The Department of Croatian Language and Literature at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, despite changes in its organisation, has operated continuously since the founding of the first modern Croatian university. The origins and development of the Department of Croatian Language and Literature are closely tied to the study of Slavic philology, which was introduced at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences upon its founding in 1874. The first Slavic studies professor in Zagreb was Czech Slavic studies scholar Leopold (Lavoslav) Geitler, previously an assistant professor at the University of Prague. Geitler taught for just under eleven years, holding twenty one courses on Slavic philology and comparative Indo-European grammar, which can be divided into three units: 1. paleo-Slavic studies (Old Church Slavonic language, Cyrillic and Glagolitic palaeography, old Slavic texts); 2. Comparative Indo-European studies (Lithuanian, Sanskrit, Greek, Latin), and; 3. Comparative Slavic grammar. It was within Geitler's courses in the third unit that Croatian language studies became a university discipline, as this group contained two courses focusing on the Croatian language: "Croatian language forms from a comparative perspective" and "Old Bulgarian [i.e. Old Church Slavonic] and Croatian phonetics".
With special regard to the history and literature of the Croatian and Serbian languages, the Croatian or Serbian Language and Literature Section was separated from the Slavic Philology Section prior to the 1875/76 academic year. Armin Pavić was appointed associate professor within the section in 1877; he was later elevated to full professor in 1880. To make the Croatian language programme as comprehensive as possible, Pavić taught both linguistic (mainly grammatical) and literary (mainly Croatian pre-National Revival and oral literature) courses to an equal extent.
After Geitler's death, the government selected Tomislav Maretić as his successor in 1886. The fifty courses he taught can be separated into seven units: 1. Old Church Slavonic language, 2. Glagolitic and Cyrillic palaeography, 3. comparative Slavic grammar and history of Slavic philology, 4. comparative Indo-European studies, 5. Slavic history, ethnography, and mythology, 6. Russian language studies, and 7. Croatian (and Serbian) language studies. When Pavić and Maretić's courses are viewed as a whole, it becomes apparent that Croatian language studies was already a mostly complete, well-formed university and scientific discipline by the end of the 19th century.
The study of Croatian literature gained more space in university teaching after 1902, when Đuro Šurmin was chosen as an associate professor in the Croatian or Serbian Language and Literature Section. Croatian linguistics would gain impetus in 1909 with the selection of Dragutin Boranić as associate professor. In his four decades of teaching, Boranić encompassed all areas of research in Croatian language studies—palaeo-Slavic issues, literary history issues, Croatian linguistic history and dialectology, and especially the Croatian standard language.
In 1910, the Croatian or Serbian Language Section was divided into two sections—Boranić became responsible for the linguistic segment and Šurmin for literature.
In 1914, Stjepan Ivšić was chosen as Maretić's successor at the Slavic Philology Section. His lectures mostly covered comparative Slavic studies; he devoted a few courses to Croatian language studies topics, mainly related to Croatian Glagolitic studies.
Between the two world wars—from 1918 to 1941—Croatian language studies remained closely tied to Slavic studies. The Slavic Languages Department had three sections—comparative Slavic grammar and Russian language (head: Stjepan Ivšić), Croatian linguistics (head: Dragutin Boranić), and Croatian literature (head: Đuro Šurmin). From 1919 to 1927, courses on old Croatian literature (Mediaeval literature and literature from Dubrovnik) and historical Croatian grammar at the Slavic Language Department were taught by Milan Rešetar. Branko Drechsler Vodnik became an assistant professor within the Croatian Literature Section in 1911, teaching first older Croatian literature and later more recent Croatian literature. In 1923, some courses on old Croatian (and Serbian) literature were entrusted to assistant professor Franjo Fancev, who would later take over the section after Vodnik's retirement (1925). With the promotion of Antun Barac to assistant professor of recent Croatian and other Yugoslav literature (Slovenian and Serbian) in 1930, the conditions were fulfilled to split the Croatian Literature Section into two—the Old Croatian Literature Section (head: Franjo Fancev) and the Modern Croatian and Other Yugoslav Literature Section (head: Antun Barac).
The Croatian Language programme saw no significant conceptual changes between 1941 and 1945, aside from the removal of non-Croatian content. In 1941, Milan Ratković was elected as a teaching assistant for old Croatian literature, Ljudevit Jonke was elected as an assistant for Old Church Slavonic, and Emil Štampar was elected as an assistant for modern Croatian literature. After Professor Fancev's death in 1943, Mihovil Kombol became a full professor at the Old Croatian Literature Section. This same year, Blaž Jurišić was appointed full professor at the Croatian Language Section. During the Independent State of Croatia, Croatian was studied most thoroughly in groups 14 and 15; group 14 A was Croatian language, 14 B was the history of Croatian literature, and 14 C was Croatian history (and other subjects).
After 1945, two new full-time Croatian studies teachers were hired: Mate Hraste, who took over the Croatian Language Section as assistant professor, and Josip Hamm, who had been a part-time lecturer for both Polish and, occasionally, for Old Church Slavonic since 1933.
By the 1945/46 academic year, the Slavic Languages Department—which would later become the Slavic Philology Department—showed the outlines of two separate study programmes: programmes of Slavic language and literature on the one hand, and a Croatian language and literature programme on the other, such that Croatian studies were included in a Yugoslav framework. At the time, the Folk Language and Literature study programme was created within the Yugoslavian Languages and Literature Department (8th study group). Croatian studies would remain within this framework and in this department until the 1990/91 academic year. This format of study programme would not have been possible without reorganising the departments; their number climbed from three in 1945 to twelve in 1975.
In the 1989/90 academic year, there was only one single-major study Yugoslav languages and literature programme at the Yugoslavian Languages and Literature department, with a plan and programme that had been designed in the late 1970s within the framework of the reforms of the time. This programme consisted of three units: a Croatian studies unit, a "Yugoslavian languages" unit (which, in addition to lectures and tests on Macedonian, Slovenian, and Serbian Literature and "comparative Yugoslav language studies", also included compulsory learning of Slovenian and Macedonian), and a methodical unit.
In the spring of 1991, the gradual transformation of the department began with its renaming into the Croatian Language and South Slavic Philology Department. After the faculty approved the proposal of the Slavic Languages and Literature Department and the Croatian Language and South Slavic Philology Department to transfer three sections—Slovenian Language and Literature, Serbian and Montenegrin Literature, Macedonian Language and Literature—to the Slavic Languages and Literature Department, the Croatian Language and Literature programme became fully independent. Since March 1995, the department has been officially called the Department of Croatian Language and Literature.
Simultaneous to the reorganisation of the department, in 1992, new curricula were developed for single-major and double-major Croatian language study programmes. The department taught in accordance with these curricula from the 1993/94 academic year until the implementation of the Bologna Process in the 2005/06 academic year. After this, the study programme was divided into an undergraduate (three years, BA) and graduate (two years, MA) programme in accordance with the comprehensive university reform. After obtaining a master's degree, students are able to continue studying in one of the postgraduate study programmes.
The Department of Croatian Language and Literature consists of nine sections. The department is run by a department head, while the sections are run by section heads. The department also contains both the Croaticum Centre for Croatian as a Second and Foreign Language and the Zagreb School of Slavic Studies, which has been organising summer seminars on Croatian language, literature, and culture since 1972.