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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.

Charles Fries

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. PikeIlse Lehiste, Dennis Klatt, and John C. "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).