Jones Postulates a Proto-Indo-European Language

Sir William Jones stunned scholars in Europe and inspired them to review the origin of Western civilization when he suggested that an unknown prehistoric language was the source of classical languages, such as Greek and Latin, as well as Sanskrit.

Summary of Event

Sir William Jones, a barrister and an Orientalist, arrived in India in September, 1783. Jones had been knighted the same year for his legal knowledge of Oriental (Asian) societies. This unique aptitude had secured for him the judgeship on the Bengal Supreme Court. Months after his arrival in Calcutta, Jones founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal Asiatic Society of Bengal to promote Oriental studies among British expatriates serving in the colonial administration. He himself began to learn Sanskrit to study Hindu laws, the primary reason being that the pundits hired by the court often gave confusing and conflicting opinions on legal issues involving the Hindus. Hindus However, soon Jones realized that his interest in Sanskrit Sanskrit had much broader implications in the realms of linguistics and social anthropology than in Indian jurisprudence. In an address to his society on its third anniversary, he outlined his theory of a proto-language predating all known ancient languages. [kw]Jones Postulates a Proto-Indo-European Language (Feb. 2, 1786)
[kw]Language, Jones Postulates a Proto-Indo-European (Feb. 2, 1786)
[kw]Indo-European Language, Jones Postulates a Proto- (Feb. 2, 1786)
[kw]Proto-Indo-European Language, Jones Postulates a (Feb. 2, 1786)
[kw]Postulates a Proto-Indo-European Language, Jones (Feb. 2, 1786)
Indo-European languages[IndoEuropean languages]
Proto-Indo-European languages[ProtoIndoEuropean languages]
[g]India;Feb. 2, 1786: Jones Postulates a Proto-Indo-European Language[2690]
[c]Anthropology;Feb. 2, 1786: Jones Postulates a Proto-Indo-European Language[2690]
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;Feb. 2, 1786: Jones Postulates a Proto-Indo-European Language[2690]
[c]Literature;Feb. 2, 1786: Jones Postulates a Proto-Indo-European Language[2690]
[c]Historiography;Feb. 2, 1786: Jones Postulates a Proto-Indo-European Language[2690]
Jones, Sir William

Since the founding of the Asiatic Society, Jones, its president, had delivered several papers, on topics as varied as elephantiasis and the gods of Greece, Italy, and India. Though by the time of the singular “Third Anniversary Discourse” “Third Anniversary Discourse” (Jones)[Third Anniversary Discourse] his knowledge of Sanskrit was not remarkable (he had studied it only for four months or so), what modest exposure he had to the vedic language convinced him of its excellence and astounded him by its similarities to Greek and Latin. He found the phonetic and morphemic systems of Sanskrit not unlike those of the classical languages.

Such structural likenesses overwhelmed him, which is why, early in the address, Jones discounts the etymological approach in studying languages, instead preferring the a posteriori method, because it enables him to be empirical and ground his findings on evidence rather than speculation. It is also clear that the scope of his findings extends far beyond philology. His project appears to be no less than an account of the origin of humanity. The present address, Jones declares, is the first in a series of five on the origins of the five peoples of Asia: the Indians, the Chinese, the Tatars, the Arabs, and the Persians. In the last address, he intends to discuss whether all five had a common origin. He begins with India India;origin of Asian civilizations not because he thinks it is the center of all but because it is the country of his current residence and affords him the advantage of studying the others. However, that India indeed is the center of these civilizations he strongly implies when next he compares it to the rising Sun in the Zodiac.

Indians, though they have suffered many conquests, are still rich, according to Jones. He reminds his audience that Indians still make the best cotton and that Indians still possess the same features they had many centuries ago. While he pronounces the Indians of his time “degenerate and abased,” he showers those of yore with praise because of their talents in many fields. Since Indians have left no clear record of their history for about nineteen centuries prior to his time, Jones names four areas through which ancient India can be known: languages and letters, philosophy and religion, sculpture and architecture, and sciences and arts.

Jones’s famous passage on the possibility of a proto- language now lost appears in his discussion India’s languages and literature. Jones expresses strong admiration for Sanskrit because it is “of a wonderful structure, more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin.” He credits Sanskrit with higher refinement than either, but also suggests that in its verbs and grammar, Sanskrit has a strong resemblance with both. Such a remarkable similarity could not have occurred fortuitously; the fact compels one to surmise that all three have “sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.” On a similar note, Jones declares that languages as remote as Gothic, Celtic, and Old Persian share the same root.

The rest of the address illustrates Jones’s thesis with examples from disciplines other than philology. His aim is no less than to provide a common origin for all known civilizations, the Indian being the closest to the prime source. Jones indicates that the script used in Indian writing is called nagari. Nagari letters Nagari letters
Writing;nagari letters are used in as many as twenty Indian kingdoms. However, they are not as old as those recently found in a cave in India, which derive from the same root whence came Hebrew, Greek, Roman, and Arabic alphabets. Jones is convinced that the Indian deities are the same as those in Greek myths; he shows similar figures in the two mythologies. The six schools of Indian philosophy, on the other hand, “comprise all the metaphysicks of the old Academy, the Stoa, the Lyceum.”

