Harold C. Fleming

Emeritus Professors

Harold C. Fleming

Professor Emeritus of Anthropology

Harold Crane Fleming is an American anthropologist and historical linguist, specializing in the cultures and languages of the Horn of Africa. As an adherent of the Four Field School of American anthropology, he stresses the integration of physical anthropology, linguistics, archaeology, and cultural anthropology in solving anthropological problems.

Since 1965, Fleming has been affiliated with Boston University, continuing to the present as Research Fellow in the African Studies Center and Emeritus Professor of Anthropology. He has conducted extensive field work in Northeastern Africa, mostly in Ethiopia.

Early in his career Fleming published a paper (Fleming 1969) that outlined an important taxonomic proposal, claiming that what had up to then been known as the “Western Cushitic” language family was not a part of Cushitic at all, but instead makes up a sixth primary branch of Afroasiatic, for which he coined the name Omotic. The proposal has since been widely but not universally accepted. He has since continued in the vein of solving taxonomic problems involving African languages and worldwide (Fleming 1976, 1987, 1988, 1991, 2002, 2006, etc.).

Fleming has been a vocal advocate of, and practitioner in, the effort to extend the application of historical linguistic methods as far as possible into the past, and to integrate its results with those of physical anthropology, genetics, and archaeology, in order to produce a unified view of human prehistory. Fleming is a strong supporter of the sometimes controversial proposals of Joseph Greenberg, emphasizing the success of Greenberg’s classification of “1500 [African] languages into four large taxa where almost all have stayed ever since” (Fleming 2000-2001).

In 1986, Fleming met the young members of the “Moscow Circle” of historical linguists. Fleming was deeply impressed by the long-range linguistic probing of scholars in Moscow who were trying to extend genetic taxonomy of human languages beyond the levels achieved in the 1950s and 1960s. In the fall of 1986 Fleming began circulating letters to linguists and anthropologists outside of Russia. By the fourth issue (November 1987), the newsletter had acquired a more formal appearance and the name Mother Tongue.

In 1989, what had been the “Long Range Comparison Club” was legally incorporated as the Association for the Study of Language In Prehistory (ASLIP).[1] Fleming has served as President of ASLIP (1988–1996), Secretary-Treasurer (1996–98), and Vice President and Acting Treasurer (2004–present). ASLIP’s mission is “to encourage international, interdisciplinary information sharing, discussion, and debate among biogeneticists, paleoanthropologists, archaeologists, and historical linguists on questions relating to the emerging synthesis on language origins and ancestral human spoken languages.” Since 1995, ASLIP has published the journal Mother Tongue.

Selected bibliography

  • 2006. Ongota: A Decisive Language in African Prehistory. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
  • 2000. “Glottalization in Eastern Armenian.” Journal of Indo-European Studies 28.1-2, 155-196.
  • 1988. “Towards a definitive classification of human languages”, review of A Guide to the World’s Languages by Merritt Ruhlen. Diachronica 4, 159-223.
  • 1987. “Hadza and Sandawe genetic relations.” In Proceedings of the International Symposium on African Hunters and Gatherers, edited by Franz Rottland, 157-189. Sprache und Geschichte in Africa, Volume 7.2.
  • 1976. “Cushitic and Omotic.” In Language in Ethiopia, edited by M. Lionel Bender et al., 34-53.
  • 1969. “The classification of West Cushitic within Hamito-Semitic.” In Eastern African History, edited by Daniel McCall, Norman Bennett, and Jeffrey Butler, 3-27. Boston University Studies in African History 3.
  • 1969. “Asa and Aramanik: Cushitic Hunters in Masai-Land.” In Ethnology, VIII.
  • 1965. The age-grading culture of East Africa: an historical inquiry. University of Pittsburgh.
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