9. Sir William Jones was a British lawyer, diplomat and polyglot who turned our understanding of world languages on its head
As a young boy in London, William Jones was a language-learning prodigy. Born in 1746, he was home-schooled and then went to the prestigious private Harrow school, where he excelled at languages. By the time he arrived at Oxford University in his teens, he was not only proficient in Latin and Greek (as were most well-bred young gentlemen of the time) but also in Hebrew, Arabic and Persian. Upon graduation, he was determined to make a living from his love of languages and dialects.
Sadly for Jones, translating work and scholarship did not pay so well in late-18th-century England. As such, he switched to law, a field in which he also excelled himself. But that doesn’t mean he gave up on his true passion. While working as a successful lawyer in London, he published his book Grammar of the Persian Language. It was a ground-breaking work of the time and is still regarded as a classic work in the area of linguistics. And then, like many of his peers, he was swiftly knighted and then given a plum posting in India.
Whilst in Calcutta, he established the Asiatic Society of Bengal and busied himself learning Sanskrit so that he could read up on Muslim and Hindu law. Notably, his formidable language skills and wide reading led him to propose that Latin, Greek and Sanskrit all shared the same common ancestry, a truly revolutionary idea for the time. His research and theories helped lay the foundations for modern linguistics, as well as establish his own reputation as one of the finest scholars of his time.