Joseph Greenberg

From Academic Kids

"Joseph Greenberg" may also refer to the director better known as Joseph Green

Joseph Harold Greenberg (May 28, 1915-May 7, 2001) was a prominent and controversial linguist, known for his work in both language classification and typology. He was born in Brooklyn, New York and served for many years on the faculty of Stanford University.


Contributions to linguistics

Language typology

Greenberg's fame rests in part on his seminal contributions to synchronic linguistics and the quest to identify linguistic universals. In the late 1950's, 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 picked up by many other scholars following Greenberg's example and has continued to be an important kind of data-gathering in synchronic linguistics.

African languages

Greenberg is also widely known and respected for his development of a new classification system for African languages, which he published in 1963. The classification was for a time considered very bold and speculative, especially in his proposal of a Nilo-Saharan language family, but is now generally accepted among African historical specialists. In the course of this work, Greenberg coined the term Afroasiatic languages, to replace the former "Hamito-Semitic".

Greenberg's classification was well accepted by historical linguists, who have since used it as a basis for further work. Hal Fleming introduced the Omotic family, and Gregerson proposed the join of Niger-Congo and Nilo-Saharan into a large Kongo-Saharan family, which were in turn accepted by Greenberg.

Languages of the Americas

Later, Greenberg studied the native languages of the Americas, which until then had been classified into hundreds of separate language families. In his 1987 book Language in the Americas, he proposed a broader classification into three major groups: Eskimo-Aleut, Na-Dene, and Amerind. As Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dene were already well established families, he was effectively proposing that all other languages of the Americas formed a single family, Amerind.

This theory is still rejected by many historical linguists. The criticisms are directed not so much to the classification per se, but primarily to the method of mass lexical comparison used to establish it, which most Americanist historical linguists considered inherently unreliable (see below); and to the large number of errors that were claimed to be present in the sources used by Greenberg, such as wrong or non-existent words, incorrect translations, words attributed to the wrong languages, and unsupported or wrong identification of prefixes and suffixes.

While some of these errors (which, according to Greenberg's defenders, only affect a few percent of the data) could conceivably lead to an artificial increase in the similarity measure, others would merely introduce random noise in the measurement, and therefore tend to reduce it — which would only strengthen Greenberg's conclusions. Nevertheless, the allegations of widespread errors in the data along with objections to his methodology have led many linguists to dismiss this part of Greenberg's work as unscholarly and invalid.

Eurasiatic Languages

Later in his life, Greenberg proposed to join many language families of Europe and Asia into a single group called Eurasiatic, fairly similar to Illich-Svitych's older Nostratic proposals but differing in important ways - notably the exclusion of the Afro-Asiatic languages, which has since become popular among Nostraticists as well. He continued to work on this project from the time of his diagnosis with fatal pancreatic cancer until his death.

Greenberg's method of mass comparison

Greenberg proposed a controversial method for finding historical relationships when comparing too many languages for traditional methods of establishing regular sound shifts to be practical - a situation that arises particularly when attempting to establish long-range historical families in regions of the world where few if any lower-level families have been reconstructed, or where linguistic diversity is especially high. This method was enthusiastically embraced by some historical linguists (and many geneticists), but was rejected by most historical linguists. See mass lexical comparison for a fuller discussion.


For criticisms and defenses of specific theories, see the relevant articles (linguistic universals, implicational universal, mass lexical comparison, Niger-Congo languages, Nilo-Saharan languages, Afro-Asiatic languages, Amerind languages, Eurasiatic languages, Indo-Pacific languages.)

  • Greenberg, Joseph H.Linguistics, anthropological theory, cultural anthropology; Africa.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. (1963) Some universals of grammar with particular reference to the order of meaningful elements. In Universals of Language. Cambridge: MIT Press. pp. 73–113.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. (1966) The Languages of Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. (1987) Language in the Americas. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. (2000) Indo-European and its Closest Relatives: the Eurasiatic Language Family – Volume I, Grammar. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. (2002) Indo-European and its Closest Relatives: the Eurasiatic Language Family – Volume II, Lexicon. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

See also

External links


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