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Swiss polyglot Remy Viredaz: Lithuanian is important for Indo-European studies

Swiss linguist, polyglot Rémy Viredaz is an enthusiastic etymologist whose insights help many people who are interested in languages on social networks (, Facebook etc.).

Mindaugas Peleckis
2021 m. Kovo 13 d., 14:53
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Rémy Viredaz, checking his mails in his cousin's flat. Photo from personal archive of R. Viredaz.
Rémy Viredaz, checking his mails in his cousin's flat. Photo from personal archive of R. Viredaz.

What is a polyglot? How many languages and how fluent one must know to call him/herself a polyglot?

I’d say three or four (including the native language(s)), fluently enough to hold a conversation. I am barely a polyglot by this definition.

How did You become a polyglot? What were the first languages that You studied and became fluent? Tell more about Your becoming a linguist, translator?

How I became a polyglot (although it’s a big word):

I must have been influenced by my father, which was interested in languages as well. As a child - or at least since I began German in school at ten - I liked to read packages (of flour, honey and everything), which are usually written in three languages. The record holder was a product notice of a Lego toybox, in at least 12 (Western) European languages, much of which I could not understand but that was fascinating.

I learnt German in school (from age 10 in secondary school – at that time you had to pass tests at 10 or 11 to go to secondary school, which then lead to higher studies; otherwise you remained in primary school and after that you mostly began an apprenticeship); then Latin from age 13, Greek from age 14.

I also began learning English at about 11 with an Assimil book (see below) “L’anglais sans peine”, though I did not finish the book.

At age 18 I began University and did maths (I was good at maths and wanted to be a math teacher), so there no longer were language courses.

Meanwhile, however, I had become addicted to linguistics and had to read books and articles in English and German, so I continued practicing these two languages.

In my late twenties I also took popular English courses and passed the Proficiency exam. At the same period I also bought books on the pronunciation of English so I could learn it very accurately (in linguistics I was especially interested in phonetics/phonology).

As for my German, it only really improved when I began translating for a living.

How I became a translator:

At first I wanted to be a math teacher, but when I began to do interims I realized that I was not good at that job. (Even though the pupils were rather kind. I did 3 weeks at about 19, but I was not discouraged, then 1 year at about 20 - it should have been 2 but I resigned.)

I also worked as assistant in the  University (for maths as well), which went better, but was only temporary. For a few years I stopped working to do just linguistics.

Later, I began to be given translation jobs through friends or family, who knew I was interested in languages.

I never followed a formal training of translator, but the book “Stylistique comparée du français et de l’anglais” by Vinet & Darbelenay was very useful to me (along with the exercises I used to make in school, and - to a smaller extent - my notions of general linguistics).
I did not even have a computer at the time (1984).

Nowadays it would probably be impossible to begin a career as a translator without a cursus in the Ecole de traduction et d’interprétation of Geneva or a similar school elsewhere.

How I became a linguist:

It began gradually when I was a teenager. I don’t remember exactly what began when. I’m an untypical linguist insofar as I have not leanrt linguistics in University. At first I was very much an amateur, but I grew better as I read more and more books and reviews.

Basically it must have all begun because my father was interested in languages himself (as a hobby). And he was interested perhaps because his father was the village teacher, perhaps also because he had a good English teacher in secondary school, with a good feeling for teaching languages.

My father had small dictionaries or elementary courses of almost two dozen languages; some of the courses he had found second-hand on a trip in Paris. So I would browse them. Somehow my brothers (two younger brothers) did not. I also liked to browse the encyclopedical dictionary of my mother’s aunt (another former teacher) when we visited her in her old people’s home; later my mother inherited them because of me.

I don’t know at what age, but when my father would come to kiss me good night, I would tell him of some (childish) thoughts that I had had about such and such language. After some time, he suggested that I wrote these down, so for many years I had successive little pads, a kind of diary, though only for language things. Later, those were real notebooks (as for school) but I began writing them for myself, no longer for my father.

At about 12 I began comparing the various Germanic languages and trying to reconstruct the germanique commun (the then French term for Proto-Germanic). Since I only had the modern languages and not even Icelandic, the result was rather far from the real Proto-Germanic. However, I think that was a useful practical exercise.

