The Department of Linguistics is home to one of the oldest and most distinguished linguistics programs in the United States. Harvard began offering higher degrees in “comparative philology,” as historical linguistics was then called, as early as the 1930s. By 1941, Harvard had a full-fledged Department of Comparative Philology, which became the Department of Linguistics a decade later.
The department experienced rapid growth in the 1960s, with the advent of transformational-generative grammar. We became the first linguistics department in the Ivy League to organize its program along generative lines, while also maintaining our traditional strength in historical linguistics.
Now, as then, the department fosters a culture of unity in diversity. Our students and faculty come from many different backgrounds and represent a wide range of interests, from purely theoretical to typological, historical, and experimental. What we share is a commitment to empirically grounded research and a respect for the rich traditions of the field.
The study of linguistics at Harvard draws much of its strength from the unique range and depth of the University's offerings in related fields, especially ancient and modern languages and the growing Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative. Students are encouraged to take advantage of the full spectrum of Harvard's resources in planning their schedules; they are also free to cross-register for linguistics and linguistics-related courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While all PhD candidates are expected to acquire a solid background in contemporary linguistic theory, the department places great emphasis on the inseparability of good theoretical work and detailed empirical research, and on the interrelatedness of diachronic and synchronic approaches to the study of linguistic phenomena.
Since the department is relatively small, discussion among faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates is ongoing and informal. Special workshops funded by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, together with frequent departmentally sponsored lectures and seminars, bring an unusually large number of outside speakers to Harvard every year. Widener Library contains a matchless linguistic and philological collection, supplemented by a special non-circulating collection accessible only to linguistics students and faculty.
Requirements for admission are flexible. Preference is normally given to candidates with a previous background in linguistics, but students with a mature interest in the field and a strong language background are encouraged to apply as well. GRE scores are required of all applicants, and are valid if taken within the last five years.