Diction and dictionaries: Language, literature, and learning in Persianate South Asia

Walter Nils Hakala, University of Pennsylvania


This project documents the role that dictionaries have played in educating the bureaucratic and literary classes of the later Mughal period, and how these groups have, through their poetic and bureaucratic literary productions, contributed to the standardization of the languages of North India. Lexicographic works concretely link pedagogical practice to the formation of literate classes and ultimately the literature produced by these groups. Dictionaries and affiliated lexicographic genres are thus key documents detailing not just the development of the political, literary, and linguistic concepts contained within them, but also changes in material culture and modes of literary transmission. The central premise of this dissertation is that lexicographic works reflect dominant cosmographies, or the typical means by which a people understand the organization of the universe about them, and derive their legitimacy from models of political authority available at the time of their compilation. South Asian lexicography prior to the nineteenth century documented a particular linguistic register serving a distinctive, if limited, social functions, especially those related to poetic composition and apprehension, and as such tell us about the specific lifeworlds of those persons with access to those registers and their places within broader society. It is not until the nineteenth century that language reformers used dictionaries to shape language into a central marker capable of motivating political movements. The rise of a political ideology of representational commensurability in South Asia was partly enabled by ruptures in the structures of patronage and innovations in the technologies of mass print production. This universalizing ideology required the conceptualization of language as a medium capable of expressing the total social life of individuals and the complete political life of nations. Though this shift entailed a formal isolation of lexicography from its traditional literary functions, it is the contention of this dissertation that Urdu lexicography—historical, practical, and theoretical—did not and does not constitute an independent discipline, but is instead inextricably linked with the history, practice, and theories of literature, linguistics, and other affiliated cultural fields.

Subject Area

Asian literature|History|South Asian Studies|Language

Recommended Citation

Hakala, Walter Nils, "Diction and dictionaries: Language, literature, and learning in Persianate South Asia" (2010). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3447480.