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Dictionary Project Hopes to Preserve Chechen People's Endangered Language

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Dictionary Project Hopes to Preserve Chechen People's Endangered Language

By Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs
Posted March 8, 2000

A Slavic language professor is working on the definitive Chechen-English dictionary to help save the native language of people being bombed, executed and all but annihilated.

"The language is not going to survive for long if this continues to go on," Professor Johanna Nichols said of Russian troops' rampage against the southern republic of Chechnya and the subsequent creation of a steady stream of refugees.

"Keeping the language alive is going to be a very urgent task for linguists," she said, noting that documenting the language for science is equally important.

Nichols hopes the dictionary will help preserve the language -- and, thereby, the culture, heritage and history -- of the approximately 1 million Chechen people, whose language is indigenous to the Caucasus mountains. Chechen and its close sister language Ingush make up the Nakh half of the Nakh-Daghestanian family tree, thus providing information crucial to tracing the ancestral language and studying or reconstructing the prehistory of the people of the Caucasus.

The plan, Nichols said, is to maintain a permanent yet growing electronic dictionary with the collaboration of Chechen scholars and, "assuming the Chechen people survive at all, the Chechen university and research institutes." Data collection and expansion of the electronic version of the dictionary with various updates and editions will continue indefinitely, she said.

So far, the dictionary contains about 1,500 words recorded with the aid of a software program that helps detail various verb forms, parts of speech, examples of the words used in phrases, and different tenses. A dictionary of 5,000 words contains mostly words from everyday use, Nichols said, adding that she hopes the Chechen-English book will be publishable within another year.

"It's a massive job," she said.

Funding for her project comes from the National Science Foundation, along with help from the Berkeley deans of humanities, social sciences, the Graduate Division and Committee on Research, as well as the Department of Linguistics.

The book should serve Chechen speakers and others interested in translating the language, said Nichols, who receives frequent requests for translation. It also will assist with development of teaching materials and techniques. The electronic version of the dictionary will be available to researchers and inexpensive hard copies will be provided to Chechens.

The project essentially began 20 years ago when Nichols was en route to Moscow for other research, only to be dispatched by accident to Georgia instead. There she met Chechen speakers and became fascinated by a language largely overlooked by the West. She became intrigued by the people whose history and customs also were almost unknown to the world and who had endured centuries of assault by Russian and Soviet governments.

Nichols has described the Chechen people as "a people of great dignity, refinement and courage who have paid heavily for their resistance to conquest and assimilation." Even if they survive physically, she said, they have been threatened with ethnic cleansing, wholesale economic ruin, and the loss of their linguistic and cultural heritage.

Quick action is needed to raise international awareness of the Chechens as people, Nichols said.

"The dictionary itself, even if published tomorrow, would be useful immediately as a reminder for the world of the Chechens' existence and humanity," she said. "But it can function as a dictionary only if and when the war ends, and if and when a Chechen speech community survives."



March 8-12, 2000 (Volume 28, Number 24)
Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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