The worldwide web of the Indo-European language family

In 1786, an English judge then resident in Calcutta, Sir William Jones delivered a speech to the members of the “Asiatick Society”, an institution that had been founded by him and a few other like-minded souls in January 1784 with a view to studying Asia and “whatever is performed by man or produced by nature (there)”. While undoubtedly complicit in the British colonial project, the society nevertheless produced a vast array of scholarship about various aspects relating to Asian culture.

Jones’s 1786 address in his capacity as president of the society contained this intriguing claim: ‘The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than 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 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, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family, if this were the place for discussing any question concerning the antiquities of Persia.”

In sum and substance, by noting Sanskrit’s similarities to the classical languages of Europe, he had opened up a whole new dimension to the field of philology or comparative linguistics.

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