Andrew Garrett is Professor of Linguistics and Nadine M. Tang and Bruce L. Smith Professor of Cross-Cultural Social Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, and also Director of the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages there. He wrote to me after he saw my post about who has the oldest linguistics department in the USA to give some interesting comments about his department's early history, the relations between linguistics and anthropology, and the vexed question of which is the oldest department of linguistics in the USA. Here's the gist of his email, as a guest post.
Guest post by Andrew Garrett
The first Berkeley Linguistics department was set up in 1901, in fact a few months before even the Anthropology department here. An introduction to linguistics course that is still taught was first taught in Fall 1901, by Benjamin Ide Wheeler, the president of the university and an Indo-Europeanist who had received his Heidelberg PhD as a student of the neogrammarians. "Wheeler's Law" of Greek accentuation is named after him. (Joseph Aoun is another linguist university president, at Northeastern University, but I don't know how many others there have been.)
I can't speak to Mark's question about the administrative status of a "department" in 1901, but it's worth noting that the first PhD in Linguistics in any English-speaking university was granted in 1905 at Berkeley, to Pliny Earle Goddard, whose dissertation Morphology of the Hupa Language was directed by President Wheeler. This was unambiguously a dissertation in "Linguistics", not another field, and when Goddard taught Linguistics courses here he was listed in the catalog as an instructor in "Linguistics". He alone, that is, had no primary affiliation elsewhere.
The most broadly interesting aspect of all of this is what David Peterson (our former student and the designer of the Dothraki language) said in his Language Log comment, namely that what closed down the early Berkeley Linguistics department was a turf war with Anthropology. But it was broader than just a turf war; it was also a profound dispute.
Two interesting episodes:
In 1907-8, Sapir had what would now be called a postdoc at Berkeley, and there was discussion of hiring him here permanently. (This is my top what-if in linguistics history.) The appointment didn't happen, because of Kroeber, who had personal objections to Sapir's style. But also Kroeber didn't like Sapir's primary orientation toward language, which, for Kroeber, was just an ingredient of culture.
Precisely the same dispute (is language part of culture? or should it be studied with its own autonomous methods, as it was studied by P.E. Goddard, an early advocate of instrumental phonetics?) led soon thereafter to our department being closed. This was prompted by a stock market crash and the loss of outside private funding, which compelled efficiencies; but the explicit rationale for the cancellation of Linguistics was that this kind of work belonged in Anthropology, since language is part of culture.
As I have always seen it, our first Linguistics department was just a few decades too early — before the creation of the LSA; and before Bloomfield, Collitz, and all the rest persuaded us of the structural autonomy of language, and with it the desirability of an independent discipline and its own academic home.
[The above is a guest post by Andrew Garrett, communicated by Geoff Pullum.]