Peter Trudgill: Eureka moment in study of language

PUBLISHED: 12:59 03 October 2017 | UPDATED: 12:59 03 October 2017

The great linguist, Sir William Jones. Photo: Contributed

The great linguist, Sir William Jones. Photo: Contributed

$image.copyright

Peter Trudgill on a remarkable discovery which transformed the way we think about languages.

About 230 years ago, Sir William Jones made an amazing intellectual breakthrough. Jones had been born in London of a Welsh father and an English mother, and some reports suggest that he grew up bilingual in Welsh and English, though this seems unlikely since his father – who really was a native Welsh speaker from Anglesey – died when William was three.

Whatever the truth of the matter, William actually was a very gifted learner of languages, and by an early age he had mastered Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Arabic. At one stage, he even translated Persian into French; and he wrote a grammar of the Persian language.

In his mid twenties, Jones started studying law; and in 1783, he arrived in Calcutta to take up an appointment as a judge. Once in India, he began to learn Sanskrit, the classical language of northern India – and it seems that he was one of the very first British people to do so.

Jones was very surprised by what his studies revealed. Sanskrit had ceased to be a living language more than 2,000 years before, but in its heyday it had been spoken in the northwest of the Indian sub-continent. How did it come about, then – as Jones now discovered – that the ancient Sanskrit language was in many respects so very similar to Ancient Greek and to Latin? Could it just be a coincidence that the Latin word pater, Greek patér and Sanskrit pitár all meant ‘father’; and that Latin frater, Ancient Greek phrater and Sanskrit bhratar all meant ‘brother’? Latin mater (‘mother’) also corresponded to Greek meter and Sanskrit matár.

On the face of it, it seemed unlikely that there could be a connection between these languages. The homeland of Sanskrit was about 2,800 miles from Athens and 3,500 miles from Rome. And yet the similarities between the three ancient languages were undeniable, especially in their grammars. Latin est (‘it is’) was asti in Sanskrit; sumus (‘we are’) was smas; and sunt (‘they are’) was santi.

Jones came up with an explanation for these correspondences. In a famous lecture, he argued that there was “a stronger affinity” between Sanskrit, Latin and Greek “than could possibly have been produced by accident”. A few others had noticed this before him, but Jones’ breakthrough consisted in his insight that this affinity between the languages was so strong that no linguist could examine the three languages “without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists”.

Which no longer exists – that was his major new idea. Jones suggested that there had been an earlier parent language which had given rise to these ancient languages – as well as to the Persian, Celtic, and Germanic languages – which had since disappeared.

Previously, scholars had misguidedly wondered which of the world’s existing languages might have been the ‘first’ – Hebrew was often mentioned. But Jones argued that the only way to explain these linguistic affinities over such a large geographical area was through positing that there had once been a language which had gradually evolved into Latin, Greek and Sanskrit – and Persian, Celtic, and Germanic – just as Latin had later changed into the Romance languages Italian, Spanish, Rumanian and French, and Sanskrit itself had morphed into the vernacular North Indian languages like Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati and Bengali.

From Icelandic and Irish in the west, to Tajik and Bengali in the east, and from Russian and Norwegian in the Arctic north, to the language of the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean in the south, most European languages, and many of those of west and south Asia, have developed over the centuries out of that same single source, which went out of existence 5,000 years ago. Today we call that source language “Indo-European”.

Sir William Jones died in 1794, aged only 41. But he revolutionised our way of thinking about language history.

  • THE ROHINGYA

It is perhaps surprising to learn that the language of the unfortunate Rohingya people of Burma is distantly related to Welsh and English. Rohingyalish is very similar to Chittagonian, which is a sub-variety of Bengali spoken in southeast Bangladesh. So the Rohingya language descended from ancient Sanskrit and is, like Welsh and English, an Indo-European language.

Peter Trudgill is professor emeritus of English linguistics at the Université de Fribourg/Universität Freiburg, Switzerland

Support The New European's vital role as a voice for the 48%

The New European is proud of its journalism and we hope you are proud of it too. We believe our voice is important - both in representing the pro-EU perspective and also to help rebalance the right wing extremes of much of the UK national press. If you value what we are doing, you can help us by making a contribution to the cost of our journalism.

  • Become a friend of The New European for a contribution of £48. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish)
  • Become a partner of The New European for a contribution of £240. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish) and receive a New European Branded Pen and Notebook
  • Become a patron of The New European for a contribution of £480. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish) and receive a New European Branded Pen and Notebook and an A3 print of The New European front cover of your choice, signed by Editor Matt Kelly

By proceeding, you agree to the New Europeans supporters club Terms & Conditions which can be found here.



