In Memoriam:

Catherine Vakar Chvany


Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 63, no.1 (Spring 2019), pp. 115–118

Catherine V. Chvany, Slavic linguist and long-time Russian language teacher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was born in Paris to Nicholas (Nikolaj Platonovič) Vakar and Gertrude Clafton Vakar, émigrés from Russia. The family had neither Soviet nor French citizenship, and held League of Nations (“Nansen”) passports for the stateless. Statelessness was then no bar to education; Catherine and her sister Anna, two years younger, attended French schools, and later Catherine would sometimes refer to French as her real first language. Most of her linguistic work, however, and nearly all her teaching centered around Russian.

The family was fortunate enough to meet the American social worker Martha Sharp, who with her husband Waitstill Sharp of the Unitarian Service Committee helped many refugees flee first Czechoslovakia in 1939 and later France in 1940. The Sharps are best known—and honored by Yad Vashem—for saving important Jewish figures from Nazi-occupied Europe, but also found ways for stateless and other endangered persons to find refuge in the United States. Catherine and Anna were able to go through Spain and sail from Portugal in December 1940, and their parents followed the next year.

Catherine entered Radcliffe with the class of 1950, but took time off to marry and bring up three children before returning to graduate with the class of 1963. To her fellow linguistics majors and Slavic students, including the present writer, Katya (as she was known to all) seemed nearly a rovesnica, as filled with youthful fervor for our intersecting fields as we were. To portray the ferment in Cambridge of the 1960s, Katya and I once quoted Wordsworth on the beginning of the French Revolution:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!—Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
(W. Browne and C. V. Chvany, “In Honor of Leonard H. Babby.” Journal of Slavic Linguistics 10.1–2 (2002): 5–15.)

Harvard’s Slavic Department was then educating many graduate students in Slavic linguistics in addition to the more traditional area of Russian literature. Its Linguistics Department, too, was modernizing, having recently changed its name from Comparative Philology. Two miles away at MIT, Noam Chomsky’s newly formed linguistics program took in grad students as partners in the elaboration of his syntax-centered, mathematically-minded approach to linguistic theory, which came to be called generative-transformational grammar. Roman Jakobson lectured at both institutions, drawing audiences for his status as a living link with Maiakovskii and the Russian Formalists but also for his bringing Prague-School structural linguistics and the phenomena of Slavic languages to the attention of American linguists. Morris Halle, at first a Jakobson student, was central in extending generative ideas to phonology and morphology, and did much of his work on Russian material.

Katya Chvany after 1963 went directly into the Slavic graduate program at Harvard. As the title of her 1970 Ph.D. thesis, Deep Structures with dolžen and moč’, shows, she applied concepts from generative grammar to the analysis of Russian syntax. Previous results on English modal verbs led her, not to Anglicize the Russian data (Russian has no modals in the strict sense), but to ask new questions about it, observe ambiguities in the structures of Russian sentences, and draw relevant comparisons. Her widely-reviewed 1975 book On the Syntax of BE-Sentences in Russian (Slavica Publishers) and a large number of articles in the 1970s and 1980s continued her program of applying generative-grammar concepts to improve research on Russian and applying Russian results to advance the theory of syntax. One way to summarize her conclusions is to say that different uses of the same word are not mere different uses: they have different characteristics and fit into distinct sentence structures.

Since 1967, and until her becoming Professor Emerita in 1993, Chvany had been teaching Russian at MIT, after a one-year stint at Wellesley. The physical distance between Building 14, the home of the Foreign Languages and Literatures Department, and Building 20, where Linguistics was housed, led to her receiving less appreciation from her colleagues under Chomsky than she had a right to expect, as did, to be honest, a certain disdain they felt for practical language teachers and practical applications of linguistics in general. But her generatively-oriented works were much appreciated by a broader, even worldwide, network of syntacticians that she dubbed “Siblings in Slavic Syntax.” Her personal example, and her generous mentoring of numerous women colleagues and students outside MIT, was a force that went far to improve the gender balance between women and men in Slavic linguistics in North America. Lingering biases among both American scholars and older East Europeans had clearly skewed the field in favor of men before the 1980s. (One heartening measure of the situation in more recent decades is a count of editors and authors in the published proceedings of the annual Formal Approaches to Slavic Linguistics meetings since the first volume (1992) Women editors slightly outnumber male colleagues, and the proportion of women authors exceeds 60% and rises year by year.)

Besides her numerous shorter publications (some of which are reprinted and most of which are listed in the book Olga T. Yokoyama and Emily Klenin, eds., Selected Essays of Catherine V. Chvany, Slavica Publishers, 1997), Katya contributed to the cohesiveness of the profession by coediting two influential collections of articles: Richard D. Brecht and Catherine V. Chvany, eds., Slavic Transformational Syntax (Ann Arbor: Dept. of Slavic, University of Michigan, 1974) and Catherine V. Chvany and Richard D. Brecht, eds., Morphosyntax in Slavic (Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1980).

