Pragmatic Pali learning questions (plus Pali textual criticism?)


This is my first post! So I’ll introduce myself, briefly: I am an academic who is learning Pali and Sanskrit, mostly the former at the moment. My actual speciality is Greco-Roman philosophy, but so much work has been done on that already… As a first step into research Buddhism, I’ve been looking at V. Fausboll’s Latin translation of the Dhammapada (1855): the idea is that most Indologists have other things to do than read an old Latin preface/translation, and I think this text made a big splash in European circles.

Anyway, would you all mind if I asked a few questions about my Pali studies? I’m 20 chapters into Warder, which is very learned but frustrating at times in its pedagogical approach, at least for me. (though not for his grammar talk: I love that stuff)

  1. By lesson 18 we’re getting around 6 pages of vocab per lesson. Most of the vocab seems useful, but I’m wondering whether some of it (e.g. the color of grain husks or verbs for squatting) may not be so critical for a beginner and is therefore a concentration drain, and that some of this corner case vocab is just there because Warder feels it’s essential to push real, long Pali passages asap.

  2. I am getting a copy of Bhikkhu Bohdi’s Reading the Discourses in Pali, and am thinking about getting Wallis’ Buddhavacana. Both seem like nice beginner/intermediate readers. Are there any others? I’m also wondering whether by the mid-20s in Warder if I should pause to read these texts, given, again, Warder’s insistence on jumping to long chunks very quickly?

  3. Sandhi: Warder takes a somewhat leisurely approach, without many explicit discussions of rules, just notes here and there. Is this the sort of thing that would repay some dedicated memorization work, or does it make sense to just let my sense of sandhi to develop naturally? That is: obviously 'rolling with it" leads to misunderstanding forms, but does it make pragmatic sense to learn rules later on and focus on other things in the meantime?

  4. Vowel gradation: Warder doesn’t do much with this (in contrast to Ruppel’s Intro to Sanskrit). Now, I didn’t need to worry about this at all with e.g. Latin or Greek, you just memorize the present/aorist forms etc. I’m wondering if this this more important in Pali and worth study, or if brute force memorization is sufficient?

  5. Pali Textual Criticism: I’ve seen some material on Sanskrit text crit, and lots of books on Greek/Latin or Christian text crit, but I don’t think I’ve run across a sustained discussion of Pali textual criticism? It strikes me that e.g. the relationships between Burmese and Sinhalese MSS is a topic which is quite specific as well as important, but wouldn’t be addressed by reading about the textual history of the Mahabharata or Iliad.

Apologies for going on for so long! Any tips on any of this would be much appreciated!


It’s been a while, but I recall this book being not very helpful. He’s not a Pali scholar, if I’m not mistaken. In any case, the grammar explanations were weak. Rune E. A. Johansson - Pali Buddhist Texts is much, much better.

As far as vocabulary frequency, the Digital Pali Dictionary has a cool feature where it lists frequency in each major book. So that can give you a better sense of how useful it might be to add a word to your flashcard deck. But honestly with all of the digital tools available now a days (including SuttaCentral) less common words can just be looked up on the spot.


I’ve never read Wallis’s, but second Johansson’s.

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Welcome! And thank for you asking some pertinent questions, as I am interested in the answers myself.

I have not progressed as much as you. I started reading Warder two weeks ago and only up to Lesson 12. Therefore, I don’t think I am qualified to give answers to you.

I too have been wondering how much vocabulary I need to learn, how proficient do I need to be in sandhi, vowel gradation, etc.

For what it’s worth, I believe Warder’s choice of vocabulary is geared towards helping the student do the exercises. I did find the exercises important to help me understand the finer points of what he taught in each lesson.

I didn’t make an attempt to memorise the vocabulary, as I figured if the word reoccurs enough times, it will sink in anyway, and if it doesn’t c’est la vie.

Same thing with sandhi, vowel gradation and being able to conjugate across the different groups and tenses. Eventually, it will either sink in and or not, I’ll let time sort that out.

My focus, which is probably different from yours, is to master enough grammar to be able to start reading the suttas. Then I’m just going to rely on something like the Digital Pali Reader translating all the words on the fly and I’ll just stumble along until it all sinks in and hopefully one day I’ll know enough to read the words effortlessly.

