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Pali (ISO 15919/ALA-LC: Pāḷi) is a Middle Indo-Aryan language or prakrit of India. It is best known as the language of the earliest extant Buddhist canon, the Pāi Tipitaka or Pāi Canon, and as the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism. Pali has since been written in a variety of scripts, from the Brahmic family scripts through to a romanised form devised with the research and contributions of Robert Caesar Childers and T. W. Rhys Davids, both of the Pali Text Society.

Origin and development

The word Pali itself signifies "line" or "(canonical) text", and this name for the language seems to have its origins in commentarial traditions, wherein the "" (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" [ɑː] and short "a" [a], and also with either a retroflex [ɭ] or non-retroflex [l] "l" sound. To this day, there is no single, standard spelling of the term; all four spellings can be found in textbooks. R.C. Childers translates the word as "series" and states that the language "bears the epithet in consequence of the perfection of its grammatical structure.

Pali is a literary language of the Prakrit language family. When the canonical texts were written down in Sri Lanka in the first century BCE, Pali stood close to a living language; this is not the case for the commentaries. Despite excellent scholarship on this problem, there is persistent confusion as to the inter-relation of to the vernacular spoken in the ancient kingdom of Magadha (which most scholars agree to have been located around modern-day Bihār, though some have recently claimed that it may have gotten that name after the Ashokan era and that ancient Magadha may have possibly been in the northwest of ancient India, in Baluchistan).

Pali as a Middle Indo-Aryan language is different from Sanskrit not so much with regard to the time of its origin than as to its dialectal base, since a number of its morphological and lexical features betray the fact that it is not a direct continuation of Vedic Sanskrit; rather it descends from a dialect (or a number of dialects) which was (/were), despite many similarities, different from .

Pali was considered by early Buddhists to be linguistically similar to Old Magadhi or even a direct continuation of that language. Many Theravada sources refer to the Pali language as “Magadhan” or the “language of Magadha.” This seems to be problematic, as the later form of Magadhi of Asoka's inscriptions (3rd century BC) is an Eastern Indian language whereas Pali most closely resembles Western Indian inscriptions. Ancient Magadha may, however, have been in the West of ancient India after all. There are many remarkable analogies between Pali and Ardhamagadhi (Half Magadhi), an old form of Magadhi preserved in ancient Jain texts. Ardhamagadhi differs from the eastern Prakrit of Ashokan inscriptions on similar points as Pali. For example, Ardhamagadhi too does not change r into l, and in the noun inflexion it shows the ending -o instead of the eastern Prakritic -e at least in many metrical places. This similarity is not accidental, since Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankara of Jainism preached in the same area (Magadha) as Buddha Gotama.

T.W. Rhys Davids in his book Buddhist India, and Wilhelm Geiger in his book Pali Literature and Language suggested that Pali may have originated as a form of lingua franca or common language of culture among people who used differing dialects in North India, used at the time of the Buddha and employed by him. Another scholar states that at that time it was "a refined and elegant vernacular of all Aryan-speaking people. Modern scholarship has not arrived at a consensus on the issue; there are a variety of conflicting theories with supporters and detractors (taking as given that Magadha was an eastern district). After the death of the Buddha, Pali may have evolved among Buddhists out of the language of the Buddha as a new artificial language. Bhikkhu Bodhi, summarizing the current state of scholarship, states that the language is "closely related to the language (or, more likely, the various regional dialects) that the Buddha himself spoke." He goes on to write:

Scholars regard this language as a hybrid showing features of several Prakrit dialects used around the third century BCE, subjected to a partial process of Sanskritization. While the language is not identical with any the Buddha himself would have spoken, it belongs to the same broad linguistic family as those he might have used and originates from the same conceptual matrix. This language thus reflects the thought-world that the Buddha inherited from the wider Indian culture into which he was born, so that its words capture the subtle nuances of that thought-world.

Whatever the relationship of the Buddha's speech to Pali, the Canon was eventually transcribed and preserved entirely in it, while the commentarial tradition that accompanied it (according to the information provided by Buddhaghosa) was translated into Sinhalese and preserved in local languages for several generations. R.C. Childers, who held to the theory that Pali was Old Magadhi, wrote: "Had Gautama never preached, it is unlikely that Magadhese would have been distinguished from the many other vernaculars of Hindustan, except perhaps by an inherent grace and strength which make it a sort of Tuscan among the Prakrits.

