Fieldwork on West Polesian

by Kristian Roncero (University of Surrey)

West Polesian belongs to the Eastern Slavonic subgroup and is spoken in the Polish region of Podlasie, the south-western half of the Brest region in Belarus, and the Volynsk region in Ukraine. West Polesian has hardly been studied separately, yet it differs considerably from the national standard  (or literary) languages where it is spoken. One of the main reasons is its isolation. Older stages of the Common Eastern Slavonic language and culture have been preserved thanks to the fact that Polesians live in a marshy area which can be difficult to access as it is frequently flooded. In Žydča (see map), some speakers  remember the times when they were kids and a helicopter would bring bread to the village as the ‘road’ was flooded (before they drained some roads in the 80’s-90’s).

Map of the studied villages in the region of Brest (Belarus)

There is very little work on West Polesian grammar, which is why I decided that I needed to get it from first hand witnesses.

I have been in Belarus from 15th January 2016 to the 9th July 2016. Thanks to PhilSoc Travel and Fieldwork bursary, I have been able to cover part of the expenses derived from my expedition. I have concentrated my research in the region of Brest, where I have been studying and learning West Polesian, not only by interviewing the native speakers, but also (when possible), going to work with them: milking goats, planting potatoes or chopping timber.

I have been based in 5 different villages from which I have tried to travel around the area in order to interview other speakers. Sometimes, there was a more or less good transport system, but in some of the most remote villages (where there were less than 50 inhabitants), I have had to find other ways to get around, e.g. by tractor, by bike, or on foot. And of course, if you depend on the weather outside to move around, you will have to deal with snow, storms, wild boars and other sorts of natural forces on your way. Small details which can ruin your plans for the next weeks in a minute!

The main focus of my research is West Polesian inflectional morphology. It is too early to make any meaningful statements, but here are some of the most relevant parameters I have been looking at:

  1. The interface of numerals with nouns: following the deterioration of the dual number (in Common Slavonic), an adnumerative case/number has emerged for nouns followed by 2, 3 and 4 (with a very special distribution). And nouns followed by 5-20 which in other Slavonic languages take GEN PL, have in some varieties developed a second GEN PL (whose marking may be influenced by the perception of the amount expressed).
  2. The future tense: West Polesian has at least 6 different grams to express future time.
  3. The vocative case: in some cases it has been preserved, but it competes with two other forms of the same case.
  4. Postnominal possessors: West Polesian permits the inversion of the ‘canonical’ POSS- N order, but it also also allows for the insertion of a wide variety of constituents between both.

It has been a half year full of adventures, and problems coming from everywhere. Nonetheless, it has been rewarding, not only in terms of academic work, but also since I have had the privilege to meet wonderful people and learn about life from them. An experience I would recommend to every linguist, at least once in their life!

I have created a blog for my expedition, where I have tried to shortly describe what I have been doing and discovering in the last 2-3 weeks. I have tried to combine general interest information about the region (the food, the people, traditions, etc.) with more technical linguistic descriptions of what I have been finding in the local variety. I have also created a channel on Youtube, which has helped to get the community’s attention. I am trying to upload the most beautiful and interesting stories (i.e. fairy tales, old traditions, WWII experiences) recorded during my fieldwork.

Additionally, I have tried to tweet short news about the development of the project with the hashtag #westpolesian.  You can also read about the media’s response to my work, or watch the video below.

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