Was Pali the first language spoken by people?

This question is especially for Bhant @sujato Bhante @Dhammanando Bhante Bhante @Brahmali
Was Pali the first language spoken by people?
Wad Buddha spoke in Pali?

Above questions came to me after reading the following Sutta.
Buddha speaks about how certain words come to usage.

For instance:
‘Elected by the people’, Vāseṭṭha, is the meaning of ‘elected one’, the first term to be specifically invented for them.
Mahājanasammatoti kho, vāseṭṭha, ‘mahāsammato, mahāsammato’ tveva paṭhamaṃ akkharaṃ upanibbattaṃ.

“Elected by the people” is a term that can be expressed in any language. And no, Pali is certainly not the first language spoken by people. Linguists normally argue that Pali is derived from the Old Indo-European, a language that came to India from the Caucasus or Black Sea area. It goes back to thousands of years before the time of the Buddha.

The Buddha spoke a language that must have been closely related to Pali, but not identical to it. Pali as an independent language, not too different from the Pali we have now, started to take shape perhaps 200 years after he Buddha. A language evolves quite a bit in a period of 200 years, but not so much as to create major problems of comprehension. If you read a book in English from 200 years ago, you would have no problems understanding it. And so we should not expect any serious distortions in the content of the Canon as the language evolved from the Buddha’s own to Pali.


This is an example of the sort of mythic elements that DN 27 contains. A lot of the sutta provides an origin story for the various features of society at the time the discourse was given. Bhante Sujato offers some commentary in an essay by Piya Tan :

This is one of the classic functions of myth: to explain and authorize present day customs by connecting them to archetypal events that happened ‘once upon a time’.

There is a new book by Prof Richard Gombrich: Buddhism and Pali.
In this book, he describes the Pāli language and its place in history, and discusses how texts were composed and preserved in the society in which the Buddha lived, where there was no writing. He uses strands of what we know about the language and that society to construct an argument which makes it appear possible, even probable, that Pāli is the language that the Buddha used when during a long lifetime he walked to and fro through the villages of northern India, preaching and interacting with the villagers. They must have grown up using local dialects. These dialects must have been related, with no clear boundaries between them, since the institutions of administration and education which create such boundaries were lacking. He needed to understand the users of those dialects and in turn to be understood by them, and this need led him, perhaps unconsciously, to develop a composite dialect containing a great many variants. As he gathered disciples, some of whom moved with him, the language of his preaching became known as the “language for recitation”, which in Prof Gombrich’s view is what the word “Pāli” means; and it became the private (not secret) language of the religious community which he founded, the Sangha.


The Buddha Spoke Pāli by Stefan Karpik


Does the word Pali means private?

I don´t know. Wisdomlib say:
pāli : (f.) a line; range; the canon of the Buddhist writings or the language in which it is written. || paḷi (f.) a line; range; the canon of the Buddhist writings or the language in which it is written.
(Source): BuddhaSasana: Concise Pali-English Dictionary

Pāli, (Pāḷi) (f.) (cp. Sk. pālī a causeway, bridge Halāyudha III, 54) 1. a line, row Dāvs III, 61; IV, 3; Vism. 242 (dvattiṃs’ākāra°), 251 (danta°); SnA 87.—2. a line, norm, thus the canon of Buddhist writings; the text of the Pāli Canon, i.e. the original text (opp. to the Commentary; thus “pāliyaṃ” is opposed to “aṭṭhakathāyaṃ” at Vism. 107, 450, etc). It is the literary language of the early Buddhists, closely related to Māgadhī. See Grierson, The Home of Lit. Pāli (Bhandarkar Commemoration vol. p. 117 sq.), and literature given by Winternitz, Gesch. d. Ind. Litt. , II. 10; III, 606, 635. The word is only found in Commentaries, not in the Piṭaka. See also Hardy, Introd. to Nett, p. xi.—J. IV, 447 (°nayena accord. to the Pāli Text); Vism. 376 (°nay’anusārena id.), 394, 401, 565 (°anusārato accord. to the text of the Canon); 607, 630, 660 sq. , 693, 712; KhA 41; SnA 333, 424, 519, 604; DhsA. 157, 168; DhA. IV, 93; VvA. 117, 203 (pālito+aṭṭhuppattito); PvA. 83, 87, 92, 287; and freq. elsewhere.—vaṇṇanā is explanation of the text (as regards meaning of words), purely textual criticism, as opposed to vinicchaya-kathā analysis, exegesis, interpretation of sense Vbh. 291; Vism. 240 (contrasted to bhāvanāniddesa). (Page 455)
— or —
Pali°, (a variant of pari°, to be referred to the Māgadhī dialect in which it is found most frequently, esp. in the older language, see Pischel, Prk. Gr. § 257; Geiger, P. Gr. § 44) round, around (=pari) only as prefix in cpds. (q. v.). Often we find both pari° & pali° in the same word. (Page 440)

Many biologists such as Johansson (2013), Krause et al., (2007), and Mellers (1996) believe that Neanderthals also had Language, which would put the earliest languages at a date of at least 800,000 years ago (assuming Neanderthals and humans inherited it from the last common ancestor of the two species).
Chomsky, Hauser & Fitch (2005) argue that language did not evolve but developed as a spandrel structure (which does not set a specific date for when language evolved, but it would probably mean at least a few hundred thousands years ago). Spandrels refer to a part of an arch which was originally for structure, but was eventually repurposed to be decorative. Basically, they argued the language faculty comes from a part of the brain which did not evolve to be integral to language, but wound up that way accidentally.
Chomsky (2008) speculates that language developed 60,000 years ago as a random exaptation (rather than adaptation) in one individual yielding “unbounded merge”.
All of these dates would put the “oldest” language(s) at a date beyond the scope of Glottochronology, one of the few statistical methods we have to estimate the last common ancestor for living languages. Glottochronology breaks down at 10,000 years before the year of first attestation.
The oldest written languages (Sumerian, Elamite) all happened to be isolates whose genetic relationship with living languages has not been established.
The oldest Proto-language estimated through statistics methods is Proto-Afro-Asiatic. The estimates range between 7,500 B.C. and 16,000 B.C. This is only possible because ancient Egyptian and other highly divergent Afro-Asiatic languages (e.g. Hebrew) were all attested thousands of years ago.
Even then, the oldest date is tens of thousands of years after the latest possible estimate for the development of language (60,000 years ago).

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The idea of a primal divine language or writing does crop up a fair bit in mythology and religion. I suppose language is one of the things that make us distinctly human (and there is definitely power in the spoken or written word). In the world of Christianity and Judaism, there was the language spoken in the Garden of Eden and afterwards (presumably some variant of Hebrew :wink: ) up until the confusion of tongues in the Tower of Babel. In Norse mythology, chief god Odin sacrificed himself and hung on the world tree Yggdrasil for nine days and nights just so as to learn and gain the power of the runes. Wasn’t Sanskrit also supposed to be a kind of divine language? It’s a common trope too in fantasy writing, e.g. in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series, one of the my all-time favourite fantasy series, magic is based around trues names in the “old speech”, which was used to create the world. The general idea of a divine proto-language does seem to have been an attractive and common theme in stories and myth.


I would be very suspicious of any claim to this effect. @suaimhneas is right to point out that other religions have often made this claim about other languages. A well-evidenced claim of this type might establish the religion in question as having a special status, over and above other religions.

Is that what you are looking for, but for Buddhism? (Might I suggest that a special status for Buddhism is better established by investigation and practice?)