A distinguished anthropologist and linguist, Joseph Harold Greenberg was most well-known for his work in universals of language and comparative language studies. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, on May 28, 1915, and died from pancreatic cancer on May 7, 2001. He was gifted musically, taught himself Hebrew, and in high school studied Latin and German while learning Greek on his own. He taught himself Classical Arabic in college. He graduated from Columbia in 1936 and received his PhD from Northwestern in 1940. He then served in the Army Signal Intelligence Corps for 5 years, taught for a year at the University of Minnesota, and taught at Columbia from 1948 to 1962. In 1962, he went to Stanford as a full professor, served as chair of the anthropology department from 1971 to 1974, and served as chair of the Committee on African Studies from 1964 to 1981.
During the academic year 1958 to 1959, Joseph Greenberg, James J. Jenkins, and Charles E. Osgood drew up a memorandum on universals in language at the request of a staff member, Joseph B. Casagrande, of the Social Science Research Council. That memorandum provided a framework for studying universals of language and was the organizing document for the Conference of Language Universals held in New York, April 13 to 15, in 1961. Ten papers presented at this meeting were published in Universals of Language, in 1963, which Greenberg both contributed to and edited. Greenberg’s contribution, titled “Some Universals of Grammar With Particular Reference to the Order of Meaningful Elements,” discusses 45 universals of language grouped into the following categories: basic order, syntax, and morphology. One of the most important notions that came out of the Conference of Language Universals was the concept of implicational language universals. Such universals can be generalized as “If a language has Structure X, then it must also have Structure Y.” For example, Greenberg writes, “If a language is exclusively suffixing, it is postpositional. If it is exclusively prefixing, it is prepositional.” Studies in language typology—which is concerned with understanding the structure of language at all linguistic levels: phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and discourse—were profoundly influenced by the papers that came from the Conference of Language Universals.
In 1963, Greenberg published Languages of Africa, which provided a linguistic basis for grouping Africa’s 1,200-plus languages into 4 language families: Afro-Asiatic, Khoisan, Niger-Kordofanian, and Nilo-Saharan. Greenberg used a method called “mass comparison” to determine language family groupings. This method has been criticized by some linguists. Despite the criticism, his classification of African languages is still widely accepted.
Greenberg also classified native languages of the Americas into three families: Eskimo-Aleut, Na-Dene, and Amerind. He published his findings in Languages in the Americas. Despite supporting evidence from genetic studies and archaeology, this classification of Native American languages continues to be debated by many scholars.
Greenberg’s ultimate goal was to compare all the world’s languages, which he believed were genetically related to each other.
- Greenberg, J. H. (1963). Languages of Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Greenberg, J. H. (Ed.). (1966). Universals of language (2nd ed.). Cambridge: MIT Press.
- Greenberg, J. H. (1987). Languages of the Americas. Stanford, CA: Stanford, University Press.