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Tuesday, 4 April, 2000, 11:49 GMT 12:49 UK
Race against time for Chechen dictionary
Chechen speakers
Chechen speakers have been scattered by war
Academics at the University of California are seeking to complete what is claimed as the first complete Chechen-English dictionary.

But the methodical process of compiling a dictionary has become a race against time, with researchers fearing that Chechnya's native language could become another victim of the war in the former Soviet republic.

There is estimated to be a million Chechen speakers, but many communities have been scattered by war or forced to live as refugees in regions where other languages are spoken.


Chechnya
There are a million Chechen speakers, many living as refugees
"The language is not going to survive for long if this continues," said Johanna Nichols, a languages professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

"We're trying desperately to get a lot of information together. But dictionary-making is not anything that can be done in a great rush."

Working with a dozen graduate students, Professor Nichols is gathering a database of the language, which is believed to have been spoken in the Caucasus region for about 8,000 years.

It is believed that in the past there have been only partial attempts at translating Chechen into English - the emphasis having been on compiling Chechen-Russian dictionaries.

Professor Nichols will continue to gather information on the language in an ongoing effort to preserve as much as possible - and is planning to publish an interim small Chechen-English dictionary in the summer.

The importance of gathering information on such minority languages was emphasised by Professor Peter Ladefoged, a member of the endangered languages committee of the Linguistic Society of America.

"If we want to know what's possible for a human language we need to study all the languages that there are.

"So many of them are just dying very rapidly that unless we study them now we won't be able to do so."

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