Joseph Greenberg

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Joseph Harold Greenberg (born May 28, 1915 in Brooklyn, New York , † May 7, 2001 in Stanford (California) ) was an American linguist . He is equally known for his achievements in language typology (research on universals ) and in the classification of the languages ​​of Africa, America, Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific region. In the second half of the 20th century he was - together with Noam Chomsky  - one of the most influential linguists in the world. For many years he researched and taught as a professor at Stanford University .

Live and act

Greenberg was the son of the Polish and Yiddish- speaking father Jacob Greenberg (* 1881), a pharmacist, and his German- speaking wife Florence Pilzer (* 1891), both married since June 14, 1914. He studied from 1932 under Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict at Columbia University . During this time, the languages ​​of the indigenous Americans were the focus of his interest. Then he went to Chicago to Melville J. Herskovits , who taught at Northwestern University . Here he began to turn to the Nigerian languages, such as Hausa , which he also learned. His studies were interrupted by World War II, during which he served as a cryptanalyst , codebreaker in the Army Signal Corps . He was involved in the landing in Casablanca in 1942 ( Operation Torch ). After the war, he became Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota in 1948 , where he familiarized himself with the work of Roman Jakobson , André Martinet and the structuralism of the Prague School . He was later appointed professor at Columbia University, an activity he held until 1962, during which time he studied the African languages ​​in particular. He was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences (1965), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1973), and the American Philosophical Society (1975).

Greenberg was a musical person and gave piano concerts at Steinway Hall from the age of fourteen . He died of hepatocellular carcinoma .

Contributions to the language typology

Greenberg became known for his fundamental contributions to language typology, especially to universals research. Since the 1950s, he has been investigating large language corpora with regard to “ linguistic universals ”, ie linguistic features occurring worldwide in phonology , morphology , syntax and semantics . In particular, he established the idea of "linguistic implication" that comes to statements of the following kind: "When a language for a specific structural feature X has, it must also have the feature Y." (For example: "When a language a dual has , it also has a plural . ")

Contributions to the classification of languages

African languages

Greenberg is generally known and recognized for his fundamentally new classification of African languages , which he began in 1948 and finally formulated in 1963 after many intermediate stages. This new approach was bold and sometimes speculative for its time, especially with regard to the group of Nilo-Saharan languages . He coined the term “Afro-Asian” as a replacement for the ambiguous and burdened term “Hamito-Semitic”. His division of the African languages ​​into the four phyla

was the basis of all further classificatory work in African studies since 1963. While the genetic unity of the Afro-Asian and Niger-Congo is undisputed today, the Khoisan group must be regarded as an areal linguistic union with mainly typological similarities (for example the Schnalz- / Clicks ). Nilosaharan is particularly under discussion, which some specialists (LM Bender, C. Ehret, H. Fleming) understand as a genetic unit with a reconstructable proto- language, while other researchers see it as merely a linguistic union, the core of which, however, is a genetic unit represents. (The current discussion concerns the size of this core.)

For more on Greenberg's achievements, especially in African studies, see the article African languages .

Indo-Pacific languages

In 1971, Greenberg proposed the Indo-Pacific Macro Family, which includes the Papua languages (the non-Austronesian languages ​​of New Guinea and neighboring islands), the Andaman and Tasmanian languages ​​and consists of the following subgroups:

  • Andaman (the languages ​​of the indigenous Andaman Negrito people)
  • Tasmanian (the languages ​​of the indigenous Tasmanian people who were exterminated in the 19th century)
  • Nuclear New Guinea (Central, North, South, Southwest New Guinea)
  • West Papua (West New Guinea, North Halmahera, Timor-Alor)
  • East New Guinea
  • Northeast New Guinea
  • Pacific (Bougainville, New Britain, Central Melanesian)

This classification - which does not include the Australian languages ​​- goes back to similar concepts by A. Trombetti ( Glottologia 1923). Today it is almost completely discarded and does not serve as a working hypothesis for the linguists involved in these languages. While the Andaman and Tasmanian languages ​​each represent a genetic unit , the Papua languages, as far as we know today, are divided into a dozen independent language families, the core of which is the Trans- New Guinea phylum , and some isolated languages . The relationships between the so-called Papua languages ​​have not yet been conclusively clarified.

American languages

Greenberg then examined the indigenous languages ​​of America, which, according to the majority of relevant research, are broken down into hundreds of genetic units and isolated languages. His result, published in 1987, is the division of all American languages into only three genetic groups:

  • Eskimo-Aleut ( Eskimo with Inuit / Inuktitut, Yupik, Sirenik and Aleut / Unangan)
  • Na-Dené (Haida, Tlingit and Eyak-Athabaskan)
  • Amerindian (all of the rest of all indigenous American languages)

This trisection is supported by human genetic studies by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and by archaeological research that shows that these three groups immigrated to America from Siberia at different times, most recently the Eskimos. While Eskimo-Aleut and, in principle, Na-Dené as well, had long been recognized as genetic units, the concept of the Amerindian languages ​​found no support among most Americanists. The presentation by Lyle Campbell , American Indian Languages ​​(1997) , with well over 200 separate genetic groups and many isolated languages is typical of today's American studies .

