William Jones (philologist)

Sir William Jones (September 28, 1746April 27, 1794) was an English philologist and student of ancient India, particularly known for his proposition of the existence of a relationship among Indo-European languages. He was also the founder of the Asiatic Society.


Jones was born at Beaufort Buildings, Westminster; his father (also named William Jones) was a mathematician. The young William Jones was a linguistic prodigy, learning Greek, Latin, Persian, Arabic and the basics of Chinese writing at an early age. By the end of his life he knew thirteen languages thoroughly and another twenty-eight reasonably well, making him a hyperpolyglot.

Though his father died when he was only three, Jones was still able to go to Harrow in September, 1753 and on to the Oxford University. He graduated from University College, Oxford in 1768 and became M.A. in 1773. Too poor, even with his award, to pay the fees, he gained a job tutoring seven-year-old Earl Spencer, son of Lord Althorp and as such an ancestor of Princess Diana. He embarked on a career as a tutor and translator for the next six years. During this time he published Histoire de Nader Chah (1770), a French translation of a work originally written in Persian by Mirza Mehdi Khan Astarabadi. This was done at the request of King Christian VII of Denmark who had visited Jones - who by the age of 24 had already acquired a reputation as an orientalist. This would be the first of numerous works on Persia, Turkey, and the Middle East in general.

In 1770, he joined the Middle Temple and studied law for three years, which would eventually lead him to his life-work in India; after a spell as a circuit judge in Wales, and a fruitless attempt to resolve the issues of the American Revolution in concert with Benjamin Franklin in Paris, he was appointed puisne judge to the Supreme Court of Bengal in March, 1783. In April, 1783 he married the eldest daughter of the Bishop of St. Asaph. On September 25, 1783 he arrived in Calcutta.

In the Subcontinent he was entranced by Indian culture, an as-yet untouched field in European scholarship, and on January 15, 1784 he founded the Asiatick Society in Calcutta. Over the next ten years he would produce a flood of works on India, launching the modern study of the subcontinent in virtually every social science. He also wrote on the local laws, music, literature, botany, and geography, and made the first English translations of several important works of Indian literature. He died in Kolkata on April 27, 1794.

Scholarly contributions

Of all his discoveries, Jones is best known today for making and propagating the observation that Sanskrit bore a certain resemblance to classical Greek and Latin. In The Sanscrit Language (1786) he suggested that all three languages had a common root, and that indeed they may all be further related, in turn, to Gothic and the Celtic languages, as well as to Persian.

His third annual discourse before the Asiatic Society on the history and culture of the Hindus (delivered on February 2, 1786 and published in 1788) with the famed "philologer" passage is often cited as the beginning of comparative linguistics and Indo-European studies. This is Jones' most quoted passage, establishing his tremendous find in the history of linguistics:

This common source came to be known as Proto-Indo-European.

Although as early as the mid-17th century Dutchman Marcus Zuerius van Boxhorn (1612–1653) and others had been aware that Ancient Persian belonged to the same language group as the European languages, and, publishing in 1787, American colonist Jonathan Edwards Jr. demonstrated, with supporting data (which Jones lacked), that Algonquian and Iroquoian language families (families, not merely languages) were related, it was Jones' discovery that caught the imagination of later scholars and became the semi-mythical origin of modern historical comparative linguistics.

In 1789 he was the first to translate the , an Indian play (from Sanskrit and Prakrit) into a Western language under the title of Sacontalá or The Fatal Ring; An Indian Drama by Cálidás.

Jones is also indirectly responsible for some of the feel of the English Romantic movement's poetry (including the likes of Lord Byron and Samuel Taylor Coleridge), as his translations of "eastern" poetical works were a source for that style.


In 1763, at the age of 17, Jones wrote the poem Caissa in Latin hexameters, in which he created a myth about the origin of chess that has become well known in chess world. He also published an English language version of the poem.

In the poem the nymph Caissa initially repels the advances of Mars, the god of war. Spurned, Mars seeks the aid of the god of sport, who creates the game of chess as a gift for Mars to win Caissa's favor. Mars wins her over with the game.

Caissa has been since been characterised as the "goddess" of chess, her name being used in several contexts in modern chess playing.


  • Campbell, Lyle. (1997). American Indian languages: The historical linguistics of Native America. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509427-1.
  • Cannon, Garland H. (1964). Oriental Jones: A biography of Sir William Jones, 1746-1794. Bombay: Asia Pub. House Indian Council for Cultural Relations.
  • Cannon, Garland H. (1979). Sir William Jones: A bibliography of primary and secondary sources. Amsterdam: Benjamins. ISBN 90-272-0998-7.
  • Cannon, Garland H.; & Brine, Kevin. (1995). Objects of enquiry: Life, contributions and influence of Sir William Jones. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 0-8147-1517-6.
  • Franklin, Michael J. (1995). Sir William Jones. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-1295-0.
  • Jones, William, Sir. (1970). The letters of Sir William Jones. Cannon, Garland H. (Ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-812404-X.
  • Mukherjee, S. N. (1968). Sir William Jones: A study in eighteenth-century British attitudes to India. London, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-05777-9.
  • Poser, William J. and Lyle Campbell (1992). Indo-european practice and historical methodology, Proceedings of the Eighteenth Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, pp. 214-236.
  • The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed. Sir William Jones

External links

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