At about 14-15 I found in the main Lausanne bookstore a dictionary of patois (/patwɑ/, the local dialect, no longer spoken) and began comparing it with the the patois of other cantons (that I had some sources about), as well as with French and Latin (which I was learning in school by then). I also developed an interest for Romansh (after my father; Romansh comprises 5 languages). Even earlier, I began to be interested in for Swiss German (many dialects): at 10 I began the secondary school, where I learnt German; as we still lived in the country (Oron), I had to go to school by train, and there was a monthly review with 2 pages of jokes in German or Swiss German; my father also knew a little Swiss German, mainly from the army). All this did not lead to any publications (except for Romansh), but it was useful because I think that some background in dialectology (which I acquired mainly later) is a must for Indo-European linguistics or for the reconstruction of proto-languages generally.

At about 14 I thought it was possible to get close to the origin of languages by identifying the meaning of the different letters in Indo-European words… (a foolish attempt as you know).

At 15 ½ I bought Niedermann, Phonétique historique du latin and Ernout, Morphologie historique du latin and I began drawing graphs in order to try and determine the chronology of sound changes in Latin. I would do that during classes, which was possible because I would finish my exercises of German, Latin or maths before the other students. This lasted for a few years but I never reached a coherent theory.

At 16, I bought Chantraine, Morphologie historique du grec and Grammont, Phonétique historique du grec. In the above-mentioned notebooks, I would summarize some of their paragraphs and add my own comments. I would do the same for various questions of Indo-European linguistics. That was the “baby stage” of my writing articles.

By that time, I had already begun borrowing some books from the city library, later I mostly borrowed books and journals from the “public and university library”. 

I liked to buy various books of linguistics that happened to be available in the local bookstore - in fact they must have been the recommended readings for the students of the local university (namely Lausanne, Switzerland), as I realized later.
Somehow from Indo-European linguistics I was later led to Armenian linguistics. Meillet, Esquisse d’une grammaire comparée de l’arménien classique, made it sound so clear and easy. I began trying to have a closer look at how the Armenian consonant shift took place (i. e. not only at its results). I thought that there was little to add to Meillet’s work to get a full picture – how naive! Altough there is remarkably little to correct in the Esquisse (first published in 1903, republished with little change in 1936), there is still a lot to do in Armenian etymology and historical grammar.

At that time, however, I was more focused on Greek and Indo-European linguistics. 

At 18 it was time to begin the University. Since my best subjects were Greek and maths, I had to choose between “Lettres” (Humanities) and Sciences. However, with Humanities there were hardly other opportunities than teaching, and I really didn’t feel like teaching one of these subjects, so I decided for Mathematics, since I wanted to become a math teacher. (It later turned out that I was not fit for that. You have to be able to impose yourself, somehow like a dompteur or lion tamer, even if the students are nice, and it’s not in my nature. See below under How I became a translator.)

Math studies were not totally useless for my work as a linguist. Mathematics train you for logical thinking (even before University). It also helps me understand a little of mathematical linguistics (although I do not do research in this field). Physics (which was an important part of the Mathematics curriculum) is not only interesting in itself (atoms, gravity, astronomy, Relativity…), but it also makes you familiar with the scientific method generally (observing facts, inferring hypotheses, checking that your hypotheses do “predict” observed facts).

During my University time and later, I followed a very few courses in linguistics in Lausanne (where I lived), later Fribourg (Switzerland), later Paris, but most of my linguistic background I had learnt before by reading books and articles.

With 25 or so I began feeling self-confident enough to undertake a series of papers for publication on Indo-European phonology (the main questions about its consonantism). But it proved difficult to build sufficient proofs. These are difficult subjects and nothing came out of these projects (yet). Meanwhile, other researchers have published a lot of papers or book chapters on them.

A bit later, I undertook less ambitious papers on much more limited subjects and sent a few of them to university professors in Lausanne, Geneva or Bern to ask for their comments. Their feedback was partly negative (sometimes rightly so, sometimes not) but one of them was deemed worth publishing ( – now outdated, see Kloekhorst, Etymological Dictionary of the Hittite Inherited Lexicon, 2008, p. 152-155).

