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Sir William Jones

Sir William Jones

Discourse the Ninth
"The Origin and Families of Nations"
delivered 23 Febbruary, 1792
[at a meeting of the Asiatick Society of Bengal],
by the President

Sir William Jones, A Discourse on the Origin and Families of Nations (1792)
URL: <testi/700/jones/Jones_Discourse_9.html>)
HTML edition by Guido Abbattista for Eliohs (March 1999).

[Editorial Note]


You have attended, gentlemen, with so much indulgence to my discourses on the 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 [186] 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 [187] 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. That Nature, of which simplicity appears a distinguishing attribute, does nothing in vain, is a maxim in philosophy; and against those, who deny maxims, we cannot dispute; but it is vain and superfluous to do by many means what may be done by fewer, and this is another axiom received into courts of judicature from the schools of philosophers: we must not, therefore, says our great NEWTON, admit more causes of natural things, than those, which are true, and sufficiently account for natural phenomena; but it is true, that one pair at least of every living species mud at first have been created; and that one human pair was sufficient for the population of our globe in a period of no considerable length (on the very moderate supposition of lawyers and political arithmeticians, that every pair of ancestors left on an average two children, and each of them two more), is evident from the rapid increase of numbers in geometrical progression, so well known to those, who have ever taken the trouble to sum a series [188] of as many terms, as they suppose generations of men in two or three thousand years. It follows, that the Author of Nature (for all nature proclaims its divine author) created but one pair of our species; yet, had it not been (among other reasons) for the devastations, which history has recorded, of water and fire, wars, famine, and pestilence, this earth would not now have had room for its multiplied inhabitants. 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 [189] 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 [190] 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. This mode of reasoning I have adopted, not from any affectation (as you will do me the justice to believe) of a scientifick diction, but for the sake of conciseness and variety, and from a wish to avoid repetitions; the substance of my argument having been detailed in a different form at the close of another discourse; nor does the argument in any form rife to demonstration, which the question by no means admits: it amounts, however, to such a proof, [191] grounded on written evidence and credible testimony, as all mankind hold sufficient for decisions affecting property, freedom, and life.

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, [192] 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. We cannot but believe, on the supposition just made of a history uninspired, that these facts were delivered by tradition from the first pair, and related by MOSES in a figurative style; not in that sort of allegory, which rhetoricians describe as a mere assemblage of metaphors, but in the symbolical mode of writing adopted by eastern sages, to embellish and dignify historical truth; and, if this were a time for such illustrations, we might produce the same account of the creation and the fall, expressed by symbols very nearly similar, from the Puránas [193] themselves, and even from the Véda, which appears to stand next in antiquity to the five books of Moses.

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. I concur more heartily with those, who insist, that, in proportion as any fact mentioned in history seems repugnant to the course of nature, or, in one word , miraculous, the stronger evidence is required to induce a rational belief of it; but we hear without incredulity, that cities have been overwhelmed by eruptions from burning mountains, territories laid waste by hurricanes, and whole islands depopulated by earthquakes: if then we look at the firmament sprinkled with innumerable stars; if we conclude by a fair analogy, that every star is a sun, attracting, like ours, a system of inhabited planets; and if our ardent fancy, soaring hand in hand with sound reason, wast us beyond the visible sphere into regions of immensity, disclosing other celestial expanses and other systems of suns and worlds on all fides [194] without number or end, we cannot but consider the submersion of our little spheroïd as an infinitely less event in respect of the immeasurable universe, than the destruction of a city or an isle in respect of this habitable globe. 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 [195] 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 [196] 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 [197] 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.

