1902 Encyclopedia > Sir William Jones

Sir William Jones
English linguist and Oriental scholar

SIR WILLIAM JONES (1746-1794), one of the most accomplished linguists and Oriental scholars that England has produced, was born in London September 28, 1746. When seven years old he was sent to Harrow, where he soon far excelled all his school-fellows in every branch of study. But the classical routine of a public school failed to satisfy the ardent thirst for knowledge displayed by the boy from his earliest childhood. He accordingly began to apply himself, during the last three years of his life at Harrow, to the study of Oriental languages, teaching himself the rudiments of Arabic, and becoming sufficiently familiar with Hebrew to be able to read that language with tolerable ease. The greater part of his vacations he devoted to the improvement of his acquaintance with French and Italian by assiduously practising composition in those tongues. In 1764 young Jones went to Oxford and entered University College, where he continued to prosecute his studies with unabated vigour. Though obliged to give up a considerable portion of his time to the classical studies required by the university course, he still directed his attention chiefly to Oriental literature, particularly to Persian and Arabic. In acquiring the latter language he received effective assistance from a Syrian named Mirza, whom he discovered in London and brought with him to Oxford. Meanwhile, however, not content with all this work, he managed to make considerable progress in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. At nineteen he left Oxford to become tutor to Earl Spencer's eldest son, and remained with that nobleman's family for five years. In 1766 Jones obtained a fellowship which placed him in a position of independence, and enabled him to give his undivided attention to his linguistic pursuits. On his return from a short visit to the Continent, where he picked up some knowledge of German, he began the study of Chinese, and made himself master of the radical characters of that language. Though not more than twenty-two years of age, he was already becoming famous for his acquirements as a linguist and Oriental scholar. Accordingly when Christian VII., king of Denmark, visited England in 1768, bringing with him a life of Nadir Shah in Persian, Jones was requested to render the MS. into French. He agreed, and the translation appeared in 1770, with an introduction containing a description of Asia and a short history of Persia (2 vols. 8vo ; new ed., 1790). This was followed in the same year by a treatise in French on Oriental poetry, and by a metrical translation, in the same language, of the odes of Hafiz.

For some time Jones had been thinking of taking up the law as a profession, and, having now finally decided on doing so, he became a member of the Temple. About this time the French Orientalist, Anquetil Du Perron, published his translation of the Zend Avesta, in the introduction to which he made an unjustifiable attack on Oxford. Jones, taking on himself the defence of his university, addressed an anonymous letter in French to Du Perron, in which he convicted that scholar of unwarrantable invective and wilful misrepresentation. It is a remarkable proof of Jones's great talent for languages that the racy and idiomatic style of the French in this pamphlet led several foreign savans to attribute it to the pen of some bel esprit of the French capital. In the same year appeared his grammar of the Persian language (9th ed., with corrections and additions by Samuel Lee, D.D., Lond., 1828), which is still considered one of the best text-books on the subject. In 1772 Jones published a small volume of poems, chiefly translations from Asiatic languages, together with two elegant essays on the poetry of Eastern nations and on the arts commonly called imitative. His next publication, which appeared in 1774, was a treatise entitled Poeseos Asiatics, commentariorum libri sex, the chief aim of which was to familiarize the European mind with the genius of Oriental poetry.

Being now admitted to the bar, Jones determined to give up all his energies to his legal studies, and renounced polite literature for some years. Setting to work with the same eagerness which he displayed in the pursuit of all other kinds of knowledge, he made it his endeavour, not merely to master the technicalities of law, but to devote himself to it as a branch of philosophy. Having within two years acquired a considerable legal reputation, he was in 1776 appointed commissioner of bankrupts. In 1780 he was induced by his friends to come forward as a candidate for the representation of the university of Oxford in parliament, but he withdrew from the contest before the day of election, as he found he had no chance of success, owing to the liberal principles he held, especially on the questions of the American war and of the slave trade.

In the winter of 1780-81 he found leisure to complete his translation of the seven ancient Arabic poems called Moallakdt. Besides writing an Essay on the Law of Bailments, Jones translated in 1781 the speeches of Isaeus on the right of inheritance, and an Arabian poem on the Mahometan law of succession to the property of intestates, as bearing on his legal studies.

The hopes which he had for some time entertained of obtaining a seat on the judicial bench in Bengal, were at last gratified on the accession to power of the Shelburne administration, by which he was in 1783 appointed a judge of the supreme court of judicature at Fort William, at the same time receiving the honour of knighthood. Shortly after his arrival in Calcutta he founded, in January 1784, the Asiatic Society, of which he remained president till his death. Convinced as he was of the great importance of consulting the Hindu legal authorities in the original, he lost no time in commencing the study of Sanskrit. Having in a few years made himself complete master of the language, he undertook, in 1788, the task of compiling a digest of Hindu and Mahometan law, the completion of which he did not live to see; the work was finished, however, by Colebrooke, who edited it at Calcutta in 1800 under the title of Digest of Hindu Laws. In 1789 Sir William Jones published the first volume of Asiatic Researches and his translation of Sakuutala, the most famous play of Kalidasa, the greatest Indian dramatist. He also translated the well-known collection of fables entitled the Hitopadeca, the Gitagovinda, an erotic poem by Jayadeva, and considerable portions of the Veda, besides editing the text of the Ritusamhdra, a short but celebrated poem by Kalidasa. His last work, which appeared in 1794, was the translation of the Institutes of Manu, a compilation of laws and ordinances, dating from the 5th century B.C. Sir William's unremitting literary labours, together with the conscientious performance of his heavy judicial work, could not fail to tell on his health after a ten years' residence in the climate of Bengal; and he was about to return to England when a sudden attack of inflammation of the liver carried him off in the forty-eighth year of his age (April 27, 1794).

The amount of labour of various kinds which Sir "William Jones compressed into the space of a comparatively short life seems almost incredible. In addition to numerous other acquirements, he knew thirteen languages well, and had an elementary acquaintance with twenty-eight others. His capacity for assimilating and reproducing knowledge of every sort was almost unparalleled. But his works, though they display a vast amount of learning, do not bear the stamp of genius. He shows no originality either in discovering new truths or in placing old truths in a new light. Had he concentrated his powers, his extraordinary industry might have secured him greatness in some one branch of knowledge; but their diffusion over too great a surface contributed greatly to that weakness which is so manifest both in his style and in his critical faculty. His chief claim to the remembrance of posterity will rest on the fact that by founding the Asiatic Society he rendered the language and literature of the ancient Hindus accessible to European scholars, and thus became the indirect cause of the splendid achievements in the field of Sanskrit and comparative philology which the present century has witnessed.

Sir William Jones's complete works were edited in 1799 (6 vols. 4to), and reprinted in 1807 (13 vols. 8vo). Lord Teignmonth published memoirs of his life, writings, and correspondence in 1807 (new ed. 1835, 2 vols. 8vo); and an autobiography, published by his son, was printed in 1846. (A. A. M.)

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