In the following years, I still did a lot of reading and little publishing.

In more recent years, I’ve tried to do more publishing, but I have little time left for reading (also because of professional and personal obligations), so that I’m kind of losing my grip, i. e. I cannot really keep abreast of new developments in Indo-European linguistics.
I’m 72 now and I have some 60+ papers in the pipeline, no need to be great at maths to see something of a problem here…

How many languages do You know?

The number varies with time and it depends on what you mean by “know”…
French (native)
English, German, Italian (conversant, by decreasing order of ability)
Spanish (can read, but not converse)
Portuguese, Dutch, Esperanto (can read)
I’ve learnt Hungarian (the native language of my girlfriend, or lady friend), but together we only speak French, so I no longer know it as well as I used to.

The following others I have learnt to some extent before travelling to the respective countries or areas, but largely forgotten since:
Modern Greek (1965), Danish (2003), Russian*, Polish, Croatian, Armenian*.
*begun several times ! Russian would also be useful because there are many papers in linguistics written in that language.

In principle, I try to (re)learn the language if I travel to a foreign country (for a linguistics conference), but for the last decade I no longer had time to.

In Italian, I found it very to read books on a linguistic subject, but very difficult to read a TV program, namely the summaries of movies - for the latter I noticed I had to use the dictionary a lot.

I have some knowledge of Schwyzertütsch (I liked to read it since childhood, when I was learning German at school - there was a page of jokes in dialect in the monthly review that was available in trains), of the patois (dialects) of Western Switzerland (mostly from books - out of linguistic interest), of Romansh (idem), of Yiddish (only the German part, however; out of linguistic interest).

In Lithuanian, my highest (and only) feat was to read the chapter of Zigmas Zinkevičius, Lietuvių dialektologija, on the dative singular thematic ending, with heavy use of dictionaries. (I knew the outlines of Lithuanian morphology already, because Lithuanian is important for Indo-European studies.) That was an interesting experience, but I may not have the courage to repeat it !

Things have changed a lot 2-3 years ago, with the progress of automatic translation. Now, I usually make an automatic translation first ( if the language is available with them, if not); if I do not understand something, I try to understand the passage in the original language; if I still don’t understand, I sometimes try using dictionaries, either online or on paper (if I have them), or I forget it.

It is important to know some of the grammar of the original language, if you want to use automatic translation with some safety. The automatic translation is a shortcut for the use of dictionaries, but even in vocabulary it often makes mistakes,  you have to be careful about the plausibility of the translated sentences.

Some languages are better translated than others. Google fares very bad with Hungarian. That also depends on the style of the original.

Automatic translation always uses English as a pivot (or almost always). E.g. not German to French, but German to English then English to French. This increases considerably the possibilities of mistranslations.

Which languages are You learning now and which ones would You like to learn in this life?

No new language at the moment and probably no other in the years to come (life is short, too many things to do, memory is not what it used to be…).

What is Your dream language?

The language I “use” when I dream ? Probably French, but I’d say my dreams are mostly silent. Sometimes I dream that I’m using one of the other languages I know.

My ideal language ? The language I dream of learning? I have no dream language in these acceptations.

What could be done to save dying, moribund, endangered languages?

I don’t know. Perhaps what’s already being done – but it’s not always useful ! (FB group Celtic Linguistics

In fact I’m not really interested in revival or revitalization of dying or endangered languages. Since I focus on historical linguistics and etymology, I’m more interested in the oldest attested stages of languages. For many Romance or other European dialects, this means the early 20-th century and its large dialectological inquiries. As long as its grammar and its vocabulary have been (well) described, I don’t even need to know whether the language is still spoken or not. It’s a tragedy when people die, not when they shift to another language.

Rather than what could be done, I can summarize what has been done for Rumantsch, which was slightly endangered. (Romansh is only spoken in Canton Grison. This canton is trilingual, with German, Italian and Romansh. Italian is spoken in southernmost valleys, while Romansh areas are in fact bilingual areas, German and Romansh.)

I don’t know how much of it could be applied to other languages. Each situation is different.

