John Gilchrist (linguist)

John Borthwick Gilchrist FRSE LLD (22 June 1759 – 9 January 1841) was a Scottish surgeon, an Indigo farmer, and an Indologist. He compiled and authored An English-Hindustani Dictionary, A Grammar of the Hindoostanee Language, The Oriental Linguist, and many more. His lexicon of Hindustani was published in Arabic script, Nāgarī script, and also in Roman transliteration.[1][2][3][4]

Early life

Gilchrist was born in the Old Town, Edinburgh to merchant Walter Gilchrist, who disappeared the year he was born. After attending George Heriot's School, and the High School (1773), he was apprenticed as a surgeon's mate in the Royal Navy, then, in 1783, as an assistant surgeon in the East India Company's Medical Service. He landed at Bombay in 1782, then travelled overland with the Company's army troops and was rewarded with a position in General Goddard's detachment. As claimed by Gilchrist after sixteen years later, he decided to learn Hindustani(Hindi/Urdu) to communicate with the Indian soldiers or sepoys.[5][6]

Hindustani language

The Hindustani language developed as a need of the new migrants to communicate with local populace in and around Delhi, southern parts of Uttarakhand, and Western Uttar PradeshMeerut and Saharanpur. The new migrants to North India were Persian and Turkish. The local populace spoke Khariboli, one of the Hindi languages. Although Khariboli supplied its basic vocabulary and grammar, it absorbed a lot of words from Persian. Gilchrist popularised Hindustani as the language of British administration. When he first arrived as a surgeon on the East India Company's payroll, he was told that Persian as India's main language, but he quickly discovered that none of the people he met either spoke Persian or Arabic very well. His interactions with people helped him to discover that Hindustani was already known to some in the East India Company. They referred the language as Moors language or simply Jargon – It is Gilchrist who recognised that Moor's language as the new language of administration for British India. As the Hindustani people spread towards southern and western parts of India, they settled down in the Deccan and retained their language, which was called Dakhini.[1][6][7]

Fort William College

When the East India Company decided to set up a training institution for its recruits in Calcutta, Gilchrist was summoned to teach Urdu aka Hindustani language to Company servants. The institution initially started as Oriental Seminary or Gilchrist ka madrasa, was enlarged within a year to become Fort William College in 1800. Gilchrist served as the [first] principal of the college till 1804.

During his stint, he published a number of books, namely, The Stranger's East India Guide to the Hindoostanee or Grand Popular Language of India, The Hindustani Manual or Casket of India, Nastaliq-e-Hindoe, The Hindu Roman Orthoeptical Ultimatum, The Oriental Fabulist, and alike.[2][3][8][9]


The first new centre of Urdu prose was Fort William, founded in 1800, by the East India Company. The Urdu they produced was meant for young Britishers to acquire a general practical knowledge for administrative purposes, and not for native speakers of the language. The language and dictionary of Hindustani produced by Gilchrist was the first attempt to teach foreigners and was also the moving spirit during the first years of Fort William College. For this, he gathered around him writers from all over India who were able to produce a simple Urdu style that is intelligible to Company servants and merchants who had no use for poetry.[4]

Gilchrist devoted most of his attention to Urdu prose; later, the Delhi College, founded in 1825, became the vehicle for the promotion of Urdu language--Henry Martyn, whose first Urdu teacher was Gilchrist; an Anglican priest of Church of England; chaplain for East India Company; and missionary to India and Persia, revised Hindustani version of New Testament;later, translated New Testament, Psalms, and Book of Common Prayer into Urdu and Persian languages. By early nineteenth century, Persian language was gradually replaced by Urdu as the vernacular to serve as the administrative language in a growing colonial bureaucracy.[7]


In 1803, he inducted to the Fort William College two Hindi writers like Lallu Mal and Sadal Misra that helped make rapid strides in Hindi language and literature; subsequently, Hindi translation of the Bible appeared in 1818 and Udant Martanda, the first Hindi newspaper, appeared in 1826 in Calcutta.

