Pāli: Language of the Theravada


Pali (sometimes written Paali- see Velthius scheme) is an Indo-European (more specifically, middle Indo-Arayan) language derived from Sanskrit that for centuries has been the canonical and liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism. Long thought to be the same language spoken by the Buddha, more recent analysis has revealed otherwise- though it is likely the language used to preserve the Tipitaka from at least the days of King Asoka.

Though generally considered to be a dead language, Pali continues to be used throughout Southeast Asia as a religious language- in prayer and ritual, as well as in the study of scripture and the composition of commentaries and other religious documents. Even into the 20th Century, some Theravadin elders continued to be able to converse in the ancient tongue.

The term 'Pali' originally had the meaning of 'canonical'; over the years of use in preserving the Pali Canon, it came to be regarded as the name of the language in which the texts were written, rather than a description of the texts themselves. The real original name of the language is unknown, but it is assumed to be derived from a language of northwestern India.

Origins and History

The origins of the Pali language, like those of many languages, are lost in the vagaries of time. It is generally known that Pali is a Prakrit tongue- one of the vernacular languages which developed from Sanskrit, the ritual language of Vedic religion. For centuries, the Theravada assumed that Pali was the language spoken by the Buddha in his teachings, and was therefore synonymous with Magadhi, the language of the Northern Indian kingdom of Magadha where the Buddha lived and taught. This identification of Pali with the language of Magadha appears very early in Theravada literature- possibly as early as the 1st Century A.D

However, beginning in the 19th Century Pali was submitted to the linguistic examinations of European scholars, and it began to be apparent that Pali could not have been the same language spoken by the Buddha. Fragments of Magadhi inscriptions and texts were discovered, and it was clear that Pali was not the same language as these fragments. Furthermore, analysis of inscriptions from the time of King Asoka revealed that Pali had its roots in a Western language of Northern India- far from the realm of the Buddha.

It is theorized by O. van Hinuber, among others, that Pali was in fact at one point a hybrid sort of lingua franca, used over a large area of Northern India centuries after the life of the Buddha. The Tipitaka, preserved perhaps in the original language of the Buddha (an Eastern North Indian tongue), encountered the Pali language at some point in history- most likely during the period when Pali was widely present in Northern India- and was recorded in that language. The entrance of such a large body of teaching in a foreign language altered the character of Pali itself, acquiring many features of the original tongue, and making it that much more difficult to find the real origins of the language.

Not all analysts believe that this is the final answer about the roots of Pali, however. Some researchers continue to believe that Pali has its origin in the kingdom of Magadha. T.W. Rhys Davids, one of the earliest Western scholars of Pali believed that it was a northeastern dialect, most likely from the kingdom of Koshala. Others believe that the language was a much older central Indian Prakrit.

Whatever its initial origins, Pali at some point became the language used to preserve and pass down the Theravada Tipitaka. For at least the first century after the death of the Buddha, the texts were not written down, and remained an oral tradition. They were committed to writing in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) most likely during the 1st Century BC, during the reign of King Vattagamani. These Pali texts were written onto palm leaves, apparently as an attempt to preserve them in the face of a threat to the Buddhist order- most likely, a war of invasion from Southern India, though there are indications that growing heterodoxy(possibly coinciding with the rise of proto-Mahayana teachings) may have also played a role.

It is unknown when Pali ceased to be a cradle language (if, indeed, it ever was one), and became relegated to the religious realm. Even after its death in the rest of society, Pali continued to be used within the temples and monasteries, not only to preserve the texts, but also to compose commentaries, and to allow communication between Theravada monks from different nations. In the various Theravada countries where it is spoken, it is written in the local script, and often pronounced or intoned according to local variations in the language. Monks and laity alike chant prayers, vows, and texts in Pali; recordings of monks performing the chants of a Uposatha day or other occasion are available from some specialty booksellers (and, of course, if you ask nicely, monks at a Theravada temple will almost always let you record them yourselves (though an old friend informs me that sometimes they ham it up a little more than usual on these occasions)).

Three main great periods of Pali literature are generally identified by Pali scholars. The first, coinciding with the comission of the Canon to writing in or around the 1st Century, saw the development of the Tipitaka in its fixed form, as well as the composition of the earliest commentaries by Theravada elders. From the 1st until 5th Century A.D, a pause occured. New works were composed primarily in local languages (Sinhala, for instance), and development of Pali literature stagnated.