Having arrived by a different path at the same conclusion with Mr. BRYANT (1) as to one of those families, the most ingenious and enterprising of the three, but arrogant, cruel, and idolatrous, which we both conclude to be various shoots from the Hamian or Amonian branch, I shall add but little to my former observations on this profound and agreeable work, which I have thrice perused with increased attention and pleasure, though not with perfect acquiescence in the other less important parts of his plausible system. The sum of this argument seems reducible to three heads. First; "if the deluge really happened at the time recorded by MOSES, those nations, whose monuments are preserved or whose writings are accessible, must have retained memorials of an event so stupendous and comparatively so recent; but in fact they have retained such memorials"; this reasoning seems just, and the fact is true beyond controversy: Secondly; "those memorials were expressed by the race of HAM, before the use of letters, in rude sculpture or painting, and mostly in symbolical figures of the [198] ark; the eight persons concealed in it, and the birds, which first were dismissed from it: this fact is probable, but, I think, not sufficiently ascertained". Thirdly; "all ancient Mythology (except what was purely Sabian) had its primary source in those various symbols misunderstood; so that ancient Mythology stands now in the place of symbolical sculpture or painting, and must be explained on the same principles, on which we should begin to decypher the originals, if they now existed": this part of the system is, in my opinion, carried too far; nor can I persuade myself (to give one instance out of many) that the beautiful allegory of Cupid and Psyche had the remotest allusion to the deluge, or that HYMEN signified the veil, which covered the patriarch and his family. These propositions, however, are supported with great ingenuity and solid erudition, but, unprofitably for the argument, and unfortunately, perhaps, for the fame of the work itself, recourse is had to etymological conjecture, than which no mode of reasoning is in general weaker or more delusive. He, who professes to derive the words of any one language from those of another, must expose himself to the danger of perpetual errours, unless he be perfectly acquainted with both; yet my respectable friend, though eminently skilled in the idioms of Greece and Rome, has no sort [199] of acquaintance with any Asiatick dialect, except Hebrew; and he has consequently made mistakes, which every learner of Arabick and Persian must instantly detect. Among fifty radical words (ma, taph, and ram being included), eighteen are purely of Arabian origin, twelve merely Indian, and seventeen both Sanscrit and Arabick, but in senses totally different; while two are Greek only, and one Egyptian, or barbarous: if it be urged, that those radicals (which ought surely to have concluded, instead of preceding, an analytical inquiry) are precious traces of the primitive language, from which all others were derived, or to which at least they were subsequent, I can only declare my belief, that the language of NOAH is lost irretrievably, and assure you, that after a diligent search, I cannot find a single word used in common by the Arabian, Indian, and Tartar families, before the intermixture of dialects occasioned by Mohammedan conquests. There are, indeed, very obvious traces of the Hamian language, and some hundreds of words might be produced, which were formerly used promiscuously by most nations of that race; but I beg leave, as a philologer, to enter my protest against conjectural etymology in historical researches, and principally against the licentiousness of etymologists in transposing and inserting letters, in substituting at pleasure [200] any consonant for another of the same order, and in totally disregarding the vowels: for such permutations few radical words would be more convenient than Cus or CUSH, since, dentals being changed for dentals, and palatials for palatials, it instantly becomes coot, goose, and, by transposition, duck, all water-birds, and evidently symbolical; it next is the goat worshipped in Egypt, and, by a metathesis, the dog adored as an emblem of SIRIUS, or, more obviously, a cat, not the domestick animal, but a sort of ship, and, the Catos, or great sea-fish, of the Dorians. It will hardly be imagined, that I mean by this irony to insult an author, whom I respect and esteem; but no consideration should induce me to assist by my silence in the diffusion of errour; and I contend, that almost any word or nation might be derived from any other, if such licences, as I am opposing, were permitted in etymological histories: when we find, indeed, the same words, letter for letter, and in a sense precisely the same, in different languages, we can scarce hesitate in allowing them a common origin; and, not to depart from the exampl before us, when we see CUSH or Cus (for the Sanscrit name also is variously pronounced) among the sons of BRAHMA, that is, among the progenitors of the Hindus, and at the head of an ancient pedigree preserved in the Ramáyan; when we meet with [201] his name again in the family of RAM A; when we know, that the name is venerated in the highest degree, and given to a sacred grass described as a Poa by KOENIG, which is used with a thousand ceremonies in the oblations to fire, ordained by MENU to form the sacrificial zone of the Bráhmans, and solemnly declared in the Veda to have sprung up soon after the deluge, whence the Pauránicks consider it as the bristly hair of the boar which supported the globe; when we add, that one of the seven dwipas, or great peninsulas of this earth, has the same appellation, we can hardly doubt that the Cush of MOSES and VA'LMIC was the same personage and an ancestor of the Indian race.

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, and, at [202] length in the infancy of navigation, beyond them both: that they cultivated no liberal arts, and had no use of letters, but formed a variety of dialects, as their tribes were variously ramified; 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, or an hundred and twenty repetitions of the saros, and contrived the old system of Mythology, partly allegorical, and partly grounded on idolatrous veneration for their sages and lawgivers; that they were dispersed at various intervals and in various colonies over land and ocean; 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 [203] 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 [204] considerable remains in their several countries a 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.


Editorial Note

This text is taken from: The Works of Sir William Jones. With a Life of the Author, by Lord Teignmouth [John Shore], London, printed for John Stockdale and John Walker, 1807, 13 vols. in-8°, vol. III, pp. 185-204 [copy preserved in the Library of the Accademia delle Scienze di Torino, shelfmark: 138.407-419].

We have retained the original ortographical and typographycal conventions, use of capitals, punctuation and pagination. The edition of this text is part of an initiative tending to produce a large electronic publication of the most important works by the eminent English orientalist and lawyer sir William Jones (1746-1794), founder of the Asiatick Society of Bengal (1784). It springs from the wish to propose some of the outstanding documents of the European reflection on non-European civilisations as impelled by XVIIth-XVIIIth century commercial, colonial and imperial expansion in Asia.

HTML edition by Guido Abbattista for Eliohs (March 1999). Further revisions and corrections of this edition will be acknowledged and dated.


(1) Jacob Bryant, English antiquary (1715-1804), was the author, among other works, of Observations and Enquiries relating to various parts of Ancient History, Cambridge, 1767, 4to, and of the more famous and controversial A New System or an Analysis of Ancient Mythology, with plates, London, 1774, two vols. 4to; second edition, 1775, 4to; and vol. iii. 1776, 4to. The latter work, in which Bryant developed a complex theory of historical etymology, not founded on sufficient linguistic knowledge, is the one Jones is here referring to.