Sir George Abraham Grierson (January 7, 1851 – March 9, 1941)

by Hannah Carlan

George A. Grierson was a prominent linguist, ethnologist, and member of the Indian Civil Service from 1871 – 1903 who is most well known for editing and compiling the Linguistic Survey of India (LSI). The LSI was published over a 25-year period (1903-1928), and consists of 11 volumes (in 19 parts) and over 8,000 pages of description of the languages and dialects of portions of British India. Grierson’s work, while a representative example of the dominance of the epistemology of empiricism in British scholarship, also strayed from colonial approaches to knowledge production. Whereas schemes of rigid classification, typology, and mathematical exactitude were fundamental to British colonial cartography and the census, Grierson tended toward a more nuanced and unbounded rendering of the relationship between people, language, and place in his writings.

Born in Glenageary, County Dublin, Ireland in 1851, Grierson received secondary education in England at St. Bees School and then at Shrewsbury School and subsequently went on to Trinity College, Dublin, to study mathematics as an undergraduate. Grierson took the open examination for qualification to the Indian Civil Service in 1871, which had been implemented by the Charter Act of 1853 to widen the recruitment of candidates on the basis of competitive examinations. The Act stipulated that the college at Haileybury was to no longer be maintained as the sole training ground for civil servants, and that candidates should have a background in general subjects with knowledge of both classical and spoken Indian languages. After passing the examination for the Indian Civil Service in 1871, Grierson spent two years studying Sanskrit and Hindustani at Trinity College under the tutelage of Professor Robert Atkinson, a philologist and member of the Royal Irish Academy who specialized in Sanskrit as well as several Romance and Semitic languages. Grierson wrote in both letters and the conclusion to the LSI that it was Atkinson who inspired him to undertake the project of conducting the survey.[1]

Grierson arrived at the Bengal Presidency in 1873, where he underwent training for his work as an Assistant Collector of land revenue. He was stationed subsequently in Bankipore, Bihar, where he worked until 1885, rising ultimately to the posts of Commissioner and Collector. Grierson conducted ethnological and linguistic research during this period, which formed the basis of two of his works, Seven Grammars of the Dialects and Subdialects of the Bihari Language (1883-7) and Bihar Peasant Life (1885).  While attending the International Congress of Orientalists in Vienna in 1886, Grierson collaborated with Max Müller and Monier Williams in constructing a proposal for the first systematic survey of the languages of India. The proposal was put forward in 1894 following financial delays, in which it was decided that a linguistic survey would be conducted in all districts of British India except the Madras Presidency, the princely states of Hyderabad and Mysore, and Burma. Grierson was appointed Superintendent of the Linguistic Survey on the basis of his academic credentials and studies of spoken languages in India.

Grierson worked on editing and compiling the survey in Camberley, Surrey, where he relocated in 1899 and would remain until his death in 1941. The method of data collection proposed by Grierson was standardized in order to allow for maximal efficiency while ensuring that the content provided a sufficient basis on which to ascertain the grammatical structures of individual “specimens.” Exhibiting a classic penchant for empiricism, he was adamant that the survey was to be a presentation of “facts, and facts alone” rather than constructing theories about language.[2] However, this imperative was complicated throughout the survey as Grierson struggled to classify relations between languages, dialects, speakers, and places, admitting frequently that “conventional methods” of boundary making must be seen for its limitations and that the information presented in the survey was from his own perspective and was certainly debatable.[3]

The bulk of collection took place in 1898-1903, when untold numbers of district-level British civil servants, missionaries, and Indian translators were sent out to record the known languages and dialects in their regions. They were required to obtain three items from speakers, relayed through bilingual translators: (1) A translation of a standardized passage from the Bible, the story of the Prodigal Son, which was chosen because it contained past, present, and future verb tenses, as well as multiple personal pronouns and most of the case-markings for nouns[4]; (2) A recording and translation of a representative local narrative; (3) Translations of a list of 241 words and test sentences. The final product of the LSI was a description of 179 languages and 544 dialects, covering an estimated 224 million people out of the Indian population of 294 million.