In the 5th Century, the rise of Sanskrit literature prompted the first renaissance of Pali, begun almost single-handedly by the scholar-monk Buddhaghosa and his fellow monks at the Mahavihara (Great Monastery) in Ceylon. This rebirth may have been in some ways a defensive action on the part of the Theravada orthodoxy. The rise of Classical Sanskrit was marginalizing schools that taught in other languages; the creative output of the Sanskrit schools, which shared a common language across national lines, and were thus able to build off the works of multiple schools of thought. The Mahavamsa suggests, on the other hand, that the Theravada schools of the Indian mainland had lost all of their non-Tipitaka Pali literature and were weathering an intellectual drought.

In this seemingly unpromising environment, Buddhaghosa emerged and put the older Sinhalese commentaries into Pali, summarizing and systematizing them in the Visuddhimagga. The age of these older commentaries lent them greater authority than some of the more recent (and thus more suspect) Sanskrit learning; their composition in Pali meant they could be easily shared across national and linguistic lines, as basic Pali instruction had remained a mainstay of Theravada monastic education.

This Middle Age of Pali literature lasted until the 11th Century in Ceylon and until the following century in Burma. It saw the creation of many of the major commentaries that are still available, and the replacement of vernacular with Pali for new religious compositions in the Theravada (though new vernacular sources continued to be composed as well, particularly in the popular realm- there'a always a market for new faux-jataka).

In the 11th Century, Ceylon suffered a disasterous war that ended the Middle Age there. Political changes in Burma did the same in that nation in the following century. During the 12th century, the Ceylonese linneage recovered, ushering in the Third Period in Pali literature, which began in Burma following political recovery. At around the same time, Buddhism dissapeared entirely from the Indian mainland; this did not prevent the medieval Pali boom from continuing until sometime in the 15th Century or so.

The 20th Century has perhaps seen the latest rebirth for Pali, though the roots of this swell lie in the 19th Century. Interest in Pali from the West, best embodied by the foundation of the Pali Text Society in 1881 to promote the study of Pali in the non-Asian world (though it has done a great deal for Asian interst in Pali as well). The establishment of formal departments of religion and Sanskrit studies have created a great deal of interest in the language at the academic level, and a thriving community of scholars worldwide continues to unravel mysteries of the old tongue long thought lost.

In Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, contact with Western ideas (and Western Imperialism, and Western missionary impulses) have helped foster renewed interst in Buddhism as a whole, and in many cases in Pali in particular. Restoration efforts in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and elsewhere have helped re-establish Pali monastic curriculums where they had once lapsed, and in many cases moved scholarship into the forefront of monastic life. The ordination of Western-born and/or educated monks has lead to the combination of traditional forms of text study (pariyatti) with modern methods in linguistics and textual analysis, as well as providing a ready body of translators. Furthermore, contact between Theravada and non-Theravada Buddhist schools has helped enhance the understanding of many Pali texts, by providing lost versions or alternate translations, and in some cases (such as that of the Vimuttimagga) entire volumes that had long been assumed to be permanently lost.

Increased popular interest in Buddhism in the West has helped prompt some of the first new translations of Pali texts, as well as the translation of previously unstudied works. Efforts to preserve and collect rare documents (such as The Fragile Palm Leaves Project), the creation of electronic editions of the Tipitaka and the adoption of Roman script have made the language more accesable to scholars and laymen (in both the religious and secular sense) alike, and have helped to ensure the preservation of the language and its literature. The creation of neologisms to describe modern concepts and the expansion of Pali learning raises the possibility that the language may once again be used more extensibly as a lingua franca among Buddhists (or at least amng the Theravada). Not bad for a dead language.


There are several categories of Pali literature recognized and studied today. The best known are the canonical and para-canonical Theravada texts, but histories, poetry, linguistic texts and other varieties of literature are also known. The list below is not exhaustive, but provides some examples of the most well known volumes in each category. The categorization was suggested by von Hinuber's Handbook of Pali Literature, but the descriptions and examples I have generally derived from other sources.

The Theravada Canon:

These texts are the best known Pali literature in the world today, constituting the most commonly referenced sacred texts of Theravada Buddhism. The Canon is traditionally divided into three sections (called 'pitakas', or baskets]): the Vinaya Pitaka, the Sutta Pitaka, and the Abhidhamma Pitaka. The first two divisions are recorded as having been fixed at the time of the first Buddhist Council, but the Abhidhamma was most likely recorded at a later date. The Tipitaka is the only complete, intact canon from the schools that split in the early days of Buddhism; while portions of the canon of the Sarvastivada and Mahasamghika schools exist, preserved in Chinese and Tibetan versions, many portions of these texts are missing. The Theravada canon, on the other hand, was kept intact by the efforts generations of monks and students. Surprisingly, though, the oldest existing examples of Pali from the canon come not from Sri Lanka, but from manuscripts preserved in Nepal and Tibet.