From the beginnings of Romansh literature (16th-17th c), there had been five written regional languages (“idioms”, as opposed to “dialects” which are at the village level, now largely replaced by the idioms learnt in school). It was not possible to translate all official documents in all of them, nor to publish them in only one of them (that would have caused jealousies; it happens that the two most living idioms are at the two ends of the domain, with the geographically more central idioms being more altered, further away from Lain). So, official documents intended for the Romansh-speaking people were mostly written in German. Between 1980 and 1982, they created a compromise language for this official use (“rumantsch grischun”, rg, At first it was only proposed as a written language (i. e. as a substitute to German, in official documents, not as a substitute to the five Romansh idioms), but soon it was used a spoken language by some, mostly younger people. Thus, the CD “Ils Beatles per rumantsch” (2003, has been written in rg. Since 2010, rg is “taught and promoted” in schools according to Wikipedia (above). (Earlier, it’s the regional 5 idioms that were taught, along with German of course.)

What is the language situation in Switzerland, in which You are living. Are there languages which are more dominant? I hear some people saying that it's rather difficult to find a Rumantsch and other Rhaeto-Romance language speaker even in Switzerland, is this true?

Each language has its own territory. If you move to Switzerland, or to another part of Switzerland, your children will learn the language of that region in school. Exceptions: Bern (the capital - if you are elected to the federal government or parliament or even work in the federal administration, there are schools for your children in your language) and the Rumantsch area (I don’t know the current situation, but children of German speaking families were not, and probably are not, forced to learn Rumantsch).

Nevertheless, German is dominant by its sheer number. Although this is not official, I have the impression that laws and many other things are - in practice - mostly thought in German first and translated afterwards.

The spoken language of the majority is Swiss-German, however. Standard German is mostly a written language. Even political debates on the TV and radio, even with federal ministers, deputies, party leaders or businessmen are held in dialect - unless one participant does not speak the dialect and then the moderator begins with what is almost an apology: Today we will debate in Hochdeutsch because our guest XY is from the Romandie / from Germany, etc. Weather forecast, on the other hand, is in Standard German (because it is based on a written report).

In Parliament, all interventions are simultaneously translated in the two other languages. However,  the rumor is that many deputies do not use their headphones because they do not want to show that they do not know the other language good enough. Italian-speaking deputies are free to speak Italian but they often speak in German or French. French-speaking deputies mostly use French, because they are a bigger minority (and perhaps also because their German is too bad ?).

Here in French speaking Switzerland, everyday life is almost the same as if French were the only language in the country. Many Suisses romands even listen more to the French TV than to the Swiss TV. Children often prefer learning English (in school or outside) than the other Swiss languages (German and French school children learn French or German in school as well, I don’t know from what age nowadays. Public education is a cantonal matter, although there are efforts of coordination.).

Romansh speakers are less than 1% in Switzerland. And even if you travel to Romansh speaking areas in Grison they are perhaps not likely to speak Romansh to foreigners. But perhaps through Facebook ?

You are a great etymologist. What are the biggest discoveries You made?

Thank you. At least I’m a great fan of etymology. I haven’t made really big discoveries.

One of my favorite etymologies is Armenian atamn ‘tooth’. The common view is that it goes back to PIE *h₁d-ont-/*h₁d-nt- like the word for ‘tooth’ in the sister languages. At first I accepted that but later I had doubts. Now I think it’s from an action noun *ed-mōn (literally ‘eater’), created in an early stage of Armenian. This view has not had much success (yet).étymologie_arménienne_I.

Another is Slavic nevěsta ‘bride’. The question had made no progress since 1886 (Miklosich), with two competing possibilities (either ‘newly-wed’, which does not account for ě, or ‘unknown’, which is semantically and morphologically unlikely. Later attempts were even worse. But the two etymologies that don’t work can be combined in one that does (PIE ‘newly-wed’, later obscured by phonetic changes, then popular etymology ‘unknown’).étymologie_slave (not yet uploaded for copyright reasons).

Two other of my favorites are Romansh adgör ‘second hay’ and dschember ‘Pinus cembra’ (and their Northern Italian cognates). I’m not sure of their ultimate origin, but I’ve established the form they must have had in (local) Latin. (The former word has very many different local reflexes, the latter has many irregular reflexes, both had been reconstructed incorrectly by predecessors.)īcŏrium_regai,Étymologie_du_romanche_dschember_Pinus_cembra.

