Sonia N. Das is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at New York University. She received her PhD in linguistic anthropology at the University of Michigan, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia and visiting professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. Her NSF and ACSUS-funded research in Québec was published as Linguistic Rivalries: Tamil Migrants and Anglo-Franco Conflicts with Oxford University Press in 2016. Other research interests include Tamil linguistics in nineteenth-century French India, face-to-face interactions and digital communication among Asian seafarers, and infrastructure projects in Indian and American port cities.


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

The archives of two failing colonies from the mid-nineteenth century, French India and French Guiana, elucidate the legacy of colonial linguistics by drawing attention to the ideological and technological natures of printing and far-reaching and longstanding consequences of the European objectification of Indian vernaculars. The French in India advanced the scientific study of Tamil through a press operated by the Paris Foreign Missions that also shipped bilingual books to Catholic schools attended by children of indentured laborers in French Guiana. Analyzing their linguistic forms, metalinguistic commentaries, publicity tactics, citational practices, and circulation histories, this talk will show how religious and scientific movements contributed to Orientalist knowledge production by institutionalizing semiotic ideologies about “error” and “perfectibility” in written languages and texts. Using a comparative approach to situate Tamil linguistics within a transnational field encompassing rival countries and missionary orders illuminates the evolving relationship between technology, multilingualism, and imperialism during the nineteenth century. 

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