Supporter Options

Mention Me in The New European



If Yes, Name to appear in The New European



Latest Articles

Friday, October 20, 2017

Our editor-at-large on his new party piece: the speech the PM should have made to her party conference

Friday, October 20, 2017

The ‘missing billions’ are a red herring, says ANGELA JAMESON. There are bigger things to worry about

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Leave trajectory has run into the sand, says JANE MERRICK. Now it is not just a ‘no deal’ that is on the cards, it’s a ‘no Brexit’

Friday, October 20, 2017

The comedian, musician and writer on the disgraced Hollywood mogul

Friday, October 20, 2017

STEVE ANGLESEY rounds up the losers and losers (because there are no winners) of another crazy seven days on Planet Brexit

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Theresa May’s refusal to tell a radio phone-in show how she would vote in a new Brexit referendum was a new low for the Maybot. Her interrogator IAIN DALE recalls the moment he put the question to her, and his surprise at her failure to answer it

Thursday, October 19, 2017

RICHARD PORRITT on the week's big talking points

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Why ‘no deal’ doesn’t work as a negotiating tactic, says JONATHAN POWELL – the man who helped negotiate peace in Northern Ireland

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Brexit, and a careless attitude towards British influence in NATO, will consign the country to the margins and weaken the cornerstone of our defence, argues GEORGE ROBERTSON, the former NATO Secretary General

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

New Ukip leader Henry Bolton named the party's new 'shadow cabinet' today - and what a bunch they are

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Catalonians against self-rule came out in their thousands the weekend before last.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

It might seem quixotic, at a time when Spain looks like it is falling apart, but could the country’s future lie in a union with neighbour Portugal? DAVID BARKER investigates ‘Iberism’

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

ALEXANDRA HADDOW on the Nordic trendsetters who have style sussed

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A second referendum that reverses Brexit would have a "positive" and "significant" impact on the UK economy, which is on track to be crippled by its EU divorce, an influential think tank claimed today.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Making money is no longer enough for firms, say ANGELA JAMESON

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The question, in a quiet voice, came from a woman in the audience at the Henley Festival’s Brexit debate, in a quiet voice: “So what do I tell my children now? They planned to live and work for a time in Europe. What now?”

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Millions of families already struggling with soaring prices could end up being another £500 worse off if Britain crashes out of the European Union without a deal, according to a report.

Monday, October 16, 2017

A day of action across the UK saw thousands of people take to the streets to demand Brexit is stopped.

Friday, October 13, 2017

People have been asking me if I know Simon Brodkin, the character-comedian/prankster who interrupted the Prime Minister’s conference speech to hand her a mock redundancy notice.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Angela Merkel’s power has taken a blow in the wake of the German election. Here Tony Paterson reports from Berlin on the new shape of German politics.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Roland Garros had every intention of pursuing a career as a concert pianist. An air show outside Reims during the late summer of 1909 changed all that.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Chancellor has admitted no Brexit deal could leave planes grounded in March 2019.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Catalonian crisis has put Europe, as well as Spain, in jeopardy, says PAUL KNOTT.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

It’s not a stretch to say that the economics of digital advertising are to blame for disasters like Brexit and Trump.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Boris Johnson is desperate to get into Number 10 – but it seems the Prime Minister has other ideas.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

We’re living in the Age of Cool Dad, with politicians obsessed with burnishing their pop culture credentials, says SAMIRA AHMED.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Theresa May has claimed “the ball is in their court” in a statement to the House of Commons updating MPs on the Brexit negotiations. Brussels, however, disagree.

Monday, October 9, 2017

By attempting to quash the result before it was even known, Madrid has made the case for Catalan independence all but unanswerable.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Lawyers have told the Government that Article 50 is not binding and can be scrapped at any time before the March 2019 deadline, it has been claimed.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The deluded fantasies of Leavers must have been inspired by the big screen says Have I Got News For You writer NATHANIEL TAPLEY. Here, he brings you the most Brexity films of all time.

Monday, October 9, 2017

France might be home of its most famous race, but Italy is the country with cycling in its DNA. To find out why, Patrick Sawer makes a tearful pilgrimage to its shrine to the sport.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Trieste, the city which has survived centuries of seductive illusions.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

As ambitions go, Lee Humphries’ is an unusual, if lofty, one – to ascend the highest points of 100 different countries. As he crests the halfway mark in his quest, he explains all to Julian Shea.

Friday, October 6, 2017

PETER TRUDGILL traces the clockwork progress of the word ‘orange’ from southern India to northern Europe, and finds the odd detour.

Friday, October 6, 2017

JUSTIN REYNOLDS on the Thomas Mann novel which tried to make sense of the descent of Europe’s most cultured nation into Nazism.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

In the days before Stephen Paddock reignited America’s gun control debate by raining down rapid fire carnage on the Las Vegas strip, a familiar voice was again calling the shots inside Donald Trump’s head.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Ahead of the return to London of arguably his greatest work, Glengarry Glen Ross, Charlie Connelly considers the craft of polymath and playwright David Mamet.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

As with other such tragedies, the Las Vegas massacre quickly brought out the worst of the internet, says JONO READ.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

They have a new leader, but do they have a new purpose? RICHARD PORRITT went behind enemy lines at the UKIP conference and found a party on the brink.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Spain is facing an existential threat, says JASON WALSH, with the country’s fragile compromise – which has held since the end of Franco’s dictatorship – now in tatters.

Podcast

Trending

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter