Is there a deep connection between Pali and Elu?

To begin with, I’m quite ignorant when it comes to the different ancient Prakrits. So from this uninformed position I have a few questions:

Is there any evidence of old Pali material from (northern) India?
How closely are Pali and ancient Elu (the Prakrit predecessor of Sinhala) connected?

Background to the question is the origin of Pali. Even though the Asoka inscriptions were mostly done in the local dialects none of them seem to quite match Pali. Linguists have found more similarities with western / central Indian dialects than with Prakrits of Magadha/Kosala. And now I wonder - is what we call Pali possibly an artifact of bringing the teachings to Sri Lanka in a certain North Indian dialect (not Pali) and then this material mixing with the local Elu?

In this case we would find old Pali mostly in Sri Lanka, and only after many centuries again in India when the Sri Lankan Buddhist importance would have somewhat influenced Indian Buddhism in return.

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Let me bump up the question and kindly ask bhikkhus eg @sujato or @Brahmali if they have knowledge of that matter. For example KR Norman wrote:

It has been said, with some justification, that the Pali of the canon as we have it now is a reflection of the Pali of the twelfth century, when the influence of the Pali grammarians was at its highest […] Studies of Pali texts written in Ceylon show clearly the influence of Sinhalese Prakrit and Sinhalese, and also Dravidian, probably through the medium of Sinhalese.

And I wonder even more if from the beginning, e.g. the first cBCE, ‘Pali’ was an amalgamation of the ancient Elu-Sinhala with whatever form of Prakrit that came to Sri Lanka(?)


My understanding is that the Pali of the canon is definitely continental, from North India, showing various unique features. Any later influence on the language came from Sanskrit, which had an influence on later Sinhalese Grammarians. But maybe some Sinhalese influence crept into the commentaries? I don’t know enough about them to comment, but Buddhaghosa was not Sinhalese so I somehow doubt it.


Gombrich wrote a book arguing that the Buddha used Pali— did he state an opinion on what happened to the language later on?

I have read through it quickly, and it’s overly optimistic I find. Linguist experts like Norman and Levman have collected numerous examples for remnants of pre-Pali, i.e. Magadhi, in the suttas. So Gombrich’s conclusion sounds nice to the traditional ear but I can’t see how he can reconcile it with the data…

Anyhow, my question is more specific, ie. if we have early, ie. BCE examples of Pali inscriptions in Northern India. Or how closely Pali is related to proto-Sinhala.


Apparently the oldest Pali inscriptions are in Myanmar, from around the 6th cCE. That means that there is no evidence in older India for the existence of Pali. Not in Gandhara, not in Lumbini, etc.

Because Pali seems closer to western dialects some scholars assume that the basis was a western, for example, Sthavira language. But how to rule out that it was not after all the ‘Sri Lankan’ of that time?

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No, I don’t think so.

There was a nice study some years ago by a Sri Lankan monk, who carefully analyzed the language of the suttas, and showed that there were a couple of instances where readings in the Pali seem to have been influenced by the local language in Sri Lanka. It is not surprising that this should have happened; in fact, the fact that it is so rare strongly attests to its stability.

Whatever Pali, is, it seems to have been fixed before arriving to Sri Lanka.

Also, note that the Indian origin of old Sinhalese is Eastern, probably from Bengal or maybe Andhra, which agrees with the Sinhalese origin myth that stems from that area.


In his paper “The Early Development of Buddhist Literature and Language in India”, Lance Cousins makes a convincing argument, I think, that Pali comes from the lingua franca of southern India of the first and second centuries BC. In another well-argued paper, “The Buddha taught in Pali”, Stefan Karpik argues that Pali is actually very close to the language used by the Buddha himself.

And yes, my understanding too is that there are almost no traces of ancient Sinhala in the Pali Canon. The language is Indian continental, with some influence by later grammarians.


I read the lingua franca argument so many times, but I can’t help it, it still doesn’t make sense to me. If it was such a wide-spread and understandable lingua franca, then

  • Why are there no Pali inscriptions in India?
  • Why didn’t Asoka have at least his northern edicts written in Pali - which would have been an ideal language both to disseminate his ‘dhamma’ and his devotion to Buddhism, if everyone understood Pali anyway
  • Why isn’t there any edict in Pali at all?
  • What is the use of a ‘lingua franca’ if the northern prakrits were quite intelligible to people anyhow. Instead of a weird new dialect that nobody speaks naturally, it would have been much easier to take a Prakrit from Kuru or Pancala
  • The application of an artificial language would have necessitated a whole education infrastructure: novices first went to newly established ‘Pali schools’ and then learned the suttas? I mean, maybe today we could pull off the spread of an esperanto-like artificial language. But certainly 2500 years ago many more alternatives would have been much more convenient.
  • None of the chronicles, nor the different vinayas record anything resembling a lingua franca or a new artificial dhamma-language. Instead, as you know, there is the one passage that prefers to teach the Dhamma in the local prakrit of any given place.

Please read Lance Cousin’s paper. It is based precisely on inscriptional evidence, that of south India. The language is a universal Prakrit that emerged in the post-Ashokan era.


Cousins makes a series of complex assumptions, which a non-linguist at some point simply has to accept - the same as with other linguists who make different assumptions and come to different conclusions.

I read the paper differently, maybe we refer to different paragraphs. Here at least Cousin’s summary:

I am happy to state that some Buddhist texts were first written down in a language they called Māgadhī in the Mauryan period. This was a type of κοινή with vocabulary and syntax deriving from various dialects and without a standardized spelling. More were written or rewritten in a language still called Māgadhī but possibly with some changes to orthography in the second and first centuries B.C., culminating in the first systematic written recensions of works previously preserved orally. During the first centuries A.D. the orthography of the manuscripts evolved further in the direction of Sanskritization, or Palicization, if you prefer. Finally the standard Pali, largely as we know it today, was created around the third or fourth century A.D.

As I understood the argument of the article the original language was not a lingua franca but the language basically of Kosala-Magadha. Then the influence of administrative Asokan language would have come into play, and then further standardizations in Sri Lanka. Yes, Cousins basically says that Proto-Magadhi is not that different than Pali, but still the succession of changes he assumes are a few steps away from canon-Pali being the original language of the Buddha’s area or the Buddha himself (e.g. the Magadhi replacing ‘r’ with ‘l’, maybe also the replacement of ‘c’ with ‘y’ as in Jain Prakrit?)

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Well, here is Cousins quoting Salomon:

The dominant role in all regions except the northwest and Sri Lanka falls hereafter to a variety of Prakrit which most resembles, among the Aṣokan dialects, the western dialect of the Girnār rock edicts, and which among literary languages has the most in common with Pāli and archaic forms of Ṣaurasenī. …

This central-western MIA was, in fact, virtually the sole language in epigraphic use in the period in question, and therefore seems, like Pāli, to have developed into something like a northern Indian lingua franca, at least for epigraphic purposes, in the last two centuries B.C. (p. 121)

Cousins then goes to say that this common epigraphic language, which resembles Pali, is no other than Māgadhī, an early descendent of the language used by Ashoka.


Do you happen to have the reference?

I’ll do you one better, here’s the article:

It seems that the original research is in Sinhala, and was published mid-century. If anyone has access to the relevant library, it’d be great to dig it up, as I’m not aware that this research has been followed up since.