The journal WORD, and Greenberg and Jakobson in New York (1948-49)

I recently published a paper in WORD (“Defining the word”), and this made me curious about the fascinating history of this journal. It turns out that it has close links with the Greenberg-Jakobson connection that I have been interested in for quite some time. My long-standing interest in asymmetric coding patterns (e.g. Haspelmath 2021) was kindled by Croft’s (1990) “typological markedness”, which is based on Greenberg (1966), a major contribution to typology that was largely overlooked for a long time (unlike his 1963 paper, which became famous fast). In turn, Joseph Greenberg (1915-2001) was clearly influenced by Roman Jakobson  (1896-1982), from whom he adopted the term “markedness”.

But in what context did the Greenberg-Jakobson encounter happen? I had long known that they were both in New York in the late 1940s, but it was only more recently that I learned about the connection with the journal WORD.

WORD is not a prominent linguistics journal anymore, but it used to be prominent in earlier times – Berko’s famous “wug test” study was published there (in 1958), as was Ferguson’s influential “diglossia” article (in 1959), to name the two most famous papers. WORD was founded in 1945 and soon attracted papers by leading linguists such as Martinet, Jakobson, Swadesh, Householder, Nida, Sebeok, and Voegelin. There was also a paper by the famous anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in the very first issue («L’analyse structurale en linguistique et en anthropologie »).

Like Language, the LSA’s journal, WORD was the journal of a scholarly society: The Linguistic Circle of New York, which was founded in 1943 during the war (and Nazi occupation of much of Europe) mostly by European emigrés as a kind of substitute for the Prague linguistic circle and the Société de Linguistique de Paris. Roman Jakobson and André Martinet were leading members from Europe, but other well-known émigrés were Leslau, Bonfante, Spitzer, Menges, and Garvin (Garvin was still professor of linguistics in Buffalo when I was an exchange student there in 1987). It appears that Jakobson was a driving figure behind the foundation of the Circle of New York in 1943 (two years after he escaped from Europe in 1941), as he had been an active member of both the Moscow linguistic circle and the Prague circle (see Thomas 2011 for a beautiful description of the role of these circles in Jakobson’s life and career).

Greenberg (who grew up in Brooklyn) had been a student of Boas’s at Columbia and of Bloomfield’s at Yale (though his PhD was eventually in anthropology from Northwestern), but when he got an appointment in anthropology at Columbia in 1948, he started attending the regular meetings of the Linguistic Circle, and he got to know Jakobson, Martinet and the other Europeans very well. In a 1994 memoir, he writes about the meetings of the Circle:

„Many of the [Circle’s] members pretty much felt themselves, as it were, European exiles in a largely hostile American milieu. It was clear that Roman Jakobson and Martinet were the leading figures and that the Prague approach was the major, although not the exclusive, point of view represented. This was symbolized, as it were by the fact that, if my recollection is correct, after every paper Jakobson would stand up and deliver a fairly lengthy critique. He was then followed by Martinet who did the same. When Jakobson left for Harvard, soon after I arrived at Columbia, this role devolved on Martinet alone.“ (Greenberg 1994: 19)

So it was clearly in this context that Greenberg first met Jakobson and learned about markedness, a concept that was created by Jakobson and Trubetzkoy in the Prague School context and was not used by Bloomfield or the post-Bloomfieldians. While the Linguistic Circle of New York was originally founded from within the École libre des hautes études (ELHE) and met in one of its lecture rooms (at the New School on West 12th Street), a new place had to be found when the ELHE was closed in 1946 (see Testenoire 2022), and according to Greenberg, the meetings took place at the French consulate (apparently at 934 Fifth Avenue).

In the first few volumes of WORD, there are some reports of the meetings that took place. One report, for example, summarizes Jakobson’s commentary on a talk by anthropologist G. Herzog (Greenberg’s predecessor at Columbia) on “American Indian poetry”:

This gives a good sense of the atmosphere in these meetings, where European and American scholars cross-fertilized each other in a way that turned out to be highly productive. Greenberg did not simply adopt Jakobson’s binary structuralism, but developed his own “typological markedness” in a rather different direction (emphasizing cross-linguistic regularities rather than language-particular systems; see also Croft 1996).

