Ksenia Shagal

Signing up for the trip

One can think of many reasons why I was willing to sign up for this field trip. I spent so much time working on my thesis that I wanted to study something new and exciting in a new and exciting place. I took part in three student field trips to Kalmykia organized by the Saint Petersburg State University, and I was eager to share my experience. I am a native Russian speaker, and I thought it might be good for those participants who are not fluent in either Erzya or Russian to have me around.

This is all true. But the most important reason for me was actually that I was really curious about what this whole thing would be like. I wanted to be a part of this brand new initiative and to contribute to its development. And so I signed up.

Choosing the topic

My main linguistic project at the moment is my doctoral dissertation, which deals with participles from a typological perspective. Since I already had Finnish in my sample I decided not to collect any Erzya data on participles and rather concentrate on something that would be valuable for our whole group. So after a discussion of this matter with Jack and Riho, it was decided that I would work on the variety of Russian spoken in Dubjonki and adjacent villages. It is a very interesting but previously almost unresearched topic relevant for the study of Erzya-Russian interaction in general, and it is perfectly suited for a native speaker of Russian, so I was happy to get it as my task for the trip.

Another positive thing about this topic was the fact that I would not have to do all the work on the spot, I would just have to collect as much data as I could, and the analysis can be carried out later, when I come back to Helsinki. This was very good for me, since I was going to come to Dubjonki five days later than the others because of the conference, which meant less time in the field.

The aforementioned conference, however, did not just decrease the amount of time I had in Mordovia, but also increased the amount of work, the reason being that Sergey Say, a friend of mine whom I met at this conference, asked me to fill in a questionnaire for the collective project on bivalent verb classes run at the Institute for Linguistic Studies in Saint Petersburg. The questionnaire consisted of 130 sentences representing 130 predicative meanings in particular contexts, and I thought it would be a nice way to actually study some Erzya while being in Mordovia.

Preparing for the trip

Since the primary scientific goal of my trip was to study the Russian language variety, I did not have to study Erzya in depth. However, I took the intensive course by Olga Jerina, and it then appeared to be very helpful when I eventually started working with the questionnaire.

The main theoretical source for my preparations was the collection of articles on non-standard Russian varieties edited by Arto Mustajoki, Ekaterina Protassova, and Nikolai Vakhtin (‘Slavica Helsingiensia 40. Instrumentarium of Linguistics: Sociolinguistic Approaches to Non-Standard Russian’, Helsinki 2010). In addition to that, Natalia Stoynova, one of the authors of the article on the Russian language of the Enets speakers, gave me some valuable advice on the methodology of such studies.

I am also extremely grateful to Maria Kholodilova, who provided me with lots of materials on Moksha and Shoksha collected during the field trips organized by the Moscow State University and shared her observations concerning the Russian speech of the Mokshas.

Working in the field

I arrived to Dubjonki around noon on August 19, so I thought I would be able to work there for a little more than five days until we had to leave on August 24. In reality, however, we did not work all the time. In every village we were treated as guests of honour, so there was always a concert followed by lunch, dinner, picnic, excursion, and whatnot. The hosts were incredibly nice and friendly, and the food they cooked was delicious.

This is more or less what our first hours in every village were like (the photos were taken in Chindjanovo):







Nevertheless, after (or sometimes even during) the festivities we used to get a chance to work with the locals. Especially productive in this respect were the second days in the villages, when there was no official program, so we mostly just walked around looking for people to talk to and working with those whom we found:



Although the picture above in a sense suggests the opposite, these were usually women in their sixties or seventies. Younger people often claimed to speak Russian better than Erzya or had to harvest potatoes at that very day. However, in Kabaevo I was very lucky to meet Alina, a 21-year-old student journalist perfectly fluent in both Erzya and Russian. She approached me on our first day in the village to take an interview, but we ended up exchanging phone numbers and making an appointment for the next day. Alina spent several hours with our group and did a lot for us. She gave an interview to Merja P., translated dozens of sentences for Stephan, Antti, Andrei, and Heini, and helped me greatly with the questionnaire (the picture shows her working with Andrei and Stephan in the school yard):



After we ran out of questions, Alina walked us along the village, introduced us to several locals and took some photos for her own article, like this one, of Baba Ljuba, Merja P. and me:


Photo: Alina Podgornova

She was also enthusiastic about collaborating with us in the future, which, of course, would be very helpful.

Cooperating with the others

Cooperation was both the most exciting part and the biggest difference of this trip from what I was used to. Within the Kalmyk project most of the interaction we had was on the stage of sharing results, although even preliminary, but still results. By contrast, here students actually worked together all the way through.

Sometimes it meant just dividing the workload performing similar tasks, which we quite often did with Merja P. She was interviewing people in Russian about their language background, and this was a perfect way for me to collect their Russian speech for analysis. So on my first day in Dubjonki I took down Merja’s questions and then asked them while establishing contact with the speakers, having a break between elicitation sessions, or drinking tea afterwards.

But what I liked even more was another type of cooperation, which existed in smaller groups, where people shared the topic (or topics) and did everything teamwise, from designing the questionnaires to discussing the observations. In some cases this interaction was not even planned, but simply happened due to the circumstances. And how could numerous valuable discussions be avoided, if sometimes Stephan and Antti constructed stimuli for elicitation in Finnish, Merja and I translated them into Russian, I read them aloud to the speakers, and Andrei put down the answers? Of course, such work organization has its own problems that have to be taken into account, but it involves everyone in many different activities at the same time, which I find very beneficial for both studies and research.

Summing up

It is, of course, too early to make any final conclusions about the trip, since much work still needs to be done. But I can already do some counting.

So, during this field trip I spent 5 days in 4 villages (Dubjonki, Povodimovo, Chindjanovo, and Kabaevo), where I recorded three hours of elicitation and over 4 hours of dialogues in Russian from more than 20 speakers of Erzya. I carefully filled in the questionnaire on bivalent predicates (most of the sentences were translated at least twice by different speakers), and took several interviews for Merja P., which will be a substantial part of my data for the study of the local Russian variety.

I also rubbed two blisters on my palm as a result of, as Wikipedia puts it, ‘massaging fellow sauna-goers with leafy, wet birch bunches’. But this information is only to show that there was much more on our trip than just field work.


Photo: Erika Sandman