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Joseph Greenberg - Biography

Joseph Harold Greenberg (May 28, 1915 – May 7, 2001) was a prominent and controversial American linguist, principally known for his work in two areas, linguistic typology and the genetic classification of languages.


Early life and career

(Main source: Croft 2003)

Greenberg was born on May 28, 1915 to Jewish parents in Brooklyn, New York. His first love was music. At the age of 14, he gave a piano concert at Steinway Hall. He continued to play the piano daily throughout his life.

After finishing high school, he decided to pursue a scholarly career rather than a musical one. He enrolled at Columbia University in New York. In his senior year, he attended a class taught by Franz Boas on American Indian languages. With references from Boas and Ruth Benedict, he was accepted as a graduate student by Melville J. Herskovits at Northwestern University in Chicago. In the course of his graduate studies, Greenberg did fieldwork among the Hausa of Nigeria, where he learned the Hausa language. The subject of his doctoral dissertation was the influence of Islam on a Hausa group that, unlike most others, had not converted to it.

In 1940, he began postdoctoral studies at Yale University. These were interrupted by service in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II, where he worked as a codebreaker and participated in the landing at Casablanca. Before leaving for Europe, he married Selma Berkowitz, whom he had met during his first year at Columbia.

After the war, Greenberg taught at the University of Minnesota before returning to Columbia University in 1948 as a teacher of anthropology. While in New York, he became acquainted with Roman Jakobson and André Martinet. They introduced him to the Prague school of structuralism, which influenced his work.

In 1962, Greenberg moved to the anthropology department of Stanford University in California, where he continued to work for the rest of his life. In 1965 Greenberg served as president of the African Studies Association.

Contributions to linguistics

Linguistic typology

Greenberg's reputation rests in part on his contributions to synchronic linguistics and the quest to identify linguistic universals. In the late 1950s, Greenberg began to examine corpora of languages covering a wide geographic and genetic distribution. He located a number of interesting potential universals as well as many strong cross-linguistic tendencies.

In particular, Greenberg invented the notion of "implicational universal", which takes the form, "if a language has structure X, then it must also have structure Y." For example, X might be "mid front rounded vowels" and Y "high front rounded vowels" (for terminology see phonetics). This kind of research was taken up by many scholars following Greenberg's example and remains important in synchronic linguistics.

Like Noam Chomsky, Greenberg sought to discover the universal structures underlying human language. Unlike Chomsky, Greenberg’s approach was empirical rather than logico-deductive. Greenberg’s approach, often characterized as "functionalist", is commonly opposed to Chomsky’s rationalist approach. An argument to reconcile the Greenbergian and Chomskyan approaches can be found in Linguistic Universals, edited by Ricardo Mairal and Juana Gil (2006).

Many who are strongly opposed to Greenberg's methods of language classification (see below) nevertheless acknowledge the importance of his typological work. In 1963 he published an article that was extremely influential in the field: "Some universals of grammar with particular reference to the order of meaningful elements".

Mass comparison

Greenberg rejected the view, prevalent among linguists since the mid-20th century, that comparative reconstruction was the only tool to discover relationships between languages. He argued that genetic classification is methodologically prior to comparative reconstruction, or the first stage of it: you cannot engage in the comparative reconstruction of languages until you know which languages to compare (1957:44).

He also criticized the prevalent view that comprehensive comparisons of two languages at a time (which commonly take years to carry out) could establish language families of any size. He pointed out that, even for 8 languages, there are already 4,140 ways to classify them into distinct families, while for 25 languages there are 4,749,027,089,305,918,018 ways (1957:44). By way of comparison, the Niger–Congo family is said to have some 1,500 languages. It is evident, therefore, that all language families of any size were established by some means other than bilateral comparison. The theory of mass comparison is an attempt to demonstrate what those means are.

Greenberg argued for the virtues of breadth over depth. He advocated restricting the amount of material to be compared (to basic vocabulary, morphology, and known paths of sound change) and increasing the number of languages to be compared - to all the languages in a given area. This would make it possible to compare numerous languages reliably. At the same time, the process would provide a check on accidental resemblances through the sheer number of languages under comparison. The mathematical probability that resemblances are accidental decreases sharply with the number of languages concerned (1957:39).

Greenberg noted that mass "borrowing" of basic vocabulary is unknown. Borrowing, when it occurs, is concentrated in cultural vocabulary and clusters "in certain semantic areas", making it easy to detect (1957:39). With a goal of determining broad patterns of relationship, the issue was not to get every word right but to detect patterns. From the beginning with his theory of mass comparison, Greenberg addressed why the issues of chance resemblance and borrowing were not obstacles to its being useful. Despite that, some critics suggested those areas were shortcomings of the theory.

