Languages and Nations: Conversations in Colonial South India

Languages and Nations: Conversations in Colonial South India

Languages and Nations: Conversations in Colonial South India

Languages and Nations: Conversations in Colonial South India

Synopsis

British rule of India brought together two very different traditions of scholarship about language, whose conjuncture led to several intellectual breakthroughs of lasting value. Two of these were especially important: the conceptualization of the Indo-European language family by Sir William Jones at Calcutta in 1786--proposing that Sanskrit is related to Persian and languages of Europe--and the conceptualization of the Dravidian language family of South India by F.W. Ellis at Madras in 1816--the "Dravidian proof," showing that the languages of South India are related to one another but are not derived from Sanskrit. These concepts are valid still today, centuries later. This book continues the examination Thomas R. Trautmann began in Aryans and British India (1997). While the previous book focused on Calcutta and Jones, the current volume examines these developments from the vantage of Madras, focusing on Ellis, Collector of Madras, and the Indian scholars with whom he worked at the College of Fort St. George, making use of the rich colonial record. Trautmann concludes by showing how elements of the Indian analysis of language have been folded into historical linguistics and continue in the present as unseen but nevertheless living elements of the modern.

Excerpt

I have long wanted to write this book.

Some years ago I began to investigate the way in which languages and nations are twinned in European thought such that the historical relations among languages become signs of the historical relations among nations—ethnology by means of linguistics, so to say. This idea was applied worldwide through the expansion of European power in the eighteenth century. It became exceptionally productive in India, where it encountered a tradition of language analysis that was rich and deep. The most spectacular result was the proposal, by Sir William Jones, of a historical relationship joining Sanskrit to the languages of Europe and Iran— the concept of what we now call the Indo-European language family, which became the foundation for comparative philology and the gold standard of historical linguistics.

This breakthrough formulation from British India has been discussed in nearly every history of linguistics, and there would be little purpose in adding to what has already been said, and said well, by the experts in the discipline that emerged from the developments it set in train. But two features of those narratives have made me think that historians should not leave this matter to the histories of linguistics. In the first place, since the comparison of languages initiated in the eighteenth century had a larger, ethnological character—to construct a genealogical tree of languages, not as an end in itself but as a means of access to the genealogical tree of nations, recovering the lost memory of the relations among . . .

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