Friday 24 October 2014

Sir William Jones ( 1746-1794)

Sir William Jones was an English philologist, orientalist and jurist, who is renowned for his seminal discovery that Sanskrit is so closely related to Greek, Latin and other European languages that the similarities could not possibly be coincidental, and could only be explained by accepting that they were all derived from a common ancestor, an ancient language, which does not now exist. This led to the creation of a branch of knowledge called comparitive philology.

 Sir William was a child prodigy. He had learnt Greek, Latin, Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, and some rudimentary Chinese at a very early age. By the end of his life he knew 13 languages thoroughly, and 28 reasonably well.

 He graduated from Oxford University in 1768, and joined the Middle Temple in 1770, completing his law studies and becoming a barrister in 1773, the year in which he also obtained his M.A. degree.
 In 1783 he was appointed a Judge of the Supreme Court of Calcutta, on which post he remained till his death in 1794.

 On arriving in Calcutta Sir William was told by someone that there was an ancient language in India called Sanskrit, which was still used by native scholars. His curiosity having been aroused, he decided to study it, and within a short time he had mastered it.

 Soon after his arrival, Sir William, along with Colebrooke, established the Asiatic Society, whose purpose was to study Oriental culture.

 Sir William's Third Annual Discourse before the Asiatic Society, (delivered on 2 February 1786 and published in 1788) contains the famed "philologer" passage, which is often cited as the beginning of comparative linguistics and Indo-European studies. In this lecture Sir William said :

 "The Sanskrit 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. "
 This theory provided the impetus for the development of the branch of knowledge called comparitive linguistics, and can be compared to the discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin in their respective fields.

 Sir William noted that Sanskrit had such striking similarities to Greek, Latin and other European languages that the connection could not possibly be coincidental.

 Thus, 'pater' ( which means father) in Latin is similar to 'pita' in Sanskrit, mater ( mother) in Latin is similar to 'mata' in Sanskrit, ' daughter ' in English is similar to ' duhita' in Sanskrit, 'agnus' ( fire) in Latin is similar to 'agni' in Sanskrit, 'horse' in English is similar to 'ashva' in Sanskrit, 'hand ' in English is similar to 'hasta' in Sanskrit, 'est' in Latin ( 'is' in English ) is similar to 'asti' in Sanskrit. Hundreds of other similarities can be shown.

 The Hindi word 'tu' means exactly the same as the word used by Julius Caesar when he said "Et tu Brute "

 Sir William translated the Sanskrit works, 'Abhigyan Shakuntalam' and ' Ritusamhar' of Kalidas, 'Geet Govinda' of Jayadev, the 'Hitopadesh', etc into English. Goethe, the great German scholar was full of praise for ' Abhigyan Shakuntalam '.

  Sanskrit is also similar to Persian, e.g. the word 'trishna' ( thirst ) means the same as the Persian word ' tashna '. The Rigveda uses similar words as in the Zend Avesta.

  It was a great tragedy that Sir William died at the relatively young age of 48. It was a great loss to India, and to the world.

1 comment:

  1. Matar & Pitar (Skt prathamabhaktas, no?) are even closer comparisons. The Latin for fire is 'ignis', not 'agnus'
    I've very much enjoyed your postings, Your Honor... Thanks.