The history of linguistics at the University of Bern dates back to 1861 (twenty-seven years after the founding of the university itself), at which time an application was submitted to establish an associate professorship in general linguistics and Romance languages. The application was originally rejected by university management, but fortunately, the decision was later revised, and dialectologist and linguistic philosopher Ludwig Tobler was hired in 1863 as a private lecturer in general and German linguistics. In 1866, he was promoted to associate professor of General Linguistics and German philology, a post which he held until 1873, when he moved to the University of Zurich.
In 1881 the Berlin-born Eduard Müller-Hess became a private lecturer in Sanskrit and comparative linguistics after a research stay at the British Colony of Ceylon (present-day Sri. Lanka). Two years later he left for Wales, UK, but returned to Bern in 1887 as a private lecturer in Sanskrit, linguistics, and English philology. In 1888 Müller-Hess was promoted to assistant professor in "oriental languages" and English philology, and in 1897 he was appointed full professor. He became Rector of the University of Bern in 1915, and retired in 1923.
Albert Debrunner, from Basel, became full professor at the University of Bern in 1920. However, in 1925 he accepted a position in Jena, Germany, and his pupil Walter Porzig. was appointed professor in his place. Porzig was dismissed in 1935 for his involvement in the National Socialist party and deported to Germany. In an unexpected turn of events, Debrunner then returned from Germany to replace Porzig. Until his retirement in 1954, Debrunner was a full professor of Indo-European Linguistics and Classical Philology. With over 600 published titles, he is regarded as one of the most productive Indo Europeanists of the 20th century - his work on Hellenistic Greek in particular is still considered foundational.
The current Department of Linguistics was founded in 1961, when the two fields of classical philology and linguistics diverged, and Georges Redard formed an independent seminar in linguistics. When the audiovisual language school was added in 1969, the seminar was officially renamed "Institut” (Department).
When Redard retired in 1989, he was succeeded by Roland Bielmeier (from Munich), as full professor of Historical-Comparative Linguistics, Roland Bielmeier had studied Linguistics in Munich and Bochum, Germany, and in Tbilisi, Georgia, with a focus on caucasian and "oriental» languages. He wrote his "habilitation” (postdoctoral thesis) in Bonn, Germany on Tibetan dialects. He continued to pursue his interest in the Tibetan and Georgian languages in Bern, where he taught various courses in these areas. Additionally, he completed a number of important research projects, including "Historical Comparative Vocabulary of Tibetan Dialects”, “Fundamentals of a Historical Grammar of Tibetan”, "German-Georgian Dictionary” and “Greek Loan Vocabulary in Georgian”. Roland Bielmeier became emeritus professor in 2008, and he passed in 2013.
lwar Werlen (from the canton of Wallis) was appointed to the newly created post of associate professor in General Linguistics in 1988, and thus became co-director of the Department. He began his academic career as a student in Bern in 1971, eventually becoming a full professor in 1992. From the beginning of March 1996 until the end of July 1997 lwar Werlen held the office of Dean of the Faculty of Humanities. Besides dialectology, his most important areas of research included multilingualism, onomastics, and Filipino languages. He led dozens of projects funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and other donors, was coordinator of the European Network of Excellence LINEE, and helped to develop the "Dialäkt App" (Dialect App). Iwar Werlen became emeritus professor in 2012, but continued his involvement in the remaining SNF projects. His final project was titled "Formulation, staging, instrumentalisation of the Franco-German language border in a touristic context”.
In 2010 George van Driem acceded to the chair of historical linguistics as Bielmeier's successor. From 1999 until he took up his post in Bern, he held the chair of descriptive linguistics at Leiden University in Holland. Since 1983, van Driem has been conducting field research in the Himalayas, where he solved the Bangani enigma and compiled grammars of the Limbu, Dumi, Bumthang and Dzongkha languages, the latter on behalf of the government of Bhutan. In addition to his language descriptions, he published the two-volume handbook Languages of the Himalayas and a comprehensive history of tea entitled The Tale of Tea. His interdisciplinary collaboration with population geneticists and archaeologists resulted in the monograph Ethnolinguistic Prehistory and numerous writings on the population prehistory of Asia.