Paracanonical Texts

This category includes texts that are accepted as canonical in some traditions, but are generally held to have been added after the Vinaya and Suttanta divisions were defined by the early councils. The most well known of these works is the Milindapanha, the Questions of King Milinda. It is often cited in the West because it reports a dialogue between an elder Theravada monk Nagasena and the Bactrian Greek king Milinda (Menander), whose questions about the Dhamma mirror the questions of many Westerners.


This category includes commentaries written by monastic scholar on every work in the Pali Canon, as well as commentaries on a number of the para-canonical texts. The best known of the commentarial writers was the 4th Century scholar-monk Buddhaghosa, author of the Visuddhimagga, the best known of the commentarial works. Other famous works were written by Dhammapala and Buddhadatta. While the commentaries are extensive, and have all been translated by the Pali Text Society and others, little attention has been paid to them in the West, other than to the Visuddhimagga and its sister volume, the Vimuttimagga, which for centuries was lost to the Theravada, but was later recovered when a Chinese edition was discovered.

Histories and Chronicles

This category consists of historical chronicles, most of them written on the island of Ceylon. In fact, most of the information about the ancient history of the island has been retrieved from these works. Other subjects dealt with in the chronicles are the histories of certain stupas, relics, and temples. The two most well known historical works are doubtlessly the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa, both of which record an epic war by a righteous Buddhist ruler against rival Hindu kingdoms. Unfortunately, these epics have been sullied by their use by certain chauvinist Buddhists in Sri Lanka to justify the poor treatment of the Tamil minority following the end of the British Raj on the island, as well as other violent acts during the years of civil war that have followed.


These works are compendiums that summarize and explain certain sections of the Tipitaka and other Theravada teachings. Most new works since the days of Buddhaghosa have focused on the Vinaya and Abhidhamma, as his Visuddhimagga was considered authoritative with regards to the Suttanta. These books were seen primarily as being useful in the instruction of monks and nuns in areas where all ordained Buddhists were expected to have some basic level of knowledge (the Vinaya, which determined their behavior and routines), or in areas where the scriptures and commentaries were extremely dense and complicated, and required further explanation and summarizing (the Abhidhamma, which may plunge the unwary into madness or- worse- deep sleep). These texts are not commonly seen in the West, though at least one (the Abhidhammattha Sangaha of Achariya Anuruddha) has been through a recent translation and printing by Bhikkhu Bodhi of the Buddhist Publication Society, offered with significant explication and annotation as a resource for Westerners who wish to learn something of the Abhidhamma, without pouring through the numerous volumes of the Abhidhamma Pitaka.


What do you do when the commentaries are unclear? Why, you write a commentary, of course! Commentaries on the Abhidhamma commentaries were the first to appear, followed soon by Suttanta texts. Many of these were written at the Mahavihara in Ceylon by Dhammapala, and others were composed by the monk Ananda (who is not the same individual as Ananda, the Buddha's cousin and personal retainer). These works are nearly unknown in the West, to the best of my knowledge. The Pali Text Society has not published translations of them, which as good as saying that they do not exist anywhere outside of Sri Lanka and Burma.


These works are simply collections of quotations and selections from other works- primarily from the Pali Canon. During the medieval era, these collections seem to have surpassed the Tipitaka itself for the instruction of monks, being more concise and manageable than the full Canon. These works are not generally translated in the West, but scholars find them interesting for the insight that they provide into the importance of certain scriptures and concepts to the medieval Sangha.


A rather small category, consisting entirely of texts from the Burmese tradition. These works describe the traditional Buddhist worldview, the five (or six) realms of existence: gods (deva), humans, asura, animal, hungry ghost (peta), and the hell realms (some versions leave out the 'titans' or asura). Some of these works seem to have inspired or provided sources for works in Thailand, but can't be linked to the Sri Lankan tradition. Some of the inspirations for these texts come from the Pali Canon, but local tradition no doubt provides a contribution as well. Interestingly, one of the books included in this category appears to be a work on astrology discovered in an abandoned monastery in the 1980's that contains some quite accurate astronomical observations, but little else is known about its dates or origin.


