Founded in 1841, the Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations offered the first formal program of study in Near Eastern languages in the United States. Early department faculty, such as Edward Salisbury, produced the first American scholarly studies on Arabic and Islam, cuneiform studies, and Semitic epigraphy, and founded and edited the first professional journal in America devoted to Oriental Studies.

Other department faculty of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as William Dwight Whitney, Charles Foster Kent, and William Rainey Harper, were leaders in the creation of American philology, linguistics, and Sanskrit studies, and pioneered modern undergraduate and graduate instruction in the language and literature of biblical Hebrew and the history of Judaism. Charles C. Torrey, professor of Arabic and Semitic languages, founded the first American school for research in the Near East, at Jerusalem, and directed the Jerusalem school's first archaeological excavation in 1900, as well as editing the first major text in Classical Arabic published in the United States. More recent faculty, including the Egyptologists Ludlow Bull and William Kelly Simpson; the Assyriologists Albert T. Clay, Raymond Dougherty, Albrecht Goetze, William W. Hallo, and Ferris Stephens; the Semitists Julian Obermann and Marvin Pope; and the Semitist and Arabist Franz Rosenthal, have made Yale one of the world's leading centers for the study of the Near East.