May 28, 1915–May 7, 2001
BY WILLIAM CROFT
JOSEPH H. GREENBERG, ONE OF THE most original and influential linguists of the 20th century, died at his home in Stanford, California, on May 7, 2001, three weeks before his 86th birthday. Greenberg was a major pioneer in the development of linguistics as an empirical science. He came of intellectual age at a time when linguistics was establishing itself as an independent academic discipline, and helped to shape the field. Greenberg’s work was always founded directly on quantitative data from a single language or from a wide range of languages. His chief legacy to contemporary linguistics lies in the areas of language universals and historical linguistics. Greenberg is the founder of the modern typological approach to language universals, in which language universals are discovered inductively by the examination of a worldwide sample of languages, and explained in terms of the function of language, including the meanings conveyed by grammatical structures and constraints imposed by our abilities to comprehend and produce utterances. The typological approach has been tremendously influential, and is often compared to the generative approach of
This is a revised version of an obituary that appeared in Language 77(2001):815-830 and is used by permission of the Linguistic Society of America.