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A Linguist Responds to Javed Majeed’s Study of Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India

Life to Indian Languages

This paper presents a linguist’s response to the main themes that run through Majeed’s (2019) comprehensive and thought-provoking two-volume study of the Linguistic Survey of India and its Editor, George A Grierson. It argues that an important source of the complexity of Grierson’s subject position and the intellectual ambiguities in the LSI originates from the fact that the LSI is an unprecedented exercise in modern linguistics. Proffering a reading of the LSI’s methodology, the paper explores the ways in which linguists may participate in an interdisciplinary recovery of this important historical exercise and its afterlife.

Buried in a note on the language Lahnda to the first statement in the 2011 Census of India’s chapter on Indian languages is a mention of Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India (1895–1928) (henceforth, LSI), but the solitariness of this reference belies its centrality to over a century of the decennial census operations in India. Since the 1901 Census, this to me of 11 volumes of 21 parts has been the touchstone by which language names returned by the census enumerators are rationalised, grouped, and classified, before politico-legal constructs like Scheduled Languages are used to make distinctions between “Languages” and “Other Mother Tongues.”

The LSI has had a long afterlife in other respects too—lauded by linguists for its ambitious and scholarly achievements, referenced by historians of colonial language policy, the LSI is also still occasionally cited by citizen’s groups, usually by way of proof of claims to the autonomy and/or existence of a particular language. Yet, until Javed Majeed’s two-volume tour de force on George A Grierson and his LSI—Nation and Region in Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India (2018a) and Colonialism and Knowledge in Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India (2018b)—there has been little of depth in terms of a study of the survey itself, either by linguists or by historians.

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Updated On : 20th Oct, 2020

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