Another favorite - which I’ll be more likely to talk friends about - is Hungarian részeg ‘drunk’. It was long known that this was the same word as Ossetic rasyg, but their common origin was unknown; even the direction of borrowing came to be disputed. I think it’s from Old Iranian *frā-su-ka- or *frā-sū-ka-, from *frā-sū- ‘inflated’ (like French ‘bourré’, literally stuffed full, full up, but mostly one of the many slangish words for ‘drunk’).étymologies_ossètes_rasyg_ævzist_ærx_y  (not yet uploaded).

Most etymologies come only after a shorter or longer time of brooding, of searching, of trial and errors. Even when it’s a sudden insight it is necessary to look around for supporting arguments and possible counter-arguments.

Now with Facebook groups, everybody seems to immediately post any idea that comes to their mind. Most of my work dates back to pre-Facebook times and it usually took years between the moment I thought of an etymology and the moment I published it. Sometimes I disclosed (in talk or, now, on Facebook) an etymology that I had not yet published… and sometimes it turned out that that etymology was wrong.                                      

What are Your methods of learning languages? Is it true, as some sites say, that it is possible to learn a language very quickly?

German I learnt in school (from 10 to 18).

Most others I learnt with books of the series “Le xxxxx sans peine”, a.k.a. Méthode Assimil. In each lesson there is a list of sentences, with their translation on the right page, pronunciation below and explicative notes. There are disks as well (optional). You are supposed, first to hear the lesson, then read the sentences aloud (while looking at the translation if necessary), then repeating each sentence from memory (not the whole lesson, only one sentence at a time). Never try to translate from French into the other language (not until the 50th lesson) - so as to avoid making mistakes, because one’s own mistakes are more easily memorized than the correct forms one has only heard or read. You’re supposed to do one lesson a day, never miss a day, do at least 15 minutes a day (though one lesson easily takes 30-60 mn if worked carefully - but they never say that so as not to discourage learners). Each 7th lesson is a recapitulation, it takes more time. The lessons are very gradual. When you reach the 50th lesson, you can begin the ‘second wave’, i.e. after you’ve done lesson 50 (51…), you do lesson 1 (2…) again, i.e. read the lesson again, and then - finally - try to read the French text first and translate it back into the foreign language. AND: each day there was a cartoon with one sentence of the day (or of the week), though without translation: you had to do the lesson to find the translation. Books have typically 150 lessons, but you have to finish the second wave, which makes 200 days in total. Those who must learn the language quickly can do two lessons a day, though not in close succession. In fact, I’ve never gone further than lesson 100 or 120 or so of any of these books. But the method is rather efficient I think. (It’s not “sans peine” as the title claims. Or at least not without effort. But the idea is that you do not have to learn lists of vocabulary by heart as you do (or did) in school.)

A weak point of the Assimil series is the pronunciation. They use a French-based transcription system (which is natural, because the phonetic alphabet would put off normal learners, i. e. buyers). However, not a single of the Assimil books I know seems to know about aspirated consonants. It’s strange to teach English, Danish, Chinese, Armenian, without even using the notion of aspirated consonants!

For Hungarian I used a book in the series Tanuljunk nyelveket, which is more school-like. I also used small dictionaries and tried to learn by heart the words of some pages in the Hungarian-French part. (I chose pp. 100, 200, 300, etc., so as to and have a more varied sample). My friend also gave me more real material, such as issues of the small monthly review Élet és tudomány (Life and science) or even novels, sometimes she explained to me items of vocabulary or grammar that I had not understood.

I also have some books of the series Teach yourself xxxxx, though I didn’t use them to learn to speak the languages. The first one was Teach Yourself Swedish, the only one of which I studied an appreciable number of lessons.

A weak point of the Teach Yourself series, annoying for non-English speakers, is the pronunciation again. All sounds are explained by comparison with English sounds, like “put young tongue in the position of oo and your lips in the position of ee”, when it’s simply “like German ü” or “like French u”, while English has a very, very special vowel system.

