What did ordinary Indians get up to in their free time in the 1920s? Did they sit in the shade of a tree on hot summer days, and wonder how much longer George V would be Emperor of India, Dei Gratia? Or did they perhaps discuss current affairs – the massacre here, the riot there, the arrest of Gandhi on charges of sedition? In what was probably a surprising turn of events for them, a small number of ordinary Indians got to participate in a historic event – the first ever Linguistic Survey of India, headed by the civil-servant and linguist, George A. Grierson.

Even by modern standards, the project was an amazing accomplishment. The Survey recorded a total of 179 languages and 544 ‘dialects’, from at least four currently recognised language families (to put the level of diversity into perspective, consider that Spanish, German, Russian, Czech and Hindi are all one family). The descriptions of each of these languages and dialects were published in a series of 11 volumes over a period of 25 years, but the crowning achievement of the whole enterprise was the production of over 200 gramophone records with the sounds of almost 100 languages from India and Burma (then a province of British India). These gramophones were recently uncovered in the British Library’s archives, and uploaded onto the University of Chicago’s Digital South Asia Library by an enterprising and democratically-minded Indian professor.

The content of the recordings seems, at first, to be quite uninspiring. In the interest of having a comparable sample across all languages, Grierson asked native speakers to translate a bible passage, ‘The Parable of the Prodigal Son’, into their mother tongue. In many instances, a short folk tale, poem or song was also recorded. Regardless of the words being spoken, or the washing machine chug-chug that permeates all the recordings, there is something deeply moving about hearing these voices from almost a century ago; from an India that now only exists in history books.

Why did Grierson and his colleagues go through all this trouble? He certainly had a keen interest in understanding Indian languages, and openly admired, in his writings, the rich literary history that many of them could claim. As a linguist, his mission, as he saw it, was to put together “collections of facts” for further research. As a civil servant, his motivation may have been the production of a resource that would help in the administration of a very important colony. After all, the importance of training administrators and military officers stationed in India in local languages had been recognised since the early days of the East India Company. The 1825 ‘General East India Guide’, for instance, warns future job-seekers that “all persons ignorant of the language spoken in common, namely, the Hindee …  are incompetent to any duty”. To remedy this, the Guide exhorts the Company’s junior officers to become “practical linguists” and “proficient orientalists”. Whatever Grierson’s motivations, however, it cannot be denied that his efforts have resulted in a valuable and unique record of an important and ephemeral aspect of India’s history.

Language documentation is an important stream of modern-day linguistics, and, happily, is frequently carried out with a language community’s needs and aspirations in mind. Linguists documenting small, endangered languages, are required to deposit their material (sound and video recordings, transcripts, etc.) into digital archives such as PARADISEC (this particular archive, with a focus on the Asia-Pacific region, is jointly hosted by four Australian universities). It is hoped that this material, which is accessible to native speakers and researchers alike, will lead to the production of resources that may be used in language revitalisation projects by the respective communities.