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What is Pali Language? A little history

In all these grammar tutorials we have never stopped to ask:
What is Pali?”
“What does the word mean?”
“What are the origins of Pali?
And this is what we will investigate in this post....

Who Speaks the Pali language?

Well, let's get the obvious answer out of the way:
Pali is the language, in which, the scriptures of Theravada school of Buddhism have been preserved and passed down.

True. Today Pali is studied mainly to gain access to Theravada Buddhist scriptures, and is frequently chanted in a ritual context.

But when we say a 'language', most languages are named either after a population or a region, and we have no evidence of a region called Pali or even a population of Pali speakers...

So what is going on?

Pali as used Today

Well, the use of the term Pali as a name of a language is, in reality, comparatively modern. Its only maybe in the past 200 years that the West has referred to the language of the Theravada canon as  Pali. Even the spelling of it varies, being found with both long "ā", short "a", and also with either a retroflex “ḷ” or non-retroflex "1" sound.
Pali”   “Pāli”
“Paḷi”   “Pāḷi
To this day, there is no single, standard spelling of the term. I tend to use the spelling 'Pali' purely for Search Engine Optimization, as it is the way most people are likely to use for searches!

Simon De La Loubére
Simon De La Loubére
The first use of the word Pali in western literature is attribute to 'Simon De La Loubére' - a French enjoy to the king of Siam (Thailand) in 1687. In a later publication detailing his travels, he mentions Pali or Balie as the name being used by the local monks for the language of the Theravadin texts.

And this seems to have caught on in the West during the 19th Century.

But, nowhere in the tipīṭaka (three baskets) is the word Pali used to refer to a language! In fact, the term first appears in the commentaries of Budhaghosa written after 4th century CE. where it appears as:
Only in this usage, it points to the scriptures, the texts of the tipīṭaka - presumed to be "the words of the Buddha" - as opposed to the commentaries, the explanations or 'talks on the meaning' (aṭṭhakatha) by later pundits.
pālimattaṃ idhānītaṃ, natthi aṭṭhakathā idha”
“only the Pali (was) brought here; there is no commentary here
- Mahāvaṃsa 6th CE

So we know that this meaning was in common use at least  up to  6th century CE in Sri Lanka.

What does the word Pali itself means?

Well, Pāli in Sanskrit means 'a line, row, or series' and by extension 'sentence or text'. While, bhāsā  means 'speech, dialect or language'.  Thus a literal translation maybe:
the language (bhāsā) of the texts (pāli) 
And over time this has extended to mean 'the series of books' which form the body of the Buddhist Scriptures. It appears that at some point, this phrase has been misunderstood as indicating Pali is the name of the language in which the texts are preserved.

The Sanskrit noun pāli, is derived from the verbal root √pā, meaning "to preserve, guard, protect"; and so tradition takes this to imply:
the language of/for protection
or the texts which preserve the teachings of the Buddha.

It has also been suggested that the word ‘Pāli’ is related to √pāṭha meaning 'textual passage or to read aloud’. Which leads to:
text for recitation

So it seems that Pali first appears in the writings of Buddhaghosa, and that when it first came into use, it denoted texts of the tipīṭaka; being itself a shortening of the term:  pāḷi-bhāsā. And this lead to the language itself being mistakenly called Pali.

Well now we might ask: 'If not Pali, what is the language called in the Suttas?'
Unsurprisingly, the  Buddha refers to his teachings as:
and never says in which language he is speaking. The suttas themselves do not reference a language name. There is a passage in the Vinaya which alludes to:
Ariyaka or aryan 
as a term for language but this could be any northern Indian language of the period.

Again its the later commentaries that fill this void, characterising the Buddha's language as:
"Māgadhī-nirutti” (Māgadhī way of speaking)
and "Magadha-bhāsā” (the language of the Magadha province)

In fact, the Theravāda tradition equates what we now call Pali with Māgadhī - the language of the Magadha province at the time of the Buddha - with many Theravadan sources referring to the language of the scriptures as "Magadhan" or the "language of Magadha".

The general view is that because the Buddha spent much of his teaching career within the Magadha province, he probably spoke Māgadhī and so Pali the language of the tipīṭaka and Māgadhī are, according to tradition, one in the same.

