History Timeline

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics was opened in 1980. Its history dates back further to 1975, when the Max Planck Society asked Willem Levelt, a prominent figure in psychophysics and psycholinguistics, to set up a try-out project group in Germany focusing on language and psychology. The intention was that - if all went well - this project group would evolve into a permanent institute.

Over the years, the Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen has experienced a number of milestones. To find out more about our history and our path to success, read out timeline below.


June 1975

The joint proposal submitted by the Biological-Medical and the Humanities Sections of the Max Planck Society to come up with a plan for a time-limited project group for psychology and language research was approved, provided a suitable project leader could be found.

June 1976

 MPI history 1977 Canisius
The Canisius building, Nijmegen

Following this joint proposal, in June 1976 the Senate decided to establish a Project Group for Psycholinguistics for a period of five years. The Dutch psychologist Willem Levelt was asked to organize and set up the group. At his request, Nijmegen was selected as the location.

April 1977

Plans progressed quickly, and in April 1977 the first twenty staff members (half of whom were scientists) were able to start their work in the Canisius building, a former Jesuit high school in Nijmegen.

The project group was supported by a very active Advisory Board under the leadership of Jerome Bruner, then professor of psychology at Oxford University.

Project Group for Psycholinguistics speeches by Willem Levelt (left), and Reimar Lüst (right)

March 1979

As early as 1979, the Senate of the Max Planck Society took the decision to transform the project group into a fully-fledged Institute for Psycholinguistics and to appoint Willem Levelt as a scientific member of the Max Planck Society and director of the Institute.

January 1980

The Institute was formally established in Nijmegen.

March 1980

The Institute was officially opened on 18 March by Professor Reimar Lüst, President of the Max Planck Society.
The Institute had three permanent research groups (rather than independent departments): Language Production, Language Comprehension, and Language Acquisition. Willem Levelt led the Institute's Language Production Research Group, Wolfgang Klein the Acquisition research group and both together the Comprehension research group.

MPI history 1980 Wolfgang Klein
MPI for Psycholinguistics opening speech by Wolfgang Klein

July 1980

Wolfgang Klein was appointed as scientific member of the Max Planck Society and named co-director of the Institute.

1983 Nijmegen Lectures

Together with the Interfaculty Unit for Language and Speech of the Catholic University of Nijmegen (now Radboud University Nijmegen), the Institute organized two seminars as part of the new, yearly "Nijmegen Lectures" event.

  • In May, Barbara Hall Partee of the University of Massachusetts gave a week-long series on formal semantics.
  • In September, Albert M. Galaburda of Harvard Medical School gave a week-long series on the anatomy of brain structures that are required to support human linguistic capacity.

July 1984

The fifth year of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics saw the completion of its troika structure. The British psychologist William Marslen-Wilson was appointed as the Institute's third co-director, and took the helm of the Language Comprehension research group. His appointment represented a major expansion of the Institute's speech laboratory, both in terms of personnel and equipment.

MPI history 1984 Marslen-Wilson
William Marslen-Wilson


MPI history 1985 Manfred Bierwisch
Manfred Bierwisch

Linguist Manfred Bierwisch of the Berlin Academy of Sciences, GDR is appointed as External Scientific Member of the Institute, the first such appointment in the whole Max Planck Society.

April 1986

 MPI history 1986 Wundtlaan
Wundtlaan 1, Nijmegen

The newly constructed Institute building on the Nijmegen University campus was officially opened in Nijmegen, on Wundtlaan 1, by the President of the Max Planck Society, Heinz Staab. The official opening addresses were followed by an open house; researchers and technicians presented examples of their work and demonstrated some of the facilities.

“The Institute has now reached the shape which we hope it will essentially keep over the coming years. The end of its youth and the transition to a more sedate period was marked in April 1986 by the official opening of the new Institute building, to which we had already moved by the end of the preceding year and in which after the usual initial disturbance, everything and everybody is working again.”
Wolfgang Klein, Managing Director.

The main hall of the new building also harbors a "Scientists Gallery", displaying in bronze some of the pioneers of psycholinguistics including in front of a slab with quotes from their writings.

July 1987

William Marslen-Wilson returned to the University of Cambridge but stayed closely involved with the Institute through a series of research projects.


MPI history 1989 Uli Frauenfelder
Uli Frauenfelder

Uli Frauenfelder is appointed leader of a newly established Max Planck Junior Research Group on Lexical processing in language comprehension.

December 1993

Anne Cutler accepted the appointment as scientific member of the Max Planck Society. She was also appointed director of the Institute, taking responsibility for research into speech and language comprehension.

MPI history 1993 Cutler
Anne Cutler

July 1994

MPI history 1994 Levinson
Willem Levelt welcoming Stephen C. Levinson

Stephen C. Levinson was appointed scientific member and director at the Institute, leading the new Cognitive Anthropology Research Group. Its programme of field research institutionalised the long-standing interest of the Institute in how human language capacity copes with the huge variety of natural languages.

In this year, the Institute consolidated its new structure. It now had four permanent research areas: language production, language comprehension, language acquisition and cognitive anthropology.


MPI history 1997 PhD theses

Early 1997, a group of PhD students took the initiative to launch a series in which they could publish their theses; the "MPI Series in Psycholinguistics". This became the Institute's standard platform for publishing PhD theses; it makes the quality and diversity of dissertation research conducted at the Institute more visible to the outside world.

