But not as early as we were: Chicago strikes back

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Continuing with the historical priority battle among the older and grander linguistics departments of the USA: naturally, the University of Chicago was bound to respond sooner of later to Berkeley's suggestion of a 1901 founding date. Jason Merchant has written to tell me Michael Silverstein wrote up a history of the department, which Jason has stashed in PDF form here. It provides grounds for pushing back as far as 1892, which would kick the shibboleth out of Berkeley's date; it isn't even in the same century. Some highlights follow (and I'm just repeating what Jason put in his email to me).

  • Carl Darling Buck was the first linguist on campus, already at the founding of the University in 1892, in the monosomic "Department of Sanskrit and Indo-European Comparative Philology", also known by its short title, the "Department of Comparative Philology".

  • In 1915, the department's name was changed to "Department of Comparative Philology, General Linguistics, and Indo-Iranian Philology", marking the first appearance of the term linguistics in the departmental name.

  • Edward Sapir joined the University in 1925, where his courses were listed under the department's rubric. Leonard Bloomfield (who completed his PhD at Chicago in 1909) joined the University as "Professor of Germanic Philology" in 1927 and is listed, along with Sapir, Buck, and another, as one of the "Officers of Instruction" of the department.

  • The department retained its tripartite name until Buck's retirement in 1934, after which it was known simply as the "Department of Linguistics", when Leonard Bloomfield became its chair.

So, depending on exactly which criteria one wished to apply (sort of like determining what the tallest building in the world is), one could make an argument for any of three dates, it seems: 1892, 1915, or 1934. But it is significant that the current department has a continuous administrative history, with changes only in personnel, focus, and name, from the beginning of the university. At no time was the Chicago department the same as, or a part of, the departments of anthropology or sociology; nor was the department ever closed or subsumed in some other department.


  1. Fritz said,

    October 25, 2012 @ 9:52 am

    If one requires the precise name 'Department of Linguistics' to 'qualify', then MIT has never qualified. From 1961 to 1977 the Ph D degree in linguistics was granted under the Department of Modern Languages and since then in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. There has never been a Department of Linguistics at MIT. Perhaps the name and nature of the degrees granted are a better indication of relative antiquity than the title of the program.

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 25, 2012 @ 10:33 am

    Fritz raises a separate question, which is something like "which is the most prestigious American university that has still not created a Department of Linguistics at this late date of 2012?" MIT is an interesting contender (although it could at least have the excuse of not being a full-spectrum research institution – Cal Tech's failure to do linguistics is not a slight to the discipline any more than Cal Tech's failure to support graduate work in classics or theology), but I think the winner is probably Princeton. I see that at Brown, which has the good judgment to be hosting Prof. Pullum at present, linguistics is now under the same departmental roof as psychology -don't know if that's a better or worse housemate than e.g. anthropology.

  3. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    October 25, 2012 @ 1:24 pm

    Yes, it certainly looks as if insistence on the word sequence "Department of Linguistics" would be pointless in this context; the thing to focus on is whether linguistics teaching (especially to the PhD level) is part of the relevant department's business. That is increasingly true in the context of the last decade or so, when mergers to make larger administrative units have become so common. Neither Edinburgh nor Manchester (two large universities in the UK) have a Department of Linguistics; it's Linguistics and English Language in both cases. The department at York where I earned my BA was the Department of Language back then. And here at Brown, where I am teaching right now, I'm in the Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences. As the scientific study of language continues to pick up research methods and research problems from cognitive science and psychology, we should expect to see compound names of this sort more and more.

    So Fritz is quite right, this is just one more way in which the notion "oldest department of linguistics in the USA", which sounds so simple, is actually too ill-defined to receive an answer. If the people in the fine old departments at Berkeley and Chicago will permit me to say so.

  4. Marc said,

    October 25, 2012 @ 7:03 pm

    I did find it striking, when applying to grad school, that neither Princeton nor Columbia have anything even approximating a linguistics department. The linguists at both are generally housed in the psychology or specific language departments (e.g., Slavic).

    Perhaps someone has some insight into these two glaring omissions?

  5. Anon said,

    October 26, 2012 @ 12:53 am

    Dear Prof. of Linguistics Pullum,

    I would like to explain how a dash is used.

    1.) I find this problem ill defined.
    2.) This is an ill-defined problem.

    A non-linguist.

  6. Rodger C said,

    October 26, 2012 @ 7:57 am

    @Anon: That's a hyphen, not a dash, and while I've been exposed to that rule, I'm at a loss to know how or why it was gotten up. Does a non-linguist know?

  7. Anon said,

    October 26, 2012 @ 2:52 pm

    Dear Roger, I don't understand your question. (Your question is not well defined…) It is a basic punctuation rule:


  8. Daniel Barkalow said,

    October 26, 2012 @ 4:27 pm

    J. W. Brewer: MIT does a lot of linguistics (e.g., everything Noam Chomsky has done since getting his doctorate); it's just weird about departments and naming. Despite being mainly known for computer science, MIT doesn't have a "Department of Computer Science", either.

  9. Rodger C said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 10:58 am

    @Anon: Well, it wasn't a rule at all, afaik, when I was in school in the Upper Pliocene, and when I first encountered it in stylebooks as a teacher I thought it both arbitrary and badly thought out, and still do. I don't know why we're still inventing these things.

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