Joseph Greenberg

Joseph Greenberg bigraphy, stories - Linguists

Joseph Greenberg : biography

May 28, 1915 – May 7, 2001

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


Early life and education

(Main source: Croft 2003)

Joseph 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 in 1943, Greenberg 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.

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.) 

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 conceptualized the idea 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). Many scholars took up this kind of research following Greenberg’s example and it remains important in synchronic linguistics.

Like Noam Chomsky, Greenberg sought to discover the universal structures underlying human language. Unlike Chomsky, Greenberg’s approach was "functionalist", rather than formalism. An argument to reconcile the Greenbergian and Chomskyan approaches can be found in Linguistic Universals (2006), edited by Ricardo Mairal and Juana Gil .

Many who are strongly opposed to Greenberg’s methods of language classification (see below) acknowledge the importance of his typological work. In 1963 he published an article that was extremely influential in the field: .