LINGUIST List 6.22

Fri 13 Jan 1995

Disc: Chechen

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  1. Johanna Nichols, Chechen

Message 1: Chechen

Date: Thu, 12 Jan 1995 13:55:50 Chechen
From: Johanna Nichols <>
Subject: Chechen

Who are the Chechen?

Johanna Nichols
University of California, Berkeley

Author's note: I have been doing linguistic field work on Chechen and its
close relative Ingush for many years. Though I am not an ethnographer or
historian, I have tried to bring together here some general information
about the Chechen people and their language in order to increase public
awareness of the people and their situation, and to put a human face on a
people of great dignity, refinement, and courage who have paid heavily for
their resistance to conquest and assimilation.

This paper may be copied freely. If you disseminate it electronically or
print it out yourself (which you are welcome to do), reformatting (font,
spacing, etc.) is OK but please do not edit it.
Fax: 510 642-6220 Phone (510) 642-2979

Introduction. The Chechens and their western neighbors the Ingush are
distinct ethnic groups with distinct languages, but so closely related and
so similar that it is convenient to describe them together.
 The term "Chechen" is a Russian ethnonym taken from the name of a
lowlands Chechen village; "Chechnya" is derived from that. (Both words are
accented on the last syllable in Russian.) This term evidently entered
Russian from a Turkic language, probably Kumyk (spoken in the northern and
eastern Caucasian plain). The Chechens call themselves Nokhchi (singular
Nokhchuo). Similarly, "Ingush" is not the self-designation but a Russian
ethnonym based on a village name; the Ingush call themselves Ghalghay.

Demography. 1989 census figures: 956,879 Chechen; 237,438 Ingush. The
Chechens are the largest North Caucasian group and the second largest
Caucasian group (after the Georgians).

Location, settlement. The Chechen and Ingush lands lie just to the east of
the principal road crossing the central Caucasus (via the Darial Pass),
extending from the foothills and plains into alpine highlands. The
lowlands enjoy fertile soil, ample rainfall, a long growing season, and a
small oilfield. Neighbors to the east are the various peoples of
Daghestan (many of them speaking languages related to Chechen); in the
plains to the north, the Turkic-speaking Kumyk and (as of the last three
centuries) Russians; to the west the Ingush and to their west the
Ossetians, who speak a language of the Iranian branch of Indo-European; to
the south (across the central Caucasus range) the southern Ossetians and
the Georgians.
 There are two true cities in Chechen and Ingush territory: Grozny
(pop. about 400,000 until 1995), the modern Chechen capital founded as a
Russian fort during the Russian conquest of the Caucasus; and Vladikavkaz
(pop. about 300,000; known as Ordzhonikidze in Soviet times) in the Ingush
highlands at the Ingush-Ossetic territorial boundary, also originally a
Russian military fort and founded to control the Darial pass. Nazran in
the Ingush lowlands was traditionally and is now a large and important
market town. The cities had substantial Russian and other
non-Chechen-Ingush population; Vladikavkaz was mixed Ingush and Ossetic
with significant numbers of Russians and Georgians. (Groznyj has now been
destroyed and mostly depopulated by Russian bombing. Vladikavkaz and the
adjacent Ingush lands were ethnically cleansed of Ingush in late 1992.)
All Russian governments -- czars, Soviets, post-Soviet Russia -- have used
various means to remove Chechen and Ingush population from economically
important areas and to encourage settlement there by Russians and Russian
Cossacks; hence the mixed population of the cities and lowlands.

