Sir William Jones was a British polymath whose scholarly research and vision were critical to both modern linguistics and Indology. In his founding of the Asiatic Society in Calcutta in 1784 and the journal Asiatic Researches, Jones set forth a broad, interdisciplinary program of research in Indian languages, religions, history, law, natural history, medicine, and botany that represent anthropology at its finest, and that deeply challenged colonial attitudes of the times.
Jones received a classical education in England, which he supplemented with studies of Arabic and Persian. In his early 20s, he became known for his translations from Persian poets and his grammar of Persian. He did not inherit wealth, so he supported himself as a tutor to the son of the Spencer family, and then studied law. His plan was to obtain a position as a judge in India where he could both conduct scholarly work and save enough money to support his later studies; however, Jones differed with the leadership in England on the American War—he was a friend of Benjamin Franklin—and so was relegated to work as a barrister riding legal circuits until the American War was over, when he finally received his appointment to the Supreme Court of Bengal, one of the three British-run provinces in India. He requested and obtained knighthood just before he left for India. His legal training and interest in comparative law were to affect his understanding of culture, presaging the importance of the comparative study of law for anthropology.
When his ship entered the Indian Ocean near the end of the 5-month voyage to India, Jones had a vision of the vastness of Asia, its sciences and arts, its great diversity and geniuses, all largely unexplored by Europeans. Jones arrived in India in 1783, and in early 1784 founded the Asiatic Society to begin to remedy this lack of knowledge through broad, interdisciplinary study. As Jones put it in his initial address to the Society, “Our objectives are Man and Nature: Whatever is performed by the one, or produced by the other.” A more succinct focus for anthropology is hard to imagine.
Jones saw that instead of just taking from India, the British could also make contributions through scholarship. He recognized the need for interaction among scholars and for cooperation and learning from local scholars. In colonial times, the thought that Europe could learn from India, let alone Indian scholars, was radical. Jones studied with local scholars on a daily basis, worked to have their research read at Asiatic Society meetings, and established an award for their finest work—all to encourage cooperation and change in attitude among fellow Europeans.
It was Jones’s legal work in India that led to his study of Sanskrit. He believed that the local Hindus and Muslims should be tried according to their own laws and customs. Jones’s opinion lined up with the policy of the East India Company, which also understood non-interference in local ways to be in their best interest. But in carrying out local law, British justices were forced to depend on local pundits for understanding of Muslim and Hindu law, a practice which invited corruption. Jones’s knowledge of Persian and Arabic provided a sound basis for his scholarship on Muslim law, but for Hindu law he needed Sanskrit. In his first year in India he began study of classical Indian music and Hindu deities and texts, translated through Persian. When he finally decided that he must study Sanskrit himself, it was not easy, for many Indians did not think it appropriate for a Westerner to study their sacred language.
Jones was already fluent in 13 languages and competent in 28 others, yet Sanskrit, the last language he would study, held a special place for him. In his studies, he became aware of the excellence of Sanskrit phonetic description, ascribed to the Sanskrit scholar Panini. Yet Jones’s contribution would not be in descriptive linguistics, but rather in explaining the relation between many European languages, some Middle Eastern ones, and Sanskrit, a relation that was profoundly disturbing to ethnocentric Europeans of the time.
Jones noted the affinity of Sanskrit with the classical languages of Greek and Latin, and then explained this relationship as due to a common source that no longer exists. Earlier scholars had noted the similarities of Greek and Latin, as well as similarities of Germanic languages. Several scholars (Sasetti, 1585; Coerdoux, 1767) had also noted an affinity between Greek and Sanskrit, including Scottish Lord Monboddo (1774), an acquaintance of Jones. But it was Jones who first gave a clear explanation for the similarities, and who first described languages coming from a common source as a “language family.” The postulate of a common source language that no longer exists became known as a proto-language; the language family to which Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin belonged became known as the Indo-European language family. At the Third Anniversary Address of the Asiatic Society in Calcutta in 1786, Jones first presented this research within the context of addressing the origins of the five main Asiatic peoples.
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 in 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 reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothick and the Celtick, 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.
Jones’s genetic model of language owes inspiration to the taxonomic work of Linnaeus, which Jones deeply admired. By the same token, Charles Darwin would later draw inspiration from Jones’s explanation of the relationships of languages, and their implied mutability, in his theory of evolution and the relationships of forms of life. In the analogy between language and biology, language families are similar to genera, languages to species, dialects to varieties, and idiolects (the language form of an individual) to individual animals or plants.
A less well-known influence on Jones’s analytical work in relating languages was his experience with evidence in the courtroom. This was a time when many still explained the multitude of languages in the world as a result of the Tower of Babel. Those not confined to literal interpretation of this Biblical story often confused borrowings with cognates. It is common for languages to borrow words from other languages in which they are in contact. But cognates show that the languages are indeed related. Notice the multiple types of evidence—”in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar”—not just in separate words, in Jones’s famous explanation from the Third Anniversary Address of the Asiatic Society. This careful use of evidence is the basis for all sound scholarship, and it informed Jones’s work from translations to botany.
Overall, Jones’s explanation of the relation of languages led to modern linguistics, specifically to what became known as historical or comparative linguistics, that flowered in the 19th century as scholars put forward “laws” of phonological change in languages and classified other language families. Jones’s design of broad, interdisciplinary research for the Asiatic Society of Bengal served as the prototype for systematic field research. And Jones’s work as the first Westerner to write on classical Indian music, the first person to put forward a classification of Indian plants and animals, and his emphasis on the importance of study of Hinduism and Sanskrit, initiated the field that became known as Indology. His work in compendia of Muslim and Hindu law is important in the legal systems of South Asia to this day. For anthropology, Sir William Jones’s work is a testament to the profound importance of the study of language in research.
- Cannon, G. (1990). The life and mind of Oriental Jones. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Chaudhuri, S. (Ed.). (1980). Proceedings of the Asiatic Society: 1784-1800, 1. Calcutta: Asiatic Society.