Joseph Greenberg; Linguist Who Classified Languages of Africa


Joseph H. Greenberg, a Stanford University anthropological linguist respected by colleagues for his classification of African languages but reviled by some for his similar treatment of Native American tongues, has died at the age of 85.

Greenberg, who recently explored common threads linking European and Asian languages, died May 7 in Palo Alto of pancreatic cancer.

Intrigued by language since his multilingual Brooklyn childhood, Greenberg became a familiar figure at Stanford’s Green Library, where he meticulously hand-recorded similarities of words found in books printed in various languages.

Greenberg published “The Languages of Africa” shortly after arriving at Stanford in 1962. He chaired the university’s anthropology department from 1971 to 1974 and the Committee on African Studies from 1964 to 1981. Although he retired from teaching 15 years ago, Greenberg continued his daily study of humanity’s linguistic family tree.


Last year, he published his initial work on “Eurasiatic,” after completing research indicating common threads in all languages from Portugal to Japan.

Greenberg’s methodical grouping of language families--four in Africa, three in America and seven in Europe and Asia--a few believe, point toward a single mother tongue that may yet be proved. He saw a possible global origin, for example, in certain words such as the universal habit of holding up a single finger to express “one.”

But, although he was one of the few linguists inducted into the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, Greenberg’s work never met automatic approval. His classification of African languages was accepted only after several years of scholarly challenges.

His work on Native American languages has been far more controversial, with his most vociferous naysayer insisting that he be “shouted down.” The jury is still out on his Eurasiatic concept.


Often, Greenberg’s fellow anthropologists and linguists have squabbled more over his scientific methodology than his conclusions.

As Science magazine once explained, Greenberg operated from a “top down approach,” sorting all languages for which recorded data exist into major groups. His critics, by contrast, used a “bottom up approach,” studying in detail a few languages at a time, building up historical relationships, hoping to find the big picture.

“I took 30 or 40 common words from a number of main Indian languages,” Greenberg told The Times in 1983 shortly after positing his American lingual theory, “and looked for forms that resembled one another.”

Several hundred Indian languages, he said as an example, shared an “N” sound as part of the first-person “I” and an “M” sound as part of the second-person “you.”

“You see this in hundreds and hundreds of languages and dialects,” he said. “How can that be an accident?”

Greenberg’s theory claims that all of the more than 1,000 languages found in North and South America fall into three major groups, signifying three migrations from the Siberian area across the Bering Strait into the Americas.

Largest is Amerind, encompassing 95% of North and South America stemming from the first migration about 15,000 years ago. The second group, migrating about 6,000 years ago, is Na-Dene or Athabascan, covering the Pacific Northwest and including the Apache and Navajo nations. The third, migrating 4,000 years ago, is the Eskimo-Aleut, covering Alaska and the Northern rim of Canada.

Greenberg’s critics argued, however, that Amarind represents not one but as many as 200 core languages, suggesting wave after wave of migration, dating as long as 50,000 years ago.


That many waves of migration, Greenberg once quipped, would have required “a traffic controller at the Bering Strait.”

Concurrent and subsequent research by geneticists and dental anthropologists have further substantiated Greenberg’s theory and even indicated that his three supposed migrations may have been only one or two.

Greenberg considered a career as a classical pianist but earned anthropology degrees at Columbia and Northwestern universities. After serving in Army intelligence during World War II, he taught at the University of Minnesota for two years and at Columbia for 12 before moving to Stanford.

He was president of the West African Linguistic Society, the African Studies Assn. and the Linguistic Society of America. Among his awards were the Haile Selassie Prize for African Research in 1967 and the Academy of Arts & Sciences Talcott Parsons Prize for Social Science in 1997.

Greenberg is survived by his wife, Selma.