1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Jones, Sir William
JONES, SIR WILLIAM (1746–1794), British Orientalist and jurist, was born in London on the 28th of September 1746. He distinguished himself at Harrow, and during his last three years there applied himself to the study of Oriental languages, teaching himself the rudiments of Arabic, and reading Hebrew with tolerable ease. In his vacations he improved his acquaintance with French and Italian. In 1764 Jones entered University College, Oxford, where he continued to study Oriental literature, and perfected himself in Persian and Arabic by the aid of a Syrian Mirza, whom he had discovered and brought from London. He added to his knowledge of Hebrew and made considerable progress in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. He began the study of Chinese, and made himself master of the radical characters of that language. During five years he partly supported himself by acting as tutor to Lord Althorpe, afterwards the second Earl Spencer, and in 1766 he obtained a fellowship. Though but twenty-two years of age, he was already becoming famous as an Orientalist, and when Christian VII. of Denmark visited England in 1768, bringing with him a life of Nadir Shah in Persian, Jones was requested to translate the MS. into French. The translation appeared in 1770, with an introduction containing a description of Asia and a short history of Persia. This was followed in the same year by a Traité sur la poésie orientale, and by a French metrical translation of the odes of Hafiz. In 1771 he published a Dissertation sur la littérature orientale, defending Oxford scholars against the criticisms made by Anquetil Du Perron in the introduction to his translation of the Zend-Avesta. In the same year appeared his Grammar of the Persian Language. In 1772 Jones published a volume of Poems, Chiefly Translations from Asiatick Languages, together with Two Essays on the Poetry of Eastern Nations and on the Arts commonly called Imitative, and in 1774 a treatise entitled Poeseos Asiaticæ commentatorium libri sex, which definitely confirmed his authority as an Oriental scholar.
Finding that some more financially profitable occupation was necessary, Jones devoted himself with his customary energy to the study of the law, and was called to the bar at the Middle Temple in 1774. He studied not merely the technicalities, but the philosophy, of law, and within two years had acquired so considerable a reputation that he was in 1776 appointed commissioner in bankruptcy. Besides writing an Essay on the Law of Bailments, which enjoyed a high reputation both in England and America, Jones translated, in 1778, the speeches of Isaeus on the Athenian right of inheritance. In 1780 he was a parliamentary candidate for the university of Oxford, but withdrew from the contest before the day of election, as he found he had no chance of success owing to his Liberal opinions, especially on the questions of the American War and of the slave trade.
In 1783 was published his translation of the seven ancient Arabic poems called Moallakât. In the same year he was appointed judge of the supreme court of judicature at Calcutta, then “Fort William,” and was knighted. Shortly after his arrival in India he founded, in January 1784, the Bengal Asiatic Society, of which he remained president till his death. Convinced as he was of the great importance of consulting the Hindu legal authorities in the original, he at once began the study of Sanskrit, and undertook, in 1788, the colossal task of compiling a digest of Hindu and Mahommedan law. This he did not live to complete, but he published the admirable beginnings of it in his Institutes of Hindu Law, or the Ordinances of Manu (1794); his Mohammedan Law of Succession to Property of Intestates; and his Mohammedan Law of Inheritance (1792). In 1789 Jones had completed his translation of Kālidāsa’s most famous drama, Sakuntalā. He also translated the collection of fables entitled the Hitopadesa, the Gītagovinda, and considerable portions of the Vedas, besides editing the text of Kālidāsa’s poem Ritusamhara. He was a large contributor also to his society’s volumes of Asiatic Researches.
His unremitting literary labours, together with his heavy judicial work, told on his health after a ten years’ residence in Bengal; and he died at Calcutta on the 27th of April 1794. An extraordinary linguist, knowing thirteen languages well, and having a moderate acquaintance with twenty-eight others, his range of knowledge was enormous. As a pioneer in Sanskrit learning and as founder of the Asiatic Society he rendered the language and literature of the ancient Hindus accessible to European scholars, and thus became the indirect cause of later achievements in the field of Sanskrit and comparative philology. A monument to his memory was erected by the East India Company in St Paul’s, London, and a statue in Calcutta.
See the Memoir (1804) by Lord Teignmouth, published in the collected edition of Sir W. Jones’s works.