In the last decade of the 19th century, Sir George Abraham Grierson, ICS (Indian Civil Service), mathematics graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, and author of two works relating to Bihar—one on language and the other on peasant life—began his monumental work of undertaking “a deliberate systematic survey of the languages of India", the Linguistic Survey of India (LSI). Since 2019 has been designated the Year of Indigenous Languages by the UN, it is fitting to understand the background and impact of Grierson’s monumental task.

It’s surprising that something like the LSI began only in 1894. For much of the 19th century, the British had commissioned all kinds of studies to understand the nature of the land they were in the process of purloining. The Great Trigonometrical Survey—to measure the length and breadth of the country—had been launched as early as 1802, when Britain’s Indian empire was still a nascent undertaking. The Archaeological Survey of India had been extant since 1861. The Census, too, had its genesis in 1865, though a full Census was only conducted in 1881.

In the linguistic sphere too, much work was already under way. As early as 1786, Sir William Jones identified Sanskrit’s connections with Latin and Greek. Thereafter, the naturalist, Brian Houghton Hodgson, made some headway investigating Tibeto-Burman languages and recognized the Dravidian group of languages as being distinct from the Indo-Aryan ones. Robert Caldwell studied these Dravidian languages extensively. Missionaries like William Carey of the Serampore Mission mastered many Indian languages and translated the Bible into them.

By the time Grierson, along with his team of British civil servants, missionaries and Indian translators, began the mammoth survey of Indian languages, some ground had already been covered in the mapping of the Indian linguistic universe. Still, huge gaps remained. For instance, no one knew how many tongues there were. Estimates varied from 50 to 250. There were other questions relating to the rules of grammar and the geographical spread of the various languages. Given the lack of clear and definite information, the 1886 Oriental Congress at Vienna urged the colonial Indian government to undertake a survey of Indian languages that would seek definitive answers to these questions. Among the backers of this proposal was the redoubtable Max Müller.

Abraham Grierson. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Abraham Grierson. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The LSI was published over a 25-year period (1903-28) and consists of 11 volumes (in 19 parts) and over 8,000 pages of description of the languages and dialects of much of British India. Only British-governed Madras Presidency, Burma, and the princely states of Hyderabad and Mysore were not covered by the survey.

The survey was not merely a tame listing of the name of the language and its geographical spread. It collected a variety of what Grierson, in the biological fashion, termed “specimens". A standard passage was translated into every language and dialect it enumerated. As the survey ran its course, a second “specimen", typically a piece of folklore or another story of some sort in prose or verse, was added. Subsequently, a list of words and sentences was also added. In essence, the survey came to encompass the gamut of grammar, vocabulary and literature. From 1913 on, these specimens were recorded on gramophone records, which are still available at the British Library’s Sound Archive in London.

Grierson, who retired to England in 1899 and oversaw much of the work from there, was not just a maker of lists and compiler of information. Even as the LSI records information in seemingly prosaic terms, Grierson was cognizant of the many linguistic and epistemological puzzles that a work of this nature invariably confronted. So, while 179 languages and 544 dialects are listed in the survey, Grierson, in his pithy introductory volume (published in 1927), acknowledges the arbitrariness of this distinction, likening it to the difference between “mountain" and “hill". He also remarks on the Indian proclivity for bilingualism. Across a swathe of north India, Grierson and his investigators found the presence of bilingualism among many people, if they had received even the “slightest education". People, investigators found, casually used different languages or dialects in different circumstances and demonstrated a great deal of fluency as well.

Among the LSI’s more interesting findings was that people rarely named their own language, preferring to term it “correct language". For the tongue of others who did not share their own, they attributed names, not always complimentary.

In one instance, the investigators heard about a language called “Jangli", spoken in the south of Punjab. The name had originated on account of the fact that it was spoken in the unirrigated jungle territory bordering Bikaner. But on attempting to ascertain the geographical spread of the language and record its various aspects, the investigators hit a dead end. As they moved from hamlet to hamlet asking people if they spoke Jangli, in every instance, they were directed to the next hamlet whose speakers, they were assured, spoke the tongue. Given its uncomplimentary nomenclature, none claimed to be speaking Jangli themselves. Eventually, the investigators realized that Jangli was not as much a linguistic category as it was a moniker that sought to describe the characteristics of a people. People were happy to attribute these characteristics to others without owning these themselves.

Besides languages and dialects, the LSI also studied the wide variety of scripts employed to write languages. Among the LSI’s more interesting observations was how more than one script was employed to write the same language, something that the investigators found unusual. The LSI also recorded the presence of what it termed “mercantile" writing systems, which were used by business communities and probably developed for reasons of business secrecy.

What lessons could an imperial project like the LSI hold for the social and political puzzles of today? Clichéd as it may sound, more than anything else, the LSI is a record of the remarkable linguistic variety of the subcontinent which had, despite this diversity, maintained more than a semblance of political unity. People had managed to work around their linguistic differences to find a way to communicate with each other. The presence of speakers of a completely unrelated tongue in the middle of a region dominated by speakers of another tongue is something the LSI often comments on. In such instances, bilingualism was a feature prevalent in speakers of both groups, a world away from the linguistic chauvinism that characterizes much of the language debates today. Indeed, much of the LSI was aided by the presence across geographies of many bilingual and multilingual locals who assisted the investigators in their research.

The LSI also comments on the arbitrariness of the identified geographical boundaries of a language. People on either side (“twenty or thirty miles east" is the term used in the case of Bengal) of the identified border, it states, could be classified as belonging to either language group, based on the surveyor’s point of view. In other words, the LSI is commenting on the fluid definition of language groups itself, stating simply that the particularity of a language is a fiction. Clearly, languages, even unrelated ones, flow into one another organically, and don’t morph into a completely different specimen right at the geographical border. This is particularly important, given the linguistic division of Indian states and the many territorial claims and counter-claims made by warring neighbouring states.

The LSI’s specimens are a living testimony of the view that languages are treasure houses of cultural artefacts and the loss of a language is, as G.N. Devy puts it, a “logocide"—knowledge mayhem. Since 2010, Devy has been helming the People’s Language Survey of India (PLSI), which is attempting, in the present day, to undertake a survey that would dwarf even the LSI. The PLSI validates the path-breaking nature of Grierson and his vision, a vision that yielded a wealth of knowledge about the subcontinent.

Clearly, languages, even unrelated ones, flow into one another organically, and don’t morph into a completely different specimen right at the geographical border

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