Greenberg first called this method "mass comparison" in an article in 1954 (reprinted in Greenberg 1955). As of 1987, he replaced the term "mass comparison" with "multilateral comparison", to bring home its contrast with the bilateral comparisons recommended in linguistics textbooks. He believed that multilateral comparison is not in any way opposed to the comparative method, but is, on the contrary, its necessary first step (Greenberg, 1957:44). Comparative reconstruction has the status of an explanatory theory for facts already established by language classification (Greenberg, 1957:45). His method was to establish the facts first, reflecting the methodological empiricism also visible in his typological work.

The use of mass comparison as a tool for establishing genealogical relationships between languages is rejected by most historical linguists (Campbell 2001:45). Among the most outspoken critics of mass comparison have been Lyle Campbell, Donald Ringe, William Poser, and the late R. Larry Trask.

Genetic classification of languages

The languages of Africa

Main articles: Languages of Africa, The Languages of Africa (book), Afroasiatic languages, Nilo-Saharan languages, Niger–Congo languages, Khoisan languages.

Greenberg is widely known for his development of a new classification system for the languages of Africa, which he published as a series of articles in the Southwestern Journal of Anthropology from 1949 to 1954 (reprinted together as a book in 1955) and, in a heavily revised form, in 1963, followed by a nearly identical edition in 1966 (reprinted without change in 1970). A few further changes to the classification were made by Greenberg in an article in 1981.

Greenberg grouped the hundreds of African languages into just four families, which he dubbed Afroasiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Niger–Congo, and Khoisan. In the course of this work, Greenberg coined the term "Afroasiatic" to replace the earlier term "Hamito-Semitic," after showing that Hamitic, widely accepted since the 19th century, is not a valid language family. Another major feature of his work was to classify the Bantu languages, which occupy much of sub-Saharan Africa, as a branch of the newly identified Niger–Congo language family rather than as an independent family.

Greenberg's classification rested in part on earlier classifications, making new macrogroups by joining already established families through mass comparison. His classification was for a time considered very bold and speculative, especially the proposal of a Nilo-Saharan languages family. Now it is generally accepted by African specialists and has been used as a basis for further work by other scholars.

Greenberg's work on African languages has been criticised by Lyle Campbell and Donald Ringe, who do not believe that his classification is justified by his data; they request a reexamination of his macro-phyla by "reliable methods" (Ringe 1993:104). Even Harold Fleming and Lionel Bender, who are sympathetic to Greenberg's classification, acknowledge that at least some of his macrofamilies (particlularly Nilo-Saharan and Khoisan) are not fully accepted by the linguistic community and may need to be split up (Campbell 1997). Their objection is methodological: if mass comparison is not a valid method, it cannot be expected to successfully have brought order out of the chaos of African languages.

In contrast, some linguists have sought to combine Greenberg's four African families into larger units. In particular, Edgar Gregersen (1972) proposed joining Niger–Congo and Nilo-Saharan into a larger family, which he termed Kongo-Saharan, while Roger Blench (1995) suggests Niger–Congo is a subfamily of Nilo-Saharan.

The languages of New Guinea, Tasmania, and the Andaman Islands

Main articles: Indo-Pacific languages, Trans–New Guinea languages, Papuan languages

In 1971 Greenberg proposed the Indo-Pacific macrofamily, which groups together the Papuan languages (a large number of language families of New Guinea and nearby islands) with the native languages of the Andaman Islands and Tasmania but excludes the Australian Aboriginal languages. Its principal feature was to reduce the manifold language families of New Guinea to a single genetic unit, with the exception of the Austronesian languages spoken there, which are known to result from a more recent migration. Greenberg's subgrouping of these languages has not been accepted by the few specialists who have worked on the classification of these languages since, in particular Stephen Wurm (1982) and Malcolm Ross (2005), but their work has provided considerable support for his once-radical idea that these languages form a single genetic unit. Wurm stated that the lexical similarities between Great Andamanese and the West Papuan and Timor–Alor families "are quite striking and amount to virtual formal identity [...] in a number of instances", but considered this to be due to a linguistic substratum.

The languages of the Americas

Most American Indian linguists classify the native languages of the Americas into 150 to 180 independent language families. Some have thought two language families, Eskimo–Aleut and Na-Dené, were somehow distinct, perhaps the results of later movements into the New World. Early on, Greenberg (1957:41, 1960) became convinced that many of the reportedly unrelated languages could be classified into larger groupings. In his 1987 book Language in the Americas, while supporting the Eskimo–Aleut and Na-Dené groupings as distinct, he proposed that all the other Native American languages belong to a single language macro-family, which he termed Amerind.

