Vladimir Dal'’s Tolkovyi slovar' zhivago velikorusskago iazyka (1863-6) as Epistemological Laboratory

Kristin Vitalich, University of California, Los Angeles

Research on 19th century dictionaries has most typically consisted of lexicological studies performed by historical linguists – an approach in which the dictionary is valuable merely as the vehicle for a particular lexical corpus. In this paper, however, I approach the dictionary as a socio-historical document, the product of an interaction of the lexicographer’s accumulated socio-linguistic dispositions and the demands of the changing literary and linguistic markets in which he found himself.

This paper makes a methodological distinction between the history of ideas and the history of knowledge. While intellectual history privileges the idea itself and it traces its evolution through different historical periods, a Foucauldian “archeology of knowledge” allows one to see a new way of thinking (the “episteme”) come into existence. I undertake a dig of my own with the first edition of Vladimir Dal'’s Tolkovyi slovar' zhivago velikorusskago iazyka as my site, its entries artifacts of epistemological metamorphosis. I argue that the text reveals the changes in the understanding of knowledge and language’s relationship to it taking place in Russian thought in the second half of the 19th century.

The ethnographic virtuosity of Dal'’s dictionary demonstrates a dazzling breadth of material interests. The physical realia its corpus describes range from flora and fauna to specialized professional tools and various facets of the folk customs of peoples from the far-reaches of the Russian empire. Dal' took equal pains to paint a broad picture of the culture of Russian speech, giving both okan'e and akan'e pronunciations where appropriate, dialecticisms with their geographical provenance, sounds for calling animals and numerous exclamations with explanations of the emotions they express. But while the dictionary places this verbal material in its appropriate communicative context, it devotes little attention to elaborating a normative or descriptive grammatical framework for its entry words. Dal' famously “nests” the dictionary’s entries based on visual similarity rather than semantic or grammatical field. Moreover, he effortlessly identifies what belongs geographically to the Russian empire with what belongs to the Russian language, with the result that linguistically distinct items (such as words from Tatar, or “Siberian” that would not have been borrowed into Russian at the time) are included in this dictionary of the Russian language. Instead of a genetic relationship in language, the entries in Dal'’s lexicon share a bond rooted in physical or geographical proximity.

Dal' began work on his dictionary in the 1830s and continued to collect words until his magnum opus was published in the 1860s. Given the decades the dictionary’s composition covers, the text offers a unique glimpse into the changing theories of knowledge particular to the periods it spans. With my sketch of the dictionary’s lexicon I hope to demonstrate that, though Dal' entertains a romantic notion of language as an independent, self-regulating organism, he ultimately settles into a comfortable positivist view of language as subordinate to the physical world.


Foucault, Michel. The Archeology of Knowledge. NY: Pantheon, 1972.