Tombstone Inscriptions as a Particular form of Writing
Language variation defines language and marks even writing in stone. But the extent of linguistic variation and vernacular features in Texas Czech inscriptions are unmatched in domestic Czech tombstone inscriptions, which are much more standardized, as one would expect, due to gravestone public display, permanency and gravity of subject matter.
Early tombstone inscriptions appear closer to spoken usage than other written texts and read as personal notes of the bereaved to the deceased. Some of the inscriptions seem more like notes written on a scrap of paper than engraved in stone. In 1927, parents of a three-year-old Delfina engraved the following message into her gravestone in Czech:
Rest always sweetly and in peace Your father and mother always remember you (Otpočivej vždi slatce a v pokoji Otec a matka natě vždi spominaji).
The inscription contains many obvious grammatical mistakes and misspellings. Tombstone inscriptions are typically written at a time of heightened or uncontrolled emotions. Living in the relative isolation of a farm and in contact with a foreign language certainly added to the emotional intensity of linguistic expression. Emotional, unpredictable and personal language is particularly touching on tombstones to departed babies and young wives.
Reasons for informality, lack of formulaic and standardized expression, and the emotionality of tombstone texts in emigration, must, however, be sought also in the limited availability of printed models other than Bibles as well as of active users of the formal language variety, i.e. Standard Czech. Despite the overall literacy of the Czech immigrants, only priests, ministers, teachers and editors used Standard Czech actively in writing.
Semantics of Tombstone Inscriptions
The setting, topic and also the style, to a certain degree, of tombstone inscriptions are dictated by the nature of cemetery writing. The overall range of semantic information included in tombstone writing is predictable and typically includes the following semantic elements: an opening formula (of the type Odpočívej v pokoji ‘Rest in peace’ or Zde odpočívá ‘Here rests’); first and last names, possibly a maiden name; dates, kinship, place of birth and death, cause of death; an epitaph, biblical verse or personal greeting, reference to the deceased that includes a phrase expressing the grief of the bereaved, and decorative religious symbols (Cf. Baird 1996).
The amount of data included within the individual entries is idiosyncratic. The only universal feature of tombstone writing appears to be reference to the deceased by a name or kinship term. Most tombstones are dated, and the date of death is more common than that of birth. Many tombstones include rich kinship terminology and information about the place of birth and death. But the place of birth is more commonly noted for the deceased immigrants born in Europe than those born in Texas, and occurs more often than the place of death.
Authors of the earliest inscriptions tended to record the homeland roots, i.e. the data of birth and place of origin, with obsessive precision; they often included also the age of the bereaved to the last month and day as well as the length of time spent in America. In contrast to the detail and creativity of early inscriptions, modern ones of the post Second World War period rarely include geographical data, references to the bereaved family or elaborate verses, and the range of phrases used within opening formulae, kinship and epitaphs is minimal and predictable.
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