Shakyamuni Buddha's Language

In EBTs, what and how many languages and dialects did Shakyamuni Buddha spoke in. (i don’t mean knew).

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Maybe Ven @Dhammanando can help?

Just throwing a very unscientific answer out there (based on logic and modern language groups rather than EBT)- possibly mainly the languages of the Eastern Hindi belt, Awadhi & Bhojpuri, which would be consistent with the Buddha spending most of his teaching career in Savatthi. But given that the Buddha also visited Rajgir, we could guess at least listening proficiency in Magahi. Not sure how mutually intelligible these two language groups are & it might be easier to think of a dialect continuum. I don’t think the EBTs can answer this question.



these 3 are the possible spoken right now.

is there any other suggestions?

Extracted from the book “Buddhist Sutras: Origin, Development, Transmission” by Kogen Mizuno.

The original language of the sutras seems to have been Magadhi, which Shakyamuni used in preaching. Of all the Indic language versions of sutras used as Buddhist texts today, those written in Pali are the most numerous and are widely used in the Southern Buddhist countries Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand. According to Southern Buddhist tradition, Pali is regarded as the language that Shakyamuni spoke, and therefore is called Magadhi or the fundamental language. However, recent studies show that although a little of the Magadhi influence is still evident in the Pali language, the basic characteristics of the two languages are different.

The two important language families of India are Indic and Dravidian. All Buddhist sutras were originally compiled in Indic languages, which developed in various parts of India over a period of three or four thousand years. In present day India more than ten major languages- including Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Bihari, Marathi, and Punjabi- belong to this family, and together they number several hundred dialects. Sanskrit and fourteen modern languages are now officially sanctioned by the Indian constitution, and in a large house it is possible for several of the recognized languages to be in use, since servants from different areas and family members would all speak in their own languages or dialects.

This rich linguistic heritage was noted in earlier times, when, for example, in plays one could identify a character’s occupation and social status through the prescribed language he or she spoke. Kings, ministers, and Brahmans spoke Sanskrit, the most highly esteemed and inflected language; queens, princesses, nuns and courtesans spoke a graceful language called Shauraseni; the general populace, such as merchants and artisans, spoke Magadhi; and the lower classes spoke Paishachi. Even lyrics had their own pleasant to the ear language, Maharashtri.

The five languages just mentioned originated in the dialects of different areas, but the languages in Shakyamuni’s time belonged to a period earlier than that of these five languages. However, even in Shakyamuni’s time, regional languages already differed, and each language had its own unique characteristics, as we can see from the edicts of Ashoka, issued about two centuries after the death of Shakyamuni. Ashoka had his edicts carved on large rocks and stone pillars, and one particular edict was written in a different language in each of the eight areas where it has been found. The languages of the edicts in India, which can be divided into four or five regional groups, correspond to the five languages used in drama of later periods. In time they became regional languages of the Apabhramsha family, and still later they developed into the modern Indic languages.

The language Shakyamuni spoke was the one in general use around the middle reaches of the Ganges, where he was active. Since the area was later called Magadha, its language was called Magadi (or Old Magadhi), and because many of Emperor Ashoka’s edicts have been found in this area, we have an idea of what the Magadhi Shakyamuni spoke was like.

In the time of Shakyamuni, the Vedas, the holy scriptures of Brahmanism, were transmitted in Vedic Sanskrit, which was the forerunner of classical Sanskrit. Both Vedic Sanskrit and classical Sanskrit are elegant, highly inflected, complex languages. The Vedic scriptures were transmitted only to the educated upper classes, never to the lower classes. Shakyamuni, who wanted his teachings to reach all classes of society equally, thought that the lower classes would be the focus of his ministry and therefore preached his teaching in Magadhi, the everyday language of the common people, so that even the lower classes could understand him.


This quote is highly appreciated.

This is from an old post from the late Lance Cousins, a former chairman of the Pali Text Society, to the Buddha-l list, dated May 11, 2013. The excerpt is about dialects in Greater Magadha and their relation to Pali.

Joanna wrote:

Didn’t the Buddha speak Magadhi?

Lance’s reply:

Well, no. We don’t know what precise dialect the Buddha spoke. Any guess would depend on what was the date when one thinks the Buddha lived and whether the dialects spoken in Māgadha proper, Kosala and among the Sakkas, were exactly the same. And whether the Buddha spoke only one dialect.

