Department History

Department Timeline

From its humble beginnings with a single professor to its current status as a nationally respected program, a departmental history of Linguistics at the University of Michigan from 1893 to current day.


The early years (until 1963)

Linguistics has been present in some form at the University of Michigan for well over a century. At their June 1897 meeting, the Board of Regents unanimously approved the establishment of a Chair of English Philology and General Linguistics, and allocated an annual salary of $2,500 to the holder of this chair. They also approved the appointment of Professor George Hempl as the first occupant of this chair. Professor Hempl went on to have a distinguished research career as an American linguist. He did pioneering work in the documentation and mapping of American English dialects, and contributed to the creation of Worcester’s Dictionary, one of the first dictionaries of American English. Professor Hempl also played an active leadership role in the early years of American linguistics – he was president of the Modern Language Association (1903), the American Dialect Society (1900-1905), and the American Philological Association (1904). His contributions to the University, and to the fields of linguistics and philology, were
acknowledged by the University by awarding him an honorary doctorate in 1915. During the first few decades of the twentieth century, linguistics did not exist as a separate formal entity at the University. But there were linguists in several language departments, and Michigan continued to play an important role in the development of linguistics as a separate field of study in the United States. The Linguistic Society of America was founded in 1924, and counted three Michigan faculty among its founding members – Professor Charles C. Fries (English), Professor Samuel Moore (English), and Professor Fred Newton Scott (Rhetoric and Journalism). Another founding member, Professor Hans Kurath, joined the University at a later time.

In December 1929, the Regents approved the creation of the “Laboratory of General Linguistics and Speech”, and thereby inaugurated a long and storied history of phonetic research at the University of Michigan. The Laboratory was under the early direction of Professor John H. Muyskens (who also received his doctorate from Michigan in 1925), and over the years has had many prominent phoneticians associated with it (including Kenneth L. Pike, Ilse Lehiste, Dennis Klatt, and Ian Catford). The current instantiation of this laboratory, now known as the “Phonetics Laboratory”, is one of the most modern and technologically best-equipped phonetics research facilities in any linguistics department, and it continues the rich tradition in fundamental speech research started in 1929. The next pivotal moment in the history of linguistics at the University of Michigan came in 1945 when the Board of Regents approved at their September meeting the creation of a “Committee on Program in Linguistics”. This committee, composed of linguists drawn from several language departments, was tasked with the creation of graduate degrees (both Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy) in linguistics. This made the University of Michigan one of the very first institutions in the United States where one could earn a graduate qualification in Linguistics. It was also in this time period that Professor Charles Fries founded the English Language Institute, a move that led to a very close relationship between the Linguistics Department and applied linguistics.

Linguistic Institutes

The Linguistic Society of America began hosting Linguistic Institutes in the late 1920’s. The Great Depression put an end to the Institutes, and for several years it appeared as if the Institutes would never be revived. In 1936, however, Professor Charles C. Fries hosted a Linguistic Institute in Ann Arbor, and thereby started a long affiliation of the Institute with Michigan. Eighteen out of the 38 Linguistic Institutes held between 1936 and 1973 were hosted by Michigan. To date, the university that has the hosted the second most Institutes, the University of Illinois, has hosted only four.The decades during which the Institute had an all but permanent home at Michigan completely encompasses the period of the Chomskyan revolution in linguistics. During the pivotal decades of the 1950’s and 1960’s, the leading linguistic thinkers gathered regularly in Ann Arbor for the Institutes, and much of what was to become linguistics as we understand it today was therefore hammered out right here on our campus.

Leadership in the Linguistic Society of America

Michigan linguists took on important leadership roles in the early years of the Linguistic Society of America. Not only did Michigan have four founding members of the LSA on faculty, but several of the early presidents of the LSA were also Michigan linguists. These include Charles C. Fries (1939), Hans Kurath (1942), Kenneth L. Pike (1961), Albert H. Marckwardt (1962).

The last decades of the 20th century

As linguistics became established as a separate, independent field of study in the United States (in no small part due the leadership provided by linguists at Michigan), it became clear that an independent Department of Linguistics was needed at the University in order to coordinate both undergraduate teaching and graduate training, and to promote research in linguistics. This became a reality in 1961, when the Regents approved the creation of the new department at their July meeting. This momentous moment in the history of our Department is documented as follows in the very formulaic and unimaginative language that is typical of this kind of official documentation: At the request of the Dean and the Executive Committee of the College of Literature, Sciences and the Arts and upon the recommendation of the Vice-President and the Dean of Faculties, the Regents approved the establishment of a new department in the College of Literature, Sciences and Arts to be called the Department of Linguistics. 

