The 7th Whabiz Merchant Memorial Lecture

Thursday, 4 April, 2019, at 7 p.m. 
Nordic Centre in India (NCI), Director’s residence, B-2, GF, Nizamuddin East, Delhi 110 013 Convener: Professor Hoshang Merchant, in cooperation with NCI and INLANSO (Varanasi)

Grassroots Philology for a Top Diplomat: The Career of Ambassador Gunnar Jarring (1907-2002)

Professor Birgit Schlyter, Stockholm University

As a university student in the 1920s and 1930s Gunnar Jarring prepared himself for an academic career in philology. After training in Sanskrit and Slavic languages he transferred to Turkic languages for graduate studies. His linguistic skills made him attractive to the Swedish intelligence and security services, where it was soon discovered that this young man would as well make an excellent diplomat. He served as Swedish envoy in New Delhi, 1948-1951, before the first Swedish ambassador to the new Indian state was appointed. As full ambassador he played a prominent role in the United Nations for decades and became an international celebrity as mediator in some of the world’s most serious and difficult interstate conflicts, such as the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan in 1957 and the Middle East crisis after the Six-Day War in 1967.

All through his career as a top diplomat, Ambassador Jarring remained a prolific scholar and published numerous works in his field of speciality, Uyghur studies. Scientifically, he was a conservative philologist, faithful to what he had learnt and developed as a graduate student in the 1930s. On the other hand, in his attitude and approach to language and, more generally speaking, to research in the humanities, he was in many respects ahead of his time. The overwhelming partof Jarring’s philological research is devoted to oral narratives elicited by himself in Srinagar in the summer of 1935. Gunnar Jarring was a compiler in at least two senses of the word: Not only was he an industrious and scrupulous lexicographer, but he was also an ardent book collector. Thanks to this, Sweden now has one of the largest collections of Eastern Turki, i.e. early modern and modern, non-standardized Uyghur language material as well as a comprehensive collection of late 19th and early 20th-century publications from and about Inner and Central Asia. As to the latter collection, a digitization project has been started for a “Gunnar Jarring Digital Library”online, accessible through the internet link

Despite his at times challenging and perhaps also exhausting diplomatic missions for the UN and the Swedish Foreign Ministry, Jarring never left his research material but went on extracting a corpus of lexemes from his narratives for an Eastern Turki – English Dialect Dictionary, which is not only a linguistic treasure for the study of Uyghur language development. To Gunnar Jarring, the study of language meant a study of people and culture.

From the SIPCATS Director’s Whabis Merchant Memorial Lecture