Born too early: prehistory of Berkeley linguistics

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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.]


  1. Rob Malouf said,

    October 24, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

    One more linguist president: Glendon Drake was a founder of the SDSU linguistics department and was later chancellor at CU-Denver.

  2. Andrew Garrett said,

    October 24, 2012 @ 12:55 pm

    Another, as I should certainly have remembered, is Geoff Gamble (a Berkeley PhD and the author of important work on Yokuts), who was president of Montana State University.

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 24, 2012 @ 2:17 pm

    To follow up in my post in the earlier thread before comments were closed by GKP there, Mary Haas (who got her Ph.D. in New Haven in '35) claimed that Yale's Department of Linguistics was founded in '31, but the present Yale department website claims that while Ph.D.'s have been awarded back to 1930, the discipline has been taught "in the present departmental structure" only since '61. Perhaps as at Berkeley a freestanding department went away and came back. (The Yale website also claims derivative/ancestral credit for the "founding," i.e. what should properly be called the refounding, of the Berkeley department by Murray Emeneau, who got his Ph.D. at Yale in '31 just as Sapir was arriving and the department-as-such was, crediting Haas, being first founded.)

    But I primarily wanted to make a point related to Prof. Liberman's archaeology in the earlier thread, viz. that the early members of the Berkeley department in the document he'd found were all variously titled as professor of X, Y, or Z, but none of them were actually titled "professor of linguistics." I don't know whether W.D. Whitney himself ever had "linguistics" on his business card (as opposed to Sanskrit and/or comparative philology) but by 1901 his successor in New Haven Hanns Oertel is appearing in lists of the Yale faculty you can find via google books as "Professor of Linguistics and Comparative Philology." What department was he in? Well, maybe Berkeley was all progressive and bureaucratic, but departments in the modern sense had not yet arrived at Yale – if you taught anything in the humanities or social sciences to undergrads you were just lumped into the "Academical Department." I don't know when more specialized departments were formed within that subset of the Yale faculty. Oertel's successor Edgar Sturtevant (one of the cofounders of the LSA) is likewise listed with "of Linguistics" in his job title as early as 1926, but according to Mary Haas had to wait for Sapir's arrival in '31 before being part of a department of the same name, so I don't know where he was slotted into the org chart before then. (Sturtevant came to Yale after a stint as Assistant Prof of Classical Philology at Columbia, which doesn't sound very Boasian, but once in New Haven apparently did research on American Indian languages and modern AmEng dialectology as well as publishing on Hittite, only the last of which was safely in the "comparative philology=Indo-European" tradition.)

    Oertel, by the way, published a book circa 1901 called "Lectures on the Study of Language" (available in its entirety on google books, apparently part of a series commissioned in connection with Yale's bicentennial to show the range of subjects being taught) that approximated the substance of the general intro course he'd already been teaching to undergrads back into the 1890's. Scanning the table of contents, it's definitely heavier on the Indo-European than its ultimate successor as the undergrad general intro course (what was designated Ling 110a when I took it with Larry Horn in the fall of 1984), but nonetheless has enough overlap to be recognizable as the same discipline.

  4. Cameron said,

    October 24, 2012 @ 2:37 pm

    Goddard's 1905 thesis on Hupa was published at the time and is available online:

    [(myl) It's probably worth noting that the Department of Anthropology claimed this work, at least in terms of the publications information given inside the work's title page:


  5. Andrew Garrett said,

    October 24, 2012 @ 10:17 pm

    To comment here on the no-comments Chicago piece on Language Log: Michael Silverstein's essay on linguistics at U Chicago is fascinating, but I'm struck that an introductory linguistics course did not emerge at that fine institution until 1905, or 1908, some years after things were underway at Berkeley. On the other hand, it would be pedantic to deny that an 1892 "Department of … Indo-European Comparative Philology", even with one member (as distinguished as C. D. Buck), was a linguistics department.

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 24, 2012 @ 11:17 pm

    Just on the antiquity of intro courses, I can do some further antedating on behalf of my alma mater via google books to say that an elective class named simply "Linguistics" was offered at Yale (taught by Wm. Dwight Whitney, whose title by that point was Professor of Sanskrit and Comparative Philology) at least as early as the 1888-89 academic year, subject to the condition of at least six students signing up for it (I don't know if that condition precedent was in fact satisfied). Curiously enough, it appears under the general heading "Ancient Languages and Linguistics," with classes higher up on the same page in Hebrew, Arabic, and Assyrian all being listed as taught by Prof. Harper – the very same Harper who shortly thereafter was hired away to become the first president of the U. of Chicago.

  7. David Robinson said,

    October 25, 2012 @ 8:10 am

    Another linguist president: Lawrence Biondi, S.J., president of St. Louis University since 1987.

  8. Sally Thomason said,

    October 25, 2012 @ 9:08 am

    And yet another linguist who was a university president: Nils Hasselmo (Ph.D. Harvard, Linguistics, 1961) was president of the University of Minnesota from 1988 to 1997. His area of research specialization was Scandinavian languages and — showing excellent taste — bilingualism & language contact.

  9. AJD said,

    October 25, 2012 @ 9:27 am

    Guy Bailey is the president of the University of Alabama, and Al Bloom, a psycholinguist, is a former president of Swarthmore College.

  10. Stephen R. Anderson said,

    October 25, 2012 @ 4:48 pm

    re Sally's comment: I believe that one of President Hasslemo's notable actions shortly after becoming president was (at least complicity in) the closing of the Linguistics Department at Minnesota.
    And if Andrew is correct that Sapir wasn't hired at Berkeley because of his "orientation toward language" and reluctance to accept that the study of language belonged in the study of culture, it's ironic, because at least as I've heard it, he was strongly opposed to the creation of a distinct Linguistics Department at Yale, insisting that the study of language should remain an intrinsically interdisciplinary matter. And most of his time at Yale seems to have been spent promoting research on culture more generally, as opposed to narrow linguistics.

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