Berkeley professor working with Chechen colleagues to save endangered
Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs
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.
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.
the language alive is going to be a very urgent task for linguists,"
she said, noting that documenting the language for science is
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.
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
a massive job," she said.
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.
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.
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.
and closely related Ingush have syntactic and morphological
properties not found in other languages, which make them important
for comparative linguistics.
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.
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.
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.
Nichols noted, their often tedious work is sparked by discoveries
about grammar and etymology.
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.
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.
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.
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.
action is needed to raise international awareness of the Chechen
people, Nichols said.
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."