Language. The Caucasus has been famed since antiquity for the sheer
number and diversity of its languages and for the exotic grammatical
structures of the language families indigenous there. This diversity
testifies to millennia of generally peaceable relations among autonomous
ethnic groups.
 Chechen and Ingush, together with Batsbi or Tsova-Tush (a moribund
minority language of Georgia) make up the Nakh branch of the
Nakh-Daghestanian, or Northeast Caucasian, language family. There are over
30 languages in the Northeast Caucasian family, most of them spoken in
Daghestan just to the east of Chechnya. The split of the Nakh branch from
the rest of the family took place about 5000-6000 years ago (thus the
Nakh-Daghestanian family is comparable in age to Indo-European, the
language family ancestral to English, French, Russian, Greek, Hindi, etc.),
though the split of Chechen from Ingush probably dates back only to the
middle ages. The entire family is indigenous to the Caucasus mountains and
has no demonstrable relations to any language group either in or out of the
Caucasus. Like most indigenous Caucasian languages Chechen has a wealth of
consonants, including uvular and pharyngeal sounds like those of Arabic and
glottalized or ejective consonants like those of many native American
languages; and a large vowel system somewhat resembling that of Swedish or
German. Like its sister languages Chechen has extensive inflectional
morphology including a dozen nominal cases and several gender classes, and
forms long and complex sentences by chaining participial clauses together.
 The case system is ergative, i.e. the subject of a transitive verb appears
in an oblique case and the direct object is in the nominative, as is the
subject of an intransitive verb (as in Basque); verbs take no person
agreement, but some of them agree in gender with the direct object or
intransitive subject.
 97% or more of the Chechens claim Chechen as their first language,
though most also speak Russian, generally quite fluently. Chechen and
Ingush are so close to each other that with some practice a speaker of one
has fair comprehension of the other, and where the two languages are in
contact they are used together: a Chechen addresses an Ingush in Chechen,
the Ingush replies in Ingush, and communication proceeds more or less
 Chechen was not traditionally a written language. An orthography
using the Russian alphabet was created in the 1930's and is used for
various kinds of publication, although for most Chechens the chief vehicle
of literacy is Russian. Traditionally, as in most North Caucasian
societies, many individuals were bilingual or multilingual, using an
important lowlands language (e.g. Kumyk, spoken in market towns and
prestigious as its speakers were early converts to Islam) for inter-ethnic
communication; any literacy was in Arabic. Russian has now displaced both
Kumyk and Arabic in these functions. Particularly if the Chechen and
Ingush economies continue to be destroyed and unemployment and mass
homelessness continue to undermine the social structure, there is danger
that Chechen and Ingush will be functionally reduced to household languages
and will then yield completely to Russian, with concomitant loss of much of
the cultural heritage.

History. The Chechens have evidently been in or near their present
territory for some 6000 years and perhaps much longer; there is fairly
seamless archeological continuity for the last 8000 years or more in
central Daghestan, suggesting that the Nakh-Daghestanian language family is
long indigenous. The Caucasian highlands were apparently relatively
populous and prosperous in ancient times. From the late middle ages until
the 19th century, a worldwide cooling phase known as the Little Ice Age
caused glacial advances and shortened growing seasons in the alpine
highlands, weakening the highland economies and triggering migrations to
the lowlands and abandonment of some alpine villages. This period of
economic hardship coincided with the Russian conquest of the Caucasus which
lasted from the late 1500's to the mid-1800's.
 In all of recorded history and inferable prehistory the Chechens
(and for that matter the Ingush) have never undertaken battle except in
defense. The Russian conquest of the Caucasus was difficult and bloody,
and the Chechens and Ingush with their extensive lowlands territory and
access to the central pass were prime targets and were among the most
tenacious defenders. Russia destroyed lowlands villages and deported,
exiled, or slaughtered civilian population, forcing capitulation of the
highlands. Numerous refugees migrated or were deported to various Muslim
countries of the middle east, and to this day there are Chechen populations
in Jordan and Turkey. Since then there have been various Chechen
rebellions against Russian and Soviet power, as well as resistance to
collectivization, anti-religious campaigns, and Russification.
 In 1944 the Chechens and Ingush, together with the Karachay-Balkar,
Crimean Tatars, and other nationalities were deported en masse to
Kazakhstan and Siberia, losing at least one-quarter and perhaps half of
their population in transit. Though "rehabilitated" in 1956 and allowed to
return in 1957, they lost land, economic resources, and civil rights; since
then, under both Soviet and post-Soviet governments, they have been the
objects of (official and unofficial) discrimination and discriminatory
public discourse. In recent years, Russian media have depicted the
Chechen nation and/or nationality as thugs and bandits responsible for
organized crime and street violence in Russia.
 In late 1992 Russian tanks and troops, sent to the north Caucasus
ostensibly as peacekeepers in an ethnic dispute between Ingush and
Ossetians over traditional Ingush lands politically incorporated into North
Ossetia after the 1944 deportation, forcibly removed the Ingush population
from North Ossetia and destroyed the Ingush villages there; there were many
deaths and there are now said to be up to 60,000 refugees in Ingushetia
(about one-quarter of the total Ingush population). In developments
reminiscent of today's invasion of Chechnya, in the weeks leading up to the
action the Ingush were depicted (inaccurately) in regional media as heavily
armed and poised for a large-scale and organized attack on Ossetians, and
the Russian military once deployed appears to have undertaken ethnic
cleansing at least partly on its own initiative. (My only sources of
information for this paragraph are Russian and western news reports.
Helsinki Watch is preparing a report for publication in early 1995.)
 The invasion of Chechnya presently underway has meant great human
suffering for all residents of the Chechen lowlands, including Russians,
but only the Chechens are at risk of ethnic cleansing, wholesale economic
ruin, and loss of linguistic and cultural heritage.