By early nineteenth century, Persian language was gradually replaced by Urdu as the vernacular to serve as the administrative language in a growin colonial bureaucracy—By 1837, East India Company decreed to abolish Persian language and replace it with English and vernacular languages. However, the Company allowed Urdu to take the place of lingua franca in Northern India, where it was the most influential vernacular language. As Urdu was seen as too Persianized and still too far away from the language of the people to bring administration in touch with those it governed, both British and Hindus(non-Muslims) pressed for a Standerized Hindi as an alternative to Urdu language; consequently, this crystallised into opposing language movemements in 1860. The Hindi language movement identified Hindi based on Nagari script with the Hindu majority and Urdu based on Arabic script, a foreign script, with the Muslim minority—From 1860, through "Hindi Nagari Movement" and "Nagari Pracarini Sabha" began seeking changes in the usage of Hindi in Nagari script through political action—The Hindi Nagari Movement identified Urdu in Perso-Arabic script with Islam and Hindi in Nagari Script with Hinduism. In 1860, the government brought a new language policy that declared Hindi and Urdu as medium of instruction in government schools, but only Urdu as a recognised language for official purposes. With campaign to make Hindi in the Nagari script as the symbol of being Hindu, and Urdu with Perso-Arabic script as a Muslim, Urdu no longer became the language of administration, instead it became the language of Muslims. Gilchrist's Hindustani, however, came to be equated with Urdu was standardised and given official status over a large part of North India, though a geographically defined dialects of Hindi were also distinguished.[7][10][11]

According to Gilchrist, the rise of the new prose tradition was also the "bifurcation of Khariboli into two forms" [sic]—Hindustani language with Khariboli as the root resulted in two languages (Hindi and Urdu) with its own character and script.[10]

He not only invented[discovered] Hindustani language, he is credited as a great patron of Urdu and also for reinvigoration of Hindi language indirectly. During his stint at Fort William College from 1803, he encouraged to use the purer form of Khariboli from which contemporary Hindi evolved. In words of K.B. Jindal, author of A history of Hindi literature:

Hindi as we know it today is the product of the nineteenth century.[12]

According to George Abraham Grierson, an Irish linguist and Civil servant, the standard or pure Hindi which contemporary Indians know is:

an artificial dialect the mother-tongue of no-native born Indian, a newly invented speech, that wonderful hybrid known to Europeans as Hindi and invented by them.[12]

Dictionary and grammar

By the end of nineteenth century, during the colonial period, East India Company to further rapport with the natives launched a project to devise a language and grammar based directly on speech similar to the language projects in England and France during the same period. The clientele was not indigenous peoples, instead the Company servants only. As part of Colonial empiricism, linguistic surveys were carried out to identify the spoken languages of India to replace the Persian language with vernacular languages. This project continued in a transformed manner when India became part of the British Empire--British Raj.[5][7][13][14]

In Northern India, Gilchrist began studying the Hindustani (Urdu) language to communicate with Indian soldiers or sepoys, and creating his first dictionary. In 1785 he requested a year's leave from duty. In 1787 leave was granted, and Gilchrist never returned to Medical Service. He spent 12 years living at various places, including Patna, Faizabad, Lucknow, Delhi, and Ghazipur. He extensively travelled in Northern India to work with native speakers and also to garner material. He gathered around his writers from all over India who were able to produce a comparatively simple Urdu style, pragmatic, simple to grasp, and intelligible to East India Company servants and merchants who had no use for poetry.[4][5]

Meanwhile in 1786 his first advertisement had announced A Dictionary English and Hindoostanee. To which Is Prefixed a Grammar of the Hindoostanee Language—By John Gilchrist-- Calcutta: Printed by Stuart and Cooper. M.DCC.LXXXVI. The Hindoostanee Grammar and Dictionary was published in 1786, and Gilchrist's efforts eventually led to Urdu replacing Persian as the language used by Britain to administer its Indian territories. The dictionary was published by subscription, and issued in instalments to be completed in 1790. It was apparently the first publication in devanagari type, as developed by noted Orientalist Charles Wilkins. The Government promised to take 150 sets at 40 rupees each; the price rose eventually to 60 rupees.[6]

In 1794 he was promoted to surgeon with the East India Company. In 1796, over ten years of efforts, he finally published his grammar of Urdu, which appeared at the Chronicle press, Calcutta.[5]

On his suggestion, the Governor-General, the Marquess Wellesley, and the Company officers at Fort William agreed to organise the College of Fort William. In 1801 Gilchrist was named head of the college, and professor of Persian and Hindustani.

Edinburgh and London

Gilchrist remained in India until 1804, when he returned to Edinburgh for ill health, and was awarded an LLD by Edinburgh University.

