Grierson, Sir George Abraham (1851–1941), member of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) and language scholar, was born 7 January 1851 in the parish of Monkstown near Dublin, eldest son of George Abraham Grierson, a TCD graduate and barrister (with an office in Essex St.) who was part of a family who were printers to the crown, and his wife Isabella, daughter of Henry Ruxton of the Royal Navy. A younger brother, Charles Thornton Primrose (1857–1935), attended Trinity and went on to become bishop of Down, Connor, and Dromore. Grierson wrote extensively on folklore and on the Indian epic ‘Ramayana’; he wrote reviews, annotated and translated manuscripts, collected and recorded sayings, and produced grammars and dictionaries. Grierson's magnum opus, however, was supervising and editing a linguistic survey of India. The work took thirty years to complete and resulted in nineteen volumes with over 8,000 pages of text.
Grierson joined TCD as a student of mathematics in 1868. His intention was to join the ICS, entrance to which was through a stiff public examination. At this time, it had evolved into an elite group of slightly over a thousand senior civil servants who formed the backbone of the British administration of India. Soon after entering TCD, Grierson came under the spell of Robert Atkinson (qv), the charismatic professor of Romance languages, who was also the professor of Sanskrit and comparative philology and the Todd professor of Celtic languages at the RIA. Atkinson had knowledge of several of the Romance languages, as well as Sanskrit, Tamil, Telegu, Hebrew, Coptic Persian, Arabic, Welsh, and even Chinese. Atkinson's influence on Grierson was extraordinary. In the concluding section of the Linguistic survey of India Grierson warmly recalled: ‘It was to me a memorable day when in 1868 my honoured teacher Professor Robert Atkinson introduced me to the Sanskrit alphabet in what soon became to me his familiar rooms in Trinity. Five years later, as full of hope I was bidding him farewell before starting to India he laid the task of conducting a linguistic survey of India upon me and with the enthusiasm of youth I gladly undertook it.’
The study of oriental languages, especially Sanskrit, had become popular in Europe after the discovery, in Calcutta, of the riches of Sanskrit literature by Sir William Jones at the close 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 ICS in 1871, ranking twenty-eighth in the first part of the examinations and twelfth in the second part. He also won prizes for Sanskrit and Hindustani in Trinity during his two probationary years spent in Dublin.
The standard practice was for a new ICS entrant to be placed under the tutelage of a collector or district magistrate. The collector, originally ‘collector of the emperor's revenue’, was the apex of the British district administration in India. Within ten years of entering the service it was normally the case that someone in the ICS would have been promoted to become a collector and district magistrate of a district. 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.
In the case of Grierson, he was posted to Bankipore in Bihar and in due course he became a collector and a commissioner. 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 scholarly 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. He attended the meeting as a delegate of the government of Bengal, the Bengal Asiatic Society, and Calcutta University. At the Vienna congress 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’. Those who made the proposal were some of the most distinguished orientologists of the time including Bühler, Max Müller, Monier Williams, and Grierson. The proposal was favourably received but the adoption of a detailed scheme was delayed at first on financial grounds. However, in 1894 it was agreed that an examination of practical matters regarding carrying out such a linguistic survey should be undertaken. It was a mammoth task: the survey was to include 224,000,000 from a population of 294,000,000. The parts of India excluded from the survey were Madras and the states of Hyderabad and Mysore. The country was to be divided into subdivisions, and 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 reasonably thorough 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 mammoth 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; in this period he received numerous honours, including honorary degrees from Halle (1894), Dublin (1902), Cambridge (1920), and Oxford (1929), a knighthood in 1912, and the OM in 1928. He was elected a British Academy fellow, and to numerous learned societies, and was awarded the British Academy gold medal in 1928 and the Sir William Jones gold medal of Bengal in 1929.
Grierson married in 1880 Lucy Elizabeth Jean, daughter of Maurice Henry Collis (1824–69) a Dublin surgeon. There were no children. He died 9 March 1941 in Camberley.