Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, May 11, 2001
Joseph Greenberg, student of world languages, dies at 85

Joseph H. Greenberg, the Ray Lyman Wilbur Professor of Social Science, Emeritus, and a linguist who studied the origins of the world's languages, died May 7 at his campus home. He was 85.

The cause of death was pancreatic cancer, said his wife, Selma.

Greenberg's study of both the structure of language and the similarities between different languages gained him worldwide recognition.

"The most remarkable thing about Joe was the breadth of his acquaintance with the world's languages," said James A. Fox, associate professor of anthropological sciences, who had collaborated with Greenberg. "I don't know anyone else who had that kind of command of linguistic types."

Greenberg's range of knowledge was unusual, even for a linguist, Fox pointed out. He used this faculty for languages to tackle two sets of issues: the structure of languages, and the relationship of languages to each other.

In the first part of his career, Greenberg focused on understanding how languages are organized, doing pioneering work in the field of typology.

Greenberg brought a new vision to the field, publishing books such as Language Universals with Special Reference to Feature Hierarchies. "In the 1960s, he did work that established certain universal principles of language structure that excited the entire world," Fox said. For example, Greenberg was able to give evidence that every language that contains nasalized vowels also contains non-nasalized vowels in an equal or greater number.

From then on, Greenberg developed an impressive correspondence with international scholars trying to piece together the rules of language organization.

But it was his work on language families that sparked controversy in fields ranging from linguistics to biology.

Greenberg wondered about the common origins of language: Could all languages be shown to derive from a handful of common roots? Greenberg set about classifying languages into families and testing similarities in their vocabularies by keeping dozens of notebooks filled with different words for the same thing. He began with the area of the world he was most familiar with from his initial studies in anthropology, Africa.

"Reading vocabulary after vocabulary, he was able to push the classification of African language much deeper than it had ever gone before," Fox said. Greenberg determined that there are four basic groups, or phyla, of African languages. Many scholars accepted this work, Fox reported. Greenberg published Languages of Africa in 1963.

However, when Greenberg proceeded to do the same kind of study of the Americas -- which he wrote about in Language in the Americas -- specialists lined up to oppose his work. Later scientists, led by Stanford genetics Professor Luigi L. Cavalli-Sforza, found evidence supporting Greenberg's theory that there are three groups of Native American languages -- a research team discovered that likenesses in specific genes reflected the unity of the groups.

Greenberg most recently labored to prove the links between what he called "Eurasiatic" languages -- claiming that most of the languages of Europe and Asia, ranging from English to Korean, had common threads.

He retired from full time work 15 years ago, but continued to go to the library and his office daily.

Fox recalled the huge stretches of time Greenberg spent in Green Library. "The whole point of his work was he had to pick out of the shelves a book on some language and take copious notes on its structure and vocabulary," he said. "He had to be near the books."

"Joe was the epitome of the dedicated scholar," remarked James Lowell Gibbs Jr., the Martin Luther King Jr. Centennial Professor, Emeritus. "You'd see him every morning going off to the library and every afternoon coming back."

Born May 28, 1915 in Brooklyn, N.Y., Greenberg was a gifted boy who considered becoming a classical pianist. According to his wife, he played a concert at Carnegie Hall's annex when he was only 15 years old.

But the academic world beckoned. In 1936, Greenberg graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia College and went on to study anthropology at Northwestern University, where he earned his doctorate in 1940. After a wartime stint in the Army Signal Intelligence Corps and a brief period of teaching at the University of Minnesota, he became a professor at his alma mater, Columbia.

Stanford hired him as a full professor in 1962. Greenberg served as chair of the Anthropology Department from 1971 to 1974. From 1964 to 1981, he was also chairman of the Committee on African Studies. "Even though he was devoted to his scholarship, he was a good citizen," said Gibbs, remarking on Greenberg's administrative contributions.

Greenberg was a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was president of the Linguistic Society of America in 1976.

Among the many prizes and awards that Greenberg received, the Academy of Arts and Sciences' Talcott Parsons Prize for Social Science in 1997 was one of the most prestigious. But the Haile Selassie I Prize for African Research was one of the most colorful: It was decorated by the Ethiopian emperor himself and occupied a prominent place in Greenberg's office, Fox said.

Greenberg is survived by his wife, Selma. She plans to direct donations to a prize fund in Greenberg's name for undergraduates studying anthropology. A memorial service is planned at Memorial Church, but a time has not yet been arranged.

Joseph H. Greenberg