September 1997

The substantially enlarged Institute’s building was reopened by Dr Bludau, Secretary General of the Max Planck Society, following a full year’s reconstructionwork.


The Cognitive Anthropology Research Group led by Stephen C. Levinson was transformed into the Department of Language and Cognition at the Institute.

June 1999

MPI history 1999 Donders logo

The F.C. Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging was established. This Centre is a joint venture of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and the Universities of Nijmegen (Radboud University), Utrecht, Maastricht and Brabant. Its founding director is Peter Hagoort, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Radboud University.


Pieter Muysken was appointed as External Scientific Member.

July 2002

Start of Michael Dunn's Research Group on Evolutionary Processes in Language and Culture.

November 2005

The Institute marked its 25th anniversary by hosting the “Reimar Lust Lecture”, presented by Peter Hagoort, in the presence of the former Max Planck President.


The Institute’s founding director, Willem Levelt, retired as head of the Language Production Group. Peter Hagoort succeeded him as scientific member of the Max Planck Society and director at the Institute. Hagoort also continued to head the Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging at Radboud University Nijmegen.

MPI history 2006 Hagoort
Peter Hagoort

June 2008

Start of Andrea Weber's Research Group on Adaptive Listening.

October 2008

Robert Van Valin started his Max Planck Fellowship Group on Syntax, Typology and Information Structure.

Start of Daniel Haun's research group on Comparative Cognitive Anthropology.


Antje Meyer was appointed as Scientific Member and Max Planck Director, directing the newly established department on individual differences in language processing.

MPI history 2009 Antje Meyer
Antje Meyer

September 2009

The International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS) for Language Sciences is established as a joint venture of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and two Radboud University partner institutes - the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour and the Centre for Language Studies. The IMPRS offers a wide range of courses, training programmes, and networking opportunities to doctoral students of the participating organisations.


A new department on Language and Genetics, was founded, devoted to the study of genetic infrastructure that provides the brain with the capacity to support our language and communication skills. Simon Fisher was appointed as its Director and as Scientific Member of the Max Planck Society.

MPI history 2010 Simon Fisher
Simon Fisher


MPI history Levelt book
Willem Levelt - A History of Psycholinguistics (2014)

This year the MPI celebrated its 30th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Willem Levelt presented a preview of his book on the history of psycholinguistics, demonstrating that the history of our field goes back much further than is often assumed.


Anne Cutler, head of the Comprehension Department, retired as director of the Institute, taking up a research chair at the University of Western Sydney.

Researchers and staff at the MPI were deeply saddened to learn of the death of Melissa Bowerman, senior scientist emerita of the MPI's Language Acquisition Department. Melissa passed away unexpectedly on 31 October 2011 after a brief illness.

MPI history 2012 Melissa Bowerman
Melissa Bowerman


David Norris was appointed as External Scientific Member.

February 2015

Wolfgang Klein, co-founder of the Institute, retires as Director of the Language Acquisition Department.

June 2015

MPI history 2015 Princess Laurentien
Princess Laurentien at the MPI for Psycholinguistics (© FotoZed)

The new wing of the MPI building was opened by Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands. To celebrate the occasion, she planted the "Tree of Language". This brand-new wing is home to an extended auditorium, extra office space, new server rooms, a virtual reality suite, experiment rooms (including baby labs and EEG facilities) and, for the first time at our Institute, in-house molecular biology laboratories.

Following on from this official opening event, an open house for the general public attracted more than 600 visitors.

January 2016

Sonja Vernes was appointed as Max Planck Research Group leader.
Her research group “Neurogenetics of Vocal Communication” focuses on the study of vocal communication in mammals as a way to understand the biological basis of human speech and language and how this trait evolved.

September 2016

Caroline Rowland
Caroline Rowland

Caroline Rowland succeeded Wolfgang Klein as Max Planck Director and as Scientific Member, establishing a new Language Development Department, which addresses a central question in our field: How do infants acquire the intricate and highly complex system of natural language?

December 2017

Director Stephen C. Levinson retired as director of the Language and Cognition Department.


Peter Indefrey was appointed as Neural Dynamics of Language Production Research Group leader.

January 2020

Andrea Martin was appointed as Max Planck Research Group leader.
Her research group “Language and Computation in Neural Systems” is interested in how language is represented and processed in the mind and brain, and in discovering the computational mechanisms and principles that underlie language processing.

Andrea Ravignani was appointed as Max Planck Research Group leader.
His research group “Comparative Bioacoustics” investigates why humans and some other species are so skilled at vocal learning and rhythm, and how these capacities underlying speech and music may have evolved.

April 2021

Pieter Muysken

Researchers and staff at the MPI were deeply saddened to learn of the death of Pieter Muysken on April 6th 2021. He was an External Scientific Member for the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, appointed to supplement our linguistic expertise.
Link to obituary


November 2021

Pieter Seuren
Pieter Seuren

Researchers and staff at the MPI were very sorry to hear of Pieter Seuren's passing away on November 6, 2021. He was a Research Fellow of the Max Planck Institute since his retirement in 1999. 

Link to obituary
Link to eulogies of Pim Levelt and Peter Hagoort

June 2022 

We were very sad to hear that our director emeritus Anne Cutler passed away on 7 June, 2022. Anne Cutler became Scientific Member of the Max Planck Society and Institute Director in 1993. We will miss her very much.

Link to obituary

August 2022

Asli Özyürek was appointed as a Director and  Scientific Member at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. She heads the newly founded Multimodal Language Department.

Asli Ozyurek



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