However, it is worth pointing out, that a number of different versions of the canon were assembled across India by different Buddhist sects. Thus, we can speak of  the Theravāda Canon, the Mahasahghika Canon, the Sarvastivada Canon and so on. And these various canonical collections were written down in different languages. All now, except the Theravādan canon, are lost to us, and only exist as remnants preserved in the Chinese Agamas. Though, we actually have several renditions of the Dhammapada in different dialects.

Which brings us to ask: 'What physically still exists for Pali?'

Archaeology of Pali 

Most of our physical evidence for the Pali Canon is astonishingly recent - far more recent than our physical evidence for say biblical texts. Hardly any Pali manuscripts are more than about 500 years old – with the vast majority being less than 300 years old.

This is because traditionally Pali has been written on palm leaf (ola) manuscripts, even to this day.

Palms are split, sized, dried and smoothed, to be then etched with a wood or metal stylus. Finally a charcoal wash is applied to give a clear inscription. And I'm told that this soot ink is often made from the cremation ash of deceased monks and nuns.

But this organic material doesn't last well in the humid monsoonal climate of south Asia - maybe a century or two. In fact, the oldest Pali manuscript written on palm-leaf, consists of 4 fragments of the Vinaya which were found in Nepal and are believed to date to only the 8th or 9th century CE.

Ghandarī Manuscripts
Ghandarī Manuscripts 1st CE
The oldest Buddhist manuscripts yet discovered are written on birch bark and were found in pots at Ghandara, miraculously dating to first half of the 1st century CE. 

But these are written in Ghandarī Prākrit and not Pali !

The earliest archaeological evidence of the existence of Pali is not on palm-leaf and not even to be found in India, but comes from Sri Ksetra, one of the Pyu city-states, of Burma.

These 'Golden Pali Texts' as they have become known, are etched into gold plates 

Pyu, Golden Pali TextsPyu, Golden Pali Texts
Pyu, Golden Pali Texts 4th-5th CE

Interestingly, these are in a Brāmhi script which seems to indicate that the Paḷi of SE Asia came originally from mainland India rather than from Sri Lanka. And these have now (I think) been dated to the mid 4th or early 5th century CE

So, the archaeological evidence only takes the existence of Pali as a language back to the 5th century CE. And, it should be kept in mind, that the age of the manuscripts has little to do with the age of the texts they contain.

The Traditional Account

Which leaves us with the Orthodox Theravada perspective, which we will now look at in more detail.

Obviously, Buddhist literature begins with the oral instruction given by the Buddha himself to his immediate disciples. And even during his lifetime these teaching were being committed to memory & recited.

After the Buddha's parinibbāna, Buddhists held several councils. At one of these meetings a corpus of teachings and rules were compiled in a style appropriate for oral transmission.

Now according to the Sri Lankan Chronicles, the great Indian king Asoka (c. 272-231), having established an empire from coast to coast, convened a great council of monks at Pataliputra - the capital of his new empire. Where, among other things, it was decided to send groups of learned Buddhist monks as emissaries to foreign lands in order to spread the Dhamma. They traveled as far as Greece, north Africa, Burma, and to Ceylon, where Asoka sent his own son, Mahindra.

Mahinda took a presumably memorized copy of the Buddha’s teachings to Śri Lanka. Although, we do not know exactly the dialect in which this canon was taken, the Sri Lankan's understood the language of the canon to be that of Magadha. But this may have been a reference to the new kingdom, now much greater than the province familiar to that of the Buddha's time.

Importantly, this was still an oral tradition.  According to the Chronicles, the Pali Canon was first committed to writing in Sri Lanka around 50 BCE and, it is assumed (reasonably) that language was Pali and it was written in the Sinhala script of Sri Lanka.

Notably, no single script was ever developed for the language of the canon, as scribes used the scripts of their native languages to transcribe the texts.
Pali Scripts

Pāli is Magadhī?

However, western scholarship has cast doubt on the equating of what we now call Pali with Magadhī. What we know of Magadhī from ancient grammarians and inscription, enables us to say that the Pali we have today is similar to, but not exactly the same as Magadhī prakrit.

Well how do we know this?

Aśokan edicts

King Asoka did archaeology a great favour by carving edicts on rocks and stone pillars around the borders of his territory in what are thought to be dialects local to the particular regions.
Asokan Edicts

Thus, the Aśokan edicts are the earliest hard linguistic evidence we have for the Indian subcontinent, date-able with certainty to Aśoka’s reign (c. 272-231) - just 150 years or so after the Buddha’s parinibbāna. Though nothing like a  a real dialectal map of the time, they give a very rough spectrum of dialects existent. And for comparative linguistic purposes, they are invaluable and have allowed scholars to distinguish the various linguistic features of these dialects.

