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May 28: Classifying Languages

May 31, 2013

=340959.501Linguist Joseph H. Greenberg, the first scholar to present a unified classification of African languages, was born in Brooklyn on this date in 1915. A lifelong pianist, he had his career path determined when he studied with Franz Boas at Columbia University and then with Melville J. Herskovits at Northwestern University in Chicago. During his graduate work, Greenberg went among the Hausa of Nigeria and learned their language. His scholarship was interrupted by World War II, in which he served as a codebreaker in the Army Signal Corps and fought in the 1942 landing at Casablanca. From 1948 to 1962 he taught at Columbia, during which time he produced his Studies in African Linguistic Classification and co-edited the journal Word. Greenberg then moved to Stanford, where he served until 1985 and published The Languages of Africa. Originally, Greenberg argued for sixteen different families of African languages, but later suggested that four would cover them all: Afro-Asiatic; Niger-Kordofanian; Nilo-Saharan; and Khoisan. His classification system has generally been subject to refinement rather than revision over the years. He also offered classifications for Native American languages and for the languages of New Guinea and nearby islands — and posited forty-five universals of word order and inflectional categories for human languages, based on his study of thirty of them. His awards included the Haile Selassie I Prize for African Research, presented to him by the Ethiopian emperor in 1967. For a clear articulation of the course and meaning of his research, click here.

“The ultimate goal is a comprehensive classification of what is very likely a single language family. The implications of such a classification for the origin and history of our species would, of course, be very great.” —Joseph H. Greenberg