Colonial Knowledge

Sir George Abraham Grierson (1851–1941), member of the Indian Civil Service and renowned linguist.

He was born in the parish of Monkstown near Dublin, eldest son of George Abraham Grierson, a TCD graduate and barrister, and his wife Isabella, daughter of Henry Ruxton of the Royal Navy. Grierson joined TCD as a student of mathematics in 1868 with intention of joining the Indian Civil Service. In Trinity he met Robert Atkinson, the charismatic professor of Romance languages, who was also the professor of Sanskrit, comparative philology and Celtic languages at the RIA. He had a great influence on Grierson and laid the task of conducting a linguistic survey of India upon him.

The study of oriental languages, especially Sanskrit, had become popular in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century. However, the study of modern oriental languages had not been undertaken in a systematic way, thus the suggestion of Atkinson was innovative and novel. Grierson qualified for the Indian Civil Service in 1871 with very good results. He also won prizes for Sanskrit and Hindustani in Trinity during his two probationary years spent in Dublin.

Grierson was posted to Bankipore in Bihar and in due course he became a collector and a commissioner. One of the duties of the collector was to go on tours of his district during the winter months. This allowed him to meet local people, inspect premises and schools, and check land revenue details. These tours also gave those so inclined an opportunity to gather information regarding the languages, customs, and way of life of the local people.

Grierson spent his time in Bihar preparing himself for the task of eventually conducting a linguistic survey as he had promised Atkinson. He gathered linguistic data, recorded folklore, and wrote accounts of the grammar of the languages of the Bihar region. In 1885 he wrote his famous book, Bihar peasant life. In this book of 592 pages he made a catalogue of the words and objects used in day-to-day life by a Bihar peasant of the time. What made his work unusual was the way anecdotes, stories, and local proverbs were interwoven into the text. There was also a marvellous collection of photographs taken by Grierson himself. By 1885 Grierson was ready to make his move. In 1886, while attending the International Congress of Orientologists held in Vienna, he was able to muster support for carrying out a linguistic survey of India. It was pointed out that even the number of Indian languages was not known. Estimates varied from twenty to sixty to 250. A resolution was passed urging the Indian government to undertake a ‘deliberate systematic survey of the languages of India’.

The country was to be divided into subdivisions, to help conduct the survey. Instructions regarding the way the survey was to be carried out, together with all relevant material, was to be sent to each political agent and district officer. Grierson was placed in charge of the survey. The work was carried out with his customary thoroughness: the printed version, for instance, was compared three times with the manuscript. Grierson also produced a history of what was previously known about each language and its grammar.


The survey was started in 1898. By the time Grierson retired from the ICS in 1903, most of the data had come in. What remained to be done was the huge task of editing the enormous amount of material gathered, producing skeletal grammars where possible, and making a preliminary classification of the languages in the survey. This work was carried on by Grierson from Camberley, Surrey, where he went to live after retirement. His house in Surrey was called ‘Rathfarnham’. Completion of the survey took him thirty years and resulted in nineteen volumes with over 8,000 pages of text. In this period he received numerous honours, including honorary degrees from Halle, Dublin, Cambridge and Oxford, a knighthood in 1912, and the OM in 1928. He was elected a British Academy fellow, and became an honorary member of numerous learned societies He was also awarded the British Academy gold medal and the Sir William Jones gold medal of Bengal.

Source: Dictionary of Irish Biography

Bihar Peasant Life, Being a Discursive Catalogue of the Surroundings of the People of that Province (1885)


Pictures Top: Dictionary of Kashmiri, Bottom: Bihar Peasant Life by George Abraham Grierson.