The language superfamilies of the Old World, as defined by Joseph Greenberg and Merritt Ruhlen. The Basque and Burushaski languages, shown by arrows 1 and 2, are entirely unrelated to their neighbors and may be relicts of more ancient languages. Ket (arrow 3) may be the mother tongue of the Na-Dene languages of North America. Greenberg was not formally an outsider to the linguistic establishment. He served as president of the Linguistic Society of America and was one of the few linguists to have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Aside from his work on classification, he founded a subfield of linguistics known as typology, to do with universal patterns of order in the grammatical elements of language. His 1962 article on typology is said to be the most widely cited in the history of linguistics. Greenberg's training, however, was not in linguistics but social anthropology. He did fieldwork studying the ethnography of pagan cults among the Hausa-speaking people of west Africa, spent the years from 1940 to 1945 in the Army Signal Intelligence Corps, mostly decrypting Italian code, and after the war turned his attention to the interrelationship of African languages.

These had been largely the purview of English and French linguists who had classified them with the help of various criteria, like the physical type of the speakers, that Greenberg deemed irrelevant to language origins. He developed his own, purely linguistic method, which he later called mass comparison. It was based on comparing grammar and some 300 items of vocabulary, such as pronouns and words for parts of the body, that as Swadesh had found are less prone to linguistic change. Greenberg would fill notebooks with lists of languages down the left column and word meanings along the top, and simply search in his mind's eye for relationships.

He started out with Hausa, trying to see what other languages it might be related to by comparing common words and deciding if the languages fell into groups. Over the space of 5 years, Greenberg kept arranging the 1,500 then known languages of Africa into larger and larger assemblies, until he had grouped them into just 16 superfamilies, and finally only four. He put the odd and ancient click languages of southern Africa into the group named Khoisan. The languages of central Africa, including the widely spoken Bantu languages, he assigned to a group he called Niger-Kordofanian. He decided that the Bantu languages must have originated in west Africa, because that is where their diversity is greatest. From that it followed that the present-day Bantu languages, which are distributed down the west and east coasts of Africa, must have arisen from a migration out of the homeland that had split into two streams, one going directly down the west coast, the other crossing the breadth of Africa and then turning south down the east coast. This inference was later confirmed by archaeologists.

Greenberg's third group was Nilo-Saharan, a family of languages spoken by Nilotic peoples like the Nuer and the Dinka as well as by people of the Saharan region and by the Songhay of west Africa. The fourth group of languages, spoken in a swath across northern Africa, he named Afroasiatic. This family includes Berber of northwestern Africa, ancient Egyptian, and Semitic, a branch to which belong Arabic, Hebrew and Akkadian, the extinct language of the Assyrians and Babylonians. Greenberg's sweeping classification of African languages has stood the test of time and is broadly accepted, although scholars continue to rearrange the furniture. The African languages are of particular interest because of their diversity and presumed antiquity. At the latest count some 2,035 are now known, of which 35 belong to the Khoisan family, 1,436 to Niger-Congo (a new name for Greenberg's Niger-Kordofanian),

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