However Pali was ultimately supplanted in India by Sanskrit as a literary and religious language following the formulation of Classical Sanskrit by the scholar Panini. In Sri Lanka, Pali is thought to have entered into a period of decline ending around the 4th or 5th Century (as Sanskrit rose in prominence), but ultimately survived. The work of Buddhaghosa was largely responsible for its reemergence as an important scholarly language in Buddhist thought. The Visuddhimagga and the other commentaries that Buddhaghosa compiled codified and condensed the Sinhalese commentarial tradition that had been preserved and expanded in Sri Lanka since the 3rd Century BCE.

Today Pali is studied mainly to gain access to Buddhist scriptures, and is frequently chanted in a ritual context. The secular literature of Pali historical chronicles, 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 (Burma), Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. 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 Pali by Western scholars since its founding in 1881. Based in the United Kingdom, the society publishes romanized Pali editions, along with many English translations of these sources. In 1869, the first Pali Dictionary was published using the research of Robert Caesar Childers, one of the founding members of the Pali Text Society. It was the first Pali translated text in English and was published in 1872. Childers's Dictionary later received the Volney Prize in 1876.

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 Pali manuscripts, and major traditions of Pali studies.


Virtually every word in has cognates in the other Prakritic "Middle Indo-Aryan languages", e.g., the Jain Prakrits. The relationship to earlier Sanskrit (e.g., Vedic language) is less direct and more complicated. Historically, influence between Pali and Sanskrit has been felt in both directions. The Pali language's resemblance to Sanskrit is often exaggerated by comparing it to later Sanskrit compositions which were written centuries after Sanskrit ceased to be a living language, and are influenced by developments in Middle Indic, including the direct borrowing of a portion of the Middle Indic lexicon; whereas, a good deal of later Pali technical terminology has been borrowed from the vocabulary of equivalent disciplines in Sanskrit, either directly or with certain phonological adaptations.

Post-canonical Pali also possesses a few loan-words from local languages where Pali was used (e.g. Sri Lankans adding Sinhalese words to Pali). These usages differentiate the Pali found in the from later compositions such as the Pali commentaries on the canon and folklore (e.g., the stories of the Jātaka commentaries), and comparative study (and dating) of texts on the basis of such loan-words is now a specialized field unto itself.

Pali was not exclusively used to convey the teachings of the Buddha, as can be deduced from the existence of a number of secular texts, such as books of medical science/instruction, in Pali. However, scholarly interest in the language has been focused upon religious and philosophical literature, because of the unique window it opens on one phase in the development of Buddhism.

Emic views of Pali

Although Sanskrit was said, in brahmanical tradition, to be the unchanging language spoken by the gods, in which each word had an inherent significance, this view of language was not shared in the early Buddhist tradition, in which words were only conventional and mutable signs. Neither the Buddha nor his early followers shared the brahmans' reverence for the Vedic language or its sacred texts. This view of language naturally extended to Pali, and may have contributed to its usage (as an approximation or standardization of local Middle Indic dialects) in place of Sanskrit. However, by the time of the compilation of the Pali commentaries (4th or 5th century), Pali was regarded as the natural language, the root language of all beings.

Comparable to Ancient Egyptian, Latin or Hebrew in the mystic traditions of the West, Pali recitations were often thought to have a supernatural power (which could be attributed to their meaning, the character of the reciter, or the qualities of the language itself), and in the early strata of Buddhist literature we can already see Pali s used as charms, e.g. against the bite of snakes. Many people in Theravada cultures still believe that taking a vow in Pali has a special significance, and, as one example of the supernatural power assigned to chanting in the language, the recitation of the vows of are believed to alleviate the pain of childbirth in Sri Lanka. In Thailand, the chanting of a portion of the 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.



Height Backness
Front Central Back
High i [i] ī [iː] u [u] ū [uː]
Mid e [e], [eː] a [ɐ] o [o], [oː]
Low ā [aː]

Long and short vowels are only contrastive in open syllables; in closed syllables, all vowels are always short. Short and long e and o are in complementary distribution: the short variants occur only in closed syllables, the long variants occur only in open syllables. Short and long e and o are therefore not distinct phonemes.

