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History of our Department

The Department of Linguistics can look back on more than a century of fruitful scientific activity, having begun with the establishment of the Chair of Comparative Linguistics in 1884. Since then the disciplines of Genral Linguistics and Comparative Linguistics have been represented here at Freiburg by renowned researchers such as Karl Brugmann, Rudolf Thurneysen, Oswald Szemerényi, Helmut Rix and more recently Eva Tichy. From its beginning the Department of Linguistics has been dedicated to the general study of language, having focussed for a long time on Indo-European Linguistics and the linguistic training of classical philologists. The primary object of research were the classical languages (Greek and Latin) and the Indo-Iranian languages (Sanskrit, Avestan) with an emphasis on the historical grammar of their verbal system and nominal morphology. In 2020 the Chair of the Seminar was restaffed and rededicated as a Chair of General Linguistics. Since then the Seminar has shifted its focus to general language typology and cross-linguistic research on diachronic processes in the domain of morphosyntax.

A short sketch of the history of our Department and the Chair of Linguistics

The Chair of Linguistics here at Freiburg was established in 1884. From 1884 to 1887 the first chairholder was the famous neogrammarian Karl Brugmann (* 16.3.1849 Wiesbaden, † 29.6.1919 Leipzig) who left for Leipzig three years after his appointment, where he worked as the Chair of Comparative Lingusitics for 32 years. Brugmann had studied in Halle and Leipzig under Georg Curtius and habilitated in Leipzig in 1877.

During his time at Freiburg, Brugmann completed his seminal Griechische Grammatik [Greek Grammar] which in its last edition by Eduard Schwyzer (1938) is of essential importance even today. At that time he also began working on his monumental Grundriss der vergleichenden Grammatik der indogermanischen Sprachen (together with Berthold Delbrück, 1886ff.) which was soon partly translated into English by Joseph Wright, J. Seymour Conway and W. H. D. Rouse under the title Elements of the Comparative Grammar of the Indo-Germanic Languages (vol. 1, New York 1888) and A Comparative Grammar of the Indo-Germanic Languages (vols. 2-4, index, New York 1891ff.). Brugmann's Grundriss is largely out of date by now, but has never been replaced.

Image: Idg. Jahrbuch VI (1920)

Although he never functioned as the chairholder, Brugmann's pupil Albert Thumb (* 1865 Freiburg, † 14.8.1915 ebenda) had an important influence on our department at Freiburg. He himself was from Freiburg and worked here as a Privatdozent (senior lecturer), before he took up a post at Marburg and later at Strasbourg. After his death he left behind a rather large library (especially on Modern Greek) that he bequeathed to our department (cf. Idg. Jahrbuch III, p. 214). Today he is primarily remebered as the author of two important compendia on Sanskrit (Thumb-Hauschild) and the Greek dialects (Thumb-Scherer) as well as the editor of Brugmann's Griechischer Grammatik. He was especially interested in Modern Greek and pioneered in the study of its historical grammar.

Image: Idg. Jahrbuch III (1915)

Brugmann's successor as the Chair of Linguistics at Freiburg from 1887 to 1912 was Rudolf Thurneysen (* 14.3.1857 Basel, † 9.8.1940 Bonn) who functioned as the chancellor of the University in 1904. 1912 he took up an appointment at Bonn where he stayed for the rest of his academic career. Having taken his doctoral degree at Leipzig in 1879 and habilitated at Jena in 1882, he initially worked as a Romanicist. In 1885 he was appointed an außerordentlicher Professor (associate professor) at Jena, and took up the post as Chair of Linguistics at Freiburg two years later. Having initially worked on the Italic languages, his interest soon shifted to the Celtic languages, especially Old Irish, and in 1909 he completed his two-volume Handbuch des Alt-Irischen [Compendium of Old Irish, tanslated and revised by D. A. Binchy and Osborn Bergin under the title A Grammar of Old Irish, Dublin 1946] which is of great importance even today.

Image: Department inventory

Since 1913 the chairholder succeeding Thurneysen was Ludwig Sütterlin (* 1863 Heidelberg, † 3.7.1934 Freiburg). He had initially studied at Heidelberg (under Hermann Osthoff) and later at Leipzig. In 1890 he habilitated at Heidelberg and and was appointed an außerordentlicher Professor in 1896. His special area of expertise were the Germanic languages, especially German and its dialects.

Image: Idg. Jahrbuch XIX (1935)

From 1943 until 1963 Johannes (Friedrich) Lohmann (* 1895, † 3.5.1983 Freiburg) functioned as the Chair of Linguistics and director of the Department. He took his doctoral degree in Slavic philology in 1921 at Berlin and habilitated there in 1930 in Comparative Linguistics under the supervision of Wilhelm Schulze. In 1933 he habilitated at Freiburg, where  beside an appointment at Basel  he worked as a lecturer until 1939, before he became an außerordentlicher professor at Rostock in 1940. Having returned to Freiburg in 1940, he was appointed the Chair of Linguistics in 1949. As an Indo-Europeanist he initially worked on Indo-European morphology (his treatise Genus und Sexus [Grammatical Gender and Biological Sex] from 1932 should be mentioned here). Later, he took special interest in General Linguistics and Language Philosophy (Philosophie und Sprachwissenschaft [Philosophy and Linguistics], 1965), as well as Music Theory (Musiké und Logos, 1970).


His successor was Oswald Szemerényi (* 7.9.1913 London, † 29.12.1996 Freiburg). He is generally counted among the pre-eminent scholars who, after the struggles of the Second World War, paved the way for the revival of the field. His interests were quite diverse, but he was especially active in the fields of Indo-European and General Linguistics. His Einführung in die Vergleichende Sprachwissenschaft  [Introduction to Comparative Linguistics] (Darmstadt 1989) and Richtungen der modernen Sprachwissenschaft [Trends in Modern Linguistics] (Heidelberg 1971-1982) are well-known among Indo-Europeanists and general linguists alike. After his retirement and until his death Szemerényi remained an associate of the department.

Image: Scripta Minora I (Innsbruck 1987)

Szemerényi's succesor was Helmut Rix (* 4.7.1926 Amberg, †  3.12.2004 Colmar) who functioned as the Chair of Linguistics and director of our department until 1993. His special area of expertise were Greek and the Italic languages as well as Etruscology; he is considered one of the most influential Etruscologists of his generation. We owe him important contributions in the domain of Indo-European morphology, especially the diachronic development of the Indo-European verb (Lexikon der indogermanischen Verben, 1998 and 2001).

Image: Indogermanica et Italica (Innsbruck 1993)

From 1993 until her retirement in 2017 Eva Tichy (1951 Marburg) functioned as the Chair of Linguistics and director of our department. Her main research interests were the morphosyntax of the Old Indo-Iranian languages (Vedic, Avestan), especially in the verbal and nominal domain, and the diachronic development of the Homeric language. It is to her fruitful activity that we owe the important compendium Indogermanistisches Grundwissen (Bremen 2000, translated by James E. Cathey under the title A survey of Proto-Indo-European, Bremen 2006) and especially specialised treatises such as Die Nomina agentis auf -tar im Vedischen [The Vedic agent nouns ending -tar] (Heidelberg 1995) and Der Konjunktiv und seine Nachbarkategorien [The subjunctive and its neighbour morphological categories] (Bremen 2006).