Anatta or Anattā?

I’ve seen both: for instance, anatta in the Concise Pali-English Dictionary (Buddhadatta), but anattā in Wikipedia (though both forms appear on the page, with no explanation why). I know little about Pali, but have the impression that the ending is in some cases at least a plural for nouns and adjectives ending in -a. For instance, the line in the Dhammapada: Sabbe dhammā anattā”ti, where dhammā is plural, and anattā appears to agree with it. But when the word is used as a noun, denoting a principle (singular) in the Buddha’s teaching (“no-self, not-self”), which should it be?

The same confusion seems to occur with atta vs. attā (Skt. atmān). Buddhadatta has “Atta, m. soul; oneself.” But elsewhere I’ve seen attā.

(When I began composing this query, a “Your topic is similar to…” panel popped up listing several previous discussions – in which both anatta and anattā appear, but it’s not clear why one or the other.)

Can anybody clarify?

Atta is an alternative dictionary form of this word. In the Ancient Indo-Aryan languages the dictionary forms (aka citation forms) of nouns and adjectives are not specific forms of any case but are rather virtual word forms (re)constructed by linguists and used as the basis for declination. So, the citation form of Bhagavan is actually bhagavant. The other citation forms of atta is attan. Atta is used in compound words, whereas attan is the predominant citation form for the word atman itself. In other words, it is extremely unlikely you will come across it as a real word form in a Pali text.

Attā is the actual Nominative Singular of attan, and also, by extension, the actual Nominative Singular of anatta. However, for some reason that escapes me, anattā is also the citation form of anatta. Probably, since anattā is neuter and is also used as a predicative adjective (as in rūpaṃ anattā). So, the correct form to use is anattā.

Which lead me to a question for Ven. @sujato, Ven. @Brahmali, @Sylvester and any other people who have a better grasp of Pali than me. The word dukkha is actually neuter (Nom-Akk Sing dukkhaṁ), however it generally assumes the form of the noun it accompanies as the adjective (sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā, dukkhāya vedanāya, etc., even though I was not able to find specifically fem pl forms like dukkhāyo). The word anattā it also neuter - at least according to the PTS dictionary and looks exactly the same in the tilakkhana formula (sabbe dhammā anattā). I failed to find any forms of this word in oblique cases, so my question is whether there are any and what they sound like (which is not trivial, considering it has a citation form different from attan) and whether anattā behaves the same way as dukkha as an adjective.

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Hi Ilya

You might recall something I wrote about atta and attan some time back - Sabbe dhammā anattā - Dhamma Wheel

It appears that in propositions such as -

rūpaṃ anattā, vedanā anattā, saññā anattā, saṅkhārā anattā, viññāṇaṃ anattā

, attan is in action and here functioning as a substantive noun. It cannot be an adjective, on account of the non-agreement in number with saṅkhārā (plural).

For other propositions such as the famous -

sabbe dhammā anattā

, atta is in action and it is functioning here as an adjective.

Other instances of the adjectival sense pop up in SN 22.55 and SN 22.85 -

Anattaṃ rūpaṃ ‘anattā rūpan’ti yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti, anattaṃ vedanaṃ ‘anattā vedanā’ti yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti, anattaṃ saññaṃ ‘anattā saññā’ti yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti, anatte saṅkhāre ‘anattā saṅkhārā’ti yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti, anattaṃ viññāṇaṃ ‘anattā viññāṇan’ti yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti.

This is clearly what Warder would call a junction between a substantive noun and its adjective, which comes up most clearly in “anatte saṅkhāre”.

Hope that answers your last question on whether anattā behaves the same way as dukkha as an adjective.


Here’s one in the accusative -

Saññā nu kho, bhante, purisassa attā, udāhu aññā saññā añño attā”ti? “Kaṃ pana tvaṃ, poṭṭhapāda, attānaṃ paccesī”ti? “Oḷārikaṃ kho ahaṃ, bhante, attānaṃ paccemi rūpiṃ cātumahābhūtikaṃ kabaḷīkārāhārabhakkhan”ti.
DN 9

This seems to be from the lemma attan.

I see attano (genitive?) in -

_Paridevaṃ pajappañca, _
_Domanassañca attano; _
_Attano sukhamesāno, _
Abbahe sallamattano.
Snp 3.8

4 cases of attan are represented in these formulaic passages, eg -

Vedanaṃ attato samanupassati, vedanāvantaṃ vā attānaṃ; attani vā vedanaṃ, vedanāya vā attānaṃ.

Edit - my bad. Just realised you were asking about anattā, not the unnegated form. :grin:

I was sure if it would not be possible to find any oblique cases for anattā, but surprise, surprise, there’s this from MN 2 -

attanāva anattānaṃ sañjānāmī’ti

I perceive (what is) not-self with the self.


But why are dukkha and anicca used as adjectives in the same contexts, whereas anattā is used as a noun?

Where you thinking of this -

Taṃ kiṃ maññasi, bhikkhu, cakkhu niccaṃ
vā aniccaṃ vā”ti?

“Aniccaṃ, bhante”.

“Yaṃ panāniccaṃ dukkhaṃ vā taṃ sukhaṃ vā”ti?

“Dukkhaṃ, bhante”.

“Yaṃ panāniccaṃ dukkhaṃ vipariṇāmadhammaṃ, kallaṃ nu taṃ samanupassituṃ: ‘etaṃ mama, esohamasmi, eso me attā’”ti?

“No hetaṃ, bhante”.

Take the Anattalakkhana Sutta - anatta is used as a noun, whereas anicca, with the same words, is used as an adjective.

Rūpaṃ, bhikkhave, anattā

Taṃ kiṃ maññatha, bhikkhave, rūpaṃ niccaṃ vā aniccaṃ vā”ti?

Hi again

Something quite off came up when I read this subsequent section of SN 22.59 -

Saṅkhārā niccaṃ vā aniccaṃ vā’ti? Aniccaṃ bhante.

You’d expect the adjective to agree with the plural noun, but it is in the singular. :grimacing:

Going on to the next proposition -

Yaṃ panāniccaṃ, dukkhaṃ vā taṃ sukhaṃ vā’ti? Dukkhaṃ bhante.

What if this proposition is about the First Noble Truth? If so, dukkha in the nominative here would mean the substantive noun Suffering, rather than an adjective.

Something else I noted in the question above is that it consists of a typical ya … ta clauses structure. If I understand Warder correctly, in this type of construction, the ya and ta pronouns must refer to substantive nouns, rather than adjectives.

Both BB and Bhante Sujato translate the dukkha and sukha above as substantive nouns.