Sir William Jones

« previous post | next post »

My parenthetical remark that Sir William Jones is incorrectly viewed as the discoverer of the Indo-European language family and founder of modern historical linguistics provoked the question in the comments of why I said this.

There are two points to make here. The first is that Jones was not the first to recognize the relationship of some of the languages that comprise the Indo-European Language family. Hypotheses very much like Jones' go back to the "Scythian Hypothesis". Even Sanskrit was brought into the picture as early as 1643 by Claudius Salmasius.

The second and more important point is that Jones cannot be considered the founder of modern historical linguistics because he did not use the comparative method, the crucial innovation that distinguishes modern historical linguistics from its predecessors.

We don't actually know very much about Jones' methods and the reasons underlying his linguistic proposals because he doesn't tell us much. The famous paragraph about Indo-European appears in one of the series of annual lectures he gave to the Asiatic Society of Bengal. This lecture series was not narrowly devoted to linguistics. Rather, it described the project on which he had embarked of reconstructing the migrations of human populations. The links that he saw between one linguistic group and another formed but one part of the evidence he gave, along with similarities in religion, customs, architecture, and various other features, legends, and the writings of ancient historians. In this context, he couldn't go into the details of his linguistic arguments, and unfortunately, he never wrote about them anywhere else.

As far as we can tell, Jones was vaguely aware of some of the methodological problems that arise in classifying languages, such as the need to distinguish inherited words from loans, but did not in practice take these problems seriously enough, as evidenced by his erroneous classification of Pahlavi and Malay as Semitic and Tibetan as Indo-European. Nor did he use phonological correspondences to determine whether perceived similarities between languages were systematic.

I haven't gone into great detail here because the details are complex and the subject is treated at length in the book on Language Classification that Lyle Campbell and I have just published. Chapter 3 is devoted to Jones.

Cover of Book Language Classification

I hasten to add that although Jones' role in the development of historical linguistics has often been over-estimated, he was nonetheless an interesting and sympathetic figure. He was one of the very few European scholars of his time to learn such languages as Arabic, Persian, and Turkish well and to publish careful translations of their literature. He was also a political progressive. A friend of Benjamin Franklin and supporter of the American Revolution, he very nearly immigrated to the United States. Though an official of the British colonial government in India, he was not a colonialist. One of his reasons for learning Sanskrit was so that he could study Indian law.


  1. marie-lucie said,

    August 15, 2008 @ 9:08 pm

    To me, the crucial aspect of Jones' contribution to historical linguistics is his statement that the related languages probably derived from a common ancestor "which, perhaps, no longer exists". Previous observers assumed that one of the known languages was the ancestor of all the others. Another very important contribution is that he did not just look at single words but at the paradigms they enter into, such as the similarity in declensions and conjugations in Latin, Greek and Sanskrit, i.e. he had been struck by the detailed resemblances in morphological organization and actual forms between the three languages. These two points were successfully followed up by successors and the principle of the regularity of phonological resemblances (and its importance for sorting out loans and for reconstruction) was established much later, when proto-language reconstruction rather than classification had become the main focus of Indo-European studies. So yes, the "mature" comparative method [of proto-language reconstruction, not of classification per se] relies heavily on phonological correspondences for reconstructing the details of the common ancestor, but first the relationship between languages has to be established (or at least look highly probable), and that is where common morphology (of both type and detail) is very important. (Yes, I know that that is hard to do in Chinese, but there are lots of languages with reasonably complex morphology).

  2. Bill Poser said,

    August 15, 2008 @ 11:03 pm


    Jones does briefly mention similarity in morphology as a basis for genetic affiliation: here as with lexicon he made no detailed argument. Indeed, as I recall, his lectures contain not a single paradigm. Although his attention to morphology was well advised, he was by no means the first to pay attention to morphology. Janós [Joannis] Sajnovics has a far better claim to being the father of modern historical methodology. In his 1770 work Demonstratio idioma Ungarorum et Lapponum idem esse he demonstrated the relationship between Saami, Finnish, and Hungarian using strikingly modern methods, including extensive comparisons of morphology. His work was known to other European scholars and had a significant impact on the development of historical linguistics.

    It is also true that Jones recognized that the common ancestor of Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, etc. might be a language which no longer exists, while many earlier writers had assumed that some existing language must be the ancestral language. However, here again he was by no means the first. Indeed, Claudius Salmasius, whom I mentioned in the post, already in 1643 hypothesized that the common ancestor of which he spoke was a language that no longer exists.

    So, while I agree that Jones arrived at two important ideas of historical linguistics, neither of these ideas was original to him.

  3. marie-lucie said,

    August 15, 2008 @ 11:57 pm

    All right, I did not know these obscure sources. Perhaps Jones's fame rests on the fact that he delivered his remarks to a more general audience? or because he mentioned both ideas in the same paragraph, in concise and elegant language? As for not quoting a single paradigm, that is true, but attention to paradigms seems to be implied in what he wrote (or am I inferring too much?).

