Some Breton Words in the Dictionary of the Russian Empress

Anna Muradova
Russian Academy of Sciences


The first mention of the Breton language in the Russian linguistical literature was made in the XVIII century when the Empress Catherine II decided to make a wide research in order to compose a dictionary where all the languages in the world would be represented. This work was carried out by a German scientist Peter Simon Pallas (1741–1811). He was the head of the Russian Academy of Sciences in the years 1768–1774, and he also took part in several expeditions in which he studied many regions of Russia, including Southern Siberia. The languages of the peoples living in different parts of Russia were largely represented in his study, and the European languages were also collected, assembled into different groups.

The first edition of the dictionary, Vocabularia Linguarum Totius Orbis (“Сравнительные словари всех языков и наречий, собранные десницею Всевысочайшей Особы”) was published in 1787–1789. This edition contained 185 entries from 142 Asiatic and 51 European languages. The second edition was published in 1790–1791, and it contained the information on 272 languages and dialects, and 273 entries were represented in this edition.

The Celtic languages were well represented in both editions as follows: Celtic (it is not clear what were the specifically Celtic languages), Breton, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and Cornish. The information for the Breton language was made available by several intermediaries: some Russian words were translated into Latin, after that – into French and transmitted to the ambassador of France, Le Compte de Segur. He sent the French words list to Baron de Breteuil, who employed the Intendant of Brittany Antoine-François Bertrand de Moleville. De Mollevile was not a Breton speaker and his task was to find someone who could do this job. Even in the XVIII century it seemed difficult to find anyone who was capable of providing a translation. This was a paradox: the Breton language was largely spoken by that time in the Western part of the peninsula (Lower Brittany).

One of the difficulties was the absence of a “standard” Breton, and of a “standard” Breton spelling, the four dialects being too different from one another (therefore each author who was writing in Breton used his own variant of spelling). De Mollevile seemed to have had some difficulties to find out which of the dialects was the “correct” one. So he sent the list to Le Goazre in Qimper (where the Cornouaille dialect was spoken) and to Le Bricquir Dumezir in Lannoin (the Tregor dialect). Meanwhile, in order to find out the “correct” forms, the translators seemed to use Gregor Rostrenen’s dictionary (1732). The two versions (from Lannion or from Qimper) were sent to Pallas, and the differences between them made it possible to indicate two Breton forms for one Russian word.

It is impossible to use Vocabularia Linguarum Totius Orbis for modern Celtic studies as all the foreign words used in the dictionary were transcribed into Cyrillic. Therefore we cannot make any conclusions with regard to the authentic spelling of these words. Meanwhile, this document is precious as it provides the first mention of Breton in Russia.

Studia Celto-Slavica 1: 143–148 (2006)

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