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Joseph Greenberg

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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 linguisticsEdit

Language typologyEdit

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 languagesEdit

African languagesEdit

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 largely based on earlier classifications, making new macrogroups by joining already established families - based on his method of mass comparison. The classifaction has been used as a basis for further work and some historical linguists have proposed even broader proposals of African language families. Hal Fleming introduced the Omotic family, and Gregersen proposed the joining of Niger-Congo and Nilo-Saharan into a large Kongo-Saharan family, which were in turn accepted by Greenberg, though in the case of Kongo-Saharan only implicitly.

Greenberg's work on African languages has been criticised by historical linguists Lyle Campbell and Donald Ringe, who do not feel that his classification is justified by his data and request a reexamination of his macro-phyla by "reliable methods" (Ringe 1993:104). Even Fleming and Bender, who are sympathetic to Greenberg's clasification, 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)

Indo-Pacific languagesEdit

In 1971 Greenberg proposed the Indo-Pacific languages super-family, which groups together the Papuan languages (several language families spoken in Papua New Guinea and nearby regions which are not Austronesian) together with the native languages of Tasmania and the Andaman Islands, but excludes Australian Aboriginal languages. This grouping is considered by most linguists to be highly speculative and is not accepted by anyone working on Papuan or Tasmanian languages.

Languages of the AmericasEdit

Later, Greenberg studied the native languages of the Americas, which most linguists classify 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-Dené, and Amerind. As Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dené were already well established families, he was effectively proposing that all other languages of the Americas formed a single family, Amerind.

This theory is rejected and has been soundly criticized by most historical linguists. The criticisms are directed not so much toward the classification per se, but primarily to the method of mass lexical comparison used to establish it, which the majority of historical linguists consider inherently unreliable (see below); and toward 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 LanguagesEdit

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 pancreatic cancer until his death.

Greenberg's method of mass comparisonEdit

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, on account of what is perceived as pseudoscience by mainstream scholars. See mass lexical comparison for a fuller discussion.

Works by Joseph H. Greenberg Edit

  • 1963. "Some universals of grammar with particular reference to the order of meaningful elements," in Universals of Language, pp. 73–113. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • 1966. The Languages of Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • 1987. Language in the Americas. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • 2000. Indo-European and Its Closest Relatives: The Eurasiatic Language Family. Volume I: Grammar. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • 2002. Indo-European and Its Closest Relatives: The Eurasiatic Language Family. Volume II: Lexicon. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • 2005. Genetic Linguistics: Essays on Theory and Method, edited by William Croft. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

See also Edit

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


  • Campbell, Lyle (1997). American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America (Oxford Studies in Anthropological Linguistics, 4), New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-195-09427-1.
  • Ringe, Donald A. (1993). A reply to Professor Greenberg. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society Vol 137: 91-109.

External linksEdit

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