Voices on birchbark: Reconstructing the pragmatics of Old Russian birchbark letters

Project outline

The field of berestology (derived from the Russian word berësta ‘birchbark’) is concerned with the interdisciplinary study of a corpus of medieval Russian texts scratched with a sharp pointed stylus on small pieces of the inner bark of a birch tree. Most of these texts are letters dealing with a broad range of topics pertaining to everyday life in the area of (Velikij) Novgorod; they originate from the 11th to the 15th centuries.
The research project “Voices on birchbark: Reconstructing the pragmatics of Old Russian birchbark letters” focuses on one particular type of birchbark letters, viz. those with a communicatively heterogeneous structure. A.A. Gippius describes this phenomenon as follows: “a written message, arranged as a single text, is split into parts, each having its own role structure, i.e. having different authors or addressees.” In other words, the text consists of separate discourse units, each with its own referential perspective.
The project aims at systematically investigating the text type under discussion and relating recent insights in the particular field of Russian historical linguistics and philology to general notions of deixis and (co-)referentiality and of the role of orality in written communication in pre-modern societies.
Thus, the first (language-internal) component of the project consists of a systematic investigation of the data, i.e. the corpus of birchbark letters. Parameters of investigation are, among other things, discourse units referring to persons, such as the use of personal names versus pronouns, and enclitic versus orthotonic pronouns; temporal and spatial discourse units; the function of specific discourse markers, especially particles; the use of reflexive pronouns in cases of co-referentiality; etc.
Furthermore, these data need to be related to general pragmatic theories. This (language-external) component is based on a pragmaphilological perspective and addresses questions of deixis in relation to the letters’ social and historical context. In this way, the social network of persons indentified on birchbark can be reconstructed.
Overall, the research project may provide us with insights of a more general nature in the field of pragmatics, and more particularly in issues of deixis and (co-)referentiality.
To get an impression of what the birchbark letters look like, visit the database at http://gramoty.ru.

Project members

Researchers involved in this project are prof. dr. Jos Schaeken, prof. dr. Ton van Haaften and dr. Egbert Fortuin. Simeon Dekker is working on this project as a PhD student.

Last Modified: 27-10-2011