A supporter of the American Revolution, a colonial judge, and a scholar of Middle Eastern and Indian culture and history, Sir William Jones was one of the most learned men of his time, with particularly impressive achievements in linguistics. He founded the Asiatic Society in Calcutta, to which he gave annual addresses reporting on his research. In the third of these, “On the Hindus,” he proposed a dramatic expansion and deepening of the inquiry into the past through the historical study of language. Specifically, he argued that linguistic evidence suggested a common origin for Sanscrit, Greek, and Latin, a now-lost tongue or family of tongues that would come to be called “Proto-Indo-European.” In a passage that has become justifiably famous, he argued that
The Sanscrit 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 in 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.*
This suggestion about the Eastern origins of European languages, combined with a careful study of ancient language and cultures, carried stunning implications for the study of the geographical origins of European peoples, and for the understanding of the deep history of humanity.
For all his originality, Jones did not question either the legitimacy of British colonial rule or the Biblical account of creation; indeed, he relied explicitly on those parts of the Old Testament attributed to Moses, a text “more than human in its origin.” The Bible’s accounts of a single pair, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel registered, for Jones, incontrovertible truths “possibly expressed in figurative language,” on the basis of which he posited “three great families” or “races” deriving from Noah’s posterity: the Indian, the Arabian, and the Tartarian, with other groups constituting sub-categories of these. In a breathtaking act of speculation, Jones argued that the people of the world “all proceeded from some central country,” which he placed in the region of the Caucasus (see Blumenbach). The evidence derived from the study of ancient languages suggested, Jones said, that Iran was the birthplace of humanity. In the ninth of his discourses, passages of which are reproduced here, Jones developed the implications of his research for the study of human races. Jones used the term loosely, referring both to the “race of man” and to particular races: the “first race” of Indians, a “second race” of Arabians (consisting of Jews and Arabs), and a third race of Tartarians or Asians.
Jones’s suggestion about the implications and potentialities of linguistics was eagerly but not unquestioningly or uncritically taken up by other researchers, including Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel, Franz Bopp, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Jacob Grimm, and Max Müller. Through their work, linguistics became an historical science devoted to the recovery of the earliest thought-structures of the human race. For Jones, the term Aryan referred in the first instance to Iran; but as one scholar has written, the term also “stood for unity and shared origins, notably the common inheritance of the Indians and the British.**
Jones drew no species distinctions between ethno-linguistic groups, all of whom, he argued, ultimately derived from a single source. But the historical narrative Jones’ work suggested appealed to some who were drawn for non-scholarly reasons to the concept of a primal horde pouring forth in great waves from its ancient homeland to invade and conquer other populations. This notion, which eventually became figured as the “Aryan invasion,” served as an historical explanation of the primacy and superiority of European culture. Particularly welcome for some was the distinction Jones made it possible to draw between Aryan and Semitic peoples, a distinction easily adapted to various forms of racial antagonism including anti-Semitism, white supremacy, and, eventually, Nazism. Jones and others who promoted the notion of the Aryan have, however, been defended by Hannah Arendt for being “as innocent as innocent can be” in that they wanted “to include in the same cultural brotherhood as many nations as possible . . . . these men were still in the humanistic tradition of the eighteenth century and shared its enthusiasm about strange people and exotic cultures.”***
Greatly honored and respected in his time, Jones and his work have today primarily an historical interest. His philological methods and inferences have been widely criticized by linguists (see Firmin), his identification of Iran as the site of an aboriginal horde that populated the world has been disproven, and the concept of an Aryan invasion for which he is held partly responsible has been rejected as polemical and unscientific.
*Sir William Jones, “The Third Anniversary Discourse” (1786) from The Works of Sir William Jones, vol. III of XIII (London: John Stockdale, 1807), 27-46. https://www.zukunftsphilologie.de/fileadmin/pdf/zukunftsphilologie/lecture-cum-seminar/Jones-DiscourseOfTheHindus.pdf.
**Christopher Hutton, “Rethinking the History of the Aryan Paradigm,” History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences (2013): https://hiphilangsci.net/2013/07/24/rethinking-the-history-of-the-aryan-paradigm/
***Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Orlando: Harvest Book, 1976; orig. pub., 1948), 160.
You have attended, gentlemen, with so much indulgence to my discourses on then five Asiatick nations, and on the various tribes established along their several borders or interspersed over their mountains, that I cannot but flatter myself with an assurance of being heard with equal attention, while I trace to one centre the three great families, from which those nations appear to have proceeded, and then hazard a few conjectures on the different courses, which they may be supposed to have taken toward the countries, in which we find them settled at the dawn of all genuine history.