In 1805 Gilchrist evidently started business as a merchant in the linen trade in Edinburgh, though he resided much of the time in London where he gave lectures. In 1806, when the East India College was established in Hertford Castle, its original plan called only for the teaching of Arabic and Persian. However, the first appointed Oriental Professor, Jonathan Scott, a scholar of Arabic and Persian, resigned even before the College opened its doors. Gilchrist succeeded him but held the post only a few months.

In 1806 Gilchrist returned to Edinburgh where he founded a banking firm. There he also became a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1807; proposed by William Moodie, John Playfair and James Bonar), the Horticultural Society, the East Indian Society, etc. On 15 May 1808 at the age of 48, he married 19-year-old Mary Ann Coventry, with whom he had no children. After he died she married General Guglielmo Pepe, Prince of the Kingdom of Naples. In 1815 his banking business fell into difficulties and was dissolved. He then moved to London in 1817, where he resided until 1827 or 1828. While there he helped to found University College London and served as its first Professor of Hindustani. He also worked with Dr. George Birkbeck to establish the London Mechanics Institution (later Birkbeck College), and helped organise the London Oriental Institution. From there he moved to Paris.


In 1841, upon his death, he endowed the Gilchrist Educational Trust to promote education. Its interest has provided scholarships and funded scientific lectures.

Selected works

See also


  1. 1 2 Ramchandani, Indu (2000). Students' Britannica India, Volumes 1–5. Popular Prakashan. pp. 298–300. ISBN 978-0-85229-760-5. ISBN 0-85229-760-2.
  2. 1 2 Mukherjee, Sujit (1999). A Dictionary of Indian Literature: Beginnings-1850. Orient Blackswan. pp. 113–114. ISBN 978-81-250-1453-9. ISBN 81-250-1453-5.
  3. 1 2 Malik, Jamal (2008). Islam in South Asia: A Short History. BRILL. p. 285. ISBN 978-90-04-16859-6. ISBN 90-04-16859-1.
  4. 1 2 3 Schimmel, Annemarie (1975). Classical Urdu Literature from the Beginning to Iqbāl. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. p. 207. ISBN 978-3-447-01671-1. ISBN 3-447-01671-X.
  5. 1 2 3 4 Glaisyer, Natasha; Sara Pennell (2003). Didactic Literature in England, 1500–1800. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. p. 155. ISBN 978-0-7546-0669-7. ISBN 0-7546-0669-4.
  6. 1 2 3 Masood, Ehsan (2010). Scienče & Is̊lam: A History. Icon Books. ISBN 978-1-84831-081-0. ISBN 1-84831-081-1.
  7. 1 2 3 4 Veer, Peter Van Der (1994). Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India. University of California Press. pp. 170–. ISBN 978-0-520-08256-4. ISBN 0-520-08256-7.
  8. Sen, Sailendra Nath (2007). Textbook of Indian History and Culture. Macmillan. pp. 270–274. ISBN 978-1-4039-3200-6. ISBN 1-4039-3200-X.
  9. Powell, Avril Ann (1993). Muslims and Missionaries in Pre-Mutiny India. Routledge. pp. 90–100. ISBN 978-0-7007-0210-7. ISBN 0-7007-0210-5.
  10. 1 2 Everaert, Christine (2010). Tracing the Boundaries Between Hindi and Urdu. BRILL. pp. September. ISBN 978-90-04-17731-4. ISBN 90-04-17731-0.
  11. "Watershed – The Hindi-Urdu Controversy in 1867, when Hindi went to replace Urdu as the official language, was already a first sign of a future partition of the Indian subcontinent?". Retrieved 5 August 2012. In 1837, when the East India Company started exercising executive powers, they decreed to abolish Persian from its official use and replaced it with English and native vernaculars. They however accepted Urdu, as lingua franca, to be the language of the courts in northern India. This boosted the morale of the Muslims and some Hindu elite. However the Hindu masses were restless and demanded the official status of Hindi.
  12. 1 2 Kapoor, Subodh (2002). The Indian Encyclopaedia: Hinayana-India (Central India). Genesis Publishing Pvt Ltd. p. 2890. ISBN 978-81-7755-267-6. ISBN 81-7755-267-8.
  13. McGregor, Ronald Stuart (1974). A History of Indian Literature. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. pp. 65–66. ISBN 978-3-447-01607-0. ISBN 3-447-01607-8.
  14. Bosworth, Clifford Edmund (1989). The Encyclopaedia of Islam: Fascicules 111–112 : Masrah Mawlid, Parts 111–112. BRILL. p. 805. ISBN 978-90-04-09239-6. ISBN 90-04-09239-0.
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