Sir William Jones

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated

William Jones

Sir William Jones (1746–1794) was an English philologist, Orientalist, and jurist. While serving as a judge of the high court at Calcutta, he became a student of ancient India and founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal. He is best known for his famous proposition that many languages sprang from a common source. His scholarship helped to generate widespread interest in Eastern history, language and culture, and it led to new directions in linguistic research.

Jones was born in London, England, on September 28, 1746, the son of William and Mary Nix Jones. His father was a mathematician who was a friend of Sir Isaac Newton. The elder William died only three years after his son's birth. He left his widow with modest assets, which she used toward their son's education. As such, Jones was able to attend Harrow School, an exclusive institution regarded as one of the greatest in England. Jones proved a standout student, distinguishing himself in classical scholarship. He also studied Oriental languages, as well as Arabic, Hebrew, French, and Italian.

Even at a very early age, Jones demonstrated his multi-linguistic skills. He would develop into a hyperpolygot, someone possessing fluent understanding of more than six languages. Eventually, Jones would know 28 languages and was self-taught in several.

Attended Oxford

Jones entered University College, Oxford, in 1764. He had already developed a reputation for his impressive scholarship, and college enabled him to increase his knowledge of Middle Eastern studies, philosophy, Oriental literature, and Greek and Hebrew. In addition, he learned Spanish and Portuguese, and also mastered the Chinese language.

He supported himself through college with scholarships and by serving as a tutor to Earl Spencer, the seven-year-old son of Lord Althorp, who was the brother of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

Jones earned his bachelor of arts degree in 1768. By then he had already become a well-known Orientalist, despite being only 22 years old. That same year, Jones was asked by Christian VII of Denmark to translate a Persian manuscript about the life of Nadir Shah into French. The Danish king had brought the manuscript with him on a visit to England. The task was considerable: the Persian manuscript was a difficult one and, at one point Jones was forced to interrupt his own postgraduate studies for a year to complete the translation. It was eventually published in 1770 as Histoire de Nader Chah, and it included an introduction that contained descriptions of Asia and a history of Persia.

Prolific Publishing Output

The publication secured Jones's reputation as a major translator and language scholar, and it would be the first of his numerous works involving the Middle East. In 1771, he published A Grammar of the Persian Language, which proved to be one of the best grammar texts ever published in English about a language the Western world considered "exotic." For the project, Jones employed numerous literary quotations in his goal of producing a scholarly work that would be morally uplifting, and that would entertain as well as instruct. The work, which went through several editions and translations, provided a model that later language scholars would follow.

During this period he produced three more books, including the 542-page Poeseos Asiaticae Commentariorum (1774), but these had less impact. Still, they demonstrated Jones's brilliance and helped cement his academic reputation, also earning him the nicknames of Persian Jones, Oriental Jones, and Linguist Jones.

During these years in London, Jones also wrote poetry. He spent a great deal of time outlining a prospective epic entitled Britain Discovered, which he never completed. However, he did publish Poems, Consisting Chiefly of Translations from the Asiatick Languages (1772), which represented an effective and innovative fusion of classical poetic conventions with Middle Eastern themes and imagery.

Jones received his master of arts degree from Oxford on June 18, 1773. He was asked to deliver an oration at the University, but eventually declined when he was pressured to modify his discussion of academic freedom to include favorable comments about Lord North, whose policies toward America he opposed. The unmodified speech was later published as An Oration Intended to Have Been Spoken in the Theatre at Oxford.

Meanwhile, his published academic and literary output provided Jones with a high professional rank and important social connections. He became a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1773 he was elected to Dr. Samuel Johnson's renowned literary group, the Club, which included such well-known figures as James Boswell, Edmund Burke, David Garrick, Thomas Percy, and Adam Smith. Despite his newly elevated status, Jones always maintained a modest and appealing disposition.

Studied Law

For financial reasons Jones also began studying law, entering London's Middle Temple in 1770, but he continued working on translations. He applied his characteristic enthusiasm and thoroughness to his curriculum, studying legal technicalities as well as legal philosophies. He was admitted to the bar in 1774, and made a modest living as a barrister, an attorney, and an Oxford fellow. He also worked with Benjamin Franklin in Paris, trying to help resolves issues involving the American Revolution.

Through his law studies, Jones also became a noted legal scholar. In 1776 he was appointed commissioner in bankruptcy, which led to his famous Essay on the Law of Bailments (1781), a lucid study that compared English bailments with other legal systems. The work went through several editions and became a standard for English and American lawyers. Other works included the translation of The Speeches of Isaeus (1779), which dealt with the Athenian right of inheritance.

Developed Political Interests

Throughout his legal career, Jones demonstrated a passion for social justice, pro-American sympathies, and a disdain for dictatorial governmental polices. Further, his writings revealed a republican slant. As a result, he was not held in high regard by the reigning British Tory administration. When he ran for a university seat in Parliament in 1780, his political ambitions were frustrated by Tory power figures, who feared his influence.

From 1780 to 1783, Jones wrote four political tracts, the most famous and influential of which was An Inquiry into the Legal Mode of Suppressing Riots, with a Constitutional Plan of Future Defence (1780). The others included A Speech on the Nomination of Candidates to Represent the County of Middlesex (1780), A Speech to the Assembled Inhabitants of the Counties of Middlesex and Surry (1782), and A Letter to a Patriot Senator (1783). In 1782, his The Principles of Government was published anonymously. When it was deemed libelous by the British government, Jones boldly decided to reprint the pamphlet, this time with his name revealed as its author. The landmark libel case resulted in the Libel Act of 1792, which helped advance the cause of freedom of the press.

Meanwhile, he continued writing poetry and produced four noteworthy political poems including Julii Melesigoni ad Libertatum Carmen (1780), which condemned Britain's war against America; "The Muse Recalled" (1781), another defense of America; "An Ode in Imitation of Alcaeus" (1781), regarded as his greatest political poem, as it advanced his ideas on government and morality; and "An Ode in Imitation of Callistratus" (1782), which lauded the emergence of Britain's Whig administration. From these poetic works a rumor arose that Jones would move to America to help write the new nation's constitution.

Moved to India

However, the only transcontinental move Jones would make would be an eventual relocation to Calcutta, where he would assume a Supreme Court Judgeship. In 1778, as he was engaged to marry Anna Maria Shipley, Jones realized that his law practice didn't provide him with adequate financial means. So, when he learned of a well-paying opening on the Supreme Court in the Bengal presidency, he asked his influential friends to help him secure the position. In the meantime, he wrote a translation of seven famous pre-Islamic Arabic odes called The Moallakát. His translation, published in 1782, would influence Alfred Lord Tennyson and later important poets. Finally, despite Tory doubts about his suitability for the Indian judgeship, Jones was appointed on March 4, 1783. On March 20 of that year, he was knighted and became Sir William Jones. On April 8, he married Shipley, and he and his wife would live in India from 1783 until 1794, the year Jones died.

The 11 years he spent on the Supreme Court of Calcutta were highly productive ones, and he applied democratic principles to his judicial decisions. The six charges Jones made to the Calcutta Grand Jury during that period helped determine the course of Indian jurisprudence as well as preserve the rights of Indian citizens to trial by jury, as Jones considered Indians to be equal under the law with Europeans.

His most famous accomplishment in India was establishing the Asiatic Society of Bengal, in January of 1784. The founding of the Society grew out of Jones's love for India, its people and its culture, as well as his abhorrence of oppression, nationalism and imperialism. His goal for the Society was to develop a means to foster collaborative international scientific and humanistic projects that would be unhindered by social, ethnic, religious and political barriers. Through the Society, Jones hoped to make Oriental studies much more attractive to people from the West. As a result, Jones exerted a substantial influence on the academic and literary disciplines in Western Europe. He would remain the Society's president until he died.

