“Oriental” Jones

Sir William Jones

Sir William Jones (1746-1794), known to his contemporaries as “Oriental” Jones, was one of the great eighteenth century polymaths. He was a linguist, what was then called an Orientalist,* and a successful public intellectual–the kind of scholar who is able to make abstruse topics not only accessible but exciting.

Jones started early with his love of language: he reportedly learned Persian from a Syrian merchant in London and translated the poems of Hafiz into English at the age of sixteen . Over the course of his life he studied twenty-eight languages including not only Latin and Greek, but German, French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian and Turkish, several South Asian languages, and a smattering of Chinese.

By the time he received his bachelor of arts from Oxford in 1768, Jones had already become known as a scholar of all things “Oriental”–by which he and his contemporaries meant South Asia and the Middle East. The King of Denmark hired him to translate a biography of the emperor Nadir Shah from Persian into French. Published in 1770, the translation secured Jones’ reputation as translator and linguist. He was only 24.

Over the next thirteen years, Jones published a number of works related to the language and culture of the Islamic world , including the authoritative A Grammar of the Persian Language (1771), which he later translated into French, and a translation of seven famous pre-Islamic poems from Arabic that Tennyson later claimed as an inspiration . During this period, he also published a volume of his own poetry , in which he combined classical conventions with Islamic themes and imagery. (Anyone feeling a tad inadequate at this point will be pleased to know that his poems are workmanlike but not inspired. His biographer describes them as “minor classics”, but that’s generous.)

Like many a modern adjunct professor, Jones soon found it was difficult to make a living as an independent scholar, so he turned to the study of law. He was called to the bar in 1774. Working as a barrister, an attorney, and an Oxford fellow, he made a name for himself as a legal scholar and translated manuscripts in his spare time. He also became known for his pro-American sympathies, traveling to Paris three times during the American Revolution to meet with Benjamin Franklin regarding the military and political situation. In fact, it was rumored that he intended to emigrate America to help write the new country’s constitution. (The mind boggles at the image of Jones and Madison in collaboration.)

It was perhaps inevitable that a cash-strapped attorney with a talent for languages and a fascination with the Orient would end up in India in the service of the British East India Company.**  Jones was engaged to be married,but didn’t have the income to support a wife. When a lucrative job as a judge on the supreme court of the British East India Company’s Bengal Presidency became available, he asked his friends to help him secure the position. Evidently his reputation as a legal scholar and Orientalist outweighed his reputation as a pro-American troublemaker. In 1783, Jones and his new wife sailed to Calcutta.

If Jones had not already earned the nickname “Oriental”, he certainly deserved it after his arrival in India. Many employees of the British East India Company hired local instructors to help them with Bengali, Hindi or Persian. Jones took the unusual step of adding Sanskrit to the list, making him the second Englishman known to have learned the language. During his eleven years in Calcutta, Jones founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal–a Calcutta variation on the Royal Society with an emphasis on “oriental” subjects. In addition to his semi-official work on Indian legal systems, he wrote extensively on Indian history, religion, languages, literature, botany and music. He translated a number of works of Indian literature into English, including Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda , the collection of fables known as the Hitopadesa, and the Laws of Manu, the first step in a compilation of Hindu and Muslim law intended to improve justice in British courts in India.

His most influential translation was Sakuntala, the masterwork of fourth century Indian poet and playwright Kalidasa, whom Jones described as “the Shakespeare of India”. Published in 1789, Jones’ Sakuntala went into five editions in twenty years–a best seller in eighteenth century terms–and was translated into German in 1791 and French in 1803. It is considered one of the most important influences on the first generation of Romantic poets

Most important, his study of Sanskrit led Jones to postulate a common source for what came to be known as the Indo-European languages. In his 1786 presidential discourse to the Asiatic Society, Jones described the relationships he had found between Sanskrit, Latin and Greek, which he believed were too strong to be accidental, and suggested that they not only had “some common source, which perhaps no longer exists”, but were also related to the Gothic, Celtic and Persian languages. That single paper was the beginning of comparative philology

Jones died in Calcutta in April, 1794, exhausted by his twin pursuits of legal studies and Orientalism. His digest of Indian legal systems was incomplete, but he had effectively founded the academic disciplines of comparative philology and Indology (South Asian studies in modern college catalogs) and introduced the first generation of Romantic poets to a broader vision of the world.

* For purposes of this blog post, I am going to ignore the complications that now surround the term Orientalism. Otherwise we’ll be here all day.

**Just a reminder, at this point India was not a colony of the British government. The British East India Company held the right to administer various regions of the subcontinent as a vassal of the Mughal emperor. While this would increasingly become no more than a political fiction, in the 1780s it was still very much a political reality.


  1. John A. Hollister on March 21, 2015 at 7:05 pm

    Good summary. One point, however: in 18th-Century England, and, at least officially, still in our own day, it is not possible for one person to be both a “barrister” and an “attorney”, or what is today called a “solicitor”. One must be either the one or the other. Having been “called to the bar”, Jones was necessarily a barrister; in any case, until the past two or three decades, only a barrister could become a judge.

    (England now has “Solicitor Advocates”, who can, at least in theory, become judges, but that is a very, very recent innovation.)

    • pamela on March 23, 2015 at 11:47 am

      John: Thanks for weighing in on the details.

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