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Number of Speakers: 1.2 million

Key Dialects: Ploskost, Itumkala (Shatoi), Melkhin, Kistin, Cheberloi, Akkin (Aux)

Geographical Center: Republic of Chechnya, Russia

Chechen is the largest of the North Caucasian languages. Although predominantly spoken in the autonomous Republic of Chechnya in Russia, it is also spoken in Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and outside Russia in such diverse regions as Germany, Syria, Turkey, and Jordan, where a Chechen community of roughly three thousand speakers reside. Most speakers of Chechen are fluent in Russian and can speak genetically and areally related languages such as Ingush, Batsbi, and Georgian. This multilingualism is common among peoples of the Caucasus, where historically there have been no lingua francas. The Chechens are a predominantly Muslim people.

Chechen is a language of the Vainakh branch of the Nakh-Daghestanian or Northeast Caucasian language family. Other members of the Vainakh subfamily include the closely related language Ingush and the less-closely related Batsbi. As an indigenous language of the Caucasus, it is not a member of any language family spoken elsewhere in the world.

Due to the diaspora of the Chechen people in the eighteenth and ninteenth centuries (see History below), Chechen is spoken in geographically diverse regions of the world ranging from Russia and Western Europe to the Middle East. Although not all dialects are fully literate in written Chechen, all dialects enjoy a high degree of mutual intelligibility. Differences between dialects are largely phonological.

Prior to the twentieth century, the Chechens used an Arabic alphabet. In the early 1920s a Latinate orthography was devised; however, it was officially replaced in 1938 by a Cyrillic transliteration. The Cyrillic alphabet persisted until 1992, when a special modified Latin alphabet was proposed and adopted. This was largely prompted by certain inadequacies of the Cyrillic system and its difficulty of use for speakers in Middle Eastern countries. The new alphabet is a direct transliteration of the older Cyrillic orthography into a Latin system based on the Turkish and Azeri spelling system. It is thus a Cyrillo-Latin writing system.

The grammar of Chechen is characterized by rather complex syntactic, morphological, and phonological systems. Regarding syntax, the word order of Chechen is strictly head-final in phrases. In non-finite clauses, the word order is verb-final; however, in finite clauses verbs appear in either initial or second position. According to Nichols & Vagapov 2004, Chechen makes use of elaborate clause chaining with long-distance reflexivization. Although this clause chaining is essential to constructing coherent narratives, it is neither mastered in diasporic dialects nor is adequately described in traditional grammars.

The Chechen case system consists of eight cases; nominative (subject of intransitive verbs/direct object of transitive verbs), genitive (possessive), dative (indirect object/object of postposition), allative (indirect object/other oblique objects), instrumental (instrument/means/accompaniment), lative (oblique objects), comparison (standard of comparison), and ergative (subject of transitive verbs). The later (ergative) distinguishes Chechen from most West European and Russian languages. The pronominal system of Chechen is quite noteworthy.

Unlike the languages of Europe, but like several Caucasian languages, Chechen first person plural pronouns are divided into inclusive and exclusive forms. The inclusive form of the first person plural refers to both speaker and hearer, while the exclusive form refers only to the speaker and one or more referents excluding the hearer. Second and third person forms are not divided in this way.

Regarding agreement, some verbs, certain adjectives, and a few postpositions agree in gender with nominal expressions that are either a) subjects or direct objects of the verb, b) modified by adjectives, or c) objects of postpositions. Verbs show gender agreement with direct objects and intransitive subjects, but not person agreement. Concerning gender, Chechen makes use of four gender classes, which are marked by prefixation. This contrasts with most Western European languages, which distinguish only three gender classes.

Chechen morphology is complex and largely suffixal. Prefixes are limited to gender agreement marking and some derivational verbal morphology. The morphosyntax is for the most part dependent-marking, meaning that syntactic dependencies between heads and modifiers are morphologically indicated on the modified or dependent element. Verb roots are a closed class in the language. New verbs are created mostly by compounding non-verbal roots with auxiliary verbs. Many compound verbs with stative meanings have nominal first elements that are etymologically direct objects of the auxiliary and require ergative subjects (e.g. naab ja ‘sleep’, literally ‘sleep do’) (Nichols & Vagapov 2004). These types of compounds are numerous enough for the language to be considered a stative-active language overall.

