Notes about the historical setting of William Jones's matchless footnote insight into the actual historical secular relationship of Sanskrit to Greek and Latin and why nobody saw it entirely before.


I want time to write "The Paragraph [Working Title]," which attempts to pull out everything in Jones's matchless insight into the actual historical secular relationship of Sanskrit to Greek and Latin. This isn't that work. This is background, inchoate. It says nothing about the paragraph. It's a dump of the notes in their current state, to shame me into finishing this part of it. It includes an abbreviation of a column on Dante. published here earlier.

The modern scientific study of historical philology and the discovery of the family tree of Indo-European languages begins at the close of the 18th century. The spark of insight for it was William Jones's astonishing paragraph (shown above), published in 1786.1  

A paragraph, a footnote really, that blew open doors of perception in thinking minds across the map of Enlightenment Europe. A "DIG HERE" sign the size of a lit billboard. I have a footnote fetish, and this is perhaps the sine qua non of footnotes. A yew grew out of that little fenced square of significant soil. They buried it at the bottom of the page, and it discovered history, and it changed it.2

Why did nobody quite notice what Jones saw until Jones saw it? Because he had better and more information than anyone before and lived in the first educated English generation that had grown up knowing how to make accurate observations and draw conclusions from them scientifically.

But he also was in a place to make the right observations. To get the big picture, you step back into a longer view, into the mental place that used to be called Universal History by writers like Carlyle and Ruskin. Universal History suggests The Paragraph is an unintended consequence of global colonialism, which revealed to Europeans the Indian languages that are Indo-European, and that accidental revelation gave European minds the mental parallax to track and see their own pasts in motion.

Or put it like this: Our painfully precise academic linguistic science and all its insights, was an imperialist by-blow of swashbuckling predators like Clive, intent on loot and glory. Our students topple their statues now. Universal History advises there ought to be busts of Clive and Jones in every linguistics school. You don't have to like Clive. But you can't avoid him, for good or bad. And it is a great story (Browning's poem is audacious fun).3 Universal history doesn't care if Clive was good or bad (that's ethics); it only wants to know how the power oozed and why. No Clive, no parallax.

But that is mostly superficial. The enormous change in the European intellect in the century before Jones, the change which made Jones possible, was the adopting of the habits and language of science, which had been hammered out in the late 17th century by Hooke, Boyle, Locke et al, and diffused among the minds of Europe in the 18th.

That is the rising tide that lifted Jones to see clearly back into time once he learned Sanskrit (ostensibly the better to govern India). And it is this scientific method that had taught the learned in Europe, once they had read Jones's insight and seen his evidences, how to follow it to practical and useful conclusions.

Bertrand Russell puts it nicely:

The men who founded modern science had two merits which are not necessarily found together: Immense patience in observation, and great boldness in framing hypotheses.

But that is only a question of scale: Jones saw a big picture first of all thinkers in part because he had the most data, and the most important data (Sanskrit, ambered its ancient purity). Parallax is mathematics. Discovering it by observation is dutiful genius.

So compare them. What did medieval and classical Europeans, on the far side of modern science, know or think about their own language map?


Dante's the closest you're going to get, today, to talking to a complete medieval European man. Dante, in exile from Florence about 1300, began writing a book meant to guide the development of Italian poetics. A language without a literature is a body without a head, and he meant to free his native people from the artistic dominance of Provençal troubadours and Parisian romance-spinners. He sought to winnow the dialects of Italy and discover the ideal medium for a true native Italian literature.

He dropped it after a few chapters, but what he finished of De vulgari eloquentia contains an explanation in medieval terms of the linguistic map of Europe. It is in the introduction, setting the stage for the argument Dante intends to make.

Dante's explanation of the language map is based on the Bible, of course, and the story of the Tower of Babel. To a modern secular mind, that is a just-so story to explain the diversity of languages among the human species within the short time-frame then assumed for the history of the world. As it was a tale told to fit the observable (or audible) facts, it presented no impediment to Dante's understanding.