A sound called anusvāra (Skt.; Pali: nigghahita), represented by the letter (ISO 15919) or (ALA-LC) in romanization, and by a raised dot in most traditional alphabets, originally marked the fact that the preceding vowel was nasalized. That is, , and represented [ã ], [ĩ ] and [ũ ]. In many traditional pronunciations, however, the anusvāra is pronounced more strongly, like the velar nasal [ŋ ], so that these sounds are pronounced instead [ãŋ ], [ĩŋ ] and [ũŋ ]. However pronounced, never follows a long vowel; ā, ī and ū are converted to the corresponding short vowels when is added to a stem ending in a long vowel, e.g. becomes , not , becomes , not *.


The table below lists the consonants of Pali. In bold is the letter in traditional romanisation, in brackets is its pronunciation in the IPA.

Place of articulation Manner of articulation
Stops Approximants Fricatives
Voiceless Voiced Non-laterals Laterals
Unaspirated Aspirated Unaspirated Aspirated Nasal Unaspirated Aspirated Unaspirated Aspirated
Velars k [k] kh [kʰ] g [ɡ] gh [ɡʱ] [ŋ]
Palatals c [tʃ] ch[tʃʰ] j [dʒ] jh [dʒʱ] ñ [ɲ] y [j]
Retroflex [ʈ] ṭh [ʈʰ] [ɖ] ḍh [ɖʱ] [ɳ] r[ɻ] [ɭ] ḷh [ɭʱ]
Dentals t [t̪] th [t̪ʰ] d [d̪] dh [d̪ʱ] n [n̪]
Alveolars l [l] s [s]
Bilabials p [p] ph [pʰ] b [b] bh [bʱ] m [m]
Labiodentals v [ʋ]
Glottals h [h]

The sounds listed above, except for , and ḷh are distinct phonemes in Pali. only occurs before velar stops. and ḷh are allophones of and ḍh when they occur singly between vowels.


Pali is a highly inflected language, in which almost every word contains, besides the root conveying the basic meaning, one or more affixes (usually suffixes) which modify the meaning in some way. Nouns are inflected for gender, number, and case; verbal inflections convey information about person, number, tense and mood.

Nominal inflection

Pali nouns inflect for three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, neuter) and two numbers (singular, and plural). The nouns also, in principle, display eight cases: nominative or paccatta case, vocative, accusative or upayoga case, instrumental or case, dative or sampadāna case, ablative, genitive or sāmin case, and locative or bhumma case; however, in many instances, two or more of these cases are identical in form; this is especially true of the genitive and dative cases.


a-stems, whose uninflected stem ends in short a (/ə/), are either masculine or neuter. The masculine and neuter forms differ only in the nominative, vocative, and accusative cases.

Masculine (loka- "world") Neuter (yāna- "carriage")
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative loko lokā yānāni
Vocative loka
Accusative loke
Instrumental lokena lokehi yānena yānehi
Ablative lokā (lokamhā, lokasmā; lokato) yānā (yānamhā, yānasmā; yānato)
Dative lokassa (lokāya) yānassa (yānāya)
Genitive lokassa yānassa
Locative loke lokesu yāne yānesu


Nouns ending in ā (/aː/) are almost always feminine.

Feminine (kathā- "story")
Singular Plural
Nominative kathā kathāyo
Vocative kathe
Instrumental kathāya kathāhi
Locative kathāya, kathāsu

i-stems and u-stems

i-stems and u-stems are either masculine or neuter. The masculine and neuter forms differ only in the nominative and accusative cases. The vocative has the same form as the nominative.

Masculine (isi- "seer") Neuter (akkhi- "eye")
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative isi isayo, isī akkhi, akkhī, akkhīni
Instrumental isinā isihi, isīhi akkhinā akkhihi, akkhīhi
Ablative isinā, isito akkhinā, akkhito
Dative isino akkhino
Genitive isissa, isino akkhissa, akkhino
Locative isisu, isīsu akkhisu, akkhīsu

Masculine (bhikkhu- "monk") Neuter (cakkhu- "eye")
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative bhikkhu bhikkhavo, bhikkhū cakkhūni
Instrumental bhikkhunā bhikkhūhi cakkhunā cakkhūhi
Dative bhikkhuno cakkhuno
Genitive bhikkhussa, bhikkhuno cakkhussa, cakkhuno
Locative bhikkhūsu cakkhūsu

Example of Pali with English translation

Manopubbaṅgamā dhammā, manoseṭṭhā manomayā;
Manasā ce paduṭṭhena, bhāsati vā karoti vā,
Tato nam dukkhaṁ anveti, cakkaṁ'va vahato padaṁ.