Jakobson left for Harvard in 1949, and between 1950 and 1953, Greenberg became the main editor of WORD. Around that time, he became more and more skeptical about the American structuralist approach and by the mid-1950s had shifted his interests to language universals and long-range genealogical relatedness. Greenberg ends his article about his New York period by emphasizing the enormous influence that this intellectual atmosphere had on his subsequent work:

„Whether all this would have happened eventually, had I not gone to Columbia and become active in WORD and the Linguistic Circle of New York, perhaps at a later period of my career, I cannot, of course, say. This, however, I do know: The major, but not exclusive catalyst which transformed my thinking was my experience in New York during the period I was at Columbia (1948-1962), and the most important stimuli were the Linguistic Circle of New York and my activities relating to the publication of WORD.“

In 1962, Greenberg moved to Stanford where he stayed until the end of his career. His universals project (Greenberg et al. (eds) 1978) was carried out at Stanford, and William Croft was his student at Stanford. But his best-known work was his seminal 1963 article about universals of language, which was conceived (and probably written) while he was still at Columbia. The conference on language universals on which the 1963 book was based took place at Dobbs Ferry close to New York City in April 1961. Jakobson had moved to Cambridge (Massachusetts) in 1949, but he was one of the 30 linguists participating in the Dobbs Ferry conference and contributed one of the 11 chapters of the book.

Thus, modern linguistic typology can be said to have one of its important roots in the American-European encounter in New York City in the 1940s and early 1950s that resulted from the terrible disruptions of the World War. Narrow nationalist linguistics of the type many European linguists had been engaged in had lost its prestige, hopefully forever. (The Linguistic Circle of New York was renamed to International Linguistic Asociation in 1969 and is no longer very prominent, but I found it a nice experience to publish an article on “word” in WORD.)


Berko, Jean. 1958. The child’s learning of English morphology. WORD. Taylor & Francis 14(2–3). 150–177.

Croft, William. 1990. Typology and universals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Croft, William. 1996. “Markedness” and “universals”: From the Prague School to typology. In Jankowsky, Kurt R. (ed.), Multiple perspectives on the historical dimensions of language, 15–21. Münster: Nodus. (doi:10.5281/zenodo.8266548)

Ferguson, Charles A. 1959. Diglossia. word. Taylor & Francis 15(2). 325–340.

Greenberg, Joseph H. 1963. Some universals of grammar with particular reference to the order of meaningful elements. In Greenberg, Joseph H. (ed.), Universals of language, 73–113. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Greenberg, Joseph H. (ed.). 1963. Universals of language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Greenberg, Joseph H. 1966. Language universals: With special reference to feature hierarchies. The Hague: Mouton.

Greenberg, Joseph H (ed.). 1978. Universals of human language (four volumes). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Greenberg, Joseph H. 1994. The influence of WORD and the Linguistic Circle of New York on my intellectual development. Word 45(1). 19–25. (doi:

Haspelmath, Martin. 2021. Explaining grammatical coding asymmetries: Form-frequency correspondences and predictability. Journal of Linguistics 57(3). 605–633. (doi:10.1017/S0022226720000535)

Testenoire, Pierre-Yves. 2022. Jakobson & Co: La linguistique à l’École libre des hautes études. (doi:10.5281/ZENODO.6675778)

Thomas, Margaret. 2011. Jakobson’s circles. History of Linguistics 2011: Selected Papers from the 12th International Conference on the History of the Language Sciences (ICHoLS XII), Saint Petersburg, 28 August–2 September 2011, 145–155. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Cite this blog post
Martin Haspelmath (2023, August 19). The journal WORD, and Greenberg and Jakobson in New York (1948-49). Diversity Linguistics Comment. Retrieved May 31, 2024, from

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