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

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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

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