In addition to establishing the Society, Jones felt compelled to learn Sanskrit so that he could better prepare himself to understand Hindu and Muslim laws. This led to an enormous personal project: the compilation of all such laws. The task was so huge that he was unable to complete it before he died. However, he did publish portions, including Institutes of Hindu Law, or the Ordinances of Menu, Mohammedan Law of Succession to Property of Intestates and Mohammedan Law of Inheritance. He also published numerous works about India, covering a variety of topics including law, art, music, literature, botany and geography.

The Famous Proposition

While studying Sanskrit, Jones developed the idea of a common source for languages, which proved to be his greatest achievement of all, and the one for which he is best known today. In The Sanscrit Language, published in 1786, Jones wrote of how he observed that Sanskrit had a strong resemblance to Greek and Latin, which led him to suggest that the three languages not only had a common root but they were related to the Gothic, Celtic, and Persian languages. The impact of the work was enormous, as it brought about the separation of religion from language and eschewed mythology for a more scientific approach to linguistics. His discovery was regarded as just as important, in its own way, as the scientific discoveries made by men like Galileo, Copernicus and Charles Darwin.

Jones's efforts not only substantially added to the store of human knowledge; his work also generated a renewed interest among the Indian people about their own rich national and literary heritage. In 1789 he completed his translation of Sakuntala, a famous drama, and the Hitopadesa, a collection of fables. In 1792 he translated the Ritusamhara into the original Sanskrit.

Died in Calcutta

Eventually, living in the Indian climate took its toll on Jones and his wife. In November of 1793, Anna Jones was forced to return to England for health reasons. Jones stayed behind, to try and complete his translation of Hindu and Muslim laws so that the Indian people would be able to govern themselves under their own laws. He expected the task to take him two more years. However, on April 27, 1794, Jones died in Calcutta from inflammation of the liver, a condition that he aggravated with overwork. The only portion of the large work that he lived to see published was Institutes of Hindu Law, or, The Ordinances of Menu, according to the Gloss of Culluca (1794).

Though this final project was left incomplete, Jones still left behind a rich legacy of scholarship, political tracts and poetry. In particular, his enormous contribution to linguistics is undeniably significant. Further, his translations had the effect of introducing the Western world to the rich heritage of the Middle East. While his artistic efforts are only considered today as minor classics, they proved to have a strong impact on more famous poets and writers. It has been pointed out that his style, which mixed Western and Eastern elements, helped influence poets of England's Romantic movement, especially Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Lord Byron. Later writers that Jones influenced included Matthew Arnold, Rudyard Kipling, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Goethe, and T.S. Eliot.


Cannon, Garland, "Sir William Jones," Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 109: Eighteenth-Century British Poets, Second Series, edited by John Sitter, Gale Group, 1991.


"Biography of Sir William Jones," Kamat's Potpourri—The History, Mystery and Diversity of India, (December 7, 2006).

"The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century," The Norton Anthology of English Literature, (December 7, 2006).

"Sir William Jones," 1911 Encyclopedia, (December 7, 2006).

views updated

Jones, William

(b. Llanfihangel Tw’r Beird, Anglesey, Welas, 1675; d. London, England, 3 July 1749)


According to Welsh custom Jones, the son of a small farmer, John George, took the Christian name of his father (John) as his own surname (Jones). His mother was Elizabeth Rowland. Although Jones has little claim to eminence as a mathematician in his own right, his name is well-known to historians of mathematics through his association with the correspondence and works of many seventeenth-century mathematicians, particularly Newton.

In his early schooling Jones showed enough promise to secure the patronage of a local landowner (Bulksley of baron Hill) who helped him to enter the countinghouse of a London merchant. Subsequently he traveled to the West Indies and taught mathematics on a man-ofhypen;war. Upon his return to London, Jones established himself as a teacher of mathematics; tutorships in great families followed. One of his pupils, Philip Yorke (afterward first earl of Hardwicke), later became lord chancellor; Jones traveled with him on circuit and was appointed ldquo;secretary for peace”, He also taught thomas Parker, afterward first earl of Macclesfield, and his son George, ho became president of the Royal Society. For any years Jones lived at Shirburn Castle, Tetsworth, Oxfordshire, with the Parker family. There he met and married Maria Nix, daughter of a London cabinetmaker; they had two sons and a daughter.

