What is the origin of the Pali language

Pāli is the language of the canonical and post- and paracanonical texts of Theravāda Buddhism. If there is talk of one's own language, however, it is called Māgadhī, while the name Pāli probably only became naturalized in the 17th century. Pāli belongs with (among other things) the languages ​​of the inscriptions of King Aśoka, with Ardhamāgadhī, Jaina-Mahārāṣṭri and Śaurasenī to the (so-called) Middle Indian languages, the Prākṛt (Prakrits), which - like Sanskrit - are derived from the Vedic Sanskrit (resp. one of his dialects) and participated in their general development: replacement of vowel r by a, i or u (depending on the sound environment), two Moren law (shortening of long vowels before the following double or triple consonance), monophthongization of the diphthongs (e < ai, O < ouch), Fall of all final consonants (with the exception of anusvāra), Coincidence of the three sibilants in only one (in the Pāli -s-), Assimilation of groups of dissimilar consonants (-dd- < -kt-, -mm- < -rm-, -tth- < -sth- etc.) or their splitting by switched on vowels (-jir- < -jr-, -sum- < -sm- etc.), abandoning the dual, almost completely replacing the dative by the genitive, stepping back the ātmanepada compared to the parasmaipada, Coincidence of the various past tenses in a simple past tense (etc.). Together with the Aśoka-Prakrits and the Ardhamāgadhī, the language of the texts of the Jain canon, it forms the oldest Middle Indian. That the Pāli - despite the contrary assertion of the Theravāda tradition - was not the language used by the Buddha is shown only by the fact that we expect an Eastern dialect for it, while certain characteristics assign the Pāli to the west of India, from where it came to South India, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia with the spread of Buddhism. We come closer to the idiom used by Buddha, which will remain unknown to us forever, with the traces of an older 'pre-canonical' language, which was overlaid by the (western) Pāli in the course of the spread of Buddhism and therefore only obtained with the help of philological methods can be. Clearly belonging to the east of India, it is more advanced in the area of ​​sound development than the Pāli (in the form we have received), but in the area of ​​morphology it is decidedly more conservative. This conglomerate of western language with eastern sprinkles suggests that the Pāli - as a kind of koine - is a literary language in which elements of different languages ​​have merged. Similar to Sanskrit, the Pāli 'petrified' to a large extent, especially after the written record of the canonical texts in the first half of the 1st century. v. However, after that, as across its entire history, the Pāli was increasingly exposed to the pressure of Sanskrit, which led to the formation of many 'Sanskritoid' forms. These are particularly evident in the Mahāvihāra tradition, from which the Pāli texts that have come to us come almost exclusively. But even Dravidian languages, especially in the area of ​​syntax, had an influence on the Pāli, albeit far less than Sanskrit. And primarily this concerns the language of the commentators, who often came from the Dravidian-speaking south of India.
The Pāli canon of Theravāda Buddhism is the only one of a Buddhist school that is entirely preserved in an Indian language. It consists of three sections in which the sermons, texts on religious law and scholastic systematizations of the doctrine, the so-called Abhidharma, are collected. An extensive commentary literature makes all these texts accessible from the point of view of the 'orthodox' Theravāda. Amazingly few Pāli texts have survived outside of the Pāli canon. This indicates the great pull of the canon, which incorporated practically all the texts that Buddhism produced during the first thousand years of its existence.


The following article offers a compact overview of the Central Indian Pāli language:

Ralph Lilley Turner. Pali Language and Literature.

In: Encyclopaedia Britannica: A New Survey of Universal Knowledge. Volume 17: P to Plant Propagation. Chicago, London, Toronto 1959. 145-146.
The transliteration of the original has been modernized and some obvious typographical errors have been tacitly corrected. The page numbers of the original edition have been inserted in square brackets and boldface.