I did this with Rune Johansson’s book, which others have recommended to you. The first chapter was incredibly difficult, I felt like I was drowning. Surprisingly, after that it became easier and easier, and by the end of the book I really enjoyed it and it gave me new perspective on the the meaning of some of the discourses.

I have started the Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book, and it’s similar, although it’s an easier task if I just cheat and read his translation immediately after trying to parse the Pali. But I do believe the more I read the easier it will get. After all I basically learnt how to read in English by devouring my aunt’s Mills and Boon collection one school holiday when I was staying in her room (those books gave me a bit of an education in … ahem … other matters as well …)

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Thanks for directing me to Johansson, it looks really helpful. I also didn’t know about the frequency lists, that’s very helpful.

With old (I avoid the term ‘dead’) languages, it’s always a tricky balancing act. You don’t want to always have to look everything up, on the other hand there is very little need to know very obscure words that you’ll run across once or twice at most.

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You raise an important point: learning goals. These are different for different people, and this is one thing that makes writing language textbooks so difficult, both in terms of catering to various learners with varying goals, but also because authors are usually super experts so they may forget that not everyone has the same objectives as them.

This is what’s so weird about Warder, I don’t have the slightest clue who his target audience is. On the one hand he babywalks the various cases, which hinders learning to deal with similar forms in gen/dat or inst/abl, which suggests a non-specialist audience… but before he introduces the locative, which is not a hard concept to understand, we are getting sentences pondering metaphysical ideas like ‘yattha pan’ āvuso sabbaso vedayitaṃ n’ atthi, api nu kho tattha asmī ti siyā’.

I’m also stuck with the feeling that he is utterly committed to giving real Pali texts as absolutely soon as possible, which leads to 6pp of vocab per chapter around ch18 and following, which again is not the ideal pedagogical approach.

I mean, reading real Pali is clearly the right ultimate goal, but many Latin textbooks, for example, are more than happy to give ‘fake Latin’ sentences that nevertheless use critical vocabulary and reflect real syntactical structures you see in the wild.

Anyway, for what it’s worth: I’m a big vocab fan. It’s good to have some core words that help prevent you from having to look up everything.

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One caution for you as you get deeper: Don’t assume that the meanings of words remain the same throughout all strata in the evolution of Theravāda Buddhist thought.

You might find the Gair/Karunatilaka book more useful than Warder. It starts with passage from day one, but they tend to be short and repetitive so the vocab load is not so great.

We get this in deSilva’s Pali Primer. However it’s just not a very good book. It’s real use is for someone who has no idea what declination is. However just learning that concept might be more useful than using that book.

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The first half of Pali Primer is very good for students who have no prior experience with declension, who may not know what the different cases are or do. It’s a very soft launch.
However, much of the vocabulary presented is not so useful.

Gair & Karunatillake presents all the cases right up front for the class of masculine nouns ending in short a. This can be very helpful for seeing the relationship between the cases.

Part of the challenge in learning Pali is the scarcity of materials.

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I enjoyed it initially, its almost like doing primary school exercises. Lily creates a “safe” walled garden full of people you may want to make friends with (the vāṇijā, dhīvarā, rajakā, kassakā, luddakā and all their dogs, uncles and friends, probably not so much the coro, going about all their activites and carrying lamps, or is it going to the island etc.).

But then it got tedious, and then frustrating. I think what could have made it more fun was if Lily actually did create a story involving all these people. Then I may be motivated to keep on reading (why did the nāviko cross the sea? Was it to sell the goat to the merchant? Why is everyone digging pits?)


Yes, it’s charming in a way.
The vocabulary is based on an earlier Pali textbook, and perhaps focused on the Jataka tales.
Also, the treatment of participles is strange and not very helpful.

I would say about the first half is valuable for many students. The quicker they can get into G&K the better.

A better book, using real sentences from the suttas, but probably not meant for the beginner, is this one (but only covers the cases):

Navapadamañjarī: A New Collection of Sentences (illustrating Pāḷi case endings)

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I think Warder mentions in the preface it was designed for a 3 term university course, and was in fact used as the textbook for 1st year Pali Course at Edinburgh from 1959 onwards.

Agree. I started with that too, and was very bored… If I’ve to start again, I’d choose Narada Maha Thera’s An Elementary Pali Course.

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