Obituary: Professor O. J. L. Szemerenyi

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The Independent Online
Oswald Szemerenyi once asked all participants in an international conference of Indo- Europeanists and historical linguists what they would have wanted to be if they had had a free choice; three-quarters of them replied "a mathematician". He commented wistfully that to a certain extent he shared that feeling.

The work of a comparative Indo-European linguist often comes close to that of a mathematician - the rigour may be frightening. Historical linguists, however, can move away from the most closely structured aspects of language and turn also to texts, culture and language in context; here the humanistic approach takes priority. Most scholars focus on one or the other aspect; Szemerenyi focused on both.

Szemerenyi worked with erudition and originality on Greek and Italic (the first languages in which he was trained) but also on Anatolian, Indic, Iranian, Armenian, Slavonic, Germanic, Gaulish and, naturally, on the reconstructed Indo-European language itself, as well as on the history of linguistics. He was more than competent in the history of the Finno- Ugric languages and in the Semitic languages. His pupils and colleagues felt that intellectually he belonged with the subject's founding fathers, whose erudition and creativity had had no limits, rather than with their weaker present-day descendants; naturally they were intimidated.

Oswald John Louis Szemerenyi was born in London to Hungarian parents in 1913; during the First World War he and his mother were expelled from Britain and his father was interned. Eventually the family was reunited and his father took a job as head waiter at a renowned hotel in Budapest.

Szemerenyi did all his studies in Budapest, concentrated on German and the classical languages, learned Sanskrit, Gothic and Old Church Slavonic, took his doctorate in Indo-European linguistics and then spent a year in Germany; in spite of many vicissitudes his career progressed during the Second World War (and a year of military service) until he was appointed to the Chair of Indo-European linguistics in Budapest in 1947.

One year later he was a refugee in Italy from the Communist regime being established in Hungary and, together with his young wife and five-year- old son, was applying for permission to return to Britain. There followed a London period characterised by various difficulties, lack of money, changing jobs (from business to the BBC) and then the slow rebuilding of Szemerenyi's academic career, until in 1960 he obtained once again a university chair, this time in Comparative Philology at University College London.

Szemerenyi was undoubtedly one of the most learned and original Indo- Europeanists of the time and the chair was well deserved but in a few years it is not easy to build up a subject which has been neglected and perhaps he expected too much from his students. In 1965 he accepted the offer of a chair at Freiburg in Germany and there he spent the rest of his life, except for a brief period in London after his retirement. In spite of this move he wrote most of his articles in English, including Studies in the Indo- European System of Numerals (1960), Syncope in Greek and Indo-European (1964) and The Kinship Terminology of the Indo-European Languages (1978), and was a frequent visitor to Britain where his son, a classicist and a headmaster, had settled with his three children.

Two forms of recognition gave him particular pleasure: his election to a Fellowship of the British Academy in 1982 and his reintegration as a member of the Hungarian Academy in 1989; his first visit to Hungary after the end of the Communist regime was an emotional occasion. Also in 1989, he was made an honorary member of the Linguistic Society of America. The recent publication of his Introduction to Indo-European Linguistics (1996), a translation of his very successful German book which had already reached four editions, and had been translated into Spanish, Italian and Russian, made him feel that he had achieved what he set out to do in London more than 35 years earlier.

Both as a person and as a scholar Szemerenyi was a man who could not be ignored. He had firm opinions and did not hesitate to express them in speech and in writing; he was demanding and the members of his Freiburg Institute were reputed to tremble at his approach; he drove a large car through city and countryside at a terrifying speed and never understood why his friends were so reluctant to accept the lifts which he generously offered; above all, he had an irresistible enthusiasm for what he was doing and inexhaustible energy; some 10 books and innumerable articles give evidence of it.

In his students he could create an unparalleled sense of devotion and even after decades some of them continued to look up to him as their guru; one of them edited two gigantic Festschrifts for his 65th and 80th birthdays; another edited or co-edited four volumes of his Scripta Minora (1987-92), a task which was both difficult and time-consuming.

Szemerenyi was a sharp polemicist but had no malice and younger colleagues could be treated with great generosity. In a sense Szemerenyi's commitment was larger than life; when asked to write in a few pages a brief autobiography for a collective volume he in fact produced a short book with a blow-by- blow account of his writings which later became Summing Up a Life (1992): to him obviously they mattered as much and more than other, less scholarly, events. A brief article requested turned into an account of the books acquired for the seminar library in Freiburg.

And yet this committed scholar was also a man with strong political views, the courage of his convictions and very catholic reading tastes (from the highest literature to the most recent detective stories). Happily he kept his independence and worked till the end. With his death some of the excitement has vanished from the world of Indo- European studies.

Oswald John Louis Szemerenyi, linguist: born London 7 September 1913; schoolmaster, Beregszsz and Mtysfold 1939-41; Lecturer in Greek, University of Budapest 1942-45, Reader 1946, Professor of Comparative Indo-European Philology 1947-48; Research Fellow, Bedford College, London 1952-53, Assistant Lecturer in Greek 1953-54, Lecturer 1954-58, Reader 1958-60; Professor of Comparative Philology, University College London 1960-65; Professor of Indo-European and Gen- eral Linguistics, University of Freiburg-im-Breisgau 1965-81 (Emeritus); FBA 1982; married 1940 Elizabeth Kover (one son); died Freiburg-im-Breisgau 29 December 1996.