The standard epigraphical language used in the Gangetic plain and beyond in the last centuries B.C. and a little after was a form of Middle Indian rather close to Pali. We have no reason to believe that any other written language existed in that area at that time. Like Pali it is eclectic with word-forms originally from different dialectics and also with no standardized spelling (as was probably originally the case for Pali). So the first Buddhist texts written down in that area should have been in that form. Since the enlarged kingdom of Magadha eventually extended over nearly the whole Gangetic plain, that language was probably called the language of Magadha, if it had a name. And that of course is the correct name of the Pali language.

Pali is essentially a standardized and slightly Sanskritized version of that language. Māgadhī is a language described by the Prakrit grammarians and refers to a written dialect that developed later (early centuries A.D. ?) from the spoken dialect in some part of ‘Greater Magadha’.

In effect, then, Pali is the closest we can get to the language spoken by the Buddha. And it cannot have been very different — we are talking about dialect differences here, not radically distinct languages."

Lance Cousins


From this insight, plus the completeness of it, the Pali Canon of Theravadins got it’s importance.

In addition to the arguments posted here, there was a recent proposal by Richard Gombrich to the effect that the Buddha’s spoke language was, after all, Pali. You can find discussion of this on this forum.

The differences between these dialects are, however, very small, and they would have been mutually intelligible. I’m not sure if a quantitative analysis has been done, but the difference would be more akin to the difference between the English spoken in New York and New Orleans, rather than between, say, English and French. The basic grammar, syntax, and vocabulary is all identical, there are just some differences in spelling and expression.

On the Ashokan pillar in Lumbini we find the proud proclamation: “Here the Buddha was born, the Sage of the Sakyans!”. Here is the text in the original Magadhi and how it would appear in Pali:

hida budhe jāte sakyamunī ti
idha buddhe jāte sakyamunī ti

As you can see, the difference is almost non-existent, and it is likely that native speakers would have heard it as a mere accent rather than a different language. In English, such variations occur constantly but we usually do not represent them in writing. In Indic languages, however, spelling is always strictly phonetic, so the most trivial of differences is always apparent. This is great for linguists, and a testament to the precision of the ancient Indian linguistic arts. But it does rather give the wrong impression when linguists speak of these as different “languages”.


I think the question is probably what is meant by Magadhi. If you mean, “Magadhi as the scriptural language of Jainism”, as a Pali person, I would find that incredibly difficult to read (although these days I’ve been using Ratnachandraji’s Ardha-Magadhi dictionary with some success). The problem with this type of Magadhi is that it looks like someone has gobbled up all the consonants. If by Magadhi, what is meant is Gangetic koine, i.e. central Indian epigraphic Prakrit, that is a bit more understandable. I guess they leave the consonants in for that one?

If Pali is most similar to Magadhi language proper, that would make the most relevant modern languages for its study Eastern languages such as Odiya, Bangla, and Assamese. I don’t think that this is the case- I would personally get much, much more out of comparing with Awadhi, standard Hindi, or Marathi. It shouldn’t be too hard for a Pali speaker to approach the Awadhi corpus in say, the Ram Charit Manas or in Kabir. [this should even explain the word Pali, as Awadhi pa.di is a “book” to Kabir!]

Part of the reason why I don’t think that say, Bangla, is a good fit, is that sometimes Pali has vocab that seems to fall on the phonetically Western side of the East/West split. A good example would be the cch/kkh West/East regional split for Skt k(h)s (on which Lance Cousins has also written). The closest regional match for a Pali word like kaccha (e.g. armpit) would actually be Kashmiri katch, as opposed to Magadhi kakkha or Awadhi khaka. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but in this case, I think that canonical Pali also retains the Eastern form, khaka, in the word adhakkhaka (below the armpit), which complicates things substantially.

The most useful thing for someone who really wants to engage Pali in relation to other Prakits is still, in my opinion, a Maharastri or Hindi dictionary…I would check the Ardha Magadhi dictionaries only after that.