Next, Jones proclaims that his study of the Vedanta Vedanta irrefutably suggests to him “Pythagoras and Plato derived their sublime theories from the same fountain with the sages of India.” He also finds evidence of the dissemination of Buddhist Buddhism and Hindu ideas in ancient Greek thought and mentions “an Universal Deluge” that Indian myths surrounding the avatars suggest. An interesting conjecture that Jones presents is that the Peruvian Inca Incas festival known as Ramasitoa that honored the Sun god might have derived from the Indian Rama and his wife Sita. There is no doubt in Jones’s mind that South American Indians are part of the same race and civilization to which belong the Indians. Based on the worship of fire and sun, these belief systems had “one great spring and fountain of all idolatry in the four quarters of the globe.”

Jones’s theory of a proto-Indo-European language appeared at a time when other European scholars were taking a great deal of interest in Asia, particularly in India and its people. Samuel Johnson, Johnson, Samuel whose Literary Club Jones had joined before coming to India, was curious about Asiatic literature and urged colonial officials working in India to make inquiries into Indian literature. Edmund Burke, Burke, Edmund a member of the same club, who as a member of Parliament eloquently spoke in the British parliament on upholding justice in India, had similar interests. Charles Wilkins, Wilkins, Charles a contemporary Sanskrit scholar of Jones and a member of the Asiatic Society, translated the Bhagavadgītā (c. 200 b.c.e.-200 c.e.; The Bhagavad Gita, 1785) in 1885, to which Warren Hastings, then governor general of Bengal, gave a rousing ovation when he compared it to Homer’s epics.


Garland Cannon, the noted Jones scholar, observes that the paragraph in the “Third Anniversary Discourse” in which Jones presents his idea of an ur language “is one of the most quoted formulations among all scholarly formulations in all disciplines.” What gives the brief passage such a unique distinction is Jones’s ability to view languages as members of a family—more specifically, the languages of India and Europe as the group known as “Indo-European.” Certainly, the theory helped dismantle European images of Indians and other Asians as savages with monstrous deities and perverse religious customs. The consequence was profound in its impact. Interest in India grew in seats of learning in the entire Continent and resembled no less than a cultural revolution. The enthusiasm led Friedrich von Schlegel even to think that Sanskrit was the parent of Greek, German, and Latin. Jones’s own translation of Kālidāsa’s Abhijñāna śākuntala (c. 395 c.e.; Śakuntalā: Or, The Lost Ring, 1789) became a favorite of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and interest in and influence of ancient Indian literature and philosophy could be seen for centuries in authors such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Arthur Schopenhauer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Max Müller, T. S. Eliot, and V. S. Naipaul.

In India, Jones’s scholarship has received its due recognition. The Asiatic Society he founded centuries ago still continues to function and has an Internet Web site. On the second centennial of the society’s founding, the then prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi, gave the inaugural speech and lavished praise upon Jones, testifying to the esteem he enjoys in the country he once served as a judge and enriched through his scholarship.

In the wake of Edward Said’s anti-Orientalist work Orientalism
Orientalism (Said) (1978), however, Jones has come under attack, in particular in British-American colleges and universities. In his defense, Jones admirers often point out the distinctions between an Orientalist such as Jones and one such as James Mill, who wrote a voluminous history of India without ever being in the country, or Lord Macaulay, who recommended English to be the only medium of instruction in Indian education and infamously claimed “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” Publications on Jones upon the bicentenary of the Asiatic Society in 1984 and of his death in 1994 demonstrate that his contributions to philology and Sanskrit studies continue to draw worldwide regard.

Further Reading

  • Cannon, Garland. The Life and Mind of Oriental Jones: Sir William Jones, the Father of Modern Linguistics. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990. A biography from an avid Jones scholar with a fine bibliography and an appendix containing five new letters.
  • Cannon, Garland, and Kevin Brine, eds. Objects of Enquiry: The Life and Contributions of Sir William Jones, 1746-1794. New York: New York University Press, 1995. A selection of essays by several scholars. Has a useful introduction and bibliography.
  • Franklin, Michael J., ed. Sir William Jones: Selected Poetical and Prose Works. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1995. Introduction is more keen on disproving Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism and Jones than providing a background to Jones. Contains useful notes to the selections.
  • Lamb, Sydney M., and Douglas Mitchell, eds. Sprung from Some Common Source: Investigations into the Prehistory of Languages. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991. A scholarly work of 411 pages. Extends Jones’s hypothesis beyond the languages Jones mentioned in his Third Anniversary Discourse to other less common languages.
  • Murray, Alexander, ed. Sir William Jones, 1746-1794: A Commemoration. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Selection of essays based on a conference held to honor Jones on the bicentenary of his death. Presents Jones as a “polymath” and emphasizes his multiple talents.
  • Sharpe, Jenny. “The Violence of Light in the Land of Desire: Or, How William Jones Discovered India.” Boundary 2 20, no. 1 (1993): 26-46. Uses Edward Said’s analysis of Orientalism to study Jones. Links current interest in multiculturalism with a resurgent Orientalism.

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