A number of poetry collections exist, all composed in Ceylon, and all clearly influenced by Sanskrit poetic forms. The subject of theses verses include praise for, as well as the life of, the Buddha, moral teachings, and praise of Buddhas of past eras. A number of theses works seem to never have been translated out of Pali.

Story Collections

Stories about virtuous monks and lay followers, illustrating key Buddhist virtues and teachings. Many of these are in fact collections of older stories that have since disappeared. Mixed verse and prose, mostly composed in Ceylon.

Letters and Inscriptions

Little so far has been gleaned from this category of texts. While many fairly recent letters between Theravada monks exist, they generally are recent enough that they conform to well-known forms, and so shed little light for scholars on Pali or the Theravada. Likewise, most inscriptions in Pali are little more than long quotations from other, more well-known texts, and so are rendered redundant. The most interesting old letters in existence provide evidence of the revival of ordination lines through sending monks abroad for new ordination, and the re-introduction of texts that were sent back and forth between Theravada countries along with traveling monks. Likewise, inscriptions in Pagan have provided information about the history and identity of certain texts and their movement.

Linguistic Texts

A range of Pali grammars, dictionaries, and manuals written by monks. These works were used to instruct newly ordained monks in the Pali language, and have persisted in various forms up until the present day. Some of the older texts have been replaced in the viharas by new work done by monks or Western scholars, and these older texts are not generally used in the West to teach Pali- see the bibliography below for these works. Most of these works borrow their form from similar works on Sanskrit from the time they were written. These works continued to be used by Western students- particularly certain Burmese grammers- for advanced study of Pali, as they provide a great deal of information about obscure or unusual constructions, and avoid some of the confusion that can arise when grammatical concepts and terms are mapped from Pali to the language of a later grammarian.

Legal Texts

Books of law and legal reasoning, often keying off of ideas from the Tipitaka or other Theravada teaching. Not a lot of information available on these texts- there is apparently a work dealing with this subject, but I could not locate a citation for it.

Medical Texts

Pali texts dealing with ayurveda and other forms of traditional Indian medicine. Many of these medical techniques are centered around Buddhist-related theories about the composition of the body. It is possible that some of these works made their way in one form or another into Tibetan or other local forms of medicine- as with the legal texts, there is not a lot of available information.

Southeast Asian Texts

So much of the extant Pali literature stems from Sri Lanka that texts from other areas are often categorized separately. The first significant Burmese texts seem to have been written in the 11th Century, and the first Thai texts even later. Included in the significant texts created in Burma and Thailand are instructional texts similar to the handbooks listed above, as well as historical chronicles and apocrypha from Thailand. The apocryphal texts include some interesting items; local folk tales recast as Jataka, monks visiting heaven and hell, and a couple of obviously later works claiming to be part of the Sutta Pitaka.

Alphabet and Pronunciation

It is generally believed that Pali has never had its own alphabet. I have seen one volume claiming to describe what was the 'original' Pali alphabet, which appeared as a very simplified Devanagari alphabet, consisting mostly of combinations of simple circles and lines. I have never seen this information confirmed in any other tome, and can't recall the name of either book or author.

This theoretical original alphabet, if it ever existed, was certainly never in use in the Pali Canon. From the earliest days, Pali has been written down using the characters of the local language- first the Devanagari-based alphabet in Sri Lanka, and later the scripts of Burma and Thailand. Since the early days of the 20th Century, when the Pali Text Society began distributing and translating texts, Romanization became common, and as the study of Pali and Buddhism has expanded in the West, has gained greater influence. Today, most students of Pali learn the language through study of the Romanized texts, and later learn other scripts- usually in combination with learning the local languages.

However it is written down or composed, the Pali language is considered to have 41 letters- 8 vowels and 33 consonants. Three of the vowels are long, three short, and two of are of middle length. Unfortunately, there remains some variance among the transliteration methods. The one used below is generally accepted in scholarly publications in the West, but you may see terms written down quite differently in some sources. Fortunately, the variation is less and more easily figured out than that between the Chinese systems.

Below, the Romanized forms of the letters, as well as their associated sounds, are given. The letters are given in two forms: the first is a Unicode format that combines the diacritical mark with the character, and the second is the commonly accepted ASCII transcription method, which uses doubled characters and interspersed dots (.) and tildes (~) to represent the presence of diacriticals. This system, called the Velthius scheme, is often used on the Pali mailing lists to correctly represent the characters in plain text. In less technical discussions (such as most Pali and Sanskrit related nodes on E2), the diacriticals are simply dropped.

Note that the characters are in the order that they appear in a Pali-English dictionary, rather than according to their English equivalents. It's good to know, if you ever would like to quickly look things up.