Language in the Americas has generated lively debate but has been heavily criticized, rejected by most specialists in indigenous languages of the Americas and also by most historical linguists. Specialists find extensive inaccuracies in Greenberg’s examples and they reject his method of multilateral (or mass) comparison upon which the classification is based. They argue that he has not provided a convincing case that the similarities presented as evidence are due to inheritance from an earlier common ancestor rather than being explained by a combination of accidental similarity, errors, excessive semantic latitude in comparisons, borrowings, onomatopoeia, etc.

The languages of northern Eurasia

Main article: Eurasiatic languages

Later in his life, Greenberg proposed that nearly all of the language families of northern Eurasia belong to a single higher-order family, which he called Eurasiatic. The only exception was Yeniseian, which has been related to a wider Dené–Caucasian grouping also including Sino-Tibetan. In 2008 Edward Vajda related Yeniseian to the Na-Dené languages of North America in a Dené–Yeniseian family.

The Eurasiatic grouping resembles the older Nostratic groupings of Holger Pedersen and Vladislav Illich-Svitych by including Indo-European, Uralic, and Altaic. It differs by including Nivkh, Japonic, Korean, and Ainu (which the Nostraticists excluded from comparison because they are single languages rather than language families) and in excluding Afroasiatic. At about this time, Russian Nostraticists, notably Sergei Starostin, constructed a revised version of Nostratic. It was slightly broader than Greenberg's grouping but it also left out Afroasiatic.

Recently, a consensus has been emerging among proponents of the Nostratic hypothesis. Greenberg basically agreed with the Nostratic concept, though he stressed a deep internal division between its northern 'tier' (his Eurasiatic) and a southern 'tier' (principally Afroasiatic and Dravidian). The American Nostraticist Allan Bomhard considers Eurasiatic a branch of Nostratic alongside other branches: Afroasiatic, Elamo-Dravidian, and Kartvelian. Similarly, Georgiy Starostin (2002) arrives at a tripartite overall grouping: he considers Afroasiatic, Nostratic and Elamite to be roughly equidistant and more closely related to each other than to anything else. Sergei Starostin's school has now included Afroasiatic in a broadly defined Nostratic. They reserve the term Eurasiatic to designate the narrower subgrouping, which comprises the rest of the macrofamily. Recent proposals thus differ mainly on the precise placement of Dravidian and Kartvelian.

Greenberg continued to work on this project after he was diagnosed with incurable pancreatic cancer until he died in May 2001. His colleague and former student Merritt Ruhlen ensured the publication of the final volume of his Eurasiatic work (2002) after his death.

Selected works by Joseph H. Greenberg


(Photo-offset reprint of the SJA articles with minor corrections.)

(Heavily revised version of Greenberg 1955. From the same publisher: second, revised edition, 1966; third edition, 1970. All three editions simultaneously published at The Hague by Mouton & Co.)

(Reprinted 1980 and, with a foreword by Martin Haspelmath, 2005.)

Books (editor)

(Second edition 1966.)

Articles, reviews, etc.

(Reprinted in Genetic Linguistics, 2005.)

(In second edition of Universals of Language, 1966: pp. 73–113.)

(Reprinted in Genetic Linguistics, 2005.)


  • Blench, Roger. 1995. "Is Niger–Congo simply a branch of Nilo-Saharan?" In Fifth Nilo-Saharan Linguistics Colloquium, Nice, 24–29 August 1992: Proceedings, edited by Robert Nicolaï and Franz Rottland (1995), 36-49. Köln: Köppe Verlag.
  • Campbell, Lyle. 1997. American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509427-1.
  • Campbell, Lyle. 2001. "Beyond the comparative method." In Historical Linguistics 2001: Selected Papers from the 15th International Conference on Historical Linguistics, Melbourne, 13–-17 August 2001, edited by Barry J. Blake, Kate Burridge, and Jo Taylor.
  • Diamond, Jared. 1997. Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: Norton. ISBN 0-393-03891-2.
  • Mairal, Ricardo and Juana Gil. 2006. Linguistic Universals. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-54552-5.
  • Ross, Malcolm. 2005. "Pronouns as a preliminary diagnostic for grouping Papuan languages." In Papuan Pasts: Cultural, Linguistic and Biological Histories of Papuan-speaking Peoples, edited by Andrew Pawley, Robert Attenborough, Robin Hide, and Jack Golson, pp. 15–66. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.
  • Wurm, Stephen A. 1982. The Papuan Languages of Oceania. Tübingen: Gunter Narr.

See also

  • Linguistic universal
  • Monogenesis (linguistics)
  • Nostratic languages

External links

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