GILCHRIST, JOHN BORTHWICK (b. 19 June 1759 in Edinburgh; d. 8 January 1841 in Paris; Figure 1), physician, Indologist, and teacher of Persian and Urdu.  He pioneered the Western study and teaching of modern Indian languages in British India.

Abandoned by his parents in childhood, Gilchrist was educated through a scholarship at George Heriot’s Hospital, which also funded his medical studies at Edinburgh University.  After a few years spent in the West Indies, in 1782 Gilchrist made his way to Bombay (Kidwai, p. 36).  Subsequently he was employed as Assistant Surgeon with the Bengal Army’s Bombay Detachment of the East India Company (EIC), which promoted him to Surgeon in 1794.  After his arrival in Bombay, he became interested in the languages spoken in northern India, particularly the vernacular of both Hindus and Muslims later to be called Hindi and Urdu, which Gilchrist termed "Hindustani" (cf. INDIA xviii Persian Elements in Indian Languages).

A tour of the region during 1785 included a stay at Fayżābād near Lucknow, where Gilchrist sought out local poets.  The experience convinced him that this language was a sophisticated medium, with a literary register called Hindavi or Hindi.  He reported that the pidgin variety called ‘Moors,’ which English employees of the EIC were generally content to use, was inadequate for the Company’s officers to understand, and efficiently command, the sepoys in their charge.  For such purposes, he argued, Hindustani was more suitable than Persian, which, as the language of bureaucracy and high culture, was the usual medium taught—often perfunctorily—to EIC employees.  Gilchrist was accepted to tutor the Company’s junior employees in Persian and Hindustani, and from 1787 compiled a grammar of the latter and a two-volume dictionary. In 1801 he was engaged as the first professor of Hindustani at the newly established College of Fort William.  Hiring munshis (Ar. monšeʾ  “author, scribe” Pers. monši) from around Lucknow and Delhi, he set them to translating stories from Persian into a simple but elegant style of Hindustani to be printed in a modified Perso-Arabic script.  Some of these, such as Bāḡ o Bahār by Mir Amman Dehlavi (active 1801-06), a frame-story narrative with five episodes, became popular among Indian readers (Prior, p. 218; see Steadman-Jones, Bibliography).  The work is a translation of the Persian Qeṣṣa-ye čahār darviš, which has sometimes been attributed to Amir Ḵosrow (1253-1325) but almost certainly belongs to a later era (Ahmad, p. 18).  Gilchrist also produced model specimens of Hindi prose, printed in Devanagari script.

Gilchrist contributed little to Persian scholarship.  Like his colleagues William Ouseley (1767-1842) and John Richardson (b. 1740 or 1741; d. 1795), he translated a number of ghazals (ḡazal) by Hafez (ca. 1315-90) for the East India Kalender, or Asiatic Register (Javadi, p. 66).  In 1801 he published a study of Persian verbs, developed from a one-page class handout, in which he exhaustively tabulated the Persian "irregular" simplex verbs, to show the relationship of present stems and infinitives, with Hindi equivalents and notes on cognate and seemingly cognate forms (Steadman-Jones, pp. 229-31).  However, William Jones (1746-94) had already analyzed the Persian verb system in a simpler and pedagogically more useful manner in his pioneering Persian grammar, first published in 1771.

Though generous in acknowledging the contributions of the munshis and pandits (Sk.  paṇḍita “learned man”) who collaborated with him, Gilchrist had a strong sense of entitlement and tended to be abrasive, quarrelsome, and manipulative.  In 1804, as the result of an outcry from Muslim students who objected to his choice of a sensitive religious topic for the annual college debate, Gilchrist resigned his post and sailed for England.  He settled first in Edinburgh, and married Mary Ann Coventry in 1808.   In early January 1809 Gilchrist left the Company’s service, began to invest money in commercial enterprises, and became involved with republican politics (Kidwai, p. 57).  In 1816 the couple left Edinburgh for London, where Gilchrist continued to publish and took up private tutoring of Persian and Hindustani.  Between 1818 and 1825, the EIC rehired Gilchrist to teach their India-bound medical personnel at a generous salary, which he supplemented by requiring his students to buy their textbooks from his publishers, “a profitable but unpopular scam” (Prior, p. 219).  Gilchrist spent his last years in Paris, where he died and was buried.  As there were no children from his marriage, Gilchrist bequeathed most of his considerable estate to an educational trust, which, among other benefits, for many years sponsored scholarships to Britain for students from India, Canada, and Australia, and scholarships and fellowships for women to Oxford and Cambridge; the Gilchrist Educational Trust is active in Britain to this day.

