Sir William Jones: getting lucky

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 then either, yet bearing to both of them 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 philosopher could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.

That comment is an obligatory part of the preface to any book involving Sanskrit. It comes from a speech William Jones gave to the Asiatic Society of Calcutta in 1786. It’s the first claim of a common root for Sanskrit, Latin and Greek, and so Jones generally gets credited with the origin of Indo-European linguistics.

I had assumed that the comment was based on some kind of reasoned argument. Then on Monday I read the paper it came from. Jones wasn’t coming up with a systematic theory of historical linguistics – he was clumping together any similarity he could find, with no regard to plausibility. He happened to get lucky this one time, but he wasn’t any saner than, say, Immanuel Velikovsky.

Here are a couple of the other brilliant ideas Jones had in that speech in Calcutta:

It is very remarkable, that the Peruvians, whose Incas boasted of the same descent, styled their greatest festival Ramasitoa; whence we may suppose that South America was peopled by the same race, who imported into the farthest parts of Asia the rites and fabulous history of Rama

Nor can we doubt, that Wod or Odin, whose religion, as the northern historians admit, was introduced into Scandinavia by a foreign race, was the same with Buddh, whose rites were probably imported into India nearly at the same time

The letters on many of these monuments appear, as I have before intimated, partly of Indian, and partly of Abyssinian or Ethiopick, origin; and all these indupitable facts may induce no ill-grounded opinion, that Ethiopia and Hindustan were peopled or colonized by the same extraordianry race

The moral of the story is that if you spin out enough wild ideas, one of them will eventually turn out to be right, and a couple of hundred years later you’ll be remembered as a great scholar and visionary.

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