Character ... ASCII Transliteration ... Pronunciation
a ... a ... as 'u' in cut
ā ... aa ...as 'a' in father
i ... i ... as 'i' in mill
ī ... ii ...as 'ee' in bee
u ... u ... as 'u' in put
e ... e ... as 'e' in bed, but long; before two consonants, it should be pronounced short.
o ... o ... as 'o' in more; before two consonants, it is the same sound but short.
k ... k ... as 'k' in kite
kh ... kh ... as 'k' above, but more strongly aspirated (like "buck-horn")
g ... g ... as 'g' in good, never as the soft 'g' in gent
gh ... gh ... as 'g' above, but aspirated (like "dog-house")
c ... c ... as 'ch' in church
ch ... ch ... as 'c' above, but more strongly aspirated (like "church-hall")
j ... j ... as 'j' in jam
jh ... jh ... as 'j' above, but aspirated (like . . . well, something.)
ñ ... ~n ... as the Spanish ñ in mañana, or the English 'ny' in canyon
ṭ ... .t ... as 't' in hat
ṭh ... .th ... as 'ṭ' above, but hard and more strongly aspirated.
ḍ ... .d ... as 'd' in good
t ... t ... as 'th' in thumb
th ... th ... as 't' but strongly aspirated (like "hot-house")
d ... d ... as 'th' in they or as 'd' in dull.
dh ... dh ... as English 'd' above but aspirated (like "heard-hearted")
n ... n ... as 'n' in now
p ... p ... as 'p in push
ph ... ph ... as 'p' above, but more strongly aspirated (like "flop-house"), never as 'phone'
b ... b ... as 'b' in bake
bh ... bh ... as 'b' above, but aspirated (like "slab-head" (yeah, made that one up))
m ... m ... as 'm' in me
y ... y ... as 'y' in yes
r ... r ... as 'r' in rich
l ... l ... as 'l' in light
v ... v ... as 'v' in vowel (sometimes as 'w', either in all positions or when combined with another consonant. This pronunciation seems to be the one used by most speakers of the language.)
s ... s ... as 's' in sign
h ... h ... as 'h' in hot. May have been a voiced sound in ancient times, but the proper pronunciation is now lost.

The characters below are not used to begin words, and so appear in arbitrary order:

ḷ ... .l ... as 'l' in light
ṃ ... .m ... as 'ng' in sing. This consonant is used to indicate that the vowel proceeding it should be nasalized (pronounced "through the nose")
ṅ ... "n ...as 'ng' in singer
ṇ ... .n ... as 'n' in now
ḍh ... .dh ... as 'ḍ' above, but hard and more strongly aspirated.
ū ... uu ...as 'oo' in cool

From this guidelines, working out a sort of generic pronunciation is quite simple. Note that doubled consonants are each pronounced individually. Also, the strongly aspirated forms of consonants (e.g. 'kh', 'ph') are meant to be pronounced with an audible puff of air- the aspiration should be made quite obvious. There are significant regional variations in how Pali is pronounced; Thai speakers will tend to substitute Thai words borrowed from the Pali ('thamma' instead of 'dhamma', for instance), and the accent will sound distinctly Thai. Sri Lankan pronunciations are usually considered most standard, as the are supposed to be closest to the original language.


Without descending into tables of declension and conjugation, I will attempt to give an overview of Pali grammar. Pali grammar is closely linked with that of Sanskrit; many university programs prefer that one learn Sanskrit first, as it makes learning Pali quite simple. One friend who had studied both claimed that learning Pali consisted of learning Sanskrit and then forgetting a few things.

Nouns are one of three genders: male, female, or neuter. They are declined according to their ending, gender, and plurality in order to indicate the function of a particular noun in the sentence. There are eight different declensions. Nouns may be used in ways that seem to defy the regular understanding of grammar- in place of verbs, adjectives, or adverbs. Definite and indefinite articles are not used with nouns, though occasionally a pronoun or the word for 'one' is used for a similar purpose.

There are many compound nouns in Pali, and often there is no clear English equivalent for these terms- they simply encompass too many meanings. This often results in the loss of significant meaning when Pali is translated to simply. Additionally, positive meanings are often indicated by the negation of negative terms- literally including terms like 'lacking cruelty' or 'free from ill-will' rather than 'compassion' or 'good will'.

