Failed Legacies of Colonial Linguistics: Lessons from Tamil Books in French India and French Guiana

Sonia N. Das

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


    The archives of French India and French Guiana, two colonies that were failing by the mid-nineteenth century, elucidate the legacy of colonial linguistics by drawing attention to the ideological and technological natures of colonial printing and the far-reaching and longstanding consequences of the European objectification of Indian vernaculars. Torn between religious, commercial, and imperialist agendas, the French in India both promoted Catholicism and advanced the scientific study of Tamil, the majority language spoken in the colonial headquarters of Pondicherry. There, a little known press operated by the Paris Foreign Missions shipped seventy-one dictionaries, grammars, and theological works printed in Tamil and French to Catholic schools undergoing secularization in French Guiana, a colony with several thousand Tamil indentured laborers. I analyze the books' lexical, orthographic, and typographical forms, metalinguistic commentaries, publicity tactics, citational practices, and circulation histories by drawing on seldom-discussed materials from the Archives nationales d'outre-mer in Aix-en-Provence, France. I propose a theoretical framework to investigate how technology intersects with the historical relationship between language and colonialism, and argue that printing rivalries contributed to Orientalist knowledge production by institutionalizing semiotic and language ideologies about the nature of perfectible and erroneous signs. My comparative approach highlights the interdiscursive features of different genres and historical periods of Tamil documentation, and underscores how texts that emerged out of disparate religious and scientific movements questioned the veracity of knowledge and fidelity of sources. Such metalinguistic labor exposed the evolving stances of French Indologists toward Dravidian and Indo-Aryan linguistics and promoted religious and secular interests in educational and immigration policies.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)846-883
    Number of pages38
    JournalComparative Studies in Society and History
    Issue number4
    StatePublished - Oct 1 2017


    • French Guiana
    • French India
    • Tamil colonial linguistics
    • indentured laborers
    • interdiscursivity
    • printing press
    • religion
    • secularism
    • semiotic ideology

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • History
    • Sociology and Political Science


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