dialect and the standard literary variety, i.e. the vernacular and formal writing, was gradually replaced during the transitional stage by variation that resulted from language contact of Czech and English.
While the contact with English was gradually more pronounced in the immigrants’ writing, Czech, at the same time, stagnated and lost its stylistic flexibility. The inscriptions were progressively authored by speakers whose ability to write in Czech was limited; they spelled it in the same way as they spoke it, i.e. phonetically. Despite this decline, Czech, rather than English, remained the primary language of the Texas Czech community until the Second World War. Afterwards, the immigrant communities became rapidly Americanized due to changes in the outside world.
The pressure to change farming methods and consequently the entire mode of life led to the disintegration of the immigrant community. Other factors contributing to the disintegration were the upward mobility of immigrant descendants that brought them to professional careers in the cities, the invasion of formerly Czech households by English television and the decline in Czech language teaching in the schools.
As time progressed, English took over and pushed Czech into the functional periphery of the domestic family language. When Czech communities were stripped of natural economic and cultural infrastructure that provided the framework for active daily language community usage and consequently could be no longer self-sustaining, they were abandoned but continued to survive as social if not physical entities. As such they provide Texas Czechs even today with social networks in which they come together for religious or ethnic holidays.
When English became the primary language of tombstone inscriptions it already functioned as the primary language of Texas Czech community contacts with local and state administration, school, trade and business. But Czech ethnicity has lived on and manifested itself in various aspects until today.
Previous page | Next page