The Genesis story is a few simple sentences. "Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city." [KJV]

Ever since Josephus, the Babel story has been embellished. Dante's version adds a few details not in the Bible. He describes the human race as specializing the tasks of raising the mighty tower. "Some gave orders, some drew up designs; some built walls, some measured them with plumb-lines, some smeared mortar on them with trowels; some were intent on breaking stones, some on carrying them by sea, some by land; and other groups still were engaged in other activities ...."

When the Lord struck, the linguistic unity shattered along the lines of the work: "Only among those who were engaged in a particular activity did their language remain unchanged; so, for instance, there was one for all the architects, one for all the carriers of stones, one for all the stone-breakers, and so on for all the different operations. As many as were the types of work involved in the enterprise, so many were the languages by which the human race was fragmented; and the more skill required for the type of work, the more rudimentary and barbaric the language they now spoke."

The groups then dispersed across the habitable world, "finally reaching the furthest limits of the West." Dante, and presumably his peers in Italy, saw three dominant language groups in their Europe: One centered on Greek, one on Latin, and one on the northern nations.

The Northern group "was split up into many vernaculars by the Slavs, the Hungarians, the Teutons, the Saxons, the English, and several other nations. Only one sign of their common origin remains in almost all of them, namely that nearly all the nations listed above, when they answer in the affirmative, say iò.

All the rest of Europe that was not dominated by these two vernaculars [Northern, Greek] was held by a third, although nowadays this itself seems to be divided in three: for some now say oc, some oïl, and some sì, when they answer in the affirmative; and these are the Hispanic, the French, and the Italians.

It is the familiar medieval division of what we now consider one language, French, into the langue d'oc (Languedoc) and the langue d'oïl, with the Italians (si) thrown in. By "Hispanic" he means Provence and the south of France and probably Catalonia, the turf of the troubadours. His concern is with literature, and that of Paris and Provence were most influential in northern Italy and, Dante thought, warping the local language. 

That they all descend from the same linguistic stock Dante finds easy to believe, using the same sort of comparative method later linguists would use to tie Sanskrit to Celtic.

Yet the sign that the vernaculars of these three peoples derive from one and the same language is plainly apparent: for they can be seen to use the same words to signify many things, such as 'God', 'heaven', 'love', 'sea,' 'earth', 'is', 'lives', 'dies', 'loves', and almost all others.

The process of differentiation over time he also finds easily explicable, even without authorities.

Now I must undertake to risk whatever intelligence I possess, since I intend to enquire into matters in which I can be supported by no authority — that is, into the process of change by which one and the same language became many. And since it is quicker and safer to travel along better-known routes, I shall set out only along that of our own language, leaving the others aside; for what can be seen to be a reason in one case can be assumed to be the cause in others.

He explains that all language since Babel has been haphazard and confused, "and since human beings are highly unstable and variable animals, our language can be neither durable nor consistent with itself; but, like everything else that belongs to us (such as manners and customs), it must vary according to distances of space and time."

He finds no difficulty, either, in extending his observation about language over place to language through time.

For, if we thoroughly examine other works of humanity, we can see that we differ much more from ancient inhabitants of our own city than from our contemporaries who live far off. On this account, therefore, I make so bold as to declare that if the ancient citizens of Pavia were to rise from the grave, they would speak a language distinct and different from that of the Pavians of today.

You read the old text the way you look at an eclipse. Dante's not writing the history of language in De vulgari eloquentia. He's trying to purify the dialect of his tribe. But along the way he reveals how he explains the language map around him. Such writing, which is beside his point, is less likely tainted by polemics, more likely to be what most of his peers also would think. 


The other place to look for the missed insight is in the early Greek philosophers, who naturally thought much about words (nouns, mostly, and names), and who sometimes came as close to modern scientific methods as anything before or after in the West until probably Francis Bacon in the 16th century. 

How did the Greeks miss it? A Platonic dialogue, "Cratylus," is devoted mostly to lists of supposed etymologies. Read it like the Dante, shield eyes from the author's purpose (which is less clear here) 4 and glean instead the story the aristocratic Athenians told themselves about their language.

The Greeks knew their words had changed sound and sense over hundreds of years, because they had a continuous Homer. They also knew in great detail the city-by-city difference in dialects within Greek (and the playwrights used them on-stage for laughs). All of this is in "Cratylus."

