University of Pennsylvania
In John Webster Spargo’s 1931 translation of Holger Pedersen’s contribution to the genre of Disziplingeschichte, readers are introduced to a legion of mostly well-bearded men, marching toward the ‘discovery’ of the Comparative Method. Summing up his approach to nineteenth-century developments, Pedersen writes: “Evolution of method and expansion of material went on side by side, with constant reciprocal influence. But in the following treatment, the two sides of the growth of our science will be considered separately.” This way of writing the history of linguistics—differentiating substrate from substance—has had enduring appeal, with emphasis given primarily to the latter. In what follows, I attempt to reunite the material and intellectual ‘sides’ of linguistic research, paying attention to the ‘constant reciprocal influence’ between Joseph Greenberg’s (1915-2001) comparative notebooks, on the one hand, and his inclusive genetic hypotheses, on the other.
Greenberg’s training, like his subsequent linguistic research, was staggeringly broad by contemporary standards. Not only was he an accomplished musician (see the previous hiphilangsci post for more on the productive exchange between music and linguistics), his work bore the imprint of early exposure to American structuralism, European structuralism, comparative-historical linguistics, logical positivism, and cultural anthropology as well. Furthermore, Greenberg was committed to exploring intersections between (what came to be) linguistics and various allied disciplines, which provided crucial reinforcements to his own theories in return. As he wrote in the preface to Essays in Linguistics in 1957:
In the nature of things, problems as diverse as those dealt with here often have solutions which do not depend on one another. If there is any single point of view that runs through the whole, it is that further substantial progress in linguistics requires the abandonment of its traditional isolationism, one for which there was formerly much justification, in favor of a willingness to explore connections in other directions. The borderline areas most prominent in the present essays are those with logic, mathematics, anthropology, and psychology, but of course, others exist.
Autonomy was won from philology and anthropology only to beg the question of their newly interdisciplinary significance. Despite such breadth of research outlook, Greenberg is best remembered for two contributions—to linguistic typology and genetic classification. Nor were these disconnected. As others have noted, Greenberg regarded the work of genetic classification as a necessary preliminary to typological analysis, in which he sought to identify universal phenomena through constraints on cross-linguistic variation (ranging over distinct family and areal groupings, once established), rather than cross-linguistic uniformity.
My remarks in what follows will focus on three of Greenberg’s genetic studies—concerning the Indo-Pacific, Amerind, and Eurasian hypotheses—setting to one side his most celebrated work on the languages of Africa. Each one of these cases represents Greenberg’s irrepressible research style. As he told Peter Thomas in a 1994 interview looking back on the African classification, “I’m attracted…to areas of the world in which classification has not yet been accomplished to people’s satisfaction. There are always new etymologies to be discovered…it’s very much like detective work.” Just how was this detective work to be carried out? He continued,
In Africa…it seemed to me that the sensible thing was to actually look at all of the languages. I usually had preliminary notebooks in which I took those elements of a language, which, on the whole, we know are the most stable over time…I would look at a very large number of languages in regard to these matters, and I did find that they fell into quite obvious groupings.
Two aspects of this recollection stand out to me: Greenberg’s allusion to the controversial method of multilateral comparison, and his introduction of the comparative notebooks. Read more ›