Survey of South Asian Language Research

Sat 31 July 2021

As I was reexamining Grierson's Linguistic Survey of India the other day, I came across a reference to an earlier work, Cust (1878), that summarized at that time the state of research on languages in the region. According to Grierson, while this work did not provide anything new on its own, it served as a great catalyst for new work in the region, including the commissioning of the LSI in 1894.

Now, I have no intention of publishing anything of the sort at present, but I thought a good start would be to use this space to take a tour through the languages of South Asia, writing a brief description and summary of the present state of research on each language. Here I would especially like to highlight the people who are currently engaged in this work, both locally and abroad. I hope that in doing so I can help clarify what we presently know, and more importantly what we don't know, on these languages, as well as providing points of contact for interested readers seeking further information or potential collaborations.

I'll be using Grierson as my guide through this tour, as it remains one of the most thorough sources on the matter, though it's greatly out of date and lacking in many respects. Nevertheless, more recent attempts to revise/redo it have been met with limited success (the Second LSI, which began in 1984, is still incomplete, while the new surveys commissioned to begin in 2007 have been abandoned, and the People's Linguistic Survey of India is unclear in its direction and still in the early stages).

But before I begin, there are two points of note about the LSI. First, it excludes Burma and a large chunk of southern India (the states of Mysore, Hyderabad, and Madras at the time), so I will use independent sources to cover languages in those regions. Second, many of the names and classifications are out of date. Grierson himself notes that the initial names they gathered for many languages were provided by their neighbors because native speakers in many cases did not have a specific name for their language, and so very often these names turned out to be derogatory and offensive. I will of course use the modern names chosen by the speakers themselves, as well as making any necessary revisions where a language was classified as a dialect in the past, or vice versa.

By conservative measures there are at least a few hundred languages spoken in South Asia, so this tour will take me several years, but I'll try to put in an entry each week, at least to give the broad strokes. Then as I gather more references and resources I'll return to earlier posts where necessary.

Perhaps starting from the Northeast and working west, the LSI begins with a discussion of Austro-Asiatic languages, the first being Khasi. So tomorrow we go to Meghalaya, one of my favorite places in the country, and talk a bit about Khasi.