Grierson’s role as an author of the volumes was complex and shifting over the three decades in which they were published (1903-1928). While he is listed as the author of the first part of volume 1, he is credited as the editor and compiler of the remaining volumes. His role was more of a combination of superintendent, author, and editor, with several others working in tandem to produce the final products.[5] He credits Dr. Sten Konow of Christiana, Norway, who was heavily involved as his assistant, and played a central role in authoring and preparing several volumes, including Vol. 4 “Munda and Dravidian Languages” and Vol. 11, “Gipsy Languages.” Grierson also wrote in a letter in 1928 that credit was due to his wife, Lady Lucy Grierson, who “never spared herself in the perpetual and monotonous labor of correcting proofs, whose wise criticism saved me from many a solecism, and whose tender care inspired me in the phases of occasional discouragement.”[6]  Having not been involved in any of the data collection himself, Grierson was responsible for interpreting the data once it arrived in England. In doing so, he classified certain specimens as “languages” and others as “dialects.” He decided which specimens were duplicates of the same language/dialect, and then mapped specimens onto the topography of India. He states in his late-published (1928) Introduction to the LSI that the burden of interpreting the data was made more difficult because Indians themselves did not distinguish between a language and a dialect, nor did they have distinct names for their own languages, stating merely that it was called “correct language.”[7] While to some extent Grierson acknowledged the arbitrariness of the language/dialect distinction, he relied on it as a method of categorization throughout the survey. At stake for Grierson was what he saw as the erroneous presumption that languages were distinct from dialects due to their mutual unintelligibility, arguing instead that dialects become languages when they have amassed a significant literary canon with roots in the history of a “nation.”[8]

Methodologically, then, Grierson adhered to a distinctly European epistemology of linguistic nationalism, in which languages were seen as inextricable from national cultures with a history of literacy. However, he also departed from the standards of codification present in British cartography and census taking, in that Grierson did not think it was possible to physically map clear distinctions between populations of speakers. He instead saw India as made up of shades, where boundaries between languages were porous and could not be concretely distinguished.[9] As such, his approach challenged existing standards in the colonial production of knowledge about India, which operated through the representation of populations as members of idealized groups that could be unambiguous mapped onto clearly defined borders.

An ancillary project that developed in the late stages of Grierson’s writing was the documentation of spoken languages on gramophone recordings, when the technology became available in India after World War I. Grierson lobbied various provincial governments in India to carry out the recordings both for scientific preservation of them in an archive and for use in training civil servants in various locations of the Empire. Altogether, 97 languages and dialects were recorded on 242 gramophone records, covering six major areas of India, collected by British officials in 1920. These records are publicly available, as is the LSI, through the Digital South Asia Library at the University of Chicago.[10]

Grierson received numerous distinctions during his lifetime, including honorary degrees from University of Halle (1894), Trinity College Dublin (1902), University of Cambridge (1920), and University of Oxford (1929). He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I in 1912 and was appointed to the Order of the Merit in 1928.

[1] Siddhartha Sen. “Sir George Abraham Grierson (1851-1941).” Trinity Monday Discourse, 14 May 2001.

[2] (no author). “Sir George Grierson and ‘The Linguistic Survey of India.’” The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. 3 (1928): 711.

[3] Grierson, G.A. Linguistic Survey of India, Vol. 1, Part 1: Introductory. (Calcutta: Government of India, 1927), 31.

[4] Ibid, 18.

[5] Javed Majeed, “What’s in a (Proper) Name? Particulars, Individuals, and Authorship in the Lingusitic Survey of India and Colonial Scholarship,” in Knowledge Production, Pedagogy, and Institutions in Colonial India, ed. Indra Sengupta and Daud Ali (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 19–39.

[6] “Sir George Grierson and ‘The Linguistic Survey of India.’” The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. 3 (1928): 712.

[7] Grierson, LSI, 19.

[8] Ibid, 24.

[9] Javed Majeed, “‘A State of Affairs Which Is Essentially Indefinite’: The Linguistic Survey of India (1894–1927),” African Studies 74, no. 2 (2015): 221–34.

[10] “Digital South Asia Library.”