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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.


In time, Nichols hopes the online version of the dictionary will be taken over by Chechen scholars and updated indefinitely. She also would like a Chechen publishing house to eventually distribute hard copies of the dictionary at an affordable price. Few Chechens have Internet access.

If the war continues, however, Nichols has considered handing over the dictionary to an international aid organization, which could distribute it to refugees, many of whom are without formal schooling.

For now, there are no signs of when the fighting will let up.

"I don't know if the [Grozny] university will be there when I return or if I'll have a job to come back to," Vagapov said.

Nichols searches online every day for news about the war, but she lost e-mail contact with all her Chechen colleagues in the fall. Without reestablishing contact, she'll have to look elsewhere for a Chechen linguist to replace Vagapov when his yearlong visa expires later this year.

"It's so hard to find out what's really happening over there," she said. "It makes the project so much more difficult and important with every passing day.

"But the war will be over one day. Then we can give the dictionary to Chechnya. That's really where it belongs."

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