See A. C. Woolner, Introduction to Prakrit (2d ed. 1928, repr. 1986).
Prakrit is foremost a native term, designating "vernaculars" as opposed to Sanskrit. Some modern scholars follow this classification by including all Middle Indo-Aryan languages under the rubric of "Prakrits", while others emphasise the independent development of these languages, often separated from the history of Sanskrit by wide divisions of caste, religion, and geography.
The three Dramatic Prakrits - Sauraseni, Magadhi, Maharashtri, as well as Jain Prakrit each represent a distinct tradition of literature within the history of India. Other Prakrits are reported in old historical sources, but are no longer spoken (e.g., Paisaci).
Ardhamagadhi ("half Magadhi"), an archaic form of Magadhi which was used extensively to write Jain scriptures, is often considered to be the definitive form of Prakrit, while others are considered variants. For this reason, courses teaching "Prakrit" often teach Ardhamagadhi.
Pali (the language of Theravada Buddhism) tends to be treated as a special exception, as classical (Sanskrit) grammars do not consider it as a Prakrit per se, presumably for sectarian rather than linguistic reasons.
According to the dictionary of Monier Monier-Williams, the most frequent meanings of the Sanskrit term , from which our "prakrit" is derived, are "original, natural, normal" and the term is derived from , "making or placing before or at first, the original or natural form or condition of anything, original or primary substance". In linguistic terms, this is used in contrast with , "refined".
Virtually every Sanskrit student is taught that refinement of Sanskrit (to reverse much of middle-Indic influence from the standard language) was a process spanning many generations (traditionally more than a thousand years) until it was considered complete and perfect.
Some scholars restrict the Prakrits to the languages used by Hindu and Jain writers; others include the Buddhist languages, such as Pali and Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, and the inscriptional Prakrits. Other Prakrits include the Gāndhārī, and Paisāci, which is known through grammarians' statements. The modern languages of northern India developed from the Prakrits, after the intermediary stage of the Apabhramsa language.