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On this day: Russia in a click

Vladimir Dahl (artist Vasilij Grigorievich Perov) Vladimir Dahl (artist Vasilij Grigorievich Perov)

3 May

On May 3, 1862, Vladimir Dahl, the outstanding Russian lexicographer and ethnologist presented his legendary Explanatory Dictionary of the Live Great Russian Language to the Society of the Russian Language Enthusiasts. The dictionary, almost 150 years old, which enjoys an original structure and rich content, still has not lost its acuteness and is considered one of the major Russian lexicology resources.

Vladimir Dahl was an ethnic German, but his father, having a great love of Russia himself, managed to pass it on to his son. At the age of 13 Vladimir was admitted to the cadet corps, training as a marine, and in 1825, leaving military service, he entered university to study medicine. First a marine, and then a field doctor, he got a chance to travel a lot all over the country, observing habits and the ways of people from different Russian regions and listening to their speech.

Dahl picked up his first word from his coachman in 1819, who was taking him to Ukraine and, in his own words, “subconsciously laid the foundation of his future dictionary.” Ever since, no matter where Dahl went or whatever job he took, he kept picking up regional vocabulary and folklore. Pushkin, who Dahl was friends with, on learning about Dahl’s passion, suggested that he structured all of his material and put it together as a dictionary.

Along with the vocabulary, Dahl also collected fairy tales and proverbs which he later also compiled in books.

Dahl also wrote a number of stories, describing the life of people he had observed in his trips, but it was the dictionary that his country remembers him by. He completed his work in 1861, after 53 years of hard work. The number of words totaled 200,000, along with over 30,000 Russian proverbs, sayings, and riddles.

The dictionary was based on the live Russian language and its regional dialects. It included samples of written and spoken language of the 19th century, as well as abounded in a very detailed description of slang and terminology used by people of different trades.

The dictionary was mostly example-based and didn’t provide sufficient theoretical material. However, it serves as an authentic historical resource, as it contains articles about everyday life, traditions, and beliefs of the Russian people.

A strong opponent to loaning foreign words, Dahl liked to replace them with his self-made equivalents and put them in his dictionary, claiming he had heard them somewhere. When the dictionary came out, he had to admit that some words did appear as a work of his own mind.

The first volume of the dictionary was first published in 1863, while the publication of the other three was sponsored personally by Emperor Alexander II. The Academy of Science and the Geographic Society awarded Dahl medals for his work. He was also unanimously elected an honorary member of the Academy of Sciences and granted several prizes.

The dictionary was republished six times, the third and the fourth publication restructured by another Russian linguist Baudouin de Courtenay, which made the dictionary easier to use, but robbed it of its originality.

Dahl never stopped working at his dictionary. Even at death’s door, he still asked his daughter to jot down a couple of words he had recently heard from the servants.

Dahl’s contribution to the Russian lexicon is immense, as his vast collection of folk tales and proverbs are still a subject of research. People still refer to his dictionary as one of the most reliable lexical sources. The amount of work he had carried out to complete the dictionary exceeds that done by any other researcher alone. According to academician Pavel Melnikov, “in 50 years Dahl managed to do what an entire academy would normally do over a century.”