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UC Berkeley professor working with Chechen colleagues to save endangered language
07 Mar 2000

By Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs

BERKELEY-- A University of California, Berkeley, 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 about 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 most 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 UC Berkeley deans of humanities, social sciences and the Graduate Division, as well as the Committee on Research and 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 the Chechens.

Some characteristics of Chechen include its wealth of consonants and sounds similar to Arabic or native American languages, a large vowel system resembling Swedish or German, several genders, a complex phrase structure, and prose and conversation that rely heavily on humor.

Chechen and closely related Ingush have syntactic and morphological properties not found in other languages, which make them important for comparative linguistics.

Because Chechen is not a language traditionally written, Nichols' task is that much more difficult. While Chechens speak Chechen, Russian is most often the written vehicle for literacy. The language has been taught in Chechen schools, but all other subjects are taught exclusively in Russian.

In Soviet times and in Russia today, the Russian language has received official sanction as the main means of access to international information and culture, including information about English. Chechens who study English must use Russian-English dictionaries. The lexical structures of English and Chechen are more similar to one another than either is to Russian, so using Russian as a filter only makes translation tougher.

Nichols described the data entry of vocabulary as "just a lot of basically hard drudgery." One recent week she spent nearly 20 hours conversing in English, Russian and Chechen with Professor Arbi Vagapov of Chechen State University and the Chechen State Language Institute, then transcribing her notes. She and a couple of students carefully pore over dictated stories and texts in search of useful dictionary examples.

Yet, Nichols noted, their often tedious work is sparked by discoveries about grammar and etymology.

Chechen has an extensive pre-Russian and pre-Soviet scientific and technical vocabulary, some from Arabic and Persian, some ultimately from Greek and some native. Chechen and Ingush scholars find links to the ancient cuneiform languages Hurrian and Urartean.

Chechen also presents interesting challenges for lexicography, as creating new words in the language relies on fixation of whole phrases rather than adding to the end of existing words or combining existing words. It can be difficult to decide which phrases belong in the dictionary.

The project essentially began 20 years ago when Nichols was en route to Moscow for other research, only to be dispatched by accident to the republic of 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 Chechen 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."


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