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California and the West

Linguist Works to Save Chechen Tongue From Extinction

Linguistics: Fearing irreparable harm to the Causasus-area language from Russian military and social pressures, a UC Berkeley professor is creating a computerized Chechen-English dictionary.


BERKELEY — More than 6,000 miles from Russia's Caucasus Mountains, a UC Berkeley professor hopes to prevent an entire language from becoming the next casualty in the relentless battle between Russia and Chechnya, its separatist republic.

Johanna Nichols, a professor of Slavic languages, is systematically inputting Chechen words, their meanings, tenses and grammatical idiosyncrasies into a growing electronic Chechen-English dictionary. It is a massive undertaking, and one with potentially historic importance, considering the vast number of Chechens forced to abandon their homes--and culture--to escape repeated Russian military attacks over the last decade.

"There's a real danger that the language may become a shadow of its former self," said Nichols, 55. "Already, many Russian words have entered into the language. As Chechens become refugees, there's a tendency to assimilate to different cultures, learn different languages. If the [Chechen] language isn't recorded soon, one day it may only exist symbolically."

A handful of Chechen-Russian dictionaries already exist. But Nichols said they lack adequate pronunciation of the Chechen language, which adopted the Russian alphabet in the 1930s but which has a far more complex sound system. Most are out of print.

Nichols, who grew up in Mason City, Iowa, and first studied Russian as a sophomore at Iowa State University, teaches Slavic linguistic classes and focuses on languages indigenous to the Caucasus region. Colleagues say she is one of the few Western scholars to delve into the Chechen language.

"Her work is absolutely pioneering," said Maria Polinsky, a linguistics professor at UC San Diego. "You have to consider that it's a small, unwritten language that probably fewer than 10 people speak here in the United States. She has opened the area to American scholarship and set a precedent for others to follow."

The project began in 1979, when Nichols traveled to Tbilisi, the capital of the Georgian republic, to compare the grammar of ancient Russian with languages indigenous to the Caucasus Mountains.

At the University of Tbilisi, she met a student from Chechnya, whose native language she did not recognize. Nichols interviewed the student, probing for linguistic patterns such as verb and noun agreement in hopes of classifying the language or comparing it with others. She stumbled upon a language largely overlooked by the West and found a new research topic.

During the Cold War, however, it was difficult for Western scholars to move freely in the Soviet Union. The Soviet government assigned Nichols a research supervisor who monitored all research and travel requests. Her attempts to visit Grozny, Chechnya's capital, were denied.

"In theory there was freedom to travel," she said, "but in practice there were lots of places blocked off. You couldn't just get tickets on a train and go somewhere. You had to get permission to leave wherever you were staying."

Nichols' first, and only, visit to Chechnya came 10 years later. She was permitted to record conversations with villagers during a three-month stay, but was denied access to state museums and was rarely left unattended.

The professor has made greater headway at home. Last year, Nichols received a $30,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to begin culling her material. She duplicated an online database she was already using to amass an Ingush-language dictionary (the native language of Ingushetia, Chechnya's neighboring republic).

The grant enabled Nichols to bring Arbi Vagapov, a linguist at Grozny University, to the United States for one year to work at UC Berkeley as a visiting scholar and assist with the project. Berkeley's linguistics and Slavic languages departments also got behind the project, enlisting the aid of faculty and graduate students.

"It's been inspiring," said Ronald Sprouse, 33, a linguistics doctoral student who wrote the online program to organize the Ingush and Chechen dictionaries. "There's a side to linguistics that's dry and academic, but professor Nichols helps us see how what we do affects people--that by recording the language, we can help preserve their culture."

So far, the database holds approximately 2,000 words, a fraction of what comprehensive dictionaries usually contain. Nichols said work on the project has been slow, mostly consisting of monotonous data entry.

On a recent afternoon, Nichols and Vagapov spoke in Russian for nearly 10 minutes about the definition of the verb oi'u, which Nichols thought meant to pick up something but which Vagapov insisted referred to lifting of heavy objects only. After numerous gesticulations, suggesting the lifting of objects both light and heavy, they reached an agreement, updated the record and moved on.

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