Element for element gloss

Mano-pubbaṅ-gam=ā dhamm=ā, mano-seṭṭh=ā mano-may=ā;,
Manas=ā ce paduṭṭh=ena, bhāsa=ti vā karo=ti vā, if either or,
Ta=to naṁ dukkhaṁ anv-e=ti, cakkaṁ 'va vahat=o pad=aṁ.
That=from him suffering, wheel as carrying(beast)

The three compounds in the first line literally mean:

manopubbaṅgama "whose precursor is mind", "having mind as a fore-goer or leader"
manoseṭṭha "whose foremost member is mind", "having mind as chief"
manomaya "consisting of mind" or "made by mind"

The literal meaning is therefore: "The dharmas have mind as their leader, mind as their chief, are made of/by mind. If [someone] either speaks or acts with a corrupted mind, from that [cause] suffering goes after him, as the wheel [of a cart follows] the foot of a draught animal."

A slightly freer translation by Acharya Buddharakkhita

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.

Pali and Sanskrit

Although Pali cannot be considered a direct descendant of either Classical Sanskrit or of the older Vedic dialect, the languages are obviously very closely related and the common characteristics of Pali and Sanskrit were always easily recognized by those in India who were familiar with both. Indeed, a very large proportion of Pali and Sanskrit word-stems are identical in form, differing only in details of inflection.

The connections were sufficiently well-known that technical terms from Sanskrit were easily converted into Pali by a set of conventional phonological transformations. These transformations mimicked a subset of the phonological developments that had occurred in Proto-Pali. Because of the prevalence of these transformations, it is not always possible to tell whether a given Pali word is a part of the old Prakrit lexicon, or a transformed borrowing from Sanskrit. The existence of a Sanskrit word regularly corresponding to a Pali word is not always secure evidence of the Pali etymology, since, in some cases, artificial Sanskrit words were created by back-formation from Prakrit words.

The following phonological processes are not intended as an exhaustive description of the historical changes which produced Pali from its Old Indic ancestor, but rather are a summary of the most common phonological equations between Sanskrit and Pali, with no claim to completeness.

Vowels and diphthongs

  • Sanskrit ai and au always monophthongize to Pali e and o, respectively

Examples: maitrīmettā, auṣadhaosadha

  • Sanskrit aya and ava likewise often reduce to Pali e and o

Examples: dhārayatidhāreti, avatāraotāra, bhavatihoti

  • Sanskrit avi becomes Pali e (i.e. aviaie)

Example: sthavirathera

  • Sanskrit appears in Pali as a, i or u, often agreeing with the vowel in the following syllable. also sometimes becomes u after labial consonants.

Examples: kṛtakata, tṛṣṇataṇha, smṛtisati, ṛṣiisi, dṛṣṭidiṭṭhi, ṛddhiiddhi, ṛjuuju, spṛṣṭaphuṭṭha, vṛddhavuddha

  • Sanskrit long vowels are shortened before a sequence of two following consonants.

Examples: kṣāntikhanti, rājyarajja, īśvaraissara, tīrṇatiṇṇa, pūrvapubba


Sound changes

  • The Sanskrit sibilants ś, , and s merge together as Pali s

Examples: śaraṇasaraṇa, doṣadosa

  • The Sanskrit stops and ḍh become and ḷh between vowels (as in Vedic)

Example: cakravāḍacakkavāḷa, virūḍhavirūḷha


General rules

  • Many assimilations of one consonant to a neighboring consonant occurred in the development of Pali, producing a large number of geminate (double) consonants. Since aspiration of a geminate consonant is only phonetically detectable on the last consonant of a cluster, geminate kh, gh, ch, jh, ṭh, ḍh, th, dh, ph and bh appear as kkh, ggh, cch, jjh, ṭṭh, ḍḍh, tth, ddh, pph and bbh, not as khkh, ghgh etc.
  • When assimilation would produce a geminate consonant (or a sequence of unaspirated stop+aspirated stop) at the beginning of a word, the initial geminate is simplified to a single consonant.

