JOPOL 3(2020)

Glotto-Colonial Debates: Language, Nations, Races, and Civilization in William Marsden’s and John Crawfurd’s Ethno-Linguistics

This article examines the constructionist role played by the ideas and theories on language within the context of British colonial enterprise in insular Southeast Asia during the first half of the nineteenth century. It focuses on the views expressed by the scholar-administrators and prominent metropolitan savants, William Marsden and John Crawfurd, on the languages prevalent in this region, on the societies that spoke them, and on their histories. Their discrepancies upon these matters can, it is argued, be explained by their contrasting ideas on what constitutes language and their theories on how language was shaped by and in turn also influenced history and society. Such epistemic notions on language, although often only tacitly present in the texts on these topics, nonetheless permeated the colonial discourses by prefiguring the meaning attributed to the terms designating national, racial, and civilizational units and by stipulating their linguistic relevancy.

Thomas R. Trautmann, Berhard S. Cohn, Sean P. Harvey, Joseph Errington and others have emphasized the importance of language in colonial knowledge production. This knowledge production shaped the colonial enterprise by providing a set of conceptual lenses and, in a broader context, epistemic imaginaries through which the foreign places, societies, and peoples could be approached, analysed, and assessed.

The entwined relationship between colonial linguistics and governance has been thoroughly addressed in the historiography on South Asia. Similar patterns can, however, be discerned in Southeast Asia, as illustrated by Trautmann’s study of Marsden’s “discovery”of the Malayo-Polynesian language family. Yet, as this article argues, these linguistic theories—based on either a genealogical and diffusionist framework, or on an approach favouring stadial civilization and transcultural interaction—were vividly discussed in their day, and these debates both reflected and influenced the perceptions of the region, its peoples and their history.These debates between Marsden and Crawfurdon how to apply the theories and methodologies rooted in comparative philology most adequately thus demonstrate, in the words of Joseph Errington, “how microscopic, recondite linguistic details could figure in broader questions about human diversity, and telescopic views of alien, colonized peoples”(Errington 2008: 68).