Linguistics is the study of languages and the underlying principles of language generally. Only humans have the ability to use language, and besides providing us with a tool for communication, language also provides us with a tool for thinking. In this sense, the study of language may provide a window onto the study of mind, and this is what makes the study of language particularly compelling. How do different languages compare to each other? Is language variation unlimited? Are there principles which are shared by all languages? What are the major approaches in the study of language?

A variety of perspectives on the study of language are represented in our department and we see this is as a major advantage over other linguistics departments. The two major approaches are the Structuralist approach and the Generative approach.

The Functional approach deals with natural languages, spoken and written, in authentic usage situations and discourse contexts. In this approach, language is seen as a communication system that is shaped and changed by usage. The goals of this approach are to identify the relationship between linguistic form and function, whether semantic, pragmatic, or sociolinguistic. The functional approach embraces diverse fields of linguistic inquiry, including structural analysis and language description, comparative and historical linguistics, linguistic typology, interactional linguistics and sociolinguistics. Especially encouraged in this approach is the study of diverse languages of various families, areas, and time-periods, which give a deeper understanding of different linguistic categories and structures, cross-linguistic similarities and differences, and the results of language contact and other social, cultural, and historical factors on the structure of languages. 

The Generative approach views language as a uniquely human cognitive system encoded in the human mind, and seeks to characterize it by studying the properties of human language. On this approach, language, as a whole, is composed of units which combine at different levels: the composition of sounds into words; the composition of words into phrases and sentences, the literal meanings of the phrases and sentences, and the meanings of sentences in particular contexts of use. This approach to the study of language encourages to take courses in psychology and philosophy and to work in labs dedicated to the study of verbal behavior.

The linguistics department offers courses on the general principles of language taught by leading scholars in their respective fields, as well as a broad variety of courses focused on the study of particular languages: Semitic languages (Hebrew, Arabic, and a variety of Ethiopian languages) and neighboring language such as Ancient Egyptian; Indo-European languages (Romance, Germanic, Slavic, Baltic and Celtic varieties). Students may also take language courses given throughout the Faculty of Humanities, such as Yiddish, Ladino or Neo-Aramaic, or languages representing other cultures such as Chinese, Japanese, Mongolian, Persian, Quechua, Turkish, and a variety of languages spoken in India.     

Department History

The Department of Linguistics was established in 1953 by Prof. Hans Jakob Polotsky (1905-1991), a renowned Semiticist and Egyptologist, was dean of humanities between 1954-1959. The guiding principle driven by its founder and embraced by the Department was that linguistic generalizations can only be derived from empirically-based research and description of individual languages in their own terms combined with their historical background, areal connections and typological affinities, and that the study of languages must be based on actual texts or speech events. The department provided, besides general introductory courses, instruction in Semitic (notably Ethiopic, Syriac and Neo-Semitic), Ancient Egyptian-Coptic of all periods, Indo-European (comparative, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Gothic, Slavic) and Turkic, as well as phonetic field-work, with structural analysis and descriptive techniques integrated in the study of each special field.

During the years 1967–1986 the Department was headed by Prof. Haiim B. Rosén (1922-1999), a renowed classicist, and a pioneer of the study of Israeli Hebrew. During the years 1986-1993 the Department was headed by the Coptologist and Celtologist Prof. Ariel Shisha-Halevy.

In 2008, as part of the general reform in the faculty, the Department of Linguistics incorporated as a separate section the generative linguistics program that had been part of the English department. The former Linguistics department now forms the Structural Track of the combined administrative unit of the Linguistics program.

Six of the teachers in the Linguistics Department have been awarded the Israel Prize, the state’s highest honor: Hans J. Polotsky (1966), Haiim B. Rosén (1978), Moshe Altbauer (1990), Gideon Goldenberg (1993), Olga Kapeliuk (2005) and Edit Doron (2016). Additionally, four teachers were or are members of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities - H.J. Polotsky, H.B. Rosén, G. Goldenberg, and A. Shisha-Halevy.

Hans Jacob Polotsky

Hans Jacob Polotsky

Why Study Linguistics

If you are considering becoming a linguistics major, you probably know something about the field of linguistics already. However, you may find it hard to answer people who ask you, “What exactly is linguistics, and what does a linguist do?” They might assume that it means you speak a lot of languages. And they may be right: you may, in fact, be a polyglot!  But while many linguists do speak multiple languages – or at least know a fair bit about multiple languages – the study of linguistics means much more than this.

Linguistics is the scientific study of language. Many topics fall under this umbrella. At the heart of linguistics is an understanding of: the unconscious knowledge that humans have about language; how children acquire language; the structure of language in general and of particular languages; how languages vary; how languages change over time; how language influences the way in which we interact with each other and think about the world.

Linguists investigate how people acquire their knowledge about language and how this knowledge interacts with other cognitive processes, how it varies across speakers and geographic regions, and how to model this knowledge computationally. They study how to represent the structure of various aspects of language (such as sound or meaning), how to account for different linguistic patterns theoretically, and how the different components of language interact with each other. Linguists develop and test scientific hypotheses. Many linguists do field work to collect linguistic data, many linguists work in labs and perform experiments, and many appeal to statistical analysis, mathematics, and logical formalism to account for the patterns they observe. 

Contact Us


Administrator: Ms. Shulamith Lasnes

Tel: 02-5883851

Email: shulamitl@savion.huji.ac.il

Fax: 02-5881224

Visit us in person: Sunday- 11:30-14:30, Monday-Thursday - 10:00-13:00


Study advice and guidance:


B.A. advisor, Generative track: Dr. Nora Boneh

B.A. advisor, Functionalist track: Dr. Eitan Grossman

M.A. advisor, Generative tack: Dr. Luka Crnič

M.A. advisor, Functionalist track: Prof. Eran Cohen