  4. Garrett Wollman said,

    August 16, 2008 @ 12:35 am

    Sometimes, creation myths serve a useful purpose even when they are demonstrably wrong. Jones may have had no more priority on historical linguistics than Abner Doubleday did on baseball, or the Westinghouse Corporation on American commercial broadcasting, but we still remember them to this day, which may be more important to the social construction of those fields of endeavor than the actual history is. That we remember Jones, and don't remember Salmasius, is not irrelevant. (These historical narratives are fluid; if Campbell and Poser's book is successful, and other (more popular) writers take up the cause, then the "we" of fifty years hence might well remember Salmasius.)

  5. Adrian said,

    August 16, 2008 @ 4:42 am

    Of course, when you say (János) Sajnovics "demonstrated the relationship" between Hungarian and Finnish, there are still plenty of people who maintain that he didn't adequately demonstrate it.

  6. Isaac said,

    August 16, 2008 @ 8:44 pm

    Taking recourse to Jones' studying Sanskrit so he could study "Indian Law" is a bit of a red herring. The law he studied, indeed the only law one can study in Sanskrit, was elite Brahminic law, predominantly Manu, the reification of which as "Indian" was a major source of the development of British colonial attitudes towards the Indian people, and the development of caste as a static ritual-based stratification with the Brahmins as the top.

  7. Early Modern Notes » Carnivalesque 42 said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 8:40 am

    […] Poser at Language Log argues that it's wrong to view Sir William Jones(wikipedia) 'the discoverer of the Indo-European language family and founder of modern […]

  8. Jesus Sanchis said,

    November 16, 2008 @ 3:13 am

    The attribution of the discovery of Indo-European to William James reminds me of another notorious misunderstanding in history: the fact that America was named after the person who drew the map, not the one who apparently discovered this new continent. Sometimes the relevant thing is not what you discover, but when and how you present a discovery.

    [(myl) That's "William Jones, not William James, who was quite a different person.]

    I would also like to talk a little about the book that is mentioned in this post: “Language Classification”, by Campbell and Poser. It looks like an interesting book and I might read it one day. I took a look inside (via Amazon) and browsed the index pages, in which I saw some of the important authors in this field: Ruhlen, Greenberg, Mallory, Renfrew, Dixon, etc. and many references to Indo-European. But there is an important name missing in this list: Mario Alinei and his Continuity Theory. It seems that American linguists, in general, have not yet discovered him. It’s a pity, because instead of discussing what William James said or how the supposed trees of language families were built by means of rules and principles, repeating once and again the same old things about Indo-European, language change, etc., they would be analysing the history and classification of languages from a completely new perspective.

    [(myl) Given your belief that William Jones was William James, I suspect that "the same old things about Indo-European, language change, etc." will be new information to you. In fact, this field has been full of discussion and debate, both factual and theoretical, from its earliest days to the present; and there have been new developments, both empirical and theoretical, throughout that long history. If you want to take part in that debate, you'd do well to learn something about it.

    As for Mario Alinei and his "Paleolithic Continuity Theory", I'll leave it to Bill Poser to comment.]

  9. Jesus Sanchis said,

    November 16, 2008 @ 1:13 pm

    Someone has written a series of comments, in red, on my comments. Let's see. I wrote the initial comment, quite acrefully, yesterday, and for some reasons it was deleted. Someone told me that it was some kind of robot that does that to prevent spam, or something similar; this person also told me that there would be no problem if I sent my comment again, and that's what I did. I had to remember the details by heart, and I wrote it quickly, early in the morning (European time) before I went on a trip. Maybe that's why, I suppose, I mistook James for Jones, something that happens to me all the time if I'm not careful with names, and which also shows, INDEED, how little I'm worried about what some people in the 18th and 19th centuries said about linguistics, even though I have read Jones's famous quotes many many times in all kinds of articles and books, among other things because in many of these books the authors don't have anything more interesting to talk about. I don't know who wrote the comments in red, but they sound rather impolite to me. Just in case you wonder if I know something about historical linguistics, take a look at my blog:

    And Mr "myl", whoever you are, (or are you also a robot?), I expect your apologies.

  10. Ted said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 10:26 pm

    @Jesus Sanchis: You would also do well to learn something of the structure and nature of Language Log, and the person who's mainly in charge of it, if you're going to keep leaving comments here. I'll give you two hints: his middle initial is Y, and he has every right to respond to your (or anyone else's) comments.

  11. Jesus Sanchis said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 5:37 pm

    A little after I posted my last comment I discovered who "myl" actually is. There was a high degree of misunderstanding in the whole situation, which I regret. I have continued posting in the Language Log and I think now I know better how it works. In any case, I think it would be better if the people who are in charge of the blog used a clearer type of identification. This would help to avoid misunderstandings.

  12. Giving credit « The Lumber Room said,

    March 23, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

    […] Bill Poser at the Language Log: Sir William Jones is incorrectly viewed as the discoverer of the Indo-European language family and founder of modern historical linguistics […] […]

  13. E. Rafraf said,

    August 7, 2009 @ 3:57 am

    Did William Jones have access to linguistic material from mesopotamia? The establishment of a theory on linguistic affinity would have little or no significance, if the linguistic situation in ancient mesopotamia were not taken into consideration.

RSS feed for comments on this post