Also, in Plato's day the educated Athenians, at least, knew that Phrygian, a then-living Indo-European language of what is now western Turkey, had words that closely resembled Greek words for the same very common things: fire, water, dog.

This is the wide-open door to the PIE insight. They missed it. It lacks only the parallax Jones got from Sanskrit.

Their world, like the later Christian world, has a recent origin, probably a few thousand years before the present. Platonic Socrates imagines a law-giver or name-giver in each place, at the beginnings of language, assigning words to things, each in his own tongue seeking the same truths in their essences. (Not all that different from what Adam does in Genesis, but Socrates has an Adam in each tribe and thus avoids the need for a Babel story later). The truths are universals, and so it would be natural for words in unrelated languages to have similar, sometimes identical, sounds and senses.

Plato has Socrates say:

"[O]n account of the lapse of time it may be impossible to find out about the earliest words; for since words get twisted in all sorts of ways, it would not be in the least wonderful if the ancient Greek word should be identical with the modern foreign one." [Loeb edition translation].

Which is a pretty good insight, if Platonic Socrates means it. It presumes Greek evolves and barbarian does not, of course. The door's open. Why didn't they take the next step?

First, that wasn't the point of writing "Cratylus," which Plato probably meant to teach about reasoning, sharpen the understanding of what "a word" means in a thinker's mind, and tell a few good jokes.5

Second, the Athenians were not much interested in barbarians in any serious way, except as slaves, and would have little incentive for proving their own close kinship to the people they defined themselves against. Their close analysis of their own dialects was as close as they'd get to modern linguistics, which encompasses continents; theirs encompassed only Greeks.

Unlike what I presume Plato and Socrates to have been, The British in India, the intellectuals who were sent over to govern the land Clive had grabbed, were profoundly impressed — and they ought to have been — by the antiquity and manifest superiority of Indian civilization compared to Western, even in India's decayed and subject state.

Jones's "Paragraph" is almost a love letter to Sanskrit. His India friend Charles Wilkins, the first Englishman to fully master Sanskrit, published a "Bhagavad Gita" translation around the same time, in London. As late as the 1840s, it was still Wilkins' translation that Thoreau and Emerson delighted in reading. The American Transcendentalists got their Hinduism via Wilkins. Thoreau quotes extensively and rapturously from the reverent introduction to it by Warren Hastings, Jones's old boss in India.6


Between Socrates and Dante, the best place to look for a comparison is Isidore, who in the early 600s compiled a great many etymologies from the encyclopedias of the late Roman Empire.

Isidore of Seville was a scholar and churchman in Spain in the Dark Ages, who, toward the end of his life, published Etymologiae, a Latin encyclopedia. Despite the name, Isidore's work is more a shorthand encyclopedia than a book of etymologies. 

Etymologies anchor the text throughout, however. They shouldn't be all blamed on him. No doubt most, if not all, of them were painstakingly collected by Isidore from earlier (now lost) Latin encyclopedias. But he passes them along by the shovelful, unsorted for quality. Overall Isidore seems to me a man in a barbaric time, in a Spain still half savage and Visigoth with a veneer of Rome and Christ, a man of honest purpose and no imagination or deep learning in a time that had no use for either.

Isidore's etymologies, like the rest of his work, have more in common with classical pagan authors than with the Christian sensibilities of Isidore's contemporary and role model, St. Gregory the Great, who advised contempt for pagan learning (and lured the Anglo-Saxons out from heathenry). Isidore's been spoken of as the last scholar of the ancient world, as Gregory the Great was perhaps the last classical Roman aristocrat.

Despite his office, Isidore has only lightly desecularized the old pagan etymologies. There is less of the silly Christian moralizing in him than you meet in later bestiaries. The water still tastes of mossy temple wells. But he lacks the philosophical vision (or erudite whimsy) of Platonic Socrates to enliven his inventory of word-stories that make up the bulk of the "Cratylus" dialogue.