Let us begin with a short review of the propositions, to which we have gradually been led, and separate such as are morally certain, from such as are only probable: that the first race of Persians and Indians, to whom we may add the Romans and Greeks, the Goths, and the old Egyptians or Ethiops, originally spoke the same language and professed the same popular faith, is capable, in my humble opinion, of incontestable proof; that the Jews and Arabs, the Assyrians, or second Persian race, the people who spoke Syriack, and a numerous tribe of Abyssinians, used one primitive dialect wholly distinct from the idiom just mentioned, is, I believe, undisputed, and, I am sure, indisputable; but that the settlers in China and Japan had a common origin with the Hindus, is no more than highly probable; and, that all the Tartars, as they are inaccurately called, were primarily of a third separate branch, totally differing from the two others in language, manners, and features, may indeed be plausibly conjectured, but cannot, for the reasons alledged in a former essay, be perspicuously shown, and for the present therefore must be merely assumed. Could these facts be verified by the best attainable evidence, it would not, I presume, be doubted, that the whole earth was peopled by a variety of shoots from the Indian, Arabian, and Tartarian branches, or by such intermixtures of them, as, in a course of ages, must naturally have happened.
Now I admit without hesitation the aphorism of Lynnæs, that “in the beginning God created one pair only of every living species, which has a diversity of sex”; but, since that incomparable naturalist argues principally from the wonderful diffusion of vegetables, and from an hypothesis, that the water on this globe has been continually subsiding, I venture to produce a shorter and closer argument in support of this doctrine. . . . If the human race then be, as we may confidently assume, of one natural species, they must all have proceeded from one pair; and if perfect justice be, as it is most indubitably, an essential attribute of GOD, that pair must have been gifted with sufficient wisdom and strength to be virtuous, and, as far as their nature admitted, happy, but intrusted with freedom of will to be vicious and consequently degraded: whatever might be their option, they must people in time the region where they first were established, and their numerous descendants must necessarily seek new countries, as inclination might prompt, or accident lead, them; they would of course migrate in separate families and clans, which, forgetting by degrees the language of their common progenitor, would form new dialects to convey new ideas, both simple and complex; natural affection would unite them at first, and a sense of reciprocal utility, the great and only cement of social union in the absence of publick honour and justice, for which in evil times it is a general substitute, would combine them at length in communities more or less regular; laws would be proposed by a part of each community, but enacted by the whole; and governments would be variously arranged for the happiness or misery of the governed, according to their own virtue and wisdom, or depravity and folly; so that, in less than three thousand years, the world would exhibit the same appearances, which we may actually observe on it in the age of the great Arabian impostor.
On that part of it, to which our united researches are generally confined, we see five races of men peculiarly distinguished, in the time of MUHAMMED, for their multitude and extent of dominion; but we have reduced them to three, because we can discover no more, that essentially differ in language, religion, manners, and other known characteristicks: now those three races, how variously soever they may at present be dispersed and intermixed, must (if the preceding conclusions be justly drawn) have migrated originally from a central country, to find which is the problem proposed for solution. Suppose it solved; and give any arbitrary name to that centre: let it, if you please, be Iràn. The three primitive languages, therefore, must at first have been concentrated in Iràn, and there only in fact we see traces of them in the earliest historical age; but, for the sake of greater precision, conceive the whole empire of Iràn, with all its mountains and valleys, plains and rivers, to be every way infinitely diminished; the first winding courses, therefore, of all the nations proceeding from it by land, and nearly at the same time, will be little right lines, but without intersections, because those courses could not have thwarted and crossed one another: if then you consider the seats of all the migrating nations as points in a surrounding figure, you will perceive, that the several rays, diverging from Iràn, may be drawn to them without any intersection; but this will not happen, if you assume as a centre Arabia, or Egypt; India, Tartary, or China: it follows, that Iràn, or Persia (I contend for the meaning, not the name), was the central country, which we sought. . . .
