THE LIFE AND MIND OF ORIENTAL JONES: Sir William Jones, the Father of Modern Linguistics by Garland Cannon

THE LIFE AND MIND OF ORIENTAL JONES: Sir William Jones, the Father of Modern Linguistics

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A star-struck biography of Sir William ""Oriental"" Jones, who in 1786 proposed a common linguistic antecedent called Indo-European, from which most other languages were descended. Jones's search for universal and secular origins expressed the spirit of his age. A poet and scholar by avocation, he was trained in the law and spent most of his life as Supreme Court Justice in India, where he founded the Asiatic Society for the study and dissemination of knowledge about Oriental culture. Its scope exceeded that of the Royal Society, but its Anglo-Indian membership lacked glitter, which may account for why its major contribution, the discovery of a Hindu golden age, was disregarded during the Anglicizing of the 19th century. While this biography by Cannon (English/Texas A&M) records where Jones went, what he said, his club meetings, dinners, illnesses, and cases, there is little of the actual life or mind here. We learn that Jones's father was an esteemed mathematician; that a series of childhood accidents left him scarred and nearly blind; that his formidable education and prodigious memory helped him overcome his otherwise humble origins; that he sought an Indian post to earn money for an English retirement; that, with his nearly invisible wife Ann, he preferred to the lively social life of Calcutta a quiet retreat with such pets as a giant turtle named ""Othello,"" who answered to his name and joined them for dinner. After many years of fevers from the unhealthy climate, Jones died alone at age 47, his wife having preceded him in returning to England. With his erudition and industry, Jones is a challenge to any biographer; but Cannon, who edited the Jones letters (1970), and wrote a bibliography (1976), makes excessive claims that compromise Jones's genuine achievements. His poetry, for example, voluminous, learned, but derivative, is not as ""innovative"" as The Lyrical Ballads; his aesthetics did not influence the Romantic writers; and he was not ""among the greatest living poets."" At best, as the Gentleman's Magazine claimed, ""he is one of the most extraordinary characters which England has furnished,"" and that's a good enough reason for reading this biography.

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1990
Publisher: Cambridge Univ. Press