Before Alfred

  • N. F. Blake


On 2 February 1786 Sir William Jones, a British judge in India who had taken the trouble to learn Sanskrit during his residence there, delivered an address to the Asiatick Society in Calcutta about the relationship of Sanskrit to Latin and Greek. Latin and Greek were the languages which then formed a major part of the education of English schoolboys of a certain class, and so were well known to many of his audience. Of this relationship he claimed that Sanskrit bears

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: there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothick and the Celtick, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with Sanscrit.1

This quotation has become famous because it precipitated the nineteenth-century search for the links among those languages which together became described as the Proto-Indo-European family of languages. This family consists of all languages in Europe (except for Basque and the Finno-Ugric group, that is Finnish, Hungarian and some related languages), and many in Asia. However, some of the languages which used to belong to this family have died out leaving few remains, as is true of Hittite, or survive only in an ancient form in some restricted context such as religion, as is true of Sanskrit itself which remains a religious language in India. The earliest Sanskrit documents, the Vedic hymns, date from about 1000 bc, but their language reflects a much older poetic tradition. Classical Sanskrit appeared from about 500 bc, and in the following century an Indian grammarian called Panini wrote a grammar of Sanskrit which is remarkable for the information and methodology it contains. The written language was standardised by Panini and fellow grammarians, and their rules are still observed.


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  1. 1.
    Quoted in H. Aarsleff, The Study of Language in England 1780–1860 (Minneapolis, 1983; originally published in 1966) p.133.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© N. F. Blake 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • N. F. Blake
    • 1
  1. 1.University of SheffieldUK

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