As is typical of Causasian languages, the consonant and vowel inventories of Chechen are considerably extensive, notably characterized by uvulars, ejectives, and pharyngeals. Specifically, the consonant inventory consists of 31 phonemes (depending on the dialect and analysis), which is considerably large for a European language and more akin to the type of consonant system one would find in Arabic or in certain indigenous languages of North America. Unlike most other Caucasian languages, its inventory of vowels and diphthongs is rather extensive. Again, depending on the dialect and analysis, there are roughly 27 such phonemes in the language. This vowel system is similar in number and character to the vowel systems of both German and Scandinavian languages. The phonology of Chechen is complicated by the presence of a schwa, which according to Nichols & Vagapov 2004 is not overt, but yet affects adjacent syllables in a number of ways.

Native Chechen words are few in number. According to the Wikipedia encyclopedia, no more than 3,000 native words comprise the Chechen vocabulary. Loan words from a number of languages have been assimilated. The greatest number of loan words come from Russian and Turkic languages (especially Kumuck). Loans from Arabic, Persian, Alanian (Ossetic), and Georgian are also attested.

Although Chechen is spoken primarily in the company of other Chechens, Russian is used when people of other nationalities are present. Chechen is preserved as a spoken language by a number of groups such as the Aeqqi, a group of ethnic Chechens living on traditional Chechen lands that were deported to Daghestan in 1956; the Kisti, a group of Chechens living in eastern Georgia; by an unnamed Central Asian diaspora that were removed from their native land between the years of 1944-1956; and by diasporas in Turkey and Jordan who descend from mid-nineteenth century deportees. Under Soviet language policy, Chechen was formerly taught only where it had official status and where it was the language of the local majority. Nonetheless, some Daghestanian and Central Asian Chechens became literate in the language. Recently, the language has come to be taught in schools in the Daghestanian-Chechen area. Few Chechens living in Middle East Countries are literate in the older Cyrillic writing system.

Until the middle of the twentieth century, Chechen was subject to considerable Russification. The influence of Russian on the language and culture is still considerable. Children are still expected to grow up as Russian speakers with imperfect knowledge of Chechen in certain cities/regions (i.e. in Grozny, the capital). Although the language is taught in Chechnyan schools and is employed as the language of mass media in the republic, the present status of the language is difficult to assess.

Up to the nineteenth century, Chechen society consisted of roughly 130 patrilineal clans. Of these, most fell under the jurisdiction of one of the nine principal clan confederations or tribes, each of which had its own dialect. Russian attempts to conquer the Chechens (along with other indigenous peoples of the region) was underway by the eighteenth century. Chechen resistance to the Russians was spearheaded by charismatic Muslim leaders. Thus, conversion to Islam resulted in participation in this resistance movement and solidified Chechen national consciousness with the religion. The Russian conquest of the Caucasus resulted in the diaspora of the Chechen people. Nonetheless, the language has persisted in the face of severe adversity. During Soviet occupation in the mid-nineteenth century, at least half of the Chechen population was slaughtered or deported. In the 1930s, roughly 20% of the Chechen population was killed as a result of forced collectivization and purges. Another 25% or more Chechens died of disease and starvation in 1944, when a mass deportation to Kazakhstan and Siberia was initiated. During each deportation, the Chechen language and nationality were banned, families were torn apart, and children received little education or exposure to the language. Generations of deported Chechens were Russian-dominant bilinguals, having imperfect or only partial command of Chechen. A rehabilitation of Chechen language and culture has characterized the era from 1956 to the present. Although fluency and literacy in Chechen is on the rise, the influence of Russian is still largely prevalent. At present, it is difficult to assess the present status of the language.

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Editor). 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Edition. Dallas: SIL International.

Nichols, Johanna and Ronald L. Sprouse. 2003. Documenting Lexicons: Chechen and Ingush. In Peter Austin (ed.), Language Documentation and Description, vol. 1. London: SOAS.

Nichols, Johanna and Arbi Vagapov. 2004. Chechen-English and English-Chechen Dictionary. London: RoutledgeCurzon.

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