I have doubts about the possibility of learning a language very quickly. What is possible is to learn just the basics and stop at that. Or work 4 hours a day rather than 1 or 2. And probably there are methods that strive (even harder than Assimil) to put the basics in the early lessons - however, what is most important for you will depend on your personal purpose and interests. Of course, the more languages you know, the easier it is to learn a new one. – Admittedly, I’ve never tried those methods that advertise a very quick learning.

By the way, I’ve noticed that certain persons refuse to acquire the “accent” of a foreign language they learn (e. g. they insist on keeping their native French accent when speaking English, or keeping their native Spanish accent when speaking French). Their justification is that somehow they would lose their identity, their personality, if they take the foreign accent. (I don’t remember the exact terms they used.) This, however, is ridiculous:
- Taking the proper accent should be seen like playing a role in theater. Actors don’t lose their own personality when they impersonate a character in a theater play or for a movie. They just “get into” a different personality, as fully as they can, when they begin playing, and they get out of it again after the acting is over. (Perhaps not immediately.)
- Speakers can be reassured: however hard or long they try, they will never lose their native accent completely. Even under the most perfectly imitated accent, there will still remain something of the native accent. (Except for those who immerse in the new language at a young age, and perhaps for sheer geniuses, too.)
- “Accent” (i. e. phonetics) is an integral part of the language. 
- A strong foreign accent is an impairment to intelligibility, so I find it kind of impolite when someone deliberately doesn’t try to improve their accent in the foreign language.

Do You live from Your knowledge of languages? Maybe You teach them or are a translator, interpreter?

Yes. As a translator. I did not try interpretation (I am a bit slow.) In spite of the Proficiency paper, I never knew English or German well enough to teach them.

Now I’m retired, but I still work part time (as I always have) and my current pension is based on what I have earned mostly as a translator.

Is it possible that some old nations in Europe (Lithuanians, Basques etc.) had their own script before Christianity came (as Irish Ogham, Germanic Runes, Oscans, Etruscans, Caucasian Albanians etc.)?

I think not (other than those you mention).

Basque (or a closely related language - or local proper names in Latin inscriptions) has been written in Latin alphabet in some inscriptions of the Roman era (

Have you noticed that Eastern countries have had new alphabets (Cyrillic, and before that, Armenian, Georgian, …, Gothic) while Catholic countries have used the Latin alphabet in spite of all its inadequacies ?

What were the most funny/important moments when Your knowledge of languages did(not) help?

I don’t remember anything remarkable.

Perhaps when we were traveling with friends through Belgium. (I was not driving.) In Flanders the names of cities were written in Dutch only. There was a sign : LUIK. I knew that the German name of Liège was Lüttich, so I told the others: I don’t know what city it is, but at least it cannot be Liège.

— It turned out that it was Liège. I thought I knew the sound laws of Dutch, but I did not know that intervocalic d could fall, e.g. ledig - leeg ‘empty’, broeder - broer ‘brother’.

Are You an active member of polyglot community or prefer to be a lone wolf?

I am not a member of a polyglot community. I did not know that such communities existed. I do not really consider myself as a polyglot anyway (cf. answer to first question), and not as a wolf at all. ;-)

I do not practice my second languages, except professionally (written translations mostly from German to French) or occasionally (when there is something interesting to read or when I travel).

I’m happy to know several languages because that gives me access to a wider range of information (news articles, linguistic articles).

I still have never met a woman polyglot. Probably because I've never been in any polyglot conference, or maybe there are more polyglots who are men?

Probably not. Perhaps there are more polyglot women. Secretaries and receptionists are often polyglot, and they are often women.
I mostly don’t know how many languages the women I know speak.

I happen to know - because they told me - that my grocer’s wife knows 4 languages, Portuguese (her native language), Italian (his native language), French (the local language, of course) and English.

Ar lengvai galite suprasti šį sakinį, kurį čia parašiau?

Oops ! I did not even try. It seemed too difficult, so after a few seconds I tried Google Translator, which returned: ‘Can you easily understand the sentence I wrote here?’, which seems perfectly correct.

Afterwards I realized that I knew the word lengvas before.

Aš nežinau lietuvių kalbos. This I wrote by my own means but I cannot do much more !