Sir William Jones: The Man Who “Discovered” the Indo-European Language Family

We are here, discussing our Indo-European ties, due at least partly to an Anglo-Welsh polymath who was born on Sept 28, about 275 years back! That man, Sir William Jones, said, at a meeting of the Asiatic Society of Bengal on Feb 2, 1786:

The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists; there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic and the Celtic, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family.”

He was not the first person to have observed the family resemblance between Sanskrit and the languages of ancient Europe, but he’s the one who usually gets the credit for founding the field of Indo-European studies. However, the term Indo-European was first used by the British scientist and scholar Sir Thomas Young in 1813. How Sir William Jones came to discover the Indo-European language family is a fascinating story. He was the son of a well-known mathematician, the senior William Jones. Daddy Jones was a close friend of Sir Isaac Newton and had come up with the idea of using the symbol π for the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. The junior Jones was a child prodigy who learned Greek, Latin, Persian, Hebrew, Arabic, and some Chinese when he was still quite young. By the end of his life, he spoke 28 languages with various degrees of fluency. His father died when he was just three, so his early life was one of financial hardship. After attending Harrow School, he went on to receive an M.A. from the University of Oxford. The Oxford campus has a frieze honoring Jones that shows him sitting under a banana tree, taking notes as the Indian scholars explain the ancient texts to him (see image). Later in his life, he wrote a book on Persian grammar under the pen name of Youns Uksfardi, “Jones of Oxford”. After he graduated from Oxford, he tutored the seven-year-old Lord Althorp, an ancestor of Princess Diana. He went on to study law and developed sympathies for the cause of American independence. He tried to help Benjamin Franklin find a solution that would avoid a war with Britain. Having failed in that quest, he left for India and got appointed as a minor judge at the British Supreme Court in Calcutta, Bengal. Now the British wanted India’s Muslim and Hindu communities to be governed by their respective laws, so they appointed advisory panels of Muslim and Hindu experts to help draft those laws. As a Supreme Court judge tasked with developing the legal code for Hindus, Jones learned Sanskrit so he could translate Manusmṛiti (मनुस्मृति), an ancient Hindu legal text. He wanted to use it as a basis for the British colonial law for Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs. From there, he went on to translate important works of Sanskrit literature (e.g., Kālidāsa’s play Śakuntalā) and write many books about the Subcontinent. But he remains a man of contradictions: He discovered the Indo-European language family but failed to recognize the relationship between Avestan and Sanskrit, the languages closest to each other in the entire IE language family. When his opinion was sought on a recent translation of the Avestan texts, he thought they were a forgery. (He also mistook Pahlavi for a Semitic language.) He erroneously included Egyptian, Chinese, and Japanese in the IE family but left out Hindi and the Slavic languages. He believed that “conquerors from other kingdoms” brought Sanskrit to North India, which then replaced India’s “pure Hindi”. So he could not grasp the Sanskrit-Hindi connection either. The idea of a Sanskrit-speakers’ conquest of India may sound like the colonial-era “Aryan conquest” narrative, but his literary works, legal opinions, and humanitarian causes suggest that he was a fan of India’s culture and a friend of its people. He had other odd ideas as well, e.g., how the Chinese and the South Americans are related to the Hindus. He died in Calcutta in 1794 at the age of 47 from an inflamed liver and is buried in South Park Street Cemetery, a protected heritage site where many notables – for example, son of the Novelist Charles Dickens – lie buried. Despite his errors and omissions, he was the perfect bridge between South Asia and the West. Both South Asia and the West were forever changed by his insights into the relationship between the languages of Europe and South Asia.

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