She, further, helped to assemble and publish three Festschrifts: Anna Lisa Crone and Catherine V. Chvany, eds., New Studies in Russian Language and Literature (Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1987) honoring Bayara Aroutunova, who taught advanced Russian to generations of scholars at Harvard; Elena Semeka-Pankratov et al., eds., Studies in Poetics (Columbus: Slavica, 1995), a commemorative volume for the literary and structuralist scholar Krystyna Pomorska (1928–1986); and Catherine V. Chvany, Stefana Dimitrova, and Charles E. Gribble, eds., V.A. Zvegintsev, In Memoriam. International Journal of Slavic Linguistics and Poetics, Vol. 39–40, 1996. Zvegintsev was head of Structural and Applied Linguistics at Moscow State University until his death in 1988, and through his translation series Novoe v lingvistike did much to bring Western European and even American approaches to the attention of Soviet colleagues and students.

The Selected Essays, besides generative-transformational studies, contain several chapters inspired by Jakobson. While those in Part IV: Linguistic Poetics and Narrative Structure are very much in the tradition of Jakobsonian treatments of literary works, Part III: Modeling Grammatical Categories shows that Chvany’s thorough understanding of Jakobson’s approach to linguistics enabled her to formulate severe criticisms of his results so to speak from the inside. He had posited a “second genitive” (G2, e.g. čaju ‘some tea’) and a “second locative” (L2, v snegú  ‘in the snow’) thus giving Russian eight full-fledged cases which could be arranged in a cubic pattern, but she contended on good evidence that the pattern is flawed and that the opposition between G1 and G2, L1 and L2, is not similar to the opposition between any two of the other cases, say between nominative and accusative.

Chvany’s works mentioned above concerned Russian, but a strong secondary interest was Bulgarian, as several articles in Selected Essays will show. Appreciative colleagues in Bulgaria appointed her to the editorial board of their journal Sâpostavitelno ezikoznanie.

A video interview with Catherine in the University of Chicago’s “Lives in Linguistics” series, conducted by the general linguists John R. “Haj” Ross and John Goldsmith on May 11, 2009, can be seen at

In 2016 the grandson of Rev. and Mrs. Sharp, Artemis Joukowsky, together with the filmmaker Ken Burns, created the documentary “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War” for Public Broadcasting, an eloquent reminder of our duty to help those who need refuge, whoever they may be and whoever we may be. Joukowsky wrote the accompanying book under the same title. Catherine is in the film and is mentioned in the book. In the 8 minute, 27 second trailer, the Vakars’ names are seen at 1:00 and Catherine speaks about her memories several times, notably 1:40 to 2:00.

Catherine Chvany’s parents, once they were settled in America, had their own contributions to make to the broad Slavic field. Inspection of Wikipedia shows that “Cvchvany” created the pages for Nicholas Vakar and Gertrude Vakar in 2010, but since then both pages have been revised and greatly expanded by other hands. Nicholas P. Vakar (1894–1970) taught Russian at Wheaton College in southeastern Massachusetts and then for three years at Ohio State University. Unusually for an émigré Russian, he took a special interest in Belarus and its people, publishing Belorussia: the Making of a Nation and A Bibliographical Guide to Belorussia (both Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956). He was one of the first to compile a word-frequency dictionary of Russian: A Word Count of Spoken Russian: The Soviet Usage (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1966). Gertrude C. Vakar (1904–1973) translated English and French literature into Russian and, after coming to the United States, translated several influential books from Russian to English, notably Vygotsky’s Thought and Language (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1962 and later editions). After her death Catherine and others published a volume of her Russian-language poetry: Gertruda Vakar, Stixotvorenija (East Lansing, Mich.: Russian Language Journal 1984).

Catherine’s husband, Lawrence P. (Larry) Chvany (1924–2004), was an information systems engineer and a devotee and organizer of choral music. He had family connections of his own with American Slavdom. An uncle, Peter J. Wilhousky, a choral conductor in New York, arranged a Ukrainian song “Ščedryk” to create the English-language “Carol of the Bells.” Larry’s mother Ann Chvany was the long-time secretary of the Harvard Slavic Department, known to all as “Mrs. Chvany.”

Apart from her Siblings in Slavic Syntax and three dozen generations of students of MIT’s Russian classes, Catherine is survived by three children and multiple grandchildren and great-grandchildren; her sister Anna, a haiku poet in Canada, died in 2017.

Wayles Browne, Cornell University