The inscriptions are actually all in similar dialects or prākrits, which can be arranged into three groups: the eastern dialects, which are seen to represent the official language of Magadha empire; the western dialects and the north western of Ghandara.

But, there is no attested Aśokan dialect with all the features of Pali. It has some commonalities with both the Aśokan inscriptions at Girnar in the West of India, and at Hathigumpha, of Orissa in the East.

Actually, when Pali is compared to the Aśokan prākrits, it turns out to be unusual in that it contains both eastern and western linguistic features. But the majority are western and not eastern as we might expect  if  Pali was Magadhī.
For instance: Pali contains both:
nom. sing. endings in -o (western) and in -e (eastern);
nom. plurals in -āse (eastern) as well as in -ā (western);

This has lead most to conclude that Pali as we have it today, is the result of a lengthy and complicated development, and is not a single language but is a composite - a mixture of peculiar dialectical forms with far more alternative endings than would be expected of a single spoken language.

However, this has not prevented various attempts to locate a home region for Pali as a spoken dialect. And has lead to a range of opinions:

Modern Scholarship

Many scholars hold that Pali was Old Magadhī (eastern), but took on western forms as the empire grew west (per Buddhaghosa, Geiger, Childers). Others highlight the fact that the Buddha was born and educated in Kosala and would have spoken Koslan - also a great province though later eclipsed by Magadha (per Rhys Davids, Winternitz). Still others have suggested: Kaliṅga (southeast, per Oldenberg, Muller & Barua), Taxila (northwest, per Grierson), Vindhya (central, per Konow), Ujjain (central-west, per Franke, Westergaard and Kuhn) as Mahinda’s mother tongue was the language of Ujjain; Kauśāmbī (central-east, per de La Vallée Poussin) or Avanti (western central; per Lamotte).

There is also the view that the Buddha is likely to have taught in several dialects as he traveled. And this is reflected in Pali which may have developed as an educated "lingua franca" (per Windisch and Geiger).

Although, Norman has suggested that due to a very high degree of mutual intelligibility amongst the northern dialects at the time of the Buddha, little or no translation was necessary. But, because the dialects had diverged by the time of Asoka, Pāli developed as a compromise between these various spoken dialects in this vast territory. Which maybe the reason that Pali bears traces of so many different dialects.

And by extension, this idea has lead some to postulate that Pali was never a spoken dialect, but an artificial, even cobbled together, composite language which was purely for religious texts. The fact is, Pali today is a literary language used exclusively by Buddhists.

Anyway, it is safe to say that modern scholarship has not arrived at a consensus on the issue!

What is Pali Language? - Summary

Pali as a language, developed in northern India before 200 BCE, perhaps as early as the 5th century BCE, but died out as a literary language in mainland India around the 14th century CE. In fact, the bulk of Pali literature not only dates from a much later (medieval) period, but was produced outside the India altogether, in Sri Lanka, and in Burma, and still later also in Thailand and Cambodia.

Just how the language we call Pali originated we do not know - the physical evidence is scant, and the linguistic analysis is inconclusive. It appears to be an admixture of several dialects and effected by sanskritisation over time.

But lets not lose sight of the wood for the trees. We know that the Buddha likely spoke a form (or several forms) of prākrit; and that the texts in to which his words came to be formalised were preserved orally by the monks and nuns for many generations. It is also evident that just as there is a gap in time of nearly 400 years between the death of the Buddha and the writing down of the Pali Canon; and there is also a distance of some 1,500 miles between the area in which the Buddha lived & preached and where they were it was eventually written down in central Sri Lanka; during which time it no doubt it evolved.

In the end, all that we have to go on is the language that has survived today. And knowing what the words mean, and how & why they mean what they mean is perhaps the Pali student’s most important task!

More posts


Robson Almeida said…
Thanks to make this wonderful work available for us. Is there any problem if i copy, translate, and propagate some lessons to portuguese. Metta, Robson
Pali Studies said…
Please do, it is free to all. :-)
Unknown said…
Thank you very much for everything what you have done for the Dhamma.
May you always be Well and Happy😊
Sadhu Sadhu Sadhu...

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