True, but that’s also a matter of idiom and context. There are plenty of Pali texts that I struggle to read. That’s why I compared like with like: how does it look like when you’re reading the same canonical passage in the two languages? In this respect, there is a conservatism throughout the tradition; EBTs in Sanskrit feel much more like Pali (anityā bata saṁskārā utpādavyadharmiṇaḥ) than does, say, the Mahabharata or even Mahayana sutras. The sense I get is that as the Suttas we’re adopted from one dialect to another, only the minimal changes were made.

Heck, you could even say the same thing about modern translations of Pali into Sinhala or Thai. I can read a prose sutta translation in Thai fairly easily, but give me a newspaper and I’m lost. For a Thai person, of course, it’s the exact opposite.

Perhaps, then, we need to distinguish between the general situation of the relation between languages, and the linguistically specific case of canonical transposition.


In terms of the methodology to get towards an answer:

  1. The closest evidence we have of Buddha’s language would be from Asokan inscriptions in the documented areas Buddha visited.
  2. If we compare Pali language to the relevant Asokan epigraphic evidence, then we can estimate how close Pali is with the presumed spoken language of Buddha

The caveats of this approach are that: a) they are at least a century after Buddha’s time; b) the inscriptions may reflect more of the “written” paradigm of the administrators who set up the edicts, rather than what is truly spoken by the people on the colloquial level.

It seems like this work could have already been done - is this true? What is the best reference on this?


Welcome to the forum @Pamirs !


It has, in the sense that there have been a number of scholarly discussions on the topic. You’ll find them referenced in earlier discussions on this forum.

Whether that’s the best methodology is hard to say. Certainly the Ashokan language is important, but there’s no a priori way of knowing exactly its relation to what the Buddha spoke.

TBH I’m a bit surprised that we haven’t seen more serious work in this area. It seems to me that computational linguistics might help by quantifying statistical relations between languages. It wouldn’t solve the problem but it would be another data point. Up to this point, however, all we really have is the individual arguments by a very small field of expert linguists.


It doesn’t need to be that complex, you could just pick a few regional markers (like the aforementioned cch/kkh split hahah) and analyse for them. If you try to do everything at once, it’s too overwhelming- the knowledge should build gradually. Corpus analysis isn’t that hard, even a historian could do it, especially if you have a searchable, tagged corpus. To move forward in this area, what we actually need is a proper corpus search function for Pali and for epigraphic Prakrit. The fact that Jain texts haven’t been digitised is a huge barrier- there is a lot of valuable stuff even in Jain Sauraseni (off the top of my head, the word “okacchiya” for “sankacchika”, the nuns’ armpit-covering wrap). Compare Digital Corpus of Sanskrit (DCS) - Online Sanskrit dictionary and annotated corpus for Sanskrit as an example of a more sophisticated search function…we need something like this for Pali.

(OR…people could just read some Sauraseni to appreciate why Marathi is actually super useful in this area.)


Pali: Dhammapada 103:

Yo sahassaṃ sahassena, saṅgāme mānuse jine;

Ekañca jeyyamattānaṃ, sa ve saṅgāmajuttamo.

Greater in battle than the man who would conquer a thousand-thousand men,

is he who would conquer just one — himself.

Ardhamagadhi: Saman Suttam 125:

Jo sahassam sahassanam, samgame dujjae jine.

Egam jinejja appanam, esa se paramo jao.

One may conquer thousands and thousands of enemies in an invincible battle;

but the supreme victory consists in conquest over one’s self.

Not an exact match but enough to illustrate. To me, Ardha Magadhi is just like…aoaoaoaoaoao. It’s not the Prakrit of most relevance.

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In Vinaya, Cullavagga, the Buddha advises bhikkhus not to use Vedic language (Chanda; i.e. Vedic Sanskrit) for the Buddha’s language/teachings (buddhavacana), but use your own language (sakaaya niruttiyaa) for the Buddha’s teachings. If making the Vedic language for the Buddha’s teachings, it will be bad.

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Hi, could you provide a reference to the actual wording of this advice?
The reason I ask is that I could not find in Cullavagga in SuttaCentral’s Theravadin Vinaya collection.

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You may first check Vinaya , Cullavagga (Vin. II, PTS), p. 139, on the term Chandaso.

You can find it here (search “metical form” in browser search tool):

Although chanda can be refer to Vedic metrical form (the Sanskrit prosody), I don’t think it just apply to Vedic language, but also any other language prosody

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