The Buddha Might Have Spoken Pali

Hello friends :slight_smile: I have heard it said that the Buddha didn’t speak Pali, but spoke something similar to it. If I’m completely honest, when hearing that it very much took away motivation for me to learn Pali.

Fast forward a couple of years and I now have a lot of motivation and really want to go deep into Buddhism and hopefully even call myself a Buddhist at some point before I die. I purchased a Pali course from the University of Oxford: In this course, they actually claim that the Buddha spoke Pali. This course is given by what I believe to be top historical/secular scholars and of course part of Oxford University. This very much strengthened my faith and motivation to learn Pali.

I forget in which lecture I heard that the Buddha didn’t speak Pali, but spoke some dialect similar to it, but I’m very certain I heard it. Does anyone here have any input on this? Of course even if you want to argue that the Buddha didn’t speak Pali then I welcome your wisdom :slight_smile: .

Or was I mistaken and there was never the scholarly consensus that the Buddha didn’t speak Pali?

The reason I believe it is important that the Buddha spoke Pali is because there would inevitably had been mistranslations and meanings lost in translations if the Buddha taught in another language and then that was translated into Pali. Just look at critical studies of various suttas where they compare the Pali and the Chinese versions. Sometimes the translations into Chinese will mistranslate what was the original in Pali. Also, if the Buddha didn’t speak Pali, then it makes little sense to look at the etymology of words in Pali, since maybe the word the Buddha would have used a word that had an etymology that was completely different compared to the Pali one.

I’m feeling so good these days, getting back into meditation, spending my free time with meaningful studying of the suttas. Oh, I better work as hard as I can at the moment because certainly anicca will set in and try to change the situation :smiley:

Have a good day.

PS: The video costs money so I can’t don’t think it would be ok if I uploaded it and shared it, but I’ll try to summarize what they said.

There are 3 main languages. Magadhi, Pali and Sanskrit (sorry I don’t use the marks above the characters, I need to figure out how to install that).

Magadhi is the dialect of the Mauryan empire.

The Buddha wanted to communicate his teachings in a vernacular language, not a scholarly one, in fact, he forbade translating the teachings into Sanskrit since he wanted them to be in the vernacular of people.

Pali was a lingua franca in north west India at the time of the Buddha.

The Buddha traveled a lot over his life, so while traveling he had to communicate in various dialects.

The Buddha was awakened in Gaya (which is in Magadha)

The Buddha was born in Kapilavattu (Which is well north west and most likely they spoke Pali there)

The Buddha spent a lot of time in Savatthi (This is even further west than Kapilavattu, there the Buddha would have certainly needed to speak Pali).

Given that the Buddha wanted to use a vernacular, not Sanskrit, and he lived a great deal of his life in north west India and the fact that he had to be able to communicate with people in order originate any teaching, it makes sense that he would have taught in Pali.

They conclude that the language of the Buddha was Pali.


Actually, it seems I might have gotten a bit ahead of myself. I was so elated at hearing the conclusion of the lecture that I paused it and didn’t finish the whole video. After actually finishing it the lecturer explained that the mainstream position is that the Buddha didn’t speak Pali but that he is taking a minority position.

So in conclusion, I’m not well read in the scholarship and was even unaware of what the mainstream says ^_^, I was going mostly off what I heard in dhamma talks, then this lecture reversed what I thought I knew. After looking at it a bit more, it seems that it is an open question whether the Buddha spoke Pali or not, but at least this one scholar from Oxford believes so.

So I changed the title of the topic to reflect that. Let this be a lesson to you all to not jump to conclusions as quickly as I do :wink: . Anyway, it seems to not be 100% impossible that the Buddha spoke Pali, I certainly would like to believe so. So I will keep studying and see what I come up with. But it is important to not jump onto the conclusion that you would like to hear, I certainly don’t want to believe in some creation science version of Buddhism, where I substitute a belief in a young earth for a belief that the Buddha spoke Pali.

Let me finish of by asking for more resources from you wise people. If you have anything you recommend in regards to whether the Buddha spoke Pali or not, then please share it with me.


Hi Fan,

I presume you are referring to the well known passage in the Cullavagga where the Buddha is said to have made an injunction against recording his teachings in chandas. It’s worth pointing out that the meaning of this word in this context is debated: while some have argued it is to be taken as referring to Vedic Sanskrit, others interpret it to mean ‘metrical form’. Still others have suggested it is an injunction against memorising and teaching the Buddha-Dhamma as Veda.

As to your more general question, have you read Gombrich’s Buddhism and Pali?


No I have not, do you recommend it? :slight_smile:

I think it is a short and easy to follow introduction to the general topic, but the course you have enrolled on through OCBS might cover similar ground (I haven’t seen the course myself).

Maybe of interest to you, a recent scientific article: (PDF) The Buddha taught in Pali: A working hypothesis | Stefan Karpik -


The Theravada tradition claims that the Buddha taught in Pali. This conflicts with most current scholarship. Yet insights from linguistics and close reading of sources suggest that the Theravada account has not been disproved, that it could be correct, and that it even represents a stronger hypothesis than the current consensus. Instead of authorising translation of his teaching into dialects, the Buddha promoted a fixed transmission and the use of standard language. That the Buddha spoke Māgadhī is a late tradition; Tipiṭaka commentaries instead defined Māgadhabhāsā, ‘Magadha language’, as Ariyaka, ‘Aryan’, the canonical term for the Indo-Aryan language. Pali has the expected features of a natural standard language and can be seen as a precursor of Epigraphic Prakrit. This working hypothesis suggests a bolder stance for Pali studies of claiming that Pali is in all probability the formal language of the Buddha.