The Pāli language as a spoken language

another posting in the same manner of copy and paste as the previous one … :slight_smile:

As to the Pāli language as a spoken language. Do you think it is legitimately possible to state that Pāli might be representing an actual spoken ancient Indian language? Some say it might be just a composite language, a lingua franca. I believe there is reason to assume that modern scholarship might be sometimes overcritical … I would like to inquire as to their tenets.

Von Hinüber says for example that the occurence of the --tvā absolutive endings in the Pāli indicate a sanskritization and editing work. Can it not be also that there was just a dialect which made use of them in a natural way? Is it not that we find some different forms of words very close to each other in position in the canon, sometimes resembling more the Sankrit, sometimes not? That looks to me more like a natural feature rather than the product of large scale editing and systematic change, isn’t it!? Bryan Levman and Norman give as examples for Pāli being a composite language that there are certain mistakes of rendition in the texts of several schools which cannot be explained other than having another older common basis of some urcanon. Do you have an opinion about this? I find it at present still quite obscure and complex this particularity here …

Thanks for reading.


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Prof. Richard Gombrich is about to come out with a book arguing that Pāli was the actual spoken language of the Buddha. FWIW …


Sure. At the very least, the spoken languages would have been slight dialectical variants. This is what we often forget when discussing such matters. In fact, when two monks from the same country and the same monastery recite the same text at the same time, there will always be slight variations between the two. So of course the language was diverse, changing, and somewhat ill-defined.

Ardha-Magadhi, the language of the Ashokan inscriptions is very similar to Pali, and it was obviously a spoken tongue. Native linguists in Nepal and India are perfectly happy to say that these inscriptions are “Pali”. Of course, they’re not identical with the language of the texts, but who is to say what is the same “language”?

The classic definition: “A language is a dialect with an army”. That is, these things are as much political or historical as they are linguistic.

When someone says, “the tvā form is a sanskritization”, what they are saying simply that they think in the spoken language something a little different was pronounced, but it was spelled in this way. We do this literally all the time in English, and no-one even notices. You’d speak with a scotsman, an aussie, and a canadian, and you wouldn’t think they spoke different “languages”. Yet there’s probably more separating them than there is between Pali and Magdahi.

Ooh, this is going to be fun!


My understanding was that most scholars think Pali is a Middle indo aryan dialect from Avanti. Am I off here?

Buddha could have totally spoken a kind of proto version of it, if it just meant he was speaking the Avanti dialect of MIA (which was probably mutually intelligible to some degree with his own Ardha Magadhi). Kind of like how someone from Denmark might learn to speak “Norwegian”, both are quite similar. He probably spoke several of these dialects/languages.

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Even in English.

Do you pronounce “butter” with a “T” consonant or a “D” consonant in the middle? That is a tiny difference, but over time, these things add up.

English’s standardized spelling adds a veneer of standardization across it that is not necessarily represented phonologically in the manner that it is represented orthographically.

And lets not even get started on how to “properly” pronounce and English “R”… …regional variants abound.


If we Englishmen spelled the way we talked, we should have at least 4 English “languages”.

Scotts would be it’s own language altogether!

(incidentally, some linguists consider Scotts & English to be parallel descendants of Middle English.)


Thanks for sharing. I’ll keep an eye on it.


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I don’t have an overview of the whole literature but the picture I get is that several scholars quite to very infuential in the respective linguistics here see Pāli as not an actual spoken dialect, but rather as an artificial language, created for example for easier comprehension among the increasingly dispersed communities or the general influence of Sankrit. To mind come:

Don’t really know yet how to assess all these propositions but some observations seem to speak rather against them. For example that Sanskrit might not have had such an influence as to find any access into the Pāli as such.


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Right, yes. Nice comparison with modern monks from different communities.

If we assume that the oral transmission up to the writing down of the texts was quite reliable then the state of the texts then would represent only one such “style” and be rather negligable. Maybe the responsible monks had to decide between some slight variants in spelling even at that early time …? Surely they came across these.

The impression I got from the mentioned scholars was more drastic than this. They mentioned that there was systematic change for different reasons (stronger influence of Sanskrit etc.), perhaps especially at the time of writing down the transmitted material. Because they are rather drastic proposals I would try to not assume them as correct straight away.