Charles Berlitz, 90; Linguist and Author on the Paranormal

Times Staff Writer

Charles Berlitz, a world-renowned linguist who gained wider fame for his books on paranormal phenomena, including the best-selling “The Bermuda Triangle,” has died. He was 90.

Berlitz, grandson of the founder of the famous Berlitz language schools and the company’s onetime head of publications, died of undisclosed causes Dec. 18 in a hospital in Tamarac, Fla.

As the grandson of Maximilian D. Berlitz, who founded the first Berlitz School of Languages in Providence, R.I., in 1878, Berlitz developed an early command of foreign languages. There was no way to avoid it.


Born in New York City, he grew up with his mother speaking to him in French, his father in English, his grandfather in German and a cousin and the domestic help in Spanish.

His bedroom walls were lined with picture charts of animals, foods and different parts of the world, and on his grandfather’s instruction, each person would point to things on the charts and ask the boy in their particular language, “What is this?”

“I didn’t realize they were speaking different languages,” Berlitz told the Washington Post in 1982.

“I thought each person had their own particular way of speaking. Since I’d hear my mother switch to German when she spoke to my grandfather, I thought everyone had to learn everyone else’s way of speaking to communicate.”

By the time he was 3, Berlitz was speaking four languages.

He ultimately spoke a reported 32 languages with varying degrees of fluency.

“I tend to think speaking only one language is like having a big house and living only in one room,” he told United Press International in 1988. “Every language is like adding another outlook. Language just adds to a person’s knowledge and enjoyment of our planet.”

While studying French and Spanish literature at Yale University in the 1930s, Berlitz began his association with the family business by teaching summer courses at the New York Berlitz school.


He later directed several of the language schools and in 1946 -- after serving as an officer in the Army counterintelligence corps during World War II -- he became a vice president of Berlitz Schools of Languages and head of Berlitz Publications.

Over the years, he oversaw the production of scores of textbooks, tourist phrase books and pocket dictionaries. He also was instrumental in the development of language courses on records and tapes, and he established special courses in various languages for employees of U.S. firms doing business overseas.

He ended his relationship with the company in the mid-1960s, after it was sold to the publishing firm Crowell Collier and MacMillan.

Although the new owner contended that “Berlitz” was a trademark name, Charles Berlitz won a lengthy lawsuit over the use of the name in his subsequent language books: He was permitted to use his name providing he added a disclaimer saying he was no longer associated with the school.

But, Berlitz once said, his parting from the company gave him time to pursue his real interests: underwater archeology and the study of prehistory.

His interest in archeology had been sparked by one of his grandfather’s friends, noted linguist and Egyptologist Max Muller.

“I used to copy the Egyptian hieroglyphics when I was a child, thinking it was an alphabet just like any other,” Berlitz once told Publishers Weekly.

Two of his greatest passions were exploring the mysteries of Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle.

His 1974 book “The Bermuda Triangle” examined the mysterious disappearance of planes and ships in an area of the Atlantic bounded by Bermuda, southern Florida and a point southeast of Puerto Rico.

Berlitz said he became interested in the Bermuda Triangle in 1945 while serving as an investigative officer attached to the Army Air Forces at the time five Navy torpedo bombers disappeared in the area.

In one interview, he said he believed that “the people and planes and ships that have reportedly disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle have been victims of some sort of electromagnetic disturbances that cause them to disintegrate and fall into the sea.”

Some book critics greeted his efforts to document the various disappearances with skepticism. A reviewer for Time magazine wrote: “ ‘Triangle’ takes off from established facts, then proceeds to lace its theses with a hodgepodge of half-truths, unsubstantiated reports and unsubstantial science.”

Naval historian Eliot Morison called Berlitz’s book “almost all hooey” and said most of the disappearances could be traced to natural causes.

But the book sold more than 14 million copies worldwide and was translated into 22 languages.

It also earned its author a reputation, in the words of the Washington Times, as “the de facto expert on weird phenomena.”

In the wake of his book’s success, Berlitz had so many people contact him with stories of their own experiences in the Bermuda Triangle that he wrote another book on the subject, “Without a Trace: New Information From the Triangle.”

Over the years, Berlitz organized various underwater expeditions to explore his theories on the Bermuda Triangle and the existence of Atlantis.

On one expedition, he reported the discovery of a 420-foot pyramid resting on the sea bottom.

Berlitz, the author of “Atlantis, the Eighth Continent” and “The Mystery of Atlantis,” believed that the legends of a lost continent are based on a real island that was submerged thousands of years ago when the Atlantic rose during the last glacial meltdown.

Among his other books are “The Dragon Triangle,” “The Roswell Incident” and “The Lost Ark of Noah.”

Berlitz, however, never lost his love of languages.

His 1982 book “Native Tongues” is a compendium of language history, anecdotes and trivia. And he continued to study new languages well into old age.

“I never met a person my dad couldn’t talk to,” his daughter Lin Berlitz-Hilton told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel last week.

“He spoke everyone’s language. He always taught us that everyone had something unique and interesting to teach. And that with literacy, you could become whatever you wanted to be.”

In addition to his daughter, Berlitz is survived by his wife, Valerie; and two grandchildren.