In Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens, one of the many paradoxes that he noted in human history was the idea that empires bring with them subjugation over entire peoples, yet at the same time they also bring diverse, interconnected networks of knowledge. British India is the prime example he provides, since it was the place that was exploited for its spices, but it was also there that the greatest linguistic discovery was uncovered. Prior to this link, it was originally believed that the European languages were related to Hebrew, which turned out to be false according to linguist whom is the focus of this entry in the Sanestos series.
Sir William Jones was born in September 28, 1746. He would surpass his peers in languages like Greek. He would eventually enroll in Oxford, where he would learn about various languages like German and Arabic. He caught the attention of King Cristian VII of Denmark, who requested that he translate The Life of Nadir Shah from Persian to French, which he did. As a result of his skills, he was made a fellow of Oxford University. However, financial reasons made him discontinue his life as a fellow and instead took up employment in the law profession. Eventually, he was elected as a judge in the British court in Calcutta.
While there, he would study the law documents of India that were originally written in Sanskrit. However, he had begun noticing that there were similarities between Sanskrit and the European languages, noting how elaborate Sanskrit was. Eventually, Jones was able to connect within his comparative grammar sketch Latin and Greek to Sanskrit based on the words in the lexicons that have similar sounds, which turned out to be cognates. He included in these connections English and Welsh–the latter of which he had knowledge of.
Examples of those similarities that we can see include:
Regem: king (Latin)=Raja: king (Sanskrit)
Brother (English)=Frater: brother (Latin)=Bhratar: brother (Sanskrit)
Divus: divine (Latin)=Devas: god (Sanskrit)
In 1786, Sir William Jones reported his findings to the Asiatic Society of Calcultta.
With this discovery, Jones was able to revolutionize the linguistic field. As a result of Jones’ findings, linguists were able to devise a common family to these languages with what would be called the Indo-European language family tree.
However, it was known that Sanskrit had a lot in common with Greek and Latin before Jones discovered it. Centuries before, English Jesuit priest Thomas Stephens was in Goa, when he wrote to his brother how much he had noticed those similarities. A century later, Dutch linguist Marcus Zuerius van Boxhorn also noticed the similarities. However, Stephens’ letter would not be publicly released until the 20th century; and Van Boxhorn incorrectly theorized that these languages’ ancestral language was Scythian.
It was Jones who eventually made the most accurate possible theory, which was that there were Aryan groups that existed in Afghanistan, Persia, and northern India. I am careful in not asserting that Jones first discovered the link, though it is important to note that Jones continued the inquiry into this link between languages that span entire continents.
- Anthony, David W. The Horse, The Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World. Princeton University Press. 2007.
- Auroux, Sylvain (2000). History of the Language Sciences. Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter. p. 1156.
- Beekes, Robert S.P. (2011). Comparative Indo-European Linguistics: An introduction. Second edition. John Benjamins Publishing. p. 12.
- Deutscher, Guy. The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention. 1st Edition. Metropolitan Books. 2006.
- Edgerton, Franklin (2002) . “Sir William Jones, 1746-1794”. In Sebeok, Thomas A. (ed.). Portrait of Linguists. Volume 1. Thoemmes Press. pp. 1–17.
- Harari, Juval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. 1st Edition. Harper-Perennial. 2018.
- Wheeler, Kip. “The Sanskrit Connection: Keeping Up With the Joneses”. Dr.Wheeler’s Website.