From Academic Kids


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 this name for the language seems to have its origins in commentarial traditions, wherein the "Pāli" (in the sense of the line of original text quoted) was distinguished from the commentary or the vernacular following after it on the Manuscript page. As such, the name of the language has caused some debate among scholars of all ages; the spelling of the name also varies, being found with both long "ā" and short "a", and also with either a retroflex or non-retroflex "l" sound. To this day, there is no single, standard spelling of the term; all four spellings can be found in textbooks.

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 now classified as a literary language.

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 in a ritual context. The secular literature of Pali historical chronicals, medical texts, and inscriptions, is also of great historical importance. The great centers of Pali learning remain in the Theravada nations of South-East Asia: Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. Pali scholarship in Northern India generally ended with the rise of the Sena dynasty, with an uncertain process of decline in peninsular India, perhaps lasting the longest in Orissa, i.e., eventually ending (along with Buddhist practice itself) with the fall of the last resistance to the expanding Muslim empires on the subcontinent. Since the 19th century, various societies for the revival of Pali studies in India have promoted awareness of the language and its literature, perhaps most notably the Maha Bodhi Society founded by Anagarika Dhammapala.

In Europe, the Pali Text Society has been a major force in promoting the study of Pāli by Western scholars since its founding in 1881. Based in the United Kingdom, the society publishes romanised Pāli editions, along with many English translations of these sources. The Pali Text Society was in part founded to compensate for the very low level of funds allocated to Indology in late 19th century England; incongruously, the English were not nearly so robust in Sanskrit and Prakrit language studies as Germany, Russia and even Denmark --a situation that many would say continues to this day. Without the inspiration of colonial holdings such as the former British occupation of Sri Lanka and Burma, institutions such as the Danish Royal Library have built up major collections of Pāli manuscripts, and major traditions of Pāli studies.


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 Jataka, 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 precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought.
If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him
like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.
Translated by Acharya Buddharakkhita

Pali Alphabets (Unicode)

Historically, the first written record of the Pali canon is believed to have been composed in Sri Lanka, based on a prior oral tradition. The transmission of written Pali has retained a universal system of alphabetic values, but has expressed those values in a stunning variety of actual scripts. This is confusing to many westerners, who tend to assume that one script is ineluctably tied to one set of phonemes.

The following grid of Romanized phonetic values should be compared to the corresponding alphabetic grids of the Burmese (, Sinhalese (, Cambodian (, and other writing systems used to express the Pali language.

  • 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

Setting up a font for Pali transliteration in Windows

This is one way to set it up. The TrueType font Normyn.ttf ( is available for download on the web. Extract the files from the ZIP file to a chosen folder, then go to Start→Settings→Control Panel and open the Fonts folder. Click on File→"Install New Font...". The Add Fonts dialog box pops up. In the Folders list box find and select the chosen folder, then select "Normyn (TrueType)" in the "List of fonts" list box, then click OK.

After the font has been set up, go to a wordprocessor such as Microsoft Word to set up the shortcut keys for the characters with diacritical marks in the Normyn font. In the case of Word, select the Normyn font in the font combo box, then go to menu item Insert→Symbol. The Symbol dialog box pops up. Under the Symbols tab, select Normyn in the Font combo box: under it should be a grid of characters.

For each desired character in the grid, select it by clicking on it, then click on the "Shortcut Key..." command button: the Customize Keyboard dialog box pops up. Pressing the desired shortcut key combination makes it show up in the "Press new shortcut key:" text box. Click the "Assign" command button, then click on "Close" and repeat this for each desired character. When done, close the Symbol dialog box.

The following is an example of a set of shortcut key assignments:

character Unicode number key combination HTML code
a macron 61580 Alt+A ā
n tilde 61590 Alt+Ctrl+N ñ
i macron 61620 Alt+I ī
d dot-under 61622 Alt+D ḍ
n dot-over 61626 Ctrl+N ṇ
l dot-under 61634 Alt+L ḷ
t dot-under 61642 Alt+T ṭ
m dot-over 61655 Alt+M ṁ
u macron 61672 Alt+U ū
n dot-under 61686 Alt+N ṇ


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

See also

External links


de:Pali eo:Palio fr:Pli nl:Pali id:Bahasa Pali ja:パーリ語 pl:Język pali pt:Pali sv:Pali


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