Burning languages

The appalling war in the Caucasus is the subject of an article “Barriers are steep and linguistic” by Ellen Barry in the New York Times, 24/8/08 [thanks Philip!]. She looks at it from the point of the view of the languages of the region (mostly Georgian – about 4 million speakers, Abkhaz and Osetin with about 100,000 speakers each according to Ethnologue), and interviews several linguists (One of them, Bill Poser, has a useful post (plus Map! ) on Language Log about the linguistic background to the article, which has attracted some interesting comments on linguistic diversity and political clashes ).
Most of the quotations from linguists show their helpless grief over the fate of the people whose languages they study. There’s the odd statement to take issue with – e.g. the claimed lack of language documentation in the Soviet era. It was no worse than in America and Australia at the same time, and for some (not all) small languages in the USSR it was better – they got orthographies, material published in their own languages and recognition.
Here’s how the article ends.

[Anna] Dybo has yet to hear from a library in Tskhinvali, which held a magisterial lexicon of the Ossetian language that was compiled over the course of many years. It’s a single manuscript, never transferred to a computer.
She is not sure, she said, but she thinks it burned up on Aug. 8.”

Who is to blame for the chaos that caused deaths, dispossession, the loss of much infrastructure, and, perhaps, the loss of a major dictionary?
Everyone, says a sad article in the Economist (A scripted war, pp. 22-24, 16th-22nd August). Russians, Georgians, Ossetians. But the Ossetians and Georgians are the big losers.

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