Verbs in Pali are conjugated much like verbs in Sanskrit or Latin-derived languages. Verbs are usually provided in the third-person singular, and are conjugated by adding endings to the root. Verbs are often used in certain passive forms. Forms of 'to be' are often omitted, particularly in compound subjects (giving rise to sentences that translate like 'the priest (who is) the minister speaks to the noble (who is) the king').

Sentence structure is somewhat flexible in Pali. Since the function of a noun is indicated by its declension rather than position, it is possible to write (and sometimes read!) the same sentence several ways. Verbs usually come at the end of the sentence. Very little punctuation is used; quotations are usually indicated only by the addition of the particle 'ti' at the end of the quote. Text if often addressed to the reader through the repeated use of the vocative case to begin the sentence (this is why one often sees "O monks!", or "O (foolish|wise) man!" at the start of a line in Pali translations).

In addition to nouns and verbs, two other classes of words were recognized by Pali grammarians: prefixes and indeclinables. Prefixes combine with other roots and with one another to create new words; the verb 'to approach', for instance, is a combination of two prefixes, upa (meaning 'toward'), sam (meaning 'together') and the root kam (meaning 'walk'). Prefixes may take slightly different forms depending on the consonent or vowel they adjoin, but do not change with conjugation.

Indeclinables are a (relatively) small number of words that do not change in response to number, person, or use (they have no 'declensions', thus the name- it isn't that they make you offers that you can't refuse!). Common indeclineables are translated as 'so' or 'thus', or indicate quotation.

Ancient grammarians held that all of Pali could be 'derived' through the combination of these four elements. Any Pali sentence was simply a combination of of nouns, prefixes, verbs, and indeclinables, any one of which could itself be a compound element. This idea is very similiar to Panini's construction of Sanskrit (and was probably borrowed from it- most traditional Pali grammers postdate Panini's formalization of Classical Sanskrit), but to my knowledge was never formalized to the point of creating some sort of general generative grammer to describe Pali.


Many of the most used works in the study of Pali have remained the same since they were introduced by the Pali Text Society and T.W Rhys Davids and others in the early 20th Century. Some new introductory texts have been produced since, in response to renewed Western interest in the language and Buddhism, as well as numerous articles in scholastic journals and specialized academic works. Many of these books are not readily available from your local bookshop; many are or were originally published in India or Sri Lanka. The Pali Text Society sells texts by the web and by mail order, and through its distributor, Pariyatti Book Service (which also carries texts from the Buddhist Publication Society. Academic book stores, such as those affiliated with or run by your local university, can usually order them as well, as can specialized foreign language bookstores (such as Schoenhoff's in Boston).

