Whether or not it is correct to term George Abraham Grierson’s 21-volume Linguistic Survey of India (produced over more than three decades: 1894-1927) ‘monumental’ is a query that Majeed’s set of two volumes seems to propose as key for studying the nature of this influential work. On the one hand, the sheer scale of the effort: 723 South Asian linguistic varieties covered and lexical and grammatical information for 268 major varieties; coupled with the impact on both subsequent scholarship and census practices, seem to support the description. On the other, Majeed complicates the narrative by illustrating in detail elements of the Survey and of Grierson’s stated positions, that suggest difficulty of collation, uncertainty of fact and provisionality of knowledge. Despite Grierson’s essentially conservative and pro-empire politics and the Survey’s visible commitment to aiding the practicalities of colonial governance, in the first volume Majeed foregrounds aspects of Grierson’s personal location and of the very operations of the Survey that appear to destabilize the ‘language of colonial power and command’ as an adequate analytic frame.
These complicating elements that Majeed’s argument draws attention to in the first volume include the following. First, the Survey’s demi-official rather than purely official workings, Grierson’s loose relationship with the colonial state machinery and his high (and often tentative) dependence on personal relations with the colonial officials at local levels who were entrusted with collecting and labelling language samples in the field is broached. Proceeding further, in a chapter titled ‘Illness, Eyesight and Crossing Borders’, Majeed proposes that Grierson be understood through the triply hyphenated identity of Anglo-Irish-Indian, suggesting that his complex sense of race and belonging prevents him from collapsing linguistics with anthropology in the Survey; and also that like Gandhi and other turn-of-century figures, Grierson and his friends were preoccupied with questions of the energy of selfhood which drew them to eclectic religious thinking. More intriguingly, this chapter reads Grierson’s weak eyesight and uncertain physical health in the years of the Survey as placing him at a remove from a conventional masculinist-colonial identity. Then the value of the Survey’s transcription of Indian languages into Roman script is explored—and the mediating, authorizing, empowered role of Roman is poised ambivalently against its variable relationship with different European languages and varied conventions of transcription in use in linguistic circles which according to Majeed lead to an effect of destandardization and provisionality. Additionally, this volume delves into the Survey’s supplementing of its written archive with gramophone recordings and finds that while motivated by a desire for greater accuracy and more colonial control, in practice the fledgling technology comes with its own anxieties of distortion and disembodiment, as well as the association with musical pleasure which needs to be kept at bay. Interestingly though, Majeed maintains that in the hierarchy of personae involved in this project of recording and listening, Grierson appears to be at the top with listening as constitutive of authority.