Examples: prāṇapāṇa (not ppāṇa), sthavirathera (not tthera), dhyānajhāna (not jjhāna), jñātiñāti (not ññāti)

  • When assimilation would produce a sequence of three consonants in the middle of a word, geminates are simplified until there are only two consonants in sequence.

Examples: uttrāsauttāsa (not utttāsa), mantramanta (not mantta), indrainda (not indda), vandhyavañjha (not vañjjha)

  • The sequence vv resulting from assimilation changes to bb

Example: sarva → savva → sabba, pravrajati → pavvajati → pabbajati, divya → divva → dibba
Total assimilation
Total assimilation, where one sound becomes identical to a neighboring sound, is of two types: progressive, where the assimilated sound becomes identical to the following sound; and regressive, where it becomes identical to the preceding sound.
=Progressive assimilations=

  • Internal visarga assimilates to a following voiceless stop or sibilant

Examples: duḥkṛtadukkata, duḥkhadukkha, duḥprajñaduppañña, niḥkrodha (=niṣkrodha) → nikkodha, niḥpakva (=niṣpakva) → nippakka, niḥśokanissoka, niḥsattvanissatta

  • In a sequence of two dissimilar Sanskrit stops, the first stop assimilates to the second stop

Examples: vimuktivimutti, dugdhaduddha, utpādauppāda, pudgalapuggala, udghoṣaugghosa, adbhutaabbhuta, śabdasadda

  • In a sequence of two dissimilar nasals, the first nasal assimilates to the second nasal

Example: unmattaummatta, pradyumnapajjunna

  • j assimilates to a following ñ (i.e., becomes ññ)

Examples: prajñāpaññā, jñātiñāti

  • The Sanskrit liquid consonants r and l assimilate to a following stop, nasal, sibilant, or v

Examples: mārgamagga, karmakamma, varṣavassa, kalpakappa, sarva → savva → sabba

  • r assimilates to a following l

Examples: durlabhadullabha, nirlopanillopa

  • d sometimes assimilates to a following v, producing vv → bb

Examples: udvigna → uvvigga → ubbigga, dvādaśabārasa (beside dvādasa)

  • t and d may assimilate to a following s or y when a morpheme boundary intervenes

Examples: ut+savaussava, ud+yānauyyāna
=Regressive assimilations=

  • Nasals sometimes assimilate to a preceding stop (in other cases epenthesis occurs; see below)

Examples: agniaggi, ātmanatta, prāpnotipappoti, śaknotisakkoti

  • m assimilates to an initial sibilant

Examples: smaratisarati, smṛtisati

  • Nasals assimilate to a preceding stop+sibilant cluster, which then develops in the same way as such clusters without following nasals (see Partial assimilations below)

Examples: tīkṣṇa → tikṣa → tikkha, lakṣmī → lakṣī →lakkhī

  • The Sanskrit liquid consonants r and l assimilate to a preceding stop, nasal, sibilant, or v

Examples: prāṇapāṇa, grāmagāma, śrāvakasāvaka, agraagga, indrainda, pravrajati → pavvajati → pabbajati, aśruassu

  • y assimilates to preceding non-dental/retroflex stops or nasals

Examples: cyavaticavati, jyotiṣjoti, rājyarajja, matsya → macchya → maccha, lapsyate → lacchyate → lacchati, abhyāgataabbhāgata, ākhyātiakkhāti, saṁkhyāsaṅkhā (but also saṅkhyā), ramyaramma

  • y assimilates to preceding non-initial v, producing vv → bb

Example: divya → divva → dibba, veditavya → veditavva → veditabba, bhāvya → bhavva → bhabba

  • y and v assimilate to any preceding sibilant, producing ss

Examples: paśyatipassati, śyenasena, aśvaassa, īśvaraissara, kariṣyatikarissati, tasyatassa, svāminsāmī

  • v sometimes assimilates to a preceding stop

Examples: pakvapakka, catvāricattāri, sattvasatta, dhvajadhaja
Partial and mutual assimilation

  • Sanskrit sibilants before a stop assimilate to that stop, and if that stop is not already aspirated, it becomes aspirated; e.g. śc, st, ṣṭ and sp become cch, tth, ṭṭh and pph

Examples: paścātpacchā, astiatthi, stavathava, śreṣṭhaseṭṭha, aṣṭaaṭṭha, sparśaphassa

