In Nation and Region in Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India written by Javed Majeed, the hugely ambitious thirty-four year investigation into the many languages across India comes under the microscope. The second in Majeed’s two-volume study of the Survey, captures the complexity of the historic project and the challenges it posed to readers, collaborators, colonial and nationalist institutions, as well as to Grierson himself, writes Chris Moffat.

Nation and Region in Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India. Javed Majeed. Routledge India. 2018.

The launch event for Javed Majeed’s two-volume study of language, knowledge and politics took place – appropriately – in Bush House, an imperial-looking building that towers over central London’s Kingsway. Now owned by King’s College London, where Majeed is Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Bush House served from 1941 to 2012 as the headquarters of the BBC World Service. In this role, it was described as a ‘United Nations of broadcasting’, the hallways buzzing with a huge variety of languages, from Pashto to Hausa, Indonesian to Swahili. Today, the service caters for more than forty. And yet, as in the volume under review, the dizzying nature of this linguistic multitude is stabilised by an appeal to one, overarching rubric of unity. At the top of Bush House’s front façade, two male figures carved by the American sculptor Malvina Hoffman hoist a torch, the portico annotated with a dedication: “To the friendship of English speaking peoples”.

It was, of course, the world-traversing nature of Anglophone imperialism that created the conditions for the BBC’s World Service to flourish – even if this was not the original meaning of the inscription, intended to celebrate Anglo-American friendship in particular: Bush House’s construction in the 1920s was financed by the New York industrialist Irving Tar Bush. But the building does stand beside a more explicit imperial remnant: India House, the High Commission of India, opened in 1930 and designed by the same man responsible for the Secretariat in New Delhi, the English architect Herbert Baker.

India House provided space at the heart of the metropole for political and administrative offices related to the governance of the British Empire’s crown jewel. At the time of the building’s opening, this colonial government had recently welcomed the completion of a hugely ambitious study of its subjects – the ‘Linguistic Survey of India’ (LSI), a thirty-four year investigation that provides the focal point for Majeed’s two new publications.

Proposed in 1886 and initiated in 1894, the scope of the LSI makes the BBC World Service seem positively tame in comparison. The LSI’s twenty-one volumes cover 723 South Asian linguistic varieties, all categorised, classified and appearing with detailed grammatical accounts. Hundreds appear with language specimens and there is an extensive comparative vocabulary, presented for a variety of possible audiences: colonial administrators, academic linguists, local magistrates, and more. This mammoth effort was proposed and coordinated by one man: the Irish linguist and civil servant George Abraham Grierson (1851-1941), Majeed’s central protagonist.

Majeed’s first volume, Colonialism and Knowledge in Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India, introduces one of the LSI’s distinctions: the manner in which it consistently foregrounds the provisional quality of the knowledge gathered – its flaws and inadequacies, its incomplete and uncertain nature. The LSI thus complicates a long-standing historiographical concern with the power and consequences of imperial acts of naming and categorising, demonstrating instead a refusal of ‘mastery’ and the survey’s ambiguous relationship with the state. The companion volume, Nation and Region in Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India, further explores this quality of the LSI and is interested in the intellectual and political effects it produces. There is a tension at the heart of the second book, which I alluded to in the description of Bush House above. Grierson creates space for multiplicity, but ultimately the LSI stages a “dialectical interplay” (203) between openness to proliferating variety and the desire for a stabilising narrative, an overarching structure of understanding – which, for Majeed, manifests in Grierson’s privileging of Aryan-Hindu narratives of what it means to be ‘Indian’.

Nation and Region can be read without the first volume, but this is unlikely to be the author’s intent and will require the reader to chase some background details on Grierson and the Survey if they are not already familiar. Similarly, this review, which was commissioned to assess the second volume alone, will be an insufficient reflection on Majeed’s project as a whole. But there are a few illuminating themes that I would like to draw out, and will do so via a series of images animated by Majeed’s alluring prose: the ‘fuzzy map’, the ‘beloved patron’, the ‘ragged grammarian’ and, finally, the ‘homeless Aryan’.