Isidore's etymologies mostly serve to show how little intellectual progress had been made in 1,000 years after Plato. You get explanations such as:

* Nox (night) is derived from nocere (to injure) because it injures the eyes.
* Lucus (sacred grove), is so called because, being shady, it has little light ( parum luceat).

In other words, given a name that means "light" on account of its want of it. The last one has been proverbial to this day for bad etymology. Most of Isidore's etymologies seem content to do no more than "I found another word that sounds something like this word, then I found a plausible meaning-path that would connect them."

There is no researching before, no testing for confirmation after. The "plausible path" is through an impenetrable jungle of historical realities and over mountains of implausibility never yet climbed, unseen by the ancient etymologist or anyone else then.

[Socrates and Isidore have the excuse of the ignorance of their times. But their etymologies are so like the modern vandalistic internet trifling (the lie that "news = north, east, south, west") that one wonders if any lasting progress has been made in the most recent 1,200 years, either.]

Isidore might have known of "Cratylus," but in a crib, as Isidore likely could not read Greek. In that dialogue, Platonic Socrates seems to support, with limits, the side of the argument that says words aren't random or arbitrary, but rather nouns and names contain within their structures ultimate meanings, perhaps somewhat disguised and deformed by time.

Isidore, like Socrates, allows that some words are arbitrary. He seems to do it mostly out of convenience (some of the same words still puzzle modern etymologists). He writes that quinque (five) "received its name from one who gave the names to numbers not according to nature but according to whim." But the important words and names, especially, have real meanings as their etymologies. This also is about as far as Socrates had gone in "Cratylus," and no farther.

Unlike the pagans, Isidore presumes Hebrew to be the single original human tongue, but he seems to make no effort to find a trace from it in any of the Latin or Greek words he investigates. Unlike the Greeks, he does not have other languages to hand. He seems not to recognize Celtic words in Latin. There is nothing around him like Egyptian or Phoenician or Persian or the Anatolian languages. Only Latin.

He knows that Latin high and low has borrowed extensively from Greek. But when Isidore traces a Latin word to Greek, he stops there. He never asks how the Greeks got it.

Nor can he (or his sources) distinguish the words Latin got from Greek from the words Latin and Greek both got from an invisible ancestor tongue (which he had no cause to know about). Yet as you read him you watch him pass his eyes over those prehistoric cognates that Jones and the Grimms and others would use to galvanize a dead language, and gather its threads that unite all the scattered tribes. Isidore's generation had no such drive to know.

Instead, Isidore always assumes the Latin word was borrowed from the Greek, as any of us would in his world. There is no reason to look for a subtler answer ("they both come from a third, lost language that was spoken by people who lived far from here and were neither Roman nor Grecian but great-grandfather to both and to the barbarian Celts and Germans"). Because the obvious answer was at hand for Isidore, elegantly simple in its mapless ignorance.


1 In a paper delivered orally Feb. 2, which ought to be International PIE Day.

2 For pure footnotoriousness, though, there's one in Saintsbury's Oxford collection of the Minor Caroline Poets that blows the doors off it: The two-page footnote has two footnotes of its own, indicated by typographers' symbols, and is far more interesting than the text it appends to.


Don't object "Why call him friend, then?" Power is power, my boy, and still
Marks a man,—God's gift magnific, exercised for good or ill.
You've your boot now on my hearth-rug, tread what was a tiger's skin:
Rarely such a royal monster as I lodged the bullet in!
True, he murdered half a village, so his own death came to pass;
Still, for size and beauty, cunning, courage—ah, the brute he was!

4 Platonic Socrates is concerned with ideas vs. individual things: your cat, my cat, the neighbor's cat, and "cat," the universal idea, which exists even if all the cats we know do not. This is largely about words, as so much ancient philosophy was. It is also not scientific: It is concerned with ethics, how people ought to live.

5 Hermogenes is miffed at his friend Cratylus, with whom he has been debating the nature of words, because Cratylus says Hermogenes's name is not his real name. Socrates slyly points out to him that Hermogenes means more or less "son of Hermes" and Hermes is the god of money and making it, and Hermogenes the youth has so far shown rather the opposite talent.

6 "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers."


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