  • In sibilant-stop-liquid sequences, the liquid is assimilated to the preceding consonant, and the cluster behaves like sibilant-stop sequences; e.g. str and ṣṭr become tth and ṭṭh

Examples: śāstra → śasta → sattha, rāṣṭra → raṣṭa → raṭṭha

  • t and p become c before s, and the sibilant assimilates to the preceding sound as an aspirate (i.e., the sequences ts and ps become cch)

Examples: vatsavaccha, apsarasaccharā

  • A sibilant assimilates to a preceding k as an aspirate (i.e., the sequence kṣ becomes kkh)

Examples: bhikṣubhikkhu, kṣāntikhanti

  • Any dental or retroflex stop or nasal followed by y converts to the corresponding palatal sound, and the y assimilates to this new consonant, i.e. ty, thy, dy, dhy, ny become cc, cch, jj, jjh, ññ; likewise ṇy becomes ññ. Nasals preceding a stop that becomes palatal share this change.

Examples: tyajati → cyajati → cajati, satya → sacya → sacca, mithyā → michyā → micchā, vidyā → vijyā → vijjā, madhya → majhya → majjha, anya → añya → añña, puṇya → puñya → puñña, vandhya → vañjhya → vañjjha → vañjha

  • The sequence mr becomes mb, via the epenthesis of a stop between the nasal and liquid, followed by assimilation of the liquid to the stop and subsequent simplification of the resulting geminate.

Examples: āmra → ambra → amba, tāmratamba


An epenthetic vowel is sometimes inserted between certain consonant-sequences. As with , the vowel may be a, i, or u, depending on the influence of a neighboring consonant or of the vowel in the following syllable. i is often found near i, y, or palatal consonants; u is found near u, v, or labial consonants.

  • Sequences of stop + nasal are sometimes separated by a or u

Example: ratnaratana, padmapaduma (u influenced by labial m)

  • The sequence sn may become sin initially

Examples: snānasināna, snehasineha

  • i may be inserted between a consonant and l

Examples: kleśakilesa, glānagilāna, mlāyatimilāyati, ślāghatisilāghati

  • An epenthetic vowel may be inserted between an initial sibilant and r

Example: śrīsirī

  • The sequence ry generally becomes riy (i influenced by following y), but is still treated as a two-consonant sequence for the purposes of vowel-shortening

Example: ārya → arya → ariya, sūrya → surya → suriya, vīrya → virya → viriya

  • a or i is inserted between r and h

Example: arhatiarahati, garhāgarahā, barhiṣbarihisa

  • There is sporadic epenthesis between other consonant sequences

Examples: caityacetiya (not cecca), vajravajira (not vajja)

Other changes

  • Any Sanskrit sibilant before a nasal becomes a sequence of nasal followed by h, i.e. ṣṇ, sn and sm become ṇh, nh, and mh

Examples: tṛṣṇataṇha, uṣṇīṣauṇhīsa, asmiamhi

  • The sequence śn becomes ñh, due to assimilation of the n to the preceding palatal sibilant

Example: praśna → praśña → pañha

Examples: jihvājivhā, gṛhyagayha, guhyaguyha

  • h undergoes metathesis with a following nasal

Example: gṛhṇātigaṇhāti

  • y is geminated between e and a vowel

Examples: śreyasseyya, MaitreyaMetteyya

  • Voiced aspirates such as bh and gh on rare occasions become h

Examples: bhavatihoti, -ebhiṣ-ehi, laghulahu

  • Dental and retroflex sounds sporadically change into one another

Examples: jñānañāṇa (not ñāna), dahatiḍahati (beside Pali dahati) nīḍanīla (not nīḷa), sthānaṭhāna (not thāna), duḥkṛtadukkaṭa (beside Pali dukkata)


There are several notable exceptions to the rules above; many of them are common Prakrit words rather than borrowings from Sanskrit.

  • āryaayya (beside ariya)
  • gurugaru (adj.) (beside guru (n.))
  • puruṣapurisa (not purusa)
  • vṛkṣa → rukṣa → rukkha (not vakkha)

Pali writing

Pali alphabet with diacritics

Historically, the first written record of the Pali canon is believed to have been composed in Sri Lanka, based on a prior oral tradition. As per Mahavamsa, great chronicle of Sri Lanka, due to a major famine in the country Buddhist monks wrote down the Pali canon during the time of King Vattagamini in 100 BC. 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.

