Though Old Norse was taught on the Berkeley campus (in the English Department) as early as 1892, a proposal for the instruction of modern Scandinavian languages was not put forth until 1937. In 1944 the California Chapter of the American-Scandinavian Foundation undertook to raise funds sufficient to finance a program of study in Scandinavian languages and literatures. It is thanks to the efforts of Professor Goodspeed (President of the Chapter), Dean Voorhies, and Chief Accounting Officer Lundberg (all of UC Berkeley) and to the financial contributions of Carl M. Friden, President of Friden Calculating Machine Company and Fritz O. Fernström, President of Fernstrom Paper Mills, that $15,000.00 was raised. It was enough to fund a Scandinavian program on an experimental basis for three years. After an extensive search, Dr. Assar Gotrik Janzén, docent of Scandinavian Languages at the University of Lund, was appointed Visiting Professor of Scandinavian beginning in September 1946. By 1949 the “experiment” was deemed a success and Dr. Janzén was named the first full professor of Scandinavian Languages and Literatures in 1949. Today, the UC-Berkeley department is one of only three independent Scandinavian departments in the United States, with faculty positions in Old Norse, Folklore, and modern Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian, lecturers in Finnish and language coordination and instruction, and graduate and undergraduate students pursuing degrees in Scandinavian language, history, culture, and literature. The department has from the beginning enjoyed the support of local Scandinavian communities and individuals. It is to the generosity of its earliest supporters that it owes (among other things) its Olof Lundberg Memorial Library and the Fritz O. Fernström Traveling Fellowship. More recent donations from SWEA and the Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation in San Francisco have funded graduate student support and development of an extensive Scandinavian film and video study collection.

In 2009, a major gift from the Barbro and Bernard Osher through the Pro Suecia Foundation, together with a matching gift from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, made possible the first endowed Chair in the Department of Scandinavian. This departmental endowment supports both faculty and graduate-student research.