In 1967, Peter Salus (Germanic Languages and Literature) started a committee on linguistics for the establishment of a semi-autonomous program in linguistics, in order to offer a PhD in linguistics. In the academic year 196869, the first courses were offered by Richard Demers (German) and Donald Freeman (English). The next year Freeman was appointed acting chairman of the program. Soon after, three more faculty began teaching linguistics, and the first PhD was completed in September 1970.

As chair of the linguistics program, Donald Freeman revised the MA and PhD programs envisioned by Salus and proposed elevating the program to a department. His goal was to develop a first-rate graduate program with 810 full-time faculty members. In December 1971, the Board of Trustees approved the establishment of a Department of Linguistics. Freeman became the first head of the department.

In 1972, with eight faculty members, the department squeezed into a handful of rooms on the second floor of South College. Over time, the department gradually expanded into the rest of the second floor, the first-floor suite of rooms surrounding the Node, and the entire third floor. The department, now currently located on the fourth floor of the Integrative Learning Center, houses 15 faculty members, about 30 graduate students, and about 130 undergraduate majors.

Graduate students have played an important role in the history of the department. The Graduate Student Linguistics Association (GLSA) invites many outside speakers to visit the department and publishes the dissertations of students, NELS volumes, and occasional papers.

While the graduate program was the first focus of the new department, collaborations with other departments and within the Five Colleges soon led to joint undergraduate majors in linguistics. In 1998 the department began offering a freestanding major in linguistics. A major in computational linguistics is expected to be available in Fall 2024.

UMass linguistics has been in the top 3 in the QS World Rankings for the last seven years, as of 2023.