In Sri Lanka, Pali texts were recorded in Sinhala script. Other local scripts, most prominently Khmer, Burmese, and in modern times Thai (since 1893), Devanāgarī and Mongolian have been used to record Pali.

Since the 19th Century, Pali has also been written in the Roman script. An alternate scheme devised by Frans Velthuis allows for typing without diacritics using plain-ASCII methods, but is much less readable than the standard Rhys Davids system (see below).

The Pali alphabetical order is as follows:

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

ḷh, although a single sound, is written with ligature of and h.

Pali transliteration on computers

There are several fonts to use for Pali transliteration. However, older ASCII fonts such as Leedsbit PaliTranslit, Times_Norman, Times_CSX+, Skt Times, Vri RomanPali CN/CB etc., are not recommendable since they are not compatible with one another and technically out of date. On the contrary, fonts based on the Unicode standard are recommended because Unicode seems to be the future for all fonts and also because they are easily portable to one another.

However, not all Unicode fonts contain the necessary characters. To properly display all the diacritic marks used for romanized Pali (or for that matter, Sanskrit), a Unicode font must contain the following character ranges:

       * Basic Latin: U+0000 – U+007F
       * Latin-1 Supplement: U+0080 – U+00FF
       * Latin Extended-A: U+0100 – U+017F
       * Latin Extended-B: U+0180 – U+024F
       * Latin Extended Additional: U+1E00 – U+1EFF

The Pali Text Society recommends VU-Times and Gandhari Unicode for Windows and Linux Computers. And The Tibetan & Himalayan Digital Library recommends Times Ext Roman, and provides links to several of other Unicode diacritic fonts usable for typing Pali together with ratings and installation instructions. Moreover, an English Buddhist monk titled Bhikkhu Pesala provides some Pali Unicode fonts he has designed himself here, and some Pali keyboards for Windows XP here Further, the font section of Alanwood's Unicode Resources have links to several general purpose fonts that can be used for Pali typing if they cover the character ranges above.

Pali text in ASCII

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

The following table compares various conventional renderings and shortcut key assignments:

character ASCII rendering character name Unicode number key combination HTML code
ā aa a macron 61580 Alt+A ā
ī ii i macron 61620 Alt+I ī
ū uu u macron 61672 Alt+U ū
.m m dot-under ṁ
.n n dot-under 61686 Alt+N &#7751
ñ ~n n tilde 61590 Alt+Ctrl+N ñ
.t t dot-under 61642 Alt+T ṭ
.d d dot-under 61622 Alt+D ḍ
"n n dot-over 61626 Ctrl+N ṅ
.l l dot-under 61634 Alt+L ḷ


  • See entries for "Pali" (written by K. R. Norman of the Pali Text Society) and "India--Buddhism" in The Concise Encyclopedia of Language and Religion, (Sawyer ed.) ISBN 0080431674
  • Warder, A.K. (1991). Introduction to Pali. third edition, Pali Text Society.
  • de Silva, Lily (1994). Pali Primer. first edition, Vipassana Research Institute Publications.
  • Müller, Edward (1884,1995). Simplified Grammar of the Pali Language. Asian Educational Services.

Further reading

  • Gupta, K. M. (2006). Linguistic approach to meaning in Pali. New Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan. ISBN 8175741708
  • Müller, E. (2003). The Pali language: a simplified grammar. Trubner's collection of simplified grammars. London: Trubner. ISBN 1844530019
  • Oberlies, T., & Pischel, R. (2001). Pāli: a grammar of the language of the . Indian philology and South Asian studies, v. 3. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 3110167638
  • Hazra, K. L. (1994). Pāli language and literature: a systematic survey and historical study. Emerging perceptions in Buddhist studies, no. 4-5. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld. ISBN 812460004X
  • American National Standards Institute. (1979). American National Standard system for the romanization of Lao, Khmer, and Pali. New York: The Institute.
  • Russell Webb (ed.) An Analysis of the Pali Canon, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy; 1975, 1991 (see
  • Soothill, W. E., & Hodous, L. (1937). A dictionary of Chinese Buddhist terms: with Sanskrit and English equivalents and a Sanskrit-Pali index. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.

See also

External links

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