The fuzzy map

The provisional, uncertain quality of the knowledge assembled in the LSI is underlined in the challenge it poses to cartographic process. How should one map linguistic variety? One of Majeed’s arguments is that the LSI calls into question the notion of India as a single, coherent geographical entity, precisely because languages and dialects don’t have clear boundaries, and instead blur into each other. Grierson uses the vocabulary of “shades” or “waves” (59-60), and these gradations or flows trouble the definition of regions and necessarily transcend the subcontinent, linking ‘India’ to Europe, China, Indonesia and beyond, depending on the language family in question. Such fuzzy boundaries help to explain the complicated afterlives of the LSI: because it is indeterminate, it can be put to political use by a wide variety of claimants; in affirming difference within India, it also affirms the possibility of conflict troubling any nationalising project.

The beloved patron

Grierson compiled the survey but drew on a vast web of interlocutors to do so. Years of correspondence between the linguist and his collaborators – colonial officials on the ground, European missionaries, Indian pandits, poets and grammarians – allows Majeed to reflect on the “affective dimensions of knowledge production” (32), underlining the friendships and family-like intimacies produced by the project. But also crucial is the legitimacy Grierson is able to bestow on the labours of vernacular language activists, fuelling their arguments for institutional support, educational reform and other avenues of recognition. Majeed attends to the ‘gift economy’ behind the survey’s compilation, wherein activists would send Grierson valuable texts to support their claims. He explores the implications of Grierson’s advocacy for certain languages, such as Kashmiri, Siraiki and Maithili. This was no dispassionate analysis, nor would a genuine spirit of collaboration undo structural hierarchies, with Grierson’s authority as patron consistent with a twentieth-century Raj paternalism.

The ragged grammarian

The book includes a fascinating chapter on Grierson’s refusal to fix language names in the LSI, instead foregrounding the proliferation of titles used by Indians to describe common tongues. This commitment to multiplicity, though enabled by the Survey, draws Grierson into conflict and debate in his other scholarly activities. Majeed focuses on his involvement with the Oriental Advisory Committee from 1918 to 1921, meeting in the British Museum in London and reporting to the Standing Committee on Grammar Reform. Against attempts to standardise grammatical terminology – so that English grammar, for instance, could be compared with Marathi or Bengali grammar using the same terms and concepts – Grierson injects a “resistant raggedness” (88) into proceedings, arguing for the acceptance of Indian difference against such universalising imperatives. Majeed frames this as a sort of cultural and epistemological nationalism, since it insists on the distinctiveness of an Indian point-of-view, celebrating the wisdom of existing Indian traditions of grammar. In this, Grierson shores up his own role as a ‘go-between’ and knowledge broker, demonstrating his “desire to represent India linguistically and grammatically.” (100)

The homeless Aryan

Grierson’s defense of Indian particularity above is revealing, and Majeed outlines how – in spite of his understanding of the subcontinent’s multiplicity, its waves and gradations – the linguist develops particular ideas of what constitutes the ‘real’ India. This is expressed in terms of levels of civilization, of relative intellectual or cultural refinement, and for Grierson the pinnacle of the subcontinent’s development is represented by Aryan India. The LSI was completed during the same decades that an emergent Hindu nationalism was being institutionalised and popularised, and Majeed notes how Grierson’s writings echo some of this movement’s key principles: the conflation of ‘Aryan’ with ‘Hindu’, the appeal to an ancient and noble history, the notion of a distinct ‘racial’ identity, the importance of Sanskrit for understanding the ‘inner mind’ of India, and so on (148). Grierson’s destabilisation of the category of ‘native’ in the LSI – his emphasis on migration and movement rather than some purist autochthony – meant he could portray Aryans as ‘authentic’ even if they were at one time ‘invaders’, arriving to the subcontinent from elsewhere. The effect of Grierson’s own Anglo-Irish background is considered as part of this discussion. But if ‘nativeness’ is complicated in the LSI, Grierson holds on to the problem of the ‘foreign’, with its associated concepts of racial and linguistic ‘corruption’ or ‘contamination’. For Grierson, like Hindu nationalists then and now, the other of the Aryan is the ‘Semitic’ Muslim, with Islam presented as properly alien to the ‘real’ India. In the LSI, the Hindu-Muslim binary is given “an ontological status” (140).

