Linguistic Survey of India, taken up between 1898 and 1928, lists 10

“There are parts of India which seem to have had each a special Tower of Babel of its own,” wrote Sir George Abraham Grierson, the Irish linguist-scholar and civil servant, in the first volume of the massive Linguistic Survey of India (LSI) compiled by him between 1898 and1928.

For Javed Majeed, professor of English and Comparative Literature at King’s College, London, the LSI was distinct because Grierson recognised that any understanding of India as a linguistic region could only be “provisional and partial,” given the complexity of India’s language landscape.

Currently researching the 19 published volumes and 500 unpublished files of the LSI, Prof. Majeed recently participated in a seminar on his ongoing work at the Economic Analysis Unit of the Indian Statistical Institute here.

‘Out of sync’

The LSI, says Prof. Majeed, was an unusual colonial project because it was “out of sync” with the other great surveys undertaken by the British, such as the Census and the Ethnological Survey, which sought to classify and categorise knowledge.

Nowhere in the volumes does Grierson state the aims of his study; though in one correspondence, he wrote that it was “to identify and differentiate India’s languages and dialects.” Prof. Majeed says Grierson was clear from the beginning it was “difficult to draw on a map an exact boundary line between different languages and dialects.”

In fact, the LSI often “added to the plenitude” of linguistic terms with all their ambiguities, instead of offering clarity through systematisation. It lists 2,620 language names and dialects, often giving multiple names for a single language. For instance, it provides 10 alternative names for Telugu.

Prof. Majeed believes that the colonial government allowed these ambiguities because “for them, politically, caste and religion were more important than language, in trying to grasp and control Indian society.” Interestingly, in post-Independence India, the State Reorganisation Commission referred to the LSI when determining linguistic boundaries.

Many narratives

A close reading of the massive survey reveals “multiple narratives,” notes Prof. Majeed.

While it produced very sophisticated linguistic knowledge on the one hand, it was also informed by an Orientalist understanding of history. For example, take the category of Aryan. “Grierson was concerned about Aryan migration to India. His focus was largely on Indo-Aryan languages and he was himself concerned with Sanskrit and its linguistic inheritance in India.”

Many of the developments in the Dravidian languages came too late for him to incorporate into the survey. The unpublished files of the LSI indicate the overlaps in the Sanskrit-centric linguistic scholarship of Grierson and the German and European Orientalists of his time.

The LSI also came at a crucial historical time in the development of linguistics as a scientific discipline.

“Modern linguistics was, in many ways, born out of the interaction between colonialism and India in the late 18th century, with the definition of the Indo-European family of languages. As the 19th century wore on, Grierson and other European linguists reassessed Panini and pre-existing Indian linguistics that became part of the growth of modern linguistics.”

Colonial project

Colonial powers, of course, continually denied such contributions from the knowledge corpus of the colonised, says Prof. Majeed.

Such an acceptance would have gone against the ideology of the imperialist power, which claimed to have brought modernity to the colonies.

This article has been corrected for a factual error.