How An Irishman Studied Hundreds Of Indian Languages

The linguistic diversity of India has been the object of curiosity and comment for centuries. One of the most audacious and comprehensive surveys of the languages of India was undertaken by George Abraham Grierson (1851-1941) and is known as the Linguistic Survey of India, a magisterial enterprise that spans some 21 volumes. Linguists have long appreciated its many qualities and consulted it regularly. The Survey accounts for 179 languages and 544 dialects (it acknowledges that it may have missed a few). To put this another way, the Survey encompasses some 700 linguistic varieties and gives grammatical and lexical details for over 260 varieties of the four largest Indian language families (Indo-European, Dravidian, Tibeto-Burman, and Austroasiatic). While there have since been other linguistic surveys of India, and while the official census of India also takes stock of the linguistic situation of the country, Grierson's Survey remains one of the major assessments of language use and practice in India. The astonishing complexity of this work is the subject of a landmark study, in two volumes (here and here), by Javed Majeed, a distinguished scholar.

Grierson was a fascinating character. He was born in county Dublin in Ireland and passed the competitive examinations for the Indian Civil Service in 1871. He spent a further two years at Trinity College, Dublin, learning Sanskrit and Hindustani before he set sail for Bengal. Within four years of his arrival in India, he published an article on Kalidasa and notes on the Rangpur dialect (in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal), which were followed by a steady stream of publications over the next 60 years. Thanks to his early years in Bihar, he became an expert on Bihari culture, and his first major books were Seven Grammars of the Dialects and Subdialects of the Bihari Language (1883-1887) and Bihar Peasant Life, being a Discursive Catalogue of the Surroundings of the People of that Province (1885). He was a master of many South Asian languages, including Kashmiri, for which he compiled a grammatical manual (1911) and an impressive dictionary (1916-1932). He was the first to translate the fourteenth-century Kashmiri poet Lalla (Lal Ded) into English. Lalla-Vakyani, or The Wise Sayings of Lal Ded, A Mystic Poetess of Ancient Kashmir (1920) was the first printed edition as well as the first English translation of Lalla's poems, and Grierson's English rendering held the field until the publication of Ranjit Hoskote's acclaimed version in 2011.

Grierson's edition of Lal Ded's poems comes as something of a surprise to those who know him only as a linguist and philologist. What attracted him to a mystical female poet from Kashmir who composed her verses in the fourteenth century? Grierson had a spiritual side to him, as he shows in the introductory volume of the Survey. The edition of Lal Ded gave him the opportunity for another collaborative work, again with both Indians and Europeans. As Majeed observes, Grierson's attachment to Lal Ded "indicates a strong awareness of the mysteries of language and the delusional qualities of our sense of agency over it".

Grierson continued his work on the Survey long after he moved from India to England in 1903. After retiring to the town of Camberley in Surrey, he would write and publish at a prodigious rate more or less into his early eighties. The first volume of the Linguistic Survey of India appeared in the year of his departure for England, and the Survey was completed only in 1928. It was based on Grierson's own personal researches in India, while he was in the colonial administration, but also on an extensive correspondence with scholars, missionaries, and other informants in India and elsewhere. He even saw to it that provincial and presidential administrators, in conjunction with the Gramophone Company of Calcutta, made recordings of poems, stories, songs, and other works in India. These gramophone recordings were despatched to centres of learning in Europe and can be consulted today in the India Office collections at the British Library.

'What has been done in it for India," Grierson writes in his preface, "has been done for no other country in the world." You have to wonder how he did it. The scale and linguistic density of the Linguistic Survey are staggering. Every language and dialect is elaborated through three "specimens". The first specimen is a translation, into the designated language or dialect, of the parable of the prodigal son from the gospel of Luke in the New Testament ("For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found"). The parable was selected, "with slight verbal alteration to avoid Indian prejudices", because it was believed to be somehow aligned with the purposes of the Survey. As Grierson notes, "It contains the three personal pronouns, most of the cases found in the declension of nouns, and the present, past, and future tenses of the verb." The second specimen is not a translation but a piece of folklore or some passage in prose or verse that was written down on the spot by an interlocutor for the Survey. The third specimen is a list of illustrative words and sentences already in use by the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Every language and dialect in the Survey is accompanied by a grammatical exposition as well as these three specimens. As Majeed writes, "The scale of the LSI was therefore colossal and the very size of its volumes evoked the hugeness and complexity of India."

Grierson and his work are products of the British Empire. Grierson called on the resources of the Empire to realize his dream and put it into print. The Linguistic Survey is of a piece with other projects of imperial command and control in South Asia, and one thinks in this regard of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, which dates to an earlier period of British rule. Grierson's findings were not just a service to the Indian people but also a means for the British colonial government to know its subjects better. Empire and information go hand in hand. The introductory volume, which was published in 1927, begins with a quotation not from an Indian writer but from the Greek New Testament. The lines are taken from 1 Corinthians 14 and have been rendered into English as follows: "There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without meaning. Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me." The sentiment may be apt, but the quotation in ancient Greek implies an audience versed in the classical languages or at least in the Greek of the Bible; it's also a sign of the Christian perspective that ultimately limited his affinity with Hindu nationalist views.

The two books on the Linguistic Survey of India by Javed Majeed, who is an accomplished scholar of British India and whom I know, are probing and insightful; they offer careful, patient, and sympathetic explorations of Grierson's work. They expose the inner workings of the Linguistic Survey and elucidate its linguistic, cultural, and political tensions with a happy clarity and concision. Majeed's studies show how Grierson himself consistently draws attention to the provisional nature of his findings and analyses. Where his colonial overlords seek precision, stability, and unambiguous accounts of the linguistic situation in India, Grierson insists on the complexity and indeterminacy of language work in the subcontinent. For one thing, separating out languages from dialects is not an easy task. For another, languages don't have fixed boundaries, and frequently, languages spill across borders established by local or national governments, as the Survey indicates. Even the names used for languages could not be ascertained in all cases: some languages were known by multiple names (thus complicating the work of those who tried to classify them) while some were known to native speakers simply as the "correct language" and not given proper names. Grierson didn't flatten out the messiness of his analyses and resisted attempts to fit Indian linguistic features into European categories. The dialogic relationship between Grierson and his interlocutors, whether Indian or European, frequently puts him at odds with the British colonial regime.

Grierson was a contradictory thinker, and Majeed writes superbly about the many conceptual inconsistencies in his work. Grierson was, for example, an advocate for the vernacular literatures of India and wrote a book on the subject but he also believed that India was essentially an Aryan nation and reserved a special place for Sanskrit in his conception of the Indian nation. Many parts of his work are now out of date or have been superseded by other studies. Despite its limitations (Grierson acknowledged a few himself), the Linguistic Survey of India stands as a monument to what collaborative scholarship intends and to what form it can attain in expert hands. Majeed's fine volumes remind us of a masterful achievement.

(Phiroze Vasunia is Professor of Greek at University College London and the author, most recently, of 'The Classics and Colonial India')

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