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Home > Mezzofanti > Eminent linguists > British and Irish linguists > Jones

It is in great part to this, that we are indebted for the splendid successes of Sir William Jones, of Marsden, of Colebrooke, of Craufurd, of Lumsden, of Leyden, and still more recently, of Colonel Vans Kennedy. the first of those, William Jones, was the son of a schoolmaster, and was born in London, in 1741. He was educated at Harrow, where he exhibited an early taste for languages,t and was especially distinguished in Greek and Latin metrical composition. In 1764, he entered the University of Oxford, where he learned Arabic from a Syrian whose acquaintance he chanced to form. To this he soon after added Persian ; and in 1770, he performed the very unusal feat of translating the history of Nadir Shah into French. In the following year he published his Persian Grammar, which took the general public as much by surprise, by the beauty and eloquence of the poetical translations which ' accompanied the copious examples that illustrated it, as it excited the admiration of scholars by the simplicity and practical good sense of its technical details. He soon afterwards applied himself to the language and literature of China; which, however, he never made a profound study, as about this time (1770), feeling the precariousness of a purely literary profession, he took steps to have himself called to the English bar, and for the following twelve years devoted himself with all his charac teristic energy, and with marked success, to its laborious and engrossing duties. During the same period he endeavoured unsuccessfully to obtain a seat in Parliament; but iu 1783, he accepted the appointment of Judge in the supreme court at Calcutta, and repaired to India in the same year. His attention to the duties of his office, is said to have been most earnest and exemplary. But, in the intervals of duty, he travelled over a great part of India; mixed eagerly in native society; and had acquired a familiarity with the history, antiquities, religions, science, and laws of India, such as had never before been attained by any European scholar, when, unhappily for the science to which he was so thoroughly devoted, he was out off prematurely in the year 179-1, at the early age of forty-seven. During a life thus laborious, and in great part spent in pursuits utterly uncongenial with linguistic studies, Sir William Jones had nevertheless amassed a store of languages which had seldom, perhaps never, been equalled before his time. Fortunately too, unlike most of the linguists whom we have been enumerating, he himself left an autograph record of those studies, which Lord Teignmouth has preserved in his interesting Biography. In this paper, he describes the total number of languages with which he was in any degree acquainted to have been twenty-eight; but he further distributes those into classes according to the degree of his familiarity with each. From this curious memorandum, it appears that he had studied critically eight languages, viz : English, Latin, French, Italian, Greek, Arabic, Persian, Sanscrit; eight others he had studied less perfectly, but all were intelligible to him with the aid of a Dictionary, viz :r. Spanish, Portuguese, German, Eunick, Hebrew, Bengali, Hindi, Turkish; twelve others, in fine, he had studied least perfectly; but he considered all those attainable; namely Tibetan, Pali, Palavi, Deri, Russian, Syriac, Ethiopic. Coptic, Welsh, Swedish, Dutch, and Chinese/ Now, as Lord Teignmoutht describes him as perfectly familiar with Spanish, Portuguese, and German, three lan- guages which he has himself placed on the list of languages, " less critically studied, but intelligible with the aid of a dictionary," it may fairly be believed that this estimate is, to say the least, a sufficiently modest one; and that his acquaintance even with the languages of the third class was by no means superficial, we may infer from another memorandum preserved by Lord Teignmouth from which we find that he had studied the grammars of two at least of the number, namely : liussian and Welsh. His biographer, however, unfortunately enters into no details as to his power of speakiug languages ; but he is said by the writer of the notice in the Biographie Universelle to have spoken eight languages as perfectly as his native English. In contrast with successes so brilliant as those, the comparatively humble career of the other British Orientalists named in conjunction with Sir William Jones, will appear tame and uninteresting. William Marsden was born in Dublin, 1754; and, after having completed the ordinary classical studies, was sent out to Bencoolen in the island of Sumatra, at the early age of sixteen. the extraordinary facility which he exhibited for acquiring the Malay languages led to his rapid advancement. He was named first under-secretary, and afterwards chief secretary of tiie Island ; and, before his return in 1779, he had accumulated the materials for the exceedingly valuable work on Sumatra which lie published in 1782. Marsden held several important appointments after his return, J and he employed every interval of his official duties in literary pursuits. He was a thorough master of Sanscrit, and all its kindred languages; but he must be described, nevertheless, rather as a book-learned, than a practical linguist. His Essay on the Polynesian or East Insular languages, tracing their connexion with each other, and their common relations with Sanscrit, is still a standard source of information on this interesting ethnological question. Henry thomas Colebrooke, well known by his numerous contributions to Oriental literature, especially in the Asiatic Journal, was also an official of the East India Company, whose employment he entered, while still very young, as a civil servant. Coiebrooke was well versed, not only in the Indian languages, but also in those of the Hebrew and cognate races; and his early education in France gave him a greater familiarity with French and other modern tongues than is often found to accompany the more profound linguistic studies. Matthew Lumsden was born in Aberdeenshire in 1777, and went as a mere boy to India, where his brother had an appointment in the service of the Company. Lumsden's knowledge of Hindustani and of Persian led to his being employed first as translator in the criminal court, and afterwards as professor in Fortwilliam College, where he remained till 1820. His skill in Persian and Arabic is attested by several publications upon both, chiefly elementary; but he can hardly be classed with the higher Orientalists, much less with linguists of more universal pretensions. Lord Cockburn, in the lively section of his amusing " Memorials of his Own Time" which he devotes to the singular and unsteady career of John Leyden, says that M'Intosh,to whom "his wild friend" was clearly a source of great amusement;, used to laugh at the affected modesty with which Leyden " professed to know but seventy languages."t It is plain that M'Intosh considered this an extreme exaggeration; but thore can be no doubt, nevertheless, that Leyden was a very extraordinary linguist. This strange man, whose name will perhaps be remembered by the frequent allusions to it in the early correspondence of Sir Walter Scott, was born of a very humble family at Denholm in 1775. though his education was of the very lowest order, yet Scott relates that " before he had attained his nineteenth year, he confounded the doctors of Edinburgh by the portentous mass of his acquisitions in almost every department of knowledge."! Having failed very signally in the clerical profession, to which lie was brought up by his parents, he embraced that of medicine; and, after undergoing a more than ordinary share of the privations and vicissitudes of literary life such as it then existed, he went to Madras in 1803 in the capacity of assistant surgeon in the East India Compauy's service. the adoption of this career decided the course of his after studies. He had learned, while yet a mere youth, preparing for the university, Hebrew and Arabic. He afterwards extended his researches into all the chief languages of the East, Sanscrit, Hindustani, and many other minor varieties of the Indian tongues. He was also thorough master of Persian. His career as Professor of Hindustani at Calcutta was more successful than that of any European scholar since Sir William Jones. Having also studied the Malay language, from which he made several translations, he was induced to accompany Lord Minto on the Java expedition in 1811, where he was cut off after a short illness in the same year, too soon, unhappily, to allow of his turning to full account the important materials which he had collected for the comparative study of the Indo- Chinese languages.

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