The massive Americanist criticism was not only directed at Greenberg's classification result, but above all his method of lexical mass comparison , in which the classification results from the comparison of words and morphemes from a very large group of languages. Here are word equations established and derived from these classifications; the establishment of sound laws and the reconstruction of proto-languages ​​is then a second step that confirms, refines or refutes the results of the previous classification hypothesis. (Greenberg usually left this second step to others.) Greenberg had already used the method of mass comparison in his now largely accepted classification of African languages. Ultimately, it is also the method by which researchers recognized the genetic unit and structure of Indo-European or Finno-Ugric long before phonetic laws were established or proto-languages ​​were reconstructed.

In addition, Greenberg was accused of numerous errors in his data, such as incorrect or nonexistent words, use of distorted or overstretched meanings, words that were assigned to the wrong languages, incorrect decomposition of the word material into prefixes, word kernel and suffixes. Although Greenberg defended his method in several essays and also showed that many allegations were incorrect (these essays are summarized in Greenberg 2005), one must admit that Greenberg's approach to American Indian has largely failed, according to today's assessment of most Americanists. Only medium-sized units of its classification could be confirmed by further research, which is already a great step forward given today's fragmented linguistic landscape in America. The demonstration or final refutation of the relationship of larger language groups in America will certainly require a few more decades of intensive linguistic field work and comparative research, if this is not made prematurely impossible by the alarmingly rapid extinction of Indian languages ​​that can already be observed today.

Eurasian languages

At the end of his life, Greenberg devoted himself to the languages ​​of Eurasia and formed a new macro family from various European, Asian and North American language families and isolated languages ​​of Siberia, which, however, has great similarities with the nostratic hypothesis and goes back to predecessors from the 19th and early 20th centuries . Greenberg belongs to the Eurasian :

The difference with the Nostra tables is, in particular, that the Nostra tables as opposed to the Eurasian Kartwelische and Dravidian includes, but not the smaller Siberian groups and individual languages. The Afro-Asian , which used to be a regular part of the nostratic - including Dolgopolsky 1998 - is now also viewed by representatives of the nostratic as a “sister phylum” rather than a subfamily, which means that the approaches of “Eurasian” and “nostratic” have come closer together, especially since newer considerations in addition to the nostratic, also consider the Siberian languages.

Greenberg calls his work on Eurasian something provocative Indo-European and its Closest Relatives . It is too early to judge the success of this very broad hypothesis. Classical Indo-Europeanists reject these conclusions because they reach into too great a time depth, so that the material can no longer be meaningful enough. In Mother Tongue VI (2001), John D. Bengtson gives a detailed positive review of the first volume (Grammar, 2000). He closes with the words: While one could quibble about certain details, there is no doubt, that Greenberg's grammatical evidence for Eurasiatic is a monumental achievement and a fitting capstone to his life's work as the supreme linguistic taxonomist of all time.

As with Amerind, Greenberg compared related words as well as grammatical elements in Eurasian, the similarities of which are in part quite convincing (especially in Indo-European, Ural and Altaic), and which can not be easily explained using the concepts of Sprachbund and Borrowing .

Major works by Joseph Greenberg

  • 1949–1950 Studies in African Linguistic Classification. 7 parts. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.
  • 1957 Essays in Linguistics. The University of Chicago Press.
  • 1963 The Languages ​​of Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • 1963 Some Universals of Grammar with Particular Reference to the Order of Meaningful Elements.
    In: Joseph Greenberg (Ed.): Universals of Language. , pp. 58-90. MIT Press Cambridge.
  • 1971 The Indo-Pacific Hypothesis. CTIL 8. (Reprinted in Greenberg 2005.)
  • 1974 Language Typology. A Historical and Analytical Overview. Mouton The Hague-Paris.
  • 1987 Language in the Americas . Stanford University Press.
  • 2000 Indo-European and Its Closest Relatives: The Eurasiatic Language Family. Volume I: Grammar. Stanford University Press.
  • 2002 Indo-European and Its Closest Relatives: The Eurasiatic Language Family. Volume II: Lexicon. Stanford University Press.
  • 2005 Genetic Linguistics: Essays on Theory and Method. Edited by William Croft. Oxford University Press.


See also

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Nicholas Wade: What We All Spoke When the World Was Young. New York Times, February 1, 2000 ( February 16, 2006 memento on the Internet Archive )
  2. 1940 US Census. Census Records
  3. All Census & Voter Lists results for Pilzer
  4. American National Biography. Joseph Greenberg
  5. ^ Jewish Currents. ( Memento from July 14, 2014 in the Internet Archive )