Introductory Works
  • Budhadatta Thera*, The New Pali Course, Vol. 1-2 (Columbo 4th and 6th ed., 1954-62). Basic introduction with exercises, written by a Sri Lankan monk who taught Pali at Ananda College in Sri Lanka.
  • Budhadatta Thera, The Higher Pali Course for Advanced Students (The Columbo Apothecaries' Co., Ltd, Columbo, 1951). Focuses on syntactical problems, and irregular conjugations and declentions.
  • Budhadatta Thera, Aides to Pali Conversation and Translation, (Piyaratna, Ambbangoda, no date given). Examples of letters, essays, and other modern written forms in Pali, as well as instruction in conversation in Pali, a practice still maintained by some Theravada monks.
  • Narada Thera's An Elementary Pali Course is available through a couple of web sites, as a HTML document or in Microsoft Word format. It is a complete beginning course in Pali that moves a bit faster than de Silva's Primer, and covers a more in-depth range of topics. It is a little brief in its explanations in a few places, but the grammar is quite complete, and there are several large text passages included for translation, with vocabulary.
  • de Silva, M.A, Pali Primer, (Vipassana Research Institute, Maharashtra, India, 1994-1995). Basic introductory text, centered on short translation exercises. Less in-depth than the Warder book- sometimes recommended to those with little or no experience in ancient languages, though Warder may be equally appropriate.
  • Warder, A.K, Introduction to Pali (Pali Text Society, London, 1963). The standard text for learning Pali in the West. Very thorough and well designed, covers a broader range and depth than the Pali Primer.
  • Budhadatta Mahathera, Concise Pali-English Dictionary (U. Chandradasa de Silva, Colombo 2nd ed. 1968). Much smaller (and more affordable!) than the Rhys Davids dictionary, and aimed at the student. Written by a monk, it focuses on the meanings of Pali terms as they are traditionally conceived in the Theravada tradition, but makes note of modern Western interpretations as well. Probably the best choice for beginners learning the language.
  • Buddhadata Mahathera, English-Pali Dictionary (Pali Text Society, Colombo, 1955). The companion volume to Buddhadata Mahathera's Aides to Conversation, this dictionary provides Pali equivalents to English terms, including Pali forms of modern terms that do not exist in the ancient language. Primarily of use to those seeking to create new works in Pali, such as essays or commentaries. There are other dictionaries of this type available, but most of them list Pali terms in Sinhalese or Burmese script, making them less useful to Westerners not familiar with those languages.
  • Rhys Davids, T.W. and Stede, W. (Eds.) Pali-English Dictionary (Pali Text Society, London, 1921). The comprehensive standard, representing more than 20 years effort on the part of T.W Rhys Davids. Contains every Pali word to be found in the Tipitaka as well as many of the associated commentaries and non-canonical and para-canonical texts, with English definitions and Sanskrit roots, as well as over 1.5 million textual references. Originally issued in four volumes, this text remains the standard for scholars of Pali, but is a bit outside the price range and load-bearing capacity of most students. A cornerstone of any institution that purports to teach Pali or Theravada Buddhism. Fortunately for the rest of us, this resource is now available online through the University of Chicago. See 'online resources' below. While comprehensive, the PED is not without its flaws; it was created by linguists interested more in philology than epistemology and meaning. Thus, attention is lavished on minor terms with interesting entymologies, while concepts that are philosophically more complex and cover a greater range of meaning are sometimes given short shrift.
  • Duroiselle, Charles. A Practical Grammar of the Pali Language, 3rd. Edition, 1997. Origonally composed in 1906(!), this text is long out of print. However, in 1997 it was OCR'ed by a Burmese monk and turned into a PDF document. It is now available on the Internet from a couple of sources, and is perhaps the finest argument I've ever seen for copyright limitations.
  • Geiger, W., Pali: Literature and Language (Univ. of Calcutta, 1943, and Delgi 1968; originally published in German in 1916 as 'Grundriss der Indo-Arsichen Philologie und Altertumskunde'). Historical examination of the phonology and morphology of the language, with a brief section on Pali literature.
  • Mayrhofer, Manfred, Handbuch des Pali, Vol. I-II (Carl Winter, Heidelberg, 1951). Comparative examination of Pali grammar and structure. Second volume contains a selection of texts, and a compiled vocabulary. One gets the impression that this work is written in German; I have not seen it myself.
Text Collections
  • Andersen, D., A Pali Reader, Vol. I-II (Copenhagen and Leipzig, revised ed. 1907-17, Reprint: Kyoto, 1968). Volume one consists primarily of stories from the Jataka; volume two includes a vocabulary for the texts in I and the Dhammapada.
  • Horner, I.B., Ten Jataka Stories (Luzac and Co., Ltd., London, 1957). Includes texts from the Jataka in Pali, and translations of these texts. No grammar or vocabulary are provided.
  • Johansson, Rune E.A., Pali Buddhist Texts (Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, published by Curzon Press, Surrey, 1981). Aimed at the early learner, and focused on conveying key Buddhist concepts while teaching grammar and vocabulary. Includes grammar overview, vocabulary and translation for each selection, and a comparative chapter explaining commonalties and differences between Pali and Sanskrit. Includes explanations of some of the concepts presented in the readings, which are selected from a variety of Pali sources, including the Jataka, the Tipitaka, and the Visuddhimagga of Buddhaghosa.
  • Radhakrishnan, S., The Dhammapada, with Introductory Essays, Pali Text, English Translation and Notes (Oxford Univ. Press, London, 1950). For more advanced students, an opportunity to take a crack at the best known and most-read text of the Pali Cannon. Substantial analysis and explanation of the text included, but no vocabulary.
Histories and Literature Guides
  • von Hinuber, Oskar, A Handbook of Pali Literature (Walter de Gruyter &Co., Berlin, 1996). A survey of the available Pali literature, with descriptions of the contents and history of the texts of the Tipitaka, as well as the existing Pali histories, commentaries, and other texts. Also includes a general overview of the history of the Pali language, and its scholarship in the modern era. Notes on available translations and where Romanized editions are and aren't present are made, and the book includes an extensive bibliography of books and journal articles regarding Pali is included. Von Hinuber's footnotes, which are often humorously disparaging of other scholarship in the field, are an amusing read on their own (if occasionally cranky).
  • Norman, K.R., Pali Literature Including the Canonical Literature in Prakrit and Sanskrit of all Hinayana Schools of Buddhism (Wiesbaden, A History of Indian Literature VII/2, 1983). A general survey of Pali literature, similar to that of von Hinuber, but more precise and focusing primarily on works available in Romanized editions. An appendix of additions and corrections was published in 1994 in the Journal of Pali and Buddhist Studies. Kenneth Roy Norman is one of the heavy hitters in the world of Pali scholasticism.
  • Pind, O., "Studies in the Pali Grammarians", two parts, in Journal of the Pali Text Society vols. 13-14 (1989,1990). A study of the linguistic works available in Pali, primarily the ancient grammars and their authors. Likely of interest to linguists.
Miscellanious Works
  • Nanamoli, Bhikkhu, Introduction in Visuddhimagga: The Path of Purification (Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 1999)
  • Prebish, Charles S. (Ed.), Buddhism: A Modern Perspective, (Penn. State University Press, Pennsylvania, 1994). A collection of short chapters covering a wide varieties of Buddhist-related topics from a historical and textual perspective. Chapters on the early Hinayana schools and the Tipitaka are particularly relevant.
  • Various Authors, The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen (Shambhala, Boston, 1991). Definitions and short articles on a wide variety of reference topics.
Bibliographic Notes