In 1702 Jones published A New Compendium of the Whole Art of Navigation,a practical treatise concerned with the application of mathematics to astronomy and seamanship. His second book, Synopsis palmariorum matheseos (1706), attracted the attention of Newton and Halley. Although the book was designed essentially for beginners in mathematics, it contained a fairly comprehensive survey of contemporary developments, including the method of fluxions and the doctrine of series. Of the binomial theorem he wrote: “. . .and in a world, there is scarce any Inquiry so Sublime and Intricate, or any Improvement soEminent and Considerable, in Pure Mathematics, but by a Prudent application of this Theorem, may easily be exhibited and deduced.” Although all the symbols used by Jones are sensible and concise, in only one respect does he appear to have been an innovator: he introduced π for the ratio of the circumference of a circle to the diameter.

From 1706 on, Jones remained in close touch with Newton and was one of the privileged few who obtained access to his manuscripts. About 1708 he acquired the papers and correspondence of John Collins, a collection that included a transcript of Newton’s De analysi (1669). In 1711 Newton permitted Jones to print the tracts De analysi per aequationes numero terminorum infinitas and Methodus differentialis (along with reproductions of his tracts on quadratures and cubics) as Analysis per quantitatum series, fluxiones ac differentias; cum enumeratione linearum tertii ordinis. In the same year Jones was appointed a member of the committee set up by the Royal Society to investigate the invention of the calculus. With John Machin and Halley, he was responsible for the preparation of the printed report. On 30 November 1712 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and subsequently became vice-president. He contributed sundry papers to the Philosophical Transactions, mostly of a practical character.

At his death Jones left a voluminous collection of manuscripts and correspondence which he had assembled mainly through his connections with Newton and the Royal Society. It seems that he intended to publish an extensive work an mathematics and, to this end, made copious notes and transcripts from manuscripts lent by Newton. This material became inextricably mixed with the original manuscripts and the transcripts of others, including those of John Collins and James Wilson. John Coulson (1736) used a transcript made by Jones as the basis for an English version of Newton’s 1671 tract, The Method of Fluxions and Infinite Series. Subsequently Samuel Horsley (Newton’s Opera omnia, I [1779]) retained Jones’s title for the tract on fluxions (1671) and copied the “dot” notation inserted by Jones. D. T. Whiteside (Newton Papers, I, xxxii) remarks that the sections of the Portsmouth collection relating to fluxions are “choked with irrelavant, fragmentary transcripts by Jones and Wilson.” After Jones’s death most of the manuscript collection passed into the hands of the second earl of Macclesfield. Two volumes of correspondence from this collection were published by Rigaud in 1841. The task of separating the mass of material compiled by Jones from Newton’s original manuscripts has only recently been completed by Whiteside.


I. Original Works. Jones’s books are A New Compendium of the Whole Art of Navigation (London, 1702), with tables by J. Flamsteed; and Synopsis palmariorum matheseos, or a New Introduction to the Mathematics (London, 1706). Charles Hutton, The Mathematical and Philosophical Dictionary, 2 vols. (London, 1795), I, 672, lists the papers (mostly slight) published by Jones in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and gives some account of the disposal of his library of MSS after his death. F. Maseres, Scriptores logarithmici (London, 1791), contains a paper by Jones on compound interest. D. T. Whiteside, The Mathematical Papers of Issac Newton, I-II (Cambridge, 1967-1968), makes numerous references to Jones and his connection with the Newton MSS. A number of letters written by and received by Jones were printed in S. J. Rigaud, Correspondence of Scientific Men of the Seventeenth Century, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1841).

II. Secondary Literature. Biographical material is available in Hutton’s Mathematical Dictionary (see above) and in John Nichols, Biographical and Literary Anecdotes of Willia Bowyer, Printer, F.S.A. (London, 1782), pp. 73-74. See also Lord Teignmouth, Memoirs of the Life, Writings and Correspondence of Sir William Jones (London, 1804); and David Brewster, Memoirs of the Life, Writings and Discoveries of Sir Issac Newton, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1855), I, 226, II, 421.

