Language surveying, cartography and colonialism. A conversation with Philip Jagessar

Map illustrating the area in which the languages of the Dardic Sub-family are spoken. LSI Volume 8:2, p.1, link:


I met Philip Jagessar around 2018 in Nottingham, where we both did our PhD under the supervision of Mike Heffernan. I had then already left the UK to finish writing up in my hometown and we did not spend much time together but I was fascinated by his topic, his insightful views on linguistic geography and felt almost jealous of the incredible material that he was exploring! Last week we sat down for a quick Zoom chat and talked about our common interest for linguistic maps. Despite being very busy writing up his dissertation, Philip has been kind enough to accept my invitation to interview him and told me about his current work on the Linguistic Survey of India maps and his perception of our field of research.


Can you introduce yourself in a few words?

I’m currently in the final year of my PhD in the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham, where I presently live. I previously lived in London and Birmingham and grew up in the Caribbean before moving to the UK. In terms of tongues spoken, I’m bilingual in English and Dutch but otherwise generally terrible at learning languages. I took classes in Latin, Russian and Farsi once upon a time but have completely forgotten anything I did learn….

What is your research topic? 

My research looks broadly at the mapping of languages by the Linguistic Survey of India in the late colonial period (c. 1896-1928). The Linguistic Survey of India was a colonial project proposed by George Grierson at the Oriental Congress in Vienna (1886) to survey, classify and map all the languages and dialects of India which had to this point been underestimated. Over the course of five years, ‘specimens’ of each dialect or languages were collected by Grierson’s contacts and he, along with colleagues across India and Europe, edited and classified them according to language group, family etc. The results of the LSI were published in 11 volumes by language family.

However, the LSI was not simply a philological exercise but also aimed to locate and fix the geography of India’s languages – and maps were crucial to this process. The final published version of the LSI had 45 different language maps ranging in scale, type and colour. My research is specifically interested in the Linguistic Survey’ cartography and examines the relationship between the colonial state and surveying language, the methods and practice of language mapping as it appears in the LSI (i.e. how does one map language, and crucially, what does a language map actually depict) and the afterlife of Grierson’s maps in provincial linguistic movements.


Map of the Dialects of the Kachin Group…. LSI Volume 3:2, p.499, link:


What initially lead you to develop an interest for linguistic geography and maps in particular?

I must admit that before starting my PhD I knew very little about linguistic geography or language maps. My passion lies in maps, and their history, more generally. I’ve always been interested in old maps, even collecting them as a hobby since I was an undergraduate, particularly old maps of India, Afghanistan and Central Asia. My Masters research grew out of this interest by examining the legacies of the Survey of India’s maps after independence.

My PhD project came out of discussions with my current supervisors in which we concluded it would be interesting to examine the maps of a less well-known but arguably more impactful colonial survey – the Linguistic Survey of India. Since then I’ve come to develop a greater interest in the intellectual history of linguistic geography and how languages were mapped in other parts of Asia, Europe and Africa.  

What sources do you use? What strikes you most about those documents? 

I principally use archival sources and, of course, the maps of the Linguistic Survey. The majority of the LSI archive is neatly catalogued in the British Library but there is also a large quantity of material at the National Archives of India in Delhi.

What strikes me about the two archives is their differing view of the Linguistic Survey. The materials now in the BL were mostly self-archived by Grierson towards the end of his life and much of it reflects his own interests and what he felt was important to keep to supplement the published material. The material in Delhi, on the other hand, is the records kept by the Home Department of the Government of India so we see more of the internal dynamics of how a colonial linguistic survey is funded, supported and scrutinised by government, which we might not gather to the same extent from Grierson’s own material.

According to you, what can historical geography as a discipline and approach bring to the study of linguistic geography?

As someone focused on maps, I would say that historical geography can critically examine the roots of contemporary linguistic surveying and mapping in disciplines such a dialectology, geolinguistics and others which fall under the rubric of linguistic geography. From the perspective of my own research on India, you realise that some of the practices or methods used in language surveying today evolved out of the colonial ambition to rationalise or hierarchize language and space. More could be done to interrogate that legacy in modern linguistic cartography, even in the use of digital tools such as GIS, and historical geographers are well-placed to do so.

I would also add that there is a broader point to make about the disciplinary history of geography. Maybe it was not described as such, but linguistic geography was a recognised sub-discipline of geography throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries and language was understood as a geographical phenomenon which could be studied. One only has to look at early proceedings of the RGS and other geographical societies to see that they were interested in language as much as ethnographic or geographic discoveries. At some point in the early to mid-20th century linguistic geography diverges and comes to be seen as principally the realm of linguists rather than geographers. Historical geography can help recover the history of geography’s engagement with language and chart a new way forward for linguistic geography which is as much part of geography as it is linguistics. 


Philip recently published a fascinating paper in Geography Compass: “Geography and linguistics: Histories, entanglements and departures” is a must read for anyone interested in the history of language geography. You can read it here

The Digital South Asia Library has a complete online copy of the Linguistic Survey here:

Map of the Dialects of the Tibetan Language…. LSI Volume 3:1, p.1, link:




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