The format and organization and many of the works in this bibliography were suggested by the bibliography given in Johansson's Pali Buddhist Texts. Oskar von Hinuber's bibliography also provided sources, as did my own collection of books. Often, the publication information for these works is incomplete or confusing; many were published in small batches, overseas, by a variety of unusual organizations and publishers (the Higher Pali Course seems to be published by a pharmacist's' association. . .)and were not provided proper bibliographic information at their time of publication. The Pali Text Society is the most reliable and organized source of information relating to the language, and the aide of a good research librarian doesn't hurt if your serious.

*Buddhadatta Thera is variously listed as: Buddhadatta Thera, Buddhadata Mahathera, A.P. Buddhadatta Mahathera, A.P. Buddhadatta, and (possibly) P. Buddhadatta. As both Thera and Mahathera are monastic titles rather than a name, and as A.P. Buddhadatta's literary career spanned over 50 years, it is possible that the confusion arises from actual changes in how he was addressed over the years. He should be, and usually is, cited by his Pali monastic name, Buddhadatta (that is to say, citations of his work are found in the 'B' section of a library catalogue or bibliography, rather than under 'T' or 'M').

Online Resources

Ah, the joys of the Internet. There are now numerous resources available on the Web for learning and studying Pali, and finding obscure foreign volumes dealing with Pali are much easier to acquire thanks to web-based specialty distributors. A few of the most well known (and most likely to be around for a while) appear here. Two excellent complete books that are available online are mentioned in the bibliography above.

  • Access to Insight, at www.accesstoinsight.org. Information on learning Pali (located at the above URL /pali/)), and links to Pali resources and sellers of Theravada- and Pali-related books, as well as numerous examples of well-translated Pali to be found in the sutta collections.
  • The Pali Text Society's Pali-English Dictionary (the PED) Online, at http://dsal.uchicago.edu/dictionaries/pali/index.html. Unicode enabled, with all errata and corrections to the original applied. Hosted by the University of Chicago. Some difficulty in searching with diacritical marks, but nonetheless, the finest Pali dictionary in the world available for free from anywhere with a computer. Good deal.
  • Pariyatti Book Service, at www.pariyatti.com. Official distributors of the Pali Text Society and the Buddhist Publication Society in North America. Texts in Pali and English, as well as information on Vipassana meditation.
  • The Pali Text Society, at www.palitext.demon.co.uk/. The organization that kicked off the study of Pali in the Western world, and the number one source for Romanized Pali texts, as well as a complete translation of the Pali Canon and its commentaries (some of which is now looking a little dated after nearly 100 years).
  • Pali-Intro-L listserv. Once upon a time, there were two Pali listservs- an introductory list for learners, and another list for more scholastic discussions. Currently, there appears to only be the intro list, Pali-Intro-L. It is hosted at newciv.org, currently, and administered by Majordomo. Information can be found at orunla.org/tm/pali/mlist.html. A number of notable scholars of the language and of Buddhism generally have occasion to post from time to time- even on the beginners list, I've seen a few names that have shown up on the spines of my books. . .

Pa"li (?), n.,

pl. of Palus.


© Webster 1913.

Pa"li (?), n. [Ceylonese, fr. Skr. pali row, line, series, applied to the series of Buddhist sacred texts.]

A dialect descended from Sanskrit, and like that, a dead language, except when used as the sacred language of the Buddhist religion in Farther India, etc.


© Webster 1913.

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