When learning Russian, it is impossible not to refer to an explanatory dictionary. The most extensive and original one, which has no equivalent in other nations, is “Толковый словарь живого великорусского языка” Владимира Ивановича Даля (Vladimir Ivanovich Dal’s “Explanatory Dictionary of the Live Great Russian Language”).
Vladimir Ivanovich’s father was Danish and his mother was German. They moved to Russia (then the Russian Empire) after their wedding. Dal was born in 1801, in Luhansk, a small provincial town situated in Ukraine. The region was part of the Русская колонизация (Russian colonisation), where Russian was imposed.
This was not a problem for Vladimir Ivanovich, because the whole family spoke Russian at home. So that, несмотря на происхождение, он всегда считал Россию своим отечеством (despite his origins, he always considered Russia is homeland). As an adult, he could speak no less than six languages.
В 13 лет он поступил в Петербургской Морской кадетский корпус (at the age of 13, he entered the St. Petersburg Naval Cadet School), and five years later was an officer of the Black Sea Fleet. Departing from St. Petersburg to serve in the Navy, Vladimir Ivanovich решил по пути собирать народные обычаи, сказки, пословицы и поговорки (decided to collect folk customs, tales, proverbs and sayings on his way), trying to find out typical words and expressions from the locals. Until his death, he wrote down everything that seemed interesting to him about the living Russian language.
After spending several years in the Navy, V. I. Dal resigned and graduated from the medical institut at Dorpat University. В качестве военного врача (as a military doctor), he participated in the Russo-Turkish war (1828-1829) and the campaign against Poland (1831-1832), and was rewarded for his courage by receiving the order of Vladimir the Great.
At 30, Dal decided to take up literature. He settled in St. Petersburg and became acquainted with many Russian writers, Pushkin, Gogol, Krylov, etc. and began writing fairy tales and stories. Имя его скоро стало известным в литературных кругах (he soon gain popularity in literary circles). Alexander Pushkin put on verse some of his unpublished tales, which are now among the most familiar texts in Russian. As a doctor and a friend, Vladimir Ivanovich looked after the great poet during the last hours of his life.
His “Толковый словарь живого великорусского языка” (Explanatory Dictionary of the Live Great Russian Language) was first published in four huge volumes between 1863 and 1866 and contained more than 200 000 words. Few years later “Пословицы русского народа” (The sayings and Bywords of the Russian people) with not less than 30 000 entries was edited.
Vladimir Ivanovich travelled a lot, went to visit ordinary people, recording songs, riddles, beliefs. Though he as a great collector, he was a poor fellow when it came to classified his recordings and it is not until the third and fourth edition that Beaudouin de Courtenay found a satisfactory order.
Until his death in September 1872, he worked on his dictionary, which is an indispensable instrument to all linguists.