The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Pāli (ISO 639-1: pi; ISO 639-2: pli) is a Middle Indo-Aryan dialect or prakrit. It is most famous as the language in which the scriptures of Theravada Buddhism (also known as the Pāli Canon or in Pāli the Tipitaka) were written down in Sri Lanka in the 1st century BCE. Pāli has been written in a variety of scripts, from Brahmi, Devanagari and other Indic scripts through to a romanised (western) form devised by T. W. Rhys Davids of the Pali Text Society.


Language Origins and development

The word Pāli itself signifies "line" or "(canonical) text" and it is now classified as a literary language.

While it is uncertain whether Pāli was ever a spoken language in the sense of a language people use to communicate with each other, Pāli has long been the language in which Theravada Buddhists chant. It is widely believed that Gotama Buddha spoke either in the vernacular Magadhi or some other middle Indo-Aryan vernacular which was the language of the people near Benares in North-East Central India (now Varanasi) where he resided and taught. Pāli was considered by early Buddhists to be linguistically similar to old Magadhi or even a direct continuation of that language. However, Magadhi is an Eastern Indian language whereas Pāli most closely resembles Western Indian inscriptions.

Today Pāli is studied mainly to gain access to Buddhist scriptures, and is frequently chanted. The Pali Text Society, based in the United Kingdom, has since its founding in 1881 been a major force in promoting the study of Pāli by Western scholars. The society publishes these scriptures in romanised Pāli and most of them in English translation as well.


Pāli shares common etymologies for virtually every word in the language with the other Prakritic "Middle Indo-European Languages", e.g., the Jain Prakrits. The relationship to earlier Sanskrit (e.g., Vedic language) is less direct and more complicated; the Pāli language's resemblance to Sanskrit is often exaggerated by comparing it to more recent Sanskrit poetry --i.e., the latter being influenced by Pāli and centuries of other Middle-Indo-European language development. Historically, influence between Pāli and Sanskrit has been felt in both directions. This is demonstrably true (e.g.) in the instance of Ashvaghosa, a Pāli-educated Buddhist monk, who became the first author of the Sanskrit kavya genre of poetry, highly influential on Sanskrit poetics thereafter. Likewise, in Sanskrit philosophy, post-Buddhist schools such as Shankara's Vedanta have been directly influenced both by Buddhist Philosophy and argumentation, with concomitant effects in the use of the language itself.

Post-Canonical Pāli demonstrates some direct adoptions of technical vocabulary from Sanskrit, and a few loan-words from local languages where Pāli was used (e.g. Sri Lankans adding Sinhalese words to Pāli). These usages differentiate the Pāli found in the Suttapitaka from later compositions such as the commentaries and folklore Jatakas , and comparative study (and dating) of texts on the basis of such loan-words is now a specialized trade unto itself.

The fact that Pāli was not exclusively used to convey the teachings of the Buddha is demonstrable from the existence of a number of secular texts, such as books of medical science/instruction. However, western scholarly interest in the language has been (for obvious reasons) focused upon religious and philosophical literature.

Within the context of religious writings, similar-sounding words to those found in Sanskrit can have significantly different meanings than those of Pāli. The active re-definition and re-invention of the religious meanings assigned to certain key terms (such as dharma/dhamma) was an active aspect of philosophic debate for many centuries, and the Buddhist, Jains, and various schools of Hinduism all had competitive notions of the value and significance of these terms.

The philosophy of early Mahayana Buddhism found in Sanskrit and the Buddhism recorded in Pāli are, in many respects, mutually opposed; however, historical sources indicate that these were not the only schools, nor the only languages, that participated in the debates within the Buddhist fold. There is no extant Buddhist literature of the Prakrit language Paisaci , but this and other languages were associated with particular philosophical approaches to Buddhist doctrine (and particular sectarian affiliations) in recorded history.

Needless to say, there is a still further gulf between the philosophy of early Buddhism and contemporaneous Brahmanical thought of the Middle Indic period, including beliefs about the respective sacred languages themselves. While Sanskrit words were thought to inhere as a part of the thing they described, Pāli words were thought to have only conventional significance. Sanskrit, Pāli, and the Jain Prakrits, were all represented as the language spoken by the gods in the popular literature of the respective religions, and various claims as to the supernatural origins or supernatural efficacy were assigned to these languages by their proponents. Unto this day, it is believed in many Theravada cultures that taking a vow in Pāli has a special significance, and, as one example of the supernatural power assigned to chanting in the language, the recitation of the vows of Angulimala are believed to alleviate the pain of Childbirth in Sri Lanka. In Thailand, the chanting of a portion of the Abhidhammapitaka is believed to be beneficial to the recently departed, and this ceremony routinely occupies as much as seven working days. Interestingly, there is nothing in the latter text that relates to this subject, and the origins of the custom are unclear.

Example of Pāli with English translation

Manopubbangamā dhammā, manosetthā manomayā;
Manasā ce padutthena, bhāsati vā karoti vā,
Tato nam dukkhamanveti, cakkam'va vahato padam.

Mind is the forerunner of all states,
mind is chief, they are created by mind;
If one speaks or acts with a corrupted mind, suffering follows
As the wheel follows the hoof of an ox pulling a cart.
Dhammapada verse 1.

Pali Alphabet (Unicode)

  • a ā i ī u ū e o
  • k kh g gh ṅ
  • c ch j jh
  • ṭ ṭh ḍ ḍh ṇ
  • t th d dh n
  • y r l v s h ḷ

Pali text in ASCII

The Velthuis scheme was originally developed in 1991 by Frans Velthuis for use with his "devnag" Devanagari font, designed for the TEX typesetting system. This system of representing Pali diacritical marks has been used in some websites and discussion lists:

  • Long vowels are doubled: aa, ii, uu .
  • Other diacritics precede the letters marked by them, so:
    • semi-vowels: .r .l
    • retroflex consonants: .t .th .d .dh .n
    • retroflex sibilant: .s
    • palatal sibilant: "s
    • palatal nasal: ~n
    • guttural nasal: "n
    • niggahita (pure nasal): .m
    • visarga: .h


See entries for "Pali" (written by scholar K.R. Norman of the Pali Text Society) and "India--Buddhism" in The Concise Encyclopedia of Language and Religion, (Sawyer ed.) ISBN 0080431674

External links

Last updated: 08-15-2005 22:43:08
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