Question on symbols used in written Pali

Were the symbols used to write Pali phonetic, representing sounds or something else? I am curious if individual words came from different languages or dialects, but were written using the same symbols. This would be similar to the Latin alphabet being used to write English, French, and Italian.

I think the Pali has different writing system. It never has the same symbols in different areas. The writing system includes Brāhmī, Devanāgarī, Kharoṣṭhī, Khmer, Mon-Burmese, Thai, Tai Tham, Sinhala and transliteration to the Latin alphabet.


The early-Buddhist canon was written originally in Kharoṣṭhī & Brāhmī scripts - which were abugidas and the letters used in these scripts represented phonemes i.e. they were a phonemic representation.

However the phonemes used in Pali (and Gandhari) were phonetically simplified versions of the ones used in speech i.e. they were not pronounced the way they are found written. So Pali is a non-phonetic literary register rather than a spoken dialect.

Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit is closer to the actual speech of the early Buddhists than Pali & Gandhari - and its written representation is nearly phonetic.

Gandhari & Pali by definition (as they exist today) are non-phonetic written registers of the spoken language of the early Buddhists - but they used scripts that were capable of phonemic representation.

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Can you give an example and expand on what you mean by this?


Consider the Ṛgvedic word ‘jihvā’ (e.g. “jihvā́ devā́nām amṛ́tasya nā́bhiḥ” in Ṛgveda 4.058.01d, circa 13th century BCE). It means “tongue”. The vedic language evolved gradually over 1000 years into classical sanskrit.
In classical sanskrit it remains jihvā, for eg.

  • “kathaṃ vyāharato māṃ te na jihvā vyavaśīryate” Rāmāyaṇa 5.22.19, circa 4th/3rd century BCE;
  • “jihvāmūlāṅguleśchaḥ” in Pāṇini’s Aṣṭādhyāyī, 4th century BCE;
  • “tad yathāntaram mukhasya jihvā tālu dantā evaṃ chandomā” in Aitareya Brāhmaṇam 5.22.1, circa 6th century BCE;
  • “jihvā jyā bhavati kulmalaṃ vāṅ nāḍīkā dantās” in Śaunakīya Atharvaveda, circa 8th century BCE; "
  • sapta te agne samidhaḥ sapta jihvā iti āha" in Taittirīya Yajurveda, circa 9th century BCE,
  • “dame dame samidhaṃ yakṣy agne prati te jihvā ghṛtam” in Mādhyandina Yajurveda 8.24.2, circa 8th/7th century BCE.
  • " jihvā vai grahaḥ" in Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, circa 5th century BCE

In all the intervening stages between early Ṛgvedic and classical sanskrit as shown above, the word retained its phonetic structure unchanged for over 1000 years.

However, by circa 4th-3rd centuries BCE, writing beomes popular in India, and the early Buddhist, Jain, and other literature and royal edicts come to be written in some newly developed scripts like Kharosthi, Brahmi etc. Each group chooses to use their own choice of script, orthographic and phonetic conventions to write this word - as there was nobody to regulate or enforce consistency and uniformity. As a result we find multiple variant forms of this word in their literature.

One group writes the word as jivhā (metathesis of h & v), another group writes it as jibha, another group writes it as jīhā, yet another group writes it as jibbhā etc (these forms later come to be called Pāli, Gāndhāri, Prākṛt etc).

The unchanged form jihvā (as in Vedic and Classical sanskrit) comes to be regarded in later times as Old-Indo-Aryan, and the phonetically modified and simplified forms attested in these literary written records come to be regarded as Middle-Indo-Aryan.

But in fact if the speakers of those times were told each of these modified forms belonged to different languages, it would have made little sense to them - because in their mind, their spoken language was the same.

After a few centuries from the Buddha, as the writing conventions stabilized and gradually became nearly phonetically accurate, the written canon was transliterated by the early Buddhists back into the more phonetically accurate form which we now call Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit (which is only marginally different from standard classical sanskrit).

But the Canon was taken in its earlier “pali” form to Sri Lanka etc before it was phonetically recast back into the spoken language in mainland India - hence Pali is preserved as a sort of a fossil linguistic register from that stage of the written canon’s history.

I’ve used just one word here, but such phonetic simplifications and innovations apply to most words (you can compare the Sanskrit and Pali forms using dictionaries such as the DPD). Hence my opinion above that Pali was not a phonetically accurate written representation of the spoken language of the early-Buddhists.

Are you saying that we know that all of these different written words would have been pronounced exactly the same?

I am saying these differences could not have existed in speech - as much surely as we wouldn’t recognize the word tongue spelt as tounge, tognue, tonge, tongeu and toengue as different ways of pronouncing the word tongue and thereby treating each of these as representing independent English-like spoken languages.