Thursday, November 1, 2012

Wm Jones and His Famous Paragraph

[As an aside, I wonder why I feel some responsibility to tell this story, whether in my own words, or not. Surely something as important as the Indo-European language problem is taught to all 1st and 2nd graders in elementary school as part of introductory philosophy, linguistics and dialectics?  Yet, for whatever reason I feel compelled to beat this horse into the ground, or some other mixed metaphor, maybe out of some confused ego need to try and prove that I am smart or something.  No, honestly, its just because I think its a cool story.]

This is the story of a man who made a discovery about language and history and started an academic field with a single paragraph. He may not have been the first to make this discovery, but he was by far the most important in getting the ball rolling. What he discovered turned out, when you thought about it, to reveal something about the distant past of about half of the people of the world.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, a man who made his living as a lawyer, was assigned to the Supreme Court of Bengal, a part of the British Empire of its time. The year was 1783. At the time, what we now call India was considered the furthest reaches of the earth, with many very alien peoples and a vast and very different history. This was in that period of history, about which I know little, that England was trying to bring order out of chaos in a part of the world that had been managed by the famous, or infamous, East India Trading Company.

Our lawyer was also an accomplished linguist, and was well known for his Persian English grammar and translations of Persian poetry. Apparently back then it was not considered unusual for someone to be accomplished in one field and yet make a living in another. Obviously our lawyer knew English, he also knew Latin and Greek as all well-educated men did back then, he remembered his childhood Welsh and he knew Persian.

The traditional and formal language of India was Sanskrit, attested to at least 1300 BC, far older than the earliest attested Greek or Latin. Indians would come to court and quote legal precedent in Sanskrit but none of the justices knew it, so it was decided that someone had to learn and our protagonist, with his linguistics background, was selected.

He found an appropriate tutor and went away to learn this ancient and very alien language.

Languages borrow words from each other all the time. The fact that two different languages may share a word may not tell us much about their history. But languages rarely borrow grammatical structures from each other, and so if they share such things in common, they may very well share a history. English borrowed "attorney general" from the French, but when we make it plural we do so in a way that is consistent with English and not with French.

Greek looks very different from Latin because of their writing systems (e.g. the Greek alphabet has some different letters which, like Cyrillic, make it look very exotic to us).   But to someone who knows both Latin and Greek it is clear that the languages are related.    How the nouns are declined, how the verbs are conjugated, irregularities in both languages that are unlikely to be accidental and so forth.

Suppose one language uses an internal vowel to determine tense: --i-, --a-, and --u-. Swim, swam, swum. Sing, sang, sung. Now suppose you came across a language that had the verb "ring" as in "to ring the bell" and it was conjugated ring, rang, rung.   You might suspect the two languages were related.  But if there were hundreds and hundreds of those similarities, far more intrinsic to a language than mere borrowed words, then you would really have to wonder if the languages were related in some more fundamental fashion.

So Sir William Jones learned Sanskrit. And he discovered something very odd.  Something he really did not expect.  Sanskrit was like the older brother of Greek and Latin. The structure of verbs, nouns, irregularities, all of it. But that was impossible. Sanskrit was far older, and on a completely different side of the world spoken by a very alien people.

And in 1786 he gave a lecture which contained that famous paragraph:
"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 than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and 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."
You may wonder what that may have to do with you, or with anything else in the modern world. The answer is, everything. But that will be for another time.

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