M. E. Baron

views updated

JONES, (Sir) William [1746–94]. British philologist and jurist, born in London of Welsh parentage, and educated at Harrow and University College, Oxford. His Grammar of the Persian Language (1771) was considered definitive for many years. He studied law and was called to the Bar in 1774, becoming a judge of the high court in Calcutta in 1783. His philological pursuits, interest in Indian legal literature (rare among Europeans of his time), and his liberal political outlook, introduced him to Indian languages, including SANSKRIT. He founded the Asiatic Society in 1784, and in his presidential address of 1786 announced his view that ‘the Sanscrit language … bear[s to GREEK and LATIN] a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs, and in 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. There is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothick and the Celtick … had the same origin with the Sanscrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family.…’ By concentrating on systematic resemblances in the form of grammar, accepting that the common source no longer exists, and listing most of the chief language families that descended from that source, this statement embodies the founding principles of the historical study of the INDO-EUROPEAN LANGUAGES. See ETYMOLOGY, PHILOLOGY.

views updated

Jones, Sir William (1746–94). Oriental scholar. Educated at Harrow and University College, Oxford, Jones was a gifted linguist, eventually mastering 13 languages and knowing 28 others. His opposition to the American War and the slave trade probably cost him the chair of Arabic at Oxford in 1781. Called to the bar in 1774, he was knighted and appointed a judge in the High Court of Calcutta in 1783. He remained in India until his premature death, founding the Bengal Asiatic Society (1784) and developing an appreciation of Indian law and culture unusual in a European. Having mastered Sanskrit, he translated parts of Indian classics including the scriptures (the Veda) and laid the foundations for comparative philology. His writings were a useful counter in Britain to the developing forces of Christian cultural imperialism. He was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1772.

Edward Royle

views updated

Sir William Jones, 1746–94, English philologist and jurist. Jones was celebrated for his understanding of jurisprudence and of Oriental languages. He published an Essay on the Law of Bailments (1781), widely used in America as well as in England. For 11 years he was a supreme court judge in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Jones founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal at Calcutta. Through the Society, as well as through his publications, he had a great influence on literature, Asian study, and philology in Western Europe. Jones was the first to suggest that Sanskrit originated from the same source as Latin and Greek, thus laying the foundation for modern comparative philology.

See his letters, ed. by G. Cannon (2 vol., 1970); study by S. N. Mukherjee (1987).

views updated

Jones, Sir William (1746–94). British jurist and orientalist, who began his broad linguistic studies at Oxford, where, in addition to European languages, he learnt Arabic, Persian, Chinese, and Hebrew. In 1774 he was called to the Bar, and nine years later was appointed judge at the Calcutta Supreme Court. He was Founder President of the Bengal Asiatic Society, which he headed until his death. Sir William Jones was one of the earliest European scholars to learn Skt., and his work was of major importance in enabling non-Indian academics to become aware of and appreciate the richness of the ancient Hindu contributions to Indo-European literature and philology.

views updated

Jones, William (d. 1757). Minor British Georgian architect remembered for one outstanding building, the Rotunda in Ranelagh Gardens, Chelsea, London (1742, demolished 1805). It was a large circular structure with a very pretty, light galleried interior, really a glorified concert-hall and place for drinking tea, and its design showed rare originality for the period. He published designs for doors, gateways, and other architectural elements in 1739. Much of his built work has also been demolished, although Alresford House, Hants. (1749–51), survives.


Colvin (1995)

views updated

Jones, William

Jones, William, English churchman, writer on music, and composer; b. Lowick, Northamptonshire (baptized), July 20, 1726; d. Nayland, Suffolk, Jan. 6, 1800. He studied at Oxford, and with James Oswald and Pepuch in London, and subsequently was a vicar and curate. He publ. A Treatise on the Art of Music; in which the Elements of Harmony and Air are practically considered (Colchester, 1784; 2nd ed., 1827) and The Nature and Excellence of Music: a Sermon (London, 1787).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire