IN MEMORIAM. Tiit-Rein Viitso

In memoriam

Tiit-Rein Viitso (4.3.1938 - ­ 2.12.2022)

Professor Emeritus Tiit-Rein Viitso – long-time researcher of Finnic language history and phonology – passed away on December 2nd.


Tiit-Rein Viitso graduated from the University of Tartu in 1961. Subsequently, he was a graduate student at the Estonian Academy of Sciences Institute of Language and Literature (the present-day Institute of the Estonian Language). He defended his candidate’s thesis on the Onega Vepsian dialect in 1966. He wrote his dissertation on the comparative phonology of the Finnic languages and defended it in 1983. He worked at the University of Tartu Computing Centre from 1965 to 1973, at the Institute of Language and Literature from 1973 to 1993 as a senior researcher and later as a leading researcher, at the University of Tartu Department of Estonian Language from 1991 to 1993 as an extraordinary professor and from 1993 to 2003 as a professor of Finnic languages.

Tiit-Rein Viitso’s main area of interest was the Finnic languages – their history, sound systems, and development. He worked most with Finnic, but also with many other languages: he researched the distant relatives of Finnic as well as, for example, the indigenous languages of Siberia and North America. He wrote descriptive overviews of a vast number of different languages for encyclopaedias.

Tiit-Rein Viitso delved deeply into exploring questions relating to Estonian phonology and morphophonology as well as wrote important studies on the history of the Estonian language. Aside from Estonian, his favourite language was Livonian, which he continued to preserve, research, and teach until his last years. He was certainly one of the world’s greatest experts on Livonian and also taught this language to the modern-day Livonian community.

Tiit-Rein Viitso also filled a number of other roles, for example, he was the head of the Estonian Mother Tongue Society from 1993 to 1997, the editor-in-chief of the journal Linguistica Uralica, and a member of the editorial boards of many other publications. His work was recognised with the Order of the White Star (5th Class), the University of Tartu Grand Medal, and the Estonian Academy of Sciences Paul Ariste Medal. In 2011, he received the F.J. Wiedemann Language Award. In recognition of his work with Livonian, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Latvia in 2006 and was awarded the Republic of Latvia Cross of Recognition (4th Class) in 2012.

To those who worked with him, Tiit-Rein Viitso was a kind and warm colleague filled with encyclopaedic knowledge and playful jokes. As a former athlete, he remained in excellent shape into his later years and would often leave his colleagues in the dust as he walked down Jacob Hill to his meetings. To the delight of his students, he would sometimes also play the important role of the absent-minded professor. He was a wonderful companion for fieldwork and on trips with the Society of Livonian Friends.

We remember dear Tiit-Rein and express our condolences to his family.

His colleagues at the University of Tartu Institute of Estonian and General Linguistics

Tiit-Rein Viitso’s funeral service will take place on Saturday, December 10th at 10 o’clock at St. Paul’s Church in Tartu, which will be followed by interment at Raadi Cemetery.