Although the creation of the Department was approved in 1961, the Department itself only came into existence in 1963. The initial group of linguistics faculty was drawn from various language departments, and all kept their formal affiliation with their original departments. Professor Herbert H. Paper from Near Eastern Department was the first chair of the new department. He served as chair until 1968, when he was followed by Professor John C. Catford, who served until 1971. Professor William J. Gedney chaired the department until 1975. 

Together these three early department chairs were responsible for determining the character of the department in its early years. As was typical of linguistics departments of this era, the Michigan department had a close affiliation with several language departments across campus, and even shared most of its faculty with these departments. Linguistics was also responsible for language instruction in various languages that did not fit comfortably in well-established language departments (some examples include Thai, Indonesian, Hindi-Urdu, Tamil and Sanskrit). For many years, although there was formally a separate Department of Linguistics, these close ties to language departments and commitment to language instruction presented challenges for maintaining a cohesive focus. As a result, the Department was reorganized as the Program in Linguistics in 1985, retaining its existing infrastructure as well as its undergraduate and graduate programs.

The Linguistics Department remained a nexus for basic linguistic research on campus, attracting and retaining key faculty. In 1980 Deborah Keller-Cohen was the first woman to be tenured in the Department. The Department and Program also granted numerous doctoral degrees during the 20th century, with several graduates going on to achieve great prominence in the field. Graduates from this era include Kenneth Pike (Ph.D. 1942 and president of the LSA in 1961), Ilse Lehiste (Ph.D.1959 and president of the LSA in 1980), Charles Fillmore (Ph.D. 1962 and president of the LSA in 1991), and David Lightfoot (Ph.D. 1971 and president of the LSA in 2010).

The 21st Century

Over the past decade and a half, Michigan Linguistics has experienced a resurgence and has regained its proper place as one the most prestigious linguistics departments in the United States. In line with developments in the field, the intellectual affiliations of the department have shifted from the language departments to cognitive and social science departments (including Psychology, Philosophy, Anthropology and Computer Science). This shift is also reflected in the research profile of the current department, which has exceptional strengths in all of the core theoretical areas of linguistics (phonetics, phonology, syntax and semantics), but also in the areas of linguistics that interact social sciences (sociolinguistics, language contact, historical linguistics, pidgins and creoles) and with the cognitive sciences (psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics). Having strengths in such a broad base makes Michigan Linguistics unique – other linguistics departments typically focus on one or perhaps two of these broad areas. This also means that Michigan Linguistics is leading the field in terms of the integration between different approaches to language study, and it enables us to give our students a more rounded educational experience than what just about any other linguistics department can achieve. The undergraduate program of the Linguistics Department has seen significant growth and progress over the past decade. The number of students majoring in linguistics has grown from around 40 in 2002 to well over 120 in 2011. During a recent external review of our Department, our undergraduate program was described as “among the best in the United States” by the panel of external reviewers.

The graduate program has experienced comparable progress. Since 2000, we have been able offer all of our PhD students a full five year funding package, which enables us to attract the best students in the field, and which enables our students to focus on their studies. We have one of the highest selectivity rates in the University, and accept only about 10% of all the applications that we receive for our PhD program. The quality of our program and of our students is also reflected in the success that our students experience upon graduation. In recent years, our graduates have secured tenure-track positions at prominent universities in the United States and abroad (among them Georgetown University, the Ohio State University, the University of Wishington, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Manchester, the University of Missouri, and the University of Alaska).

Our faculty continue to be leaders in the field and in the University of Michigan. In recent years, Professor Sally Thomason has been president of the Linguistic Society of America (2009). Marlyse Baptista has been president of the Society of Pigdin and Creole Linguistics (2011-2013.) Many of our faculty serve, or have served, on the editorial boards or as editors of major linguistics journals (Language, Journal of Phonetics, Syntax, Phonology, Linguistic Inquiry, Language and Society, etc.). Several of our faculty members have been awarded Collegiate Professorships, the highest honor that the College of Literature, Science and the Arts can bestow upon a member of the faculty: Lesley Milroy, the Hans Kurath Collegiate Professor (awarded 2000); Sarah Thomason, the William J. Gedney Collegiate Professor (awarded 2001); and Patrice Beddor, the John C. Catford Collegiate Professor of Linguistics (awarded 2011).

 In 2013, the Linguistic Institute returned to Michigan after an absence of several decades. Co-directed by Professors Robin Queen and Andries Coetzee, the 2013 Institute highlighted the strengths of our department and the general collegiality and respect for which our department is known. Linguistics at Michigan continues to draw on its strengths and is well poised to take a leadership role in the field into the 21st century.