Matura, Werner-Siemens Realgymnasium, Berlin-Schöneberg, 1933. Doctor of Philosophy magna cum laude, Friedrich-Wilhelms Universität, Berlin, 1938. Doctor of Humane Letters (honorary), University Chicago, 1969.
Doctor of Laws (honorary), University Illinois, 1976. Dr honoris causa, University Paris, 1983. Dr honoris causa, Free University, Würzburg.
Berlin, 1983; Dr honoris causa, Georgetown University, 1987. Dr honoris causa, Oxford University, 1989. Dr honoris causa, Salamanca University, 1992.
His specialty was the development of Latin words, roots, prefixes, and suffixes in modern Romance languages, particularly Spanish. Despite an early interest in literature, he ended up studying linguistics at the Humboldt University of Berlin, then known as the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität. Being a Jew in 1930s Germany was an obstacle to his education, but one he was able to overcome.
His family finally emigrated to the United States in 1940.
After two years unemployed in New York, Malkiel accepted a one-term appointment at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. In 1943, he was offered an initially temporary position at the University of California, Berkeley, which later was converted to a permanent professorship.
Malkiel remained there until his retirement in 1983, teaching in the departments of Spanish and (later) Linguistics. During a period when etymology was receding from prominence in linguistics, Malkiel was both one of its chief champions and most rigorous theorists.
Best known for his work on the role of sound in the development of suffixes, Malkiel coined the term lexical polarization to describe the influence in sound words tend to have over the development of their opposites, when antonyms occur in pairs.
A major secondary interest was in the history of his field, explored in the pages of Romance Philology and in his last book, His work in all fields was characterized by a doggedly comprehensive use of evidence. Of his book, Development of the Latin Suffixes -antia and -entia in Romance Languages, influential linguist Leo Spitzer said in a review, "Number one can fail to be impressed by this outstanding example of akribia and scholarly devotion to a task that might have daunted others".
Member American Academy Arts and Sciences, Linguistic Society of America (president 1965), Modern Language Association (founder Romance linguistics group 1946), Linguistic Society Paris, American Oriental Society, Philological Association Pacific Coast (vice president 1963, president 1965), Société de Linguistique Romane (executive committee 1977, 79, 89), Royal Spanish Academy (correspondent member since 1987), Società di linguistica italiana (honorary), Center Romance Studies, University London.
Married María Rosa Lida, March 2, 1948 (deceased September 1962).