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Linguist Greenberg honored for broad contributions to social science

Dubbing him the "dean" of comparative linguistics, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences presented Professor Emeritus Joseph Greenberg with its Talcott Parsons Prize for Social Science at its Dec. 6 meeting at the University of California-Berkeley Faculty Club. Greenberg's controversial work on ancestral languages has provided sweeping theories about human population movements in prehistory as well as a deeper understanding of what is universal in languages.

Greenberg, 82, a professor in the anthropology department, is only the seventh social scientist to receive the award, which was created in 1974 to honor scholars who have contributed broadly to the social sciences. Previous recipients have been anthropologist Clifford Geertz, sociologists Robert Merton and Daniel Bell, historian C. Van Woodward, political scientist Robert Dahl and economist Albert Hirschman.

The committee that selected Greenberg cited his "visionary work in comparative linguistics, first in Africa and the South Pacific, and later in the reclassification of the indigenous languages of the Western Hemisphere." He has also contributed heavily to the typology of languages, reviving and greatly expanding 19th-century interest in universals that occur across them. He continues to publish articles, working almost daily with his many language notebooks and texts at Green Library.

In presenting the award, former UC President Jack Peltason noted that genetic and physiological evidence gathered in recent years has begun to support many of the conclusions about population movements that Greenberg drew from studying the similarities in languages, particularly their grammars. In the 1950s, when he reduced the indigenous languages of Africa to four families, many scholars "resisted on grounds that such deep-time reconstruction was impossible or was a product of sloppy methods," Peltason said. "With the passage of time, criticisms have died out and, although details are still being adjudicated, the main lines of the structure Greenberg laid out nearly 50 years ago have now become received wisdom."

Greenberg's more recent synthesis of Amerindian language roots remains controversial but seems to be congruent with studies of group variation in teeth in the Americas, Peltason said. Greenberg co-authored an influential 1985 article on the settlement of the Americas with C. J. Turner and Steve Zegura in which Turner used the way in which teeth vary among people, such as the size and number of cusps and roots, to support Greenberg's language evidence that modern native Americans were descended from only three different groups.

"However much the details of his several geographical synthesis may require refinement in the years ahead, it seems clear that he has laid out an amazing series of first approximations," the academy selection committee's citation said.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a learned society founded 199 years ago, has 3,000 members elected by their peers for distinguished achievement.


By Kathleen O'Toole

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