Majeed frequently uses the language of ‘drama’ in his discussion of the LSI: by which I mean, he often describes Grierson’s writings as ‘dramatising’ a certain conflict or tendency. The texts provide a stage to accentuate, for instance, the artifice behind colonial naming practices, or the function of English as an overarching link language, and so on. This phrasing is useful in underlining the illustrative value of the Survey. But it also highlights the author’s preference for approaching the texts as ‘symptomatic’ of a historical moment or way of thinking, rather than mapping in a more causal way their influence and legacies. Certainly, Majeed does establish that the LSI generated much new philological work, that it informed later surveys and censuses, that it was appealed to by various regional activists, but these are passing comments to demonstrate general importance rather than a detailed explication of how the work was received, interpreted and put to use. We know Hindi activists were attracted to Grierson’s writings and ideas, but in what ways and with what effects did they deploy them? We also learn that Grierson “effects” the two-nation theory in his writings (177), and Majeed juxtaposes the linguist’s ideas to the writings of Hindutva ideologues like Savarkar and Gowalkar, but it would be interesting too to know more about how the Survey is actually read by Hindu nationalists. I note this not to express dissatisfaction with the two volumes, but only to say there might still be possibility for a third!

Majeed does, however, offer some guidance on how the LSI might be received today by scholars and activists. He describes how some of the more interesting intellectual possibilities opened by the LSI were obscured not simply by colonial logics but also nationalist state-making projects. So, the capacious conception of India illustrated by the fuzzy map is defeated by postcolonial attempts to define and consolidate linguistic regions, to give one example. For Majeed, in a key sentence, readers in the contemporary moment “need to consider multiple and potentially productive meanings of the term ‘India’ in what might conventionally be called ‘colonial discourse’ that have been marginalised by the way the nation-states of the subcontinent were ultimately defined, without ipso facto dismissing these as ‘colonialist’.” (68) We must acknowledge Grierson’s elitism, his conservatism, and certainly his problematic commitment to an Aryan-Hindu India, but that does not mean we need dispense with his self-reflexivity, his subversion of languages of command, and his enthusiasm for multiplicity and its plentiful possibilities.

Speaking at the Bush House launch, Majeed noted that the LSI is frequently described as “monumental” when, in fact, what makes it most interesting is the way it is riddled with anxiety and doubt. The critical account of Grierson and his work provided in Nation and Region captures the complexity of the Survey and the challenges it posed to readers, collaborators, colonial and nationalist institutions, as well as to Grierson himself. Majeed’s creative animation of this colonial-era document is an inspiring one, with the author unearthing telling insights from even the most unexpected elements of the LSI’s production and presentation. The ‘SEO’-driven titles of Majeed’s two volumes, which I presume were chosen by the publisher, do not do justice to the author’s evocative writing and compelling turns of phrase. Nor does the price of the hardcover encourage a wide audience for these important pieces of work. It is a small mercy that there are reasonably priced Indian editions, though the books should attract readers beyond South Asian specialisms for their provocative glimpses into empire, knowledge and the modern world.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Photo: Library. Credit: Susan Yin, Unsplash.

Chris Moffat is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of History at Queen Mary University of London. He is the author of India’s Revolutionary Inheritance: Politics and the Promise of Bhagat Singh (Cambridge University Press, 2019). Chris is currently writing on postcolonial architecture and philosophies of history in Pakistan. He can be contacted at

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