Language of Month: Chechen

Language of Month: Chechen

The language of Chechnya, a landlocked nation deep in the Caucasus, is an example of one of the most complex language geographies.

In this relatively small area you can see almost 30 languages, of which Chechen, our subject for today, can be seen in the top left centred on the capital of the country, Grozny.

It’s a member of an important language family called North East Caucasian. And yes, before you ask, there is a North West Caucasian language group and also a South Caucasian group, which includes the best-known language in the region, Georgian. The Caucasian languages are not Indo-European and scholarly argument has raged for decades about the appropriate groupings of the languages. One theory is that the NE and NW Caucasian languages are members of the same group, Caucasian, but this is highly contested; there are enough structural differences for the NW/NE distinction to prevail. Current thinking is that 500 years ago there was a proto-Caucasian language which split in to two, much like, say Scandinavian and Germanic languages in the evolution of English.

Linguists go into ecstasy over the Caucasian languages. Linguistically they are extremely complex, not only phonetically (Chechen has 40 or more consonants depending in the dialect plus 40 vowels!) but grammatically. OK, some languages have more consonants, some have more complex verb-forms, some more classes of nouns, but all-in-all the Caucasian languages are right up there for overall linguistic interest.

Heavy rabbits and noun classes

Main features? Chechen has, essentially, six genders of noun. They don’t call them genders, they are, strictly, noun classes, like you get in Mandarin, but they behave like genders. Each noun and any associated adjective has a prefix depending in the class. So, the adjective and verb in

ˤaž b-eza b-u ‘the apple is heavy’

contain the prefix b because az (apple) is from noun class b-2 but in

ph’āgal y-eza y-u ‘the rabbit is heavy’

the adjective and verb have a different prefix, y-, attached to them because ph’āgal (rabbit) is from a different noun-class, namely y-2.

It seems tricky, but all languages have these idiosyncrasies and if you want to discuss the weightiness of small herbivore mammals, you just have to learn the rules, just as you would for the idiosyncrasies of any language.

The verb form is interesting, too, with six ‘tempi’ or moods allowing the speaker to express permission (permissive tempus – I allow the rabbit to eat the carrots), inceptive (The rabbit starts eating the carrots) as well as the basic tempus (The rabbit eats the carrots)

Alphabet wars

The Chechen alphabet has changed a number of times over the years in response to political forces. Apparently one can still find texts in the Georgian script in the mountainous areas of Chechnya, but the first recorded script was Arabic, reformed specifically for the Chechen language in 1910. Peter von Uslar introduced a new orthography, a mixture of Latin, Georgian and Cyrillic letters around that time, but this was largely used only in academic writing. From 1938 to 1992 under Soviet rule, only the Cyrillic alphabet was used and the symbolism of this was not lost to the separatists who deliberately used the Latin forms rather than the Russian when the declared independence from Russia in 1991.

Chechen dance

I just love the dance cultures of the Caucasus. I remember seeing for the first time the graceful strength of Georgian women dancers silhouetted against the athleticism and power of their male partners. 

And Chechen dancing has that same division, with the women moving as if on castors over the floor while the men strut and preen like manic insects in their orbit. Here’s a video clip which says it much better.

I can’t do justice to the richness and dept of culture of this part of the world. Dive in and learn about a culture which is so close to Europe but so far away at the same time.

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