Religion. The Chechens and Ingush are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school,
having converted in the late 17th to early 19th centuries. Islam is now,
as it has been since the conversion, moderate but strongly held and a
central component of the culture and the ethnic identity.

Economy, customs. Traditionally, the lowlands Chechen were grain farmers
and the highlanders raised sheep. At the time of Russian contact the
lowlands were wealthy and produced a grain surplus, while the highlands
were not self-sufficient in food and traded wool and eggs for lowlands
 Chechen social structure and ethnic identity rest on principles of
family and clan honor, respect for and deference to one's elders,
hospitality, formal and dignified relations between families and clans, and
courteous and formal public and private behavior.
 Kinship and clan structure are patriarchal, but women have full
social and professional equality and prospects for financial independence
equivalent to those of men.
 Academics, writers, artists, and intellectuals in general are well
versed in the cultures of both the European and the Islamic worlds, and the
society as a whole can be said to regard both of these heritages as their
own together with the indigenous north Caucasian artistic and intellectual

Social organization. Until the Russian conquest the Chechens were an
independent nation with their own language and territory but no formal
political organization. Villages were autonomous, as were clans. Villages
had mutual defense obligations in times of war, and clans had mutual
support relations that linked them into larger clan confederations (which
generally coincided with dialects). Each clan was headed by a respected
elder. There were no social classes and no differences of rank apart from
those of age, kinship, and earned social honor.

Select bibliography

Anonymous. 1992. Ethnic cleansing comes to Russia. The Economist,
November 28, 1992, p. 60.

Blanch, Lesley. 1960. The Sabres of Paradise. New York: Viking.

Comrie, Bernard. 1981. The Languages of the Soviet Union. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Conquest, Robert. 1970. The Nation Killers: The Soviet Deportation of
Nationalities. London: Macmillan.

Critchlow, James. 1991. "Punished peoples" of the Soviet Union: The
continuing legacy of Stalin's deportations. Helsinki Watch Report. New
York-Washington: Human Rights Watch.

Friedrich, Paul, and Norma Diamond, eds. 1994. Encyclopedia of World
Cultures, vol. VI: Russia and Eurasia/China. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co.

Gamkrelidze, T. V., and T. E. Gudava. [Various dates.] Caucasian
languages. Encyclopedia Britannica (e.g. in 1979 edition, Macropedia, vol.
3, pp. 1011-15; in 1992 edition, vol. 22, pp. 736-40, under 'Languages of
the world').

Nekrich, Aleksandr M. 1978. The Punished Peoples. New York: Norton.

Nichols, Johanna. 1994. Chechen. Ingush. In Rieks Smeets, ed., The
Indigenous Languages of the Caucasus, vol. 4: Northeast Caucasian
Languages, pp. 1-77 (Chechen), 79-145 (Ingush). Delmar, NY: Caravan Books.

Wixman, Ronald. 1980. Language Aspects of Ethnic Pattern and Processes in
the North Caucasus. (University of Chicago Department of Geography
Research Paper no. 191.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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