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Chechen language: on life support

Chechen dictionary (nohchalla.com)

In 2010, UNESCO declared Chechen a vulnerable language. Despite local efforts to popularise it, their modest results show that a more serious approach is needed.

Chechen is included in UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger as a vulnerable language. The atlas assesses the viability of languages according to nine criteria, including the number of speakers, transmission of the language between generations, the availability of teaching materials, and societal attitudes towards the language. In the firm opinion of UNESCO’s experts, Chechen requires strong state support if it is to survive.

Chechen is one of the most spoken languages in the Caucasus. It is spoken by 1.4 million people in Russia, as well as by the Chechen diaspora in Jordan, Georgia, and in Europe. Chechen is the official language of Chechnya, alongside Russian, as well as one of the literary languages of Daghestan. It belongs to the Northeast Caucasian family of languages and its closest relatives are Ingush and Tsova Tush, although the latter is no longer mutually comprehensible with Chechen due to a heavy Georgian influence.

In Chechnya, the authorities often argue that they provide every possible support for the popularisation of the language of the ancestors. So far, only one local newspaper is published in Chechen, and its importance is marked only once a year, on 25 April — Chechen Language Day. On this day, various events are held throughout the republic, including a large number of concerts. Officials participating in the celebrations wear national clothes. On every other day of the year, officials switch back to ordinary suits, and people go back to their routine, not worrying about the future of the language until the next year.

Practically all Chechens can speak Chechen, yet the majority can only read and write in Russian. Even older people, the bearers of folk traditions, pass on their legacy in written Russian. In Chechnya, despite the desire to popularise the native language, all teaching is conducted in Russian, despite both having equal status as official languages. Many local experts and linguists say that at least the first years of school should be taught in Chechen.

‘Psychological science from around the world has proven that if we develop a child’s thinking in their native language, they’ll achieve striking success in learning, including foreign languages. We won’t forget Russian if we switch the language of tuition to Chechen. On the contrary, we will free children from the inferiority complex and the confusion they encounter in early childhood. A good command of the native language is a promise of a good knowledge of Russian and other languages in the future’, Musa Akhmadov, the editor-in-chief of literary journal Vainakh told OC Media.

‘In Daghestan, local Chechen children study exclusively in Chechen up to the third year. Members of Daghestan’s intelligentsia have published the necessary literature and successfully implemented native language teaching. In Lezgi and Kalmyk [two major languages of Daghestan] schools, children are even taught in their native language up to the sixth year’, Akhmadov added.

Chechen writers and philologists have long expressed concern for the future of their mother tongue, and consider it one of the foundations of their national identity. In 2014, they created a working group to amend the rules of Chechen spelling. The commission submits their recommendations to local media, confident that the media can play a key role in popularising the disappearing language.

‘First of all, we asked journalists to use the calendar in Chechen. Then, we compiled a list of placenames in Chechen. It’s not pretty when people speak and write Chechen, but use the names of the days of the week and months in Russian. All villages in Chechnya have their Chechen names, too. It is wrong to call them by their Russian names’, Sayd-Khasan Dadayev, the head of the commission, told OC Media.

The commission still has a long way to go. Even its members often lack a consensus on how to mark Chechen diphthongs and triphthongs in writing.

Society’s attitude towards Chechen is of great concern for preserving and developing the language. Chechen is most widely spoken in rural areas. In cities, Russian has traditionally been dominant. In Grozny’s kindergartens, it’s is common for parents to demand teachers speak with children in Russian.

‘Such a situation is certainly surprising, but there’s hardly anything Chechens can do at this stage. Chechens are subjected to Russian cultural expansion. If foreign culture, clothes, and traditions are imposed upon us, why should we be surprised when language is also affected?’ Vakha Mezhidov, a Chechen language teacher told OC Media.

In Soviet times, autonomous republics were forbidden from teaching their native languages in cities, but not in villages. Chechens were frequently harassed for speaking their native language, for example on public transport.

The Chechen Academy of Science is convinced that Chechen was wrongly included in the list of disappearing languages. The president of the academy, Shakhrudi Gapurov, has assured people that the popularisation and development of Chechen has been proceeding at a fast pace.

‘Today, we have strong scientific potential in the field of humanities research, especially philology and history. We’ve achieved great success with establishing Chechen Language Day. I don’t know why Chechen was included in UNESCO’s World Atlas of Languages in Danger. We have stepped up research on our native language. The largest project in this field is the three-volume Academic Grammar of the Chechen Language. (…) The first volume, released last year, was well received by the institutes of linguistics of the Russian and Georgian academies of science, as well as the Azerbaijani Academy of Science’, Gapurov said.

The Russification of Chechnya began almost immediately following its annexation into the Russian Empire during the 19th Century. Peter Uslar, often described as the father of  Caucasus studies, was a vocal supporter of these efforts, and remains an extremely controversial figure in Chechen history. He spoke of the ‘pernicious’ influence of Arabic and insisted on enforcing Cyrillic-based alphabets to make North Caucasian peoples ‘more manageable’. It was Uslar who created the Chechen alphabet based on the Russian one.

In the 1870s, the tsarist administration noted that because of Chechens’ high proficiency in Russian, there was no longer a need for them to study Chechen. Many in Chechnya believe that this policy continues to this day — that Russia fears that knowledge of native languages may increase national self-awareness among non–ethnically Russian populations.

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