Thus then have we proved, that the inhabitants of Asia, and consequently, as it might be proved, of the whole earth, sprang from three branches of one stem: and that those branches have shot into their present state of luxuriance in a period comparatively short, is apparent from a fact universally acknowledged, that we find no certain monument, or even probable tradition, of nations planted, empires and states raised, laws enacted, cities built, navigation improved, commerce encouraged, arts invented, or letters contrived, above twelve or at most fifteen or sixteen centuries before the birth of CHRIST, and from another fact, which cannot be controverted, that seven hundred or a thousand years would have been fully adequate to the supposed propagation, diffusion and establishment of the human race.
The most ancient history of that race, and the oldest composition perhaps in the world, is a work in Hebrew which we may suppose at first, for the sake of our argument, to have no higher authority than any other work of equal antiquity, that the researches of the curious had accidentally brought to light: it is ascribed to MUSAH; for so he writes his own name, which, after the Greeks and Romans, we have changed into MOSES; and, though it was manifestly his object to give an historical account of a single family, he has introduced it with a short view of the primitive world, and his introduction has been divided, perhaps improperly, into eleven chapters. After describing with awful sublimity the creation of this universe, he asserts, that one pair of every animal species was called from nothing into existence; that the human pair were strong enough to be happy, but free to be miserable; that, from delusion and temerity, they disobeyed their supreme benefactor, whose goodness could not pardon them consistently with his justice; and that they received a punishment adequate to their disobedience, but softened by a mysterious promise to be accomplished in their descendants. . . .
The sketch of antediluvian history, in which we find many dark passages, is followed by the narrative of a deluge, which destroyed the whole race of man, except four pairs; an historical fact admitted as true by every nation, to whose literature we have access, and particularly by the ancient Hindus, who have allotted an entire Purána to the detail of that event, which they relate, as usual, in symbols or allegories. . . . Let a general flood, however, be supposed improbable in proportion to the magnitude of so ruinous an event, yet the concurrent evidences of it are completely adequate to the supposed improbability; but, as we cannot here expatiate on those proofs, we proceed to the fourth important fact recorded in the Mosaick history; I mean the first propagation and early dispersion of mankind in separate families to separate places of residence.
Three sons of the just and virtuous man, whose lineage was preserved from the general inundation, travelled, we are told, as they began to multiply, in three large divisions variously subdivided: the children of YAFET seem, from the traces of Sklavonian names, and the mention of their being enlarged, to have spread themselves far and wide, and to have produced the race, which, for want of a correct appellation, we call Tartarian; the colonies, formed by the sons of HAM and SHEM, appear to have been nearly simultaneous; and, among those of the latter branch, we find so many names incontestably preserved at this hour in Arabia, that we cannot hesitate in pronouncing them the same people, whom hitherto we have denominated Arabs; while the former branch, the most powerful and adventurous of whom were the progeny of CUSH, MISR, and RAMA (names remaining unchanged in Sanscrit, and highly revered by the Hindus), were, in all probability, the race, which I call Indian, and to which we may now give any other name, that may seem more proper and comprehensive.
The general introduction to the Jewish history closes with a very concise and obscure account of a presumptuous and mad attempt, by a particular colony, to build a splendid city and raise a fabrick of immense height, independently of the divine aid, and, it should seem, in defiance of the divine power; a project, which was baffled by means appearing at first view inadequate to the purpose, but ending in violent dissention among the projectors, and in the ultimate separation of them: this event also seems to be recorded by the ancient Hindus in two of their Puránas; and it will be proved, I trust, on some future occasion, that the lion bursting from a pillar to destroy a blaspheming giant, and the dwarf, who beguiled and held in derision the magnificent BELI, are one and the same story related in a symbolical style.
Now these primeval events are described as having happened between the Oxus and Euphrates, the mountains of Caucàsus and the borders of India, that is, within the limits of Iràn; for, though most of the Mosaick names have been considerably altered, yet numbers of them remain unchanged: we still find Harrán in Mesopotamia, and travellers appear unanimous in fixing the site of ancient Babel.
