What do you do when you hear a hear a voice from 1928 rushing to tell you the Parable of the prodigal son? Did our language sound like that? Why did he stumble? Who was he? Where did he record it? How was the narrator chosen? Did he get paid for it or was he forced to do begaar? When we discovered these scratchy gramophone recordings done for The Linguistic Survey of India in 1928-29 we had to share it. For us reasons are not merely historical or linguistic but emotional like divining the dead. So go ahead and listen to our ancestors speaking Khasi, Pnar and War.
The Linguistic Survey of India, set up in 1894 under the supervision of George Grierson, sought to document every known language and dialect in an area extending from Baluchistan in the west to Assam in the east (the provinces of Madras and Burma and the states of Hyderabad and Mysore were not included after consultation with the local governments). The survey itself consisted of a number of ‘specimens’: a standard passage, a short narrative and a list of test words and sentences. The informants came from a range of backgrounds, reflecting the fact that the aim was to capture long-established literary and prestigious languages alongside minority languages and dialects. The results of the Survey, including the various transcriptions of each specimen, were published in 11 volumes in 1927 as ‘The Linguistic Survey of India’. The first sound recordings were made in 1913 and continued until 1929 and most feature a rendition of the ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son’, together with a local story or song. A collection of 242 discs is held by the British Library’s Asian and African Studies and The India Office Records.
The information about the recordings are as they appear in the survey for we will never classify Synteng/Pnar as belonging to Tibeto-Burman linguistic group.
Parable of the prodigal son
Language Family: Mōn-Khmēr and Tai
Recording Number: BX2878
Narrator District: Unknown Assam
Narrator Province: Assam