Konstantinas Sirvydas and his Contribution to the Development of the Lithuanian Language

Dictionarium trium linguarum – the first dictionary of the Polish-Latin-Lithuanian languages was published in Vilnius around the year 1620. It had a profound impact on the development and fostering of the Lithuanian literary language. The author of the dictionary was the Jesuit Konstantinas Sirvydas.

Konstantinas Sirvydas (Constantin Szyrwid, c. 1580–1631, Vilnius) was raised in the family of poor gentry in the environs of Anykščiai. He received education in Vilnius Jesuit College. Having decided to choose a religious path in life and become a monk, he entered the Jesuit novitiate in Riga. Among the other students at the novitiate were Jerzy Jurgiewicz (Lith. Jurgis Jurgevičius), Merkelis Daugėla – Dowgiało, Jan Jamielkowski and others, the Jesuites who became known for their outstanding contribution to the promoting the Lithuanian language. Shortly after commencement of his studies Sirvydas started to excel among other students and was granted the opportunity to continue his studies in Tartu (Dorpat) college. However, due to the turmoil which started in the country, he was forced to go to Nyasvizh, where he both pursued his studies (1601–1603) and taught in the local college. From 1603 until 1606, Sirvydas continued his studies in Pultusk (Poland), where he studied philosophy. He finally completed his studies in the Academy of Vilnius (1606–1610).

Linguistic and cultural bridge

Upon completing his studies, Konstantinas Sirvydas, known for his exceptional gift of eloquence, was appointed as a pulpeteer in St. John’s church in Vilnius. His responsibility was to deliver sermons in the Lithuanian language. It should be noted that shortly afterwards Sirvydas left Vilnius for Nyasvizh, where he stayed for a couple of years. Finally, in 1613, he returned to Vilnius and stayed here for a decade, delivering sermons both in Lithuanian and Polish languages twice a day from the pulpit of St. John’s church (for some time, he also delivered sermons in St. Casimir’s church as well). He also taught theology almost for ten years (during the twenties of the 17th century) in Vilnius Academy. Sirvydas is also believed to have presided over the society of the Lithuanian language, established at the Academy in 1620. Konstantinas Sirvydas stood out as a most hard-working and dedicated person. He worked with great intensity without sparing himself, despite the fact that his health was deteriorating. Before long, the talented preacher passed away.

After his health had seriously been impaired, Konstantinas Sirvydas devoted most of his time to writing, bequeathing to the future generations three major works, without which the maturity of the Lithuanian language of those days and its further development would be hardly comprehensible.

The first and by far the most outstanding and valuable piece of work by Konstantinas Sirvydas, is the tri-lingual dictionary of the Polish-Latin-Lithuanian languages, compiled by him. Sirvydas’ lexicon is often mentioned as a milestone in the standardization and codification of the Lithuanian language.

The implementation of this great idea implies that the author must have displayed, apart from the native language skills, an excellent knowledge of the grammatical intricacies of the Latin, Polish, Ruthenian, Greek and Hebrew languages.

No doubt, trying to find one or another word, a more accurate Lithuanian counterpart or a synonym must have been almost an insurmountable task for one person, requiring many time-consuming efforts, diligence and a good understanding of the meaning of the words. Working on the dictionary, Konstantinas Sirvydas regarded the quadrilingual dictionary compiled by Nicolaus Volckmarus (published in Gdansk in 1613) as his source, taking Polish and Latin words from it. The dictionary compiled by him was primarily targeted at young people, speaking and studying the Lithuanian language, helping them to understand and learn Polish and Latin languages.

The dictionary is thought to have helped foreign clergy, working in the Lithuanian parishes, to learn the Lithuanian language, with the aim of bringing them closer together with the local congregations.

Open treasures of the language

The first edition of the dictionary appeared in 1620 (The first edition contained approximately 6000 words). However, even then due to its insignificant volume this edition did not quite meet the expectations of both Sirvydas and his superiors at the Academy Vilnensis. The second edition, published in 1631, was expanded to include almost 11,000 words. As is mentioned in the foreword to the third edition, the copies of the second edition quickly disappeared from circulation.  After Sirvydas’ death (most probably), in 1642, J. Jaknowicz slightly revised, supplemented and compiled the third edition of the dictionary (containing about 10 000 Lithuanian words, among them numerous modern-sounding words (camel – kupranugaris, kitchen – virtuvė). In this edition, the words were more accurate and better chosen, compared to the previous editions.  This edition of the dictionary was repeated two more times (1677, 1713). Thus, in total, five editions of the dictionary were released.

The dictionary compiled by Konstantinas Sirvydas testifies the efforts to preserve the status of the Lithuanian language and enhance the quality of Lithuanianness.

Sirvydas’ dictionary disclosed the richness of the language and illustrated the abundance of its synonyms. Furthermore, it was the only dictionary of the Lithuanian language, published in the current territory of Lithuania until the end of the 19th century. The abovementioned dictionary became a significant reference not only to the later compilers of the Lithuanian (19th century) and Lithuania Minor (18th century) language dictionaries but also to compilers of Latvian (17th century) and Polish (18th century) language dictionaries. It is highly probable that the dictionary in question became a primer and the most important book for many individuals pursuing their studies, unfolding the rich granary of the Lithuanian language.

The second significant work by Konstantinas Sirvydas is a collection of his sermons, a two volume – Punktai sakymų (Gospel Points). The collection was published in Lithuanian and later translated by the author into the Polish language as Punkty kazan. This is a large volume work, containing summaries of Sunday and festive sermons, called by the author himself Points. The collection of sermons was targeted at preachers. Having gained a lot of experience in preaching sermons, Sirvydas felt it his duty to help other preachers who were just embarking on their career, offering them the following advice: “Those who want to master the Lithuanian language, should listen to the individuals speaking fluent Lithuanian and get used to regular accentuation.” The sermons written by him are characterized by a lively, emotional, expressive language and an abundance of synonyms (e.g., five synonyms are given to convey the meaning of a beggar, neturtėlis, varguolis, grynius, nuogius). This was an important book for would-be preachers, its content highly regarded even by the contemporaries.

Konstantinas Sirvydas is also believed to have written the first grammar of the Lithuanian language, which unfortunately has not survived. The only surviving information is its title Clauis linguae Lithuanicae (Lith. Key to the Lithuanian Language).

Konstantinas Sirvydas has bequeathed to us significant monuments of the Lithuanian language from the 17th century. He could be justly regarded an innovator of the Lithuanian language, the author of the first grammar, the first dictionary and a collection of sermons. The legacy of the aforementioned works has greatly contributed to assessing and understanding the further development of the Lithuanian language.

Literature: Z. Zinkevičius, Lietuvių kalbos istorija, t. 3, Vilnius, 1988, p. 246–266.

Jonas Drungilas