William Jones Biography

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 , http://www.kamat.com/kalranga/people/pioneers/w-jones.htm (December 7, 2006).

"The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century," The Norton Anthology of English Literature , http://www2.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/18century/topic_4/jones.htm (December 7, 2006).

"Sir William Jones," 1911 Encyclopedia, http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Sir_William_Jones (December 7, 2006).

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