Thus, on the preceding supposition, that the first eleven chapters of the book, which it is thought proper to call Genesis, are merely a preface to the oldest civil history now extant, we see the truth of them confirmed by antecedent reasoning, and by evidence in part highly probable, and in fact certain; but the connection of the Mosaick history with that of the Gospel by a chain of sublime predictions unquestionably ancient, and apparently fulfilled, must induce us to think the Hebrew narrative more than human in its origin, and consequently true in every substantial part of it, though possibly expressed in figurative language; as many learned and pious men have believed, and as the most pious may believe without injury, and perhaps with advantage, to the cause of revealed religion. If MOSES then was endued with supernatural knowledge, it is no longer probable only, but absolutely certain, that the whole race of man proceeded from Iràn, as from a centre, whence they migrated at first in three great colonies; and that those three branches grew from a common stock which had been miraculously preserved in a general convulsion and inundation of this globe. . . .
From the testimonies adduced in the six last annual Discourses, and from the additional proofs laid before you, or rather opened, on the present occasion, it seems to follow, that the only human family after the flood established themselves in the northern parts of Iràn; that, as they multiplied, they were divided into three distinct branches, each retaining little at first, and losing the whole by degrees, of their common primary language; but agreeing severally on new expressions for new ideas; that the branch of YAFET was enlarged in many scattered shoots over the north of Europe and Asia, diffusing themselves as far as the western and eastern seas . . .; that, secondly, the children of HAM, who founded in Iràn itself the monarchy of the first Chaldeans, invented letters, observed and named the luminaries of the firmament, calculated the known Indian period of four hundred and thirty two thousand years . . . that the tribes of MISR, CUSH, and RAMA settled in Africk and India; while some of them, having improved the art of sailing, passed from Egypt, Phenice, and Phrygia, into Italy and Greece, which they found thinly peopled by former emigrants, of whom they supplanted some tribes, and united themselves with others; whilst a swarm from the same hive moved by a northerly course into Scandinavia, and another, by the head of the Oxus, and through the passes of Imaus, into Cashghar and Eighúr, Khatá and Khoten, as far as the territories of Chín and Tancut, where letters have been used and arts immemorially cultivated; nor is it unreasonable to believe, that some of them found their way from the eastern isles into Mexico and Peru, where traces were discovered of rude literature and Mythology analogous to those of Egypt and India; that, thirdly, the old Chaldean empire being overthrown by the Assyrians under CAYUMERS, other migrations took place, especially into India, while the rest of SHEM’s progeny, some of whom had before settled on the Red Sea, peopled the whole Arabian peninsula, pressing close on the nations of Syria and Phenice; that, lastly, from all the three families were detached many bold adventurers of an ardent spirit and a roving disposition, who disdained subordination and wandered in separate clans, till they settled in distant isles or in deserts and mountainous regions; that, on the whole, some colonies might have migrated before the death of their venerable progenitor, but that states and empires could scarce have assumed a regular form, till fifteen or sixteen hundred years before the Christian epoch, and that, for the first thousand years of that period, we have no history unmixed with fable, except that of the turbulent and variable, but eminently distinguished, nation descended from ABRAHAM.
My design, gentlemen, of tracing the origin and progress of the five principal nations, who have peopled Asia, and of whom there were considerable remains in their several countries at the time of MOHAMMED’s birth, is now accomplished; succinctly, from the nature of these essays; imperfectly, from the darkness of the subject and scantiness of my materials, but clearly and comprehensively enough to form a basis for subsequent researches: you have seen as distinctly as I am able to show, who those nations originally were, whence and when they moved toward their final stations; and, in my future annual discourses, I propose to enlarge on the particular advantages to our country and to mankind, which may result from our sedulous and united inquiries into the history, science, and arts of these Asiatick regions, especially of the British dominions in India, which we may consider as the centre (not of the human race, but) of our common exertions to promote its true interests; and we shall concur, I trust, in opinion, that the race of man, to advance whose manly happiness is our duty and will of course be our endeavour, cannot long be happy without virtue, nor actively virtuous without freedom, nor securely free without rational knowledge.
Talal Asad, “Introduction,” in Talal Asad, ed., Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter (London: Ithaca Press, 1973), 9-20.
Léon Poliakov, The Aryan Myth: A History of Racist and Nationalist Ideas in Europe, trans. E. Howard (New York: Basic Books, 1971).
Thomas Trautmann, Languages and Nations: The Dravidian Proof in Colonial Madras (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).
Michael Witzel, “Indocentrism,” in Edwin Bryant and Laurie L. Patton, eds., The Indo-Aryan Controversy: Evidence and Inference in Indian History (London: Routledge, 2005).