Gilchrist undoubtedly understood the sociolinguistic trajectories of the Urdu-Hindi complex and of Indo-Persian and anticipated the separate evolution of Urdu and Hindi as both written and spoken modern languages.  In 1824, the EIC formally distinguished between Urdu and Hindi, and began to emphasize teaching of the latter (Rai, pp. 15-16).  During the following decade, Urdu replaced Persian as the official language of colonial administration.


Selected works of John Gilchrist.

A Grammar, of the Hindoostanee Language, or Part Third of Volume First, of a System of Hindoostanee Philology, Calcutta, 1796.

The Oriental Linguist: An Easy and Familiar Introduction to the Popular Language of Hindoostan, Vulgarly, but improperly Called the Moors – Comprising the Rudiments of that Tongue, with an Extensive Vocabulary, English and Hindoostanee, and Hindoostanee and English, Accompanied with some Plain and Useful Dialogues, Tales, Poems, etc. to Illustrate the Construction and Facilitate the Acquisition of the Language, to Which is Added, for the Accommodation of the Army, the English and Hindoostanee Part of the Articles of War, from Colonel William Scott’s translation, with Practical Notes and Observations, Calcutta, 1798.

A New Theory and Prospectus of the Persian Verbs with their Hindoostanee Synonimes in Persian & English, Calcutta, 1801.

Bāḡ o bahār: A Translation into the Hindoostanee Tongue of the Celebrated Persian Tale Entitled Qissui chuhar durwesh, by Meer Ummun, under the Superintendence of John Gilchrist, for the Use of the Students in the College of Fort William, Calcutta, 1802.

The Hindee Moral Preceptor, and Persian Scholar’s Shortest Road to the Hindoostanee Language, Calcutta, 1803.

The Hindee Moral Preceptor, or Rudimental Principles of Persian Grammar, as the Hindoostanee Scholars’ Shortest Road to the Persian Language, or Vice-Versa, 2 pts. in 1 vol.,  2nd ed., London, 1821; includes 60 exercises in prose and verse and “a large English and Hindee-Persic Vocabulary.”

Other Sources.

The Annual Register, or a View of the History, and Politics, of the Year 1841, London, 1842, esp. p. 181a for Gilchrist’s obituary; here the date of death is 9 January 1841, and not 8 January 1841, which is the date given by Prior.

The East India Kalendar, or, Asiatic Register for Bengal, Madras, Bombay, Fort Marlborough, China, and St. Helena, London, 1-15, 1791-1805 (ESTC T32387).


Aijaz Ahmad, “Jameson’s Rhetoric of Otherness and the ‘National Allegory,” Social Text 17, 1987, pp. 3-25.

C. A. Bayly, Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780-1870, Cambridge, 1996.

Walter Nils Halaka, Diction and Dictionaries: Language, Literature, and Learning in Persianate South Asia, Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2010 (ProQuest AAT 3447480).

Hasan Javadi, Persian Literary Influence on English Literature, Calcutta, 1983.

William Jones, A Grammar of the Persian Language, London, 1771, repeated reprints.

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, “A Long History of Urdu Literary Culture, Part 1: Naming and Placing a Literary Culture,” in Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia, ed. Sheldon Pollock, Berkeley, Calif., 2003, pp. 805-64, esp. pp. 809-812 and 817.

Sadiq-ur-Rahman Kidwai (Qidvāʾi), Gilchrist and the “Language of Hindoostan”, with a preface by Khawja Ahmad Faruqi, New Delhi, 1972; also Ph.D. diss., University of Delhi, 1972.

Aamir R. Mufti, “Orientalism and the Institution of World Literatures,” Critical Inquiry 36/3, 2010, pp. 458-493.

Katherine Prior, "Gilchrist, John Borthwick (1759-1841), Philologist," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004, pp. 217-19 (available online to subscribers, DOI: 10.1093/ref:odnb/10716).

Amrit Rai (Amṛtarāya), A House Divided: The Origin and Development of Hindi/Hindavi, Delhi, 1984.

Mohammed Sadiq, A History of Urdu Literature, 1st ed., London, 1964; 2nd revised and enlarged ed., Delhi, 1984.

Richard Steadman-Jones, Colonialism and Grammatical Representation: John

Gilchrist and the Analysis of the ‘Hindustani’ Language in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries, Publications of the Philological Society 41, Oxford, 2007.

(John R. Perry)

Originally Published: July 1, 2015

Last Updated: July 1, 2015

Cite this entry:

John R. Perry, "GILCHRIST, JOHN BORTHWICK," Encyclopædia Iranicaonline edition, 2015, available at (accessed on 01 July 2015).