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Pali ( पाळि Pāḷi , German 'the text' , the line ') is a Middle Indian language. Whether Pali was ever a spoken language is considered controversial. Today it is classified more as a literary language . Pali is one of the Prakrit languages.

Pali and Buddhism

Pali is closely related to Buddhism . During the first phase of Buddhism (around 500 BC to 1st century BC) the core of the Theravada Buddhist scriptures developed . During this time the sacred texts were transmitted orally. The Buddha presumably taught in Ardhamagadhi ; however, nothing of the historical words of the Buddha has survived. What the old canon was, there are only translations in other languages, including Sanskrit and Pali. Only the Pali canon , which dates back to the 1st century BC, remains complete . Was recorded in writing.

Even today, Pali is a sacred language in Southeast Asia and its meaning is similar to Church Latin in Western Europe or Church Slavonic in Russia. Even today, educated monks write religious texts in Pali in order to make them accessible to the international monastic community (especially in Myanmar , Thailand and Sri Lanka ).

Sanskrit and Pali

Sanskrit and Pali share many vocabulary similarities. The similar basic structure in the grammar (three genders , function of the cases , tenses , modes , etc.) is also remarkable .

In Pali (as in Sanskrit) all eight cases of the Indo-European original language have been preserved: nominative , vocative , accusative , instrumental , dative , ablative , genitive and locative . The dual of Sanskrit does not exist.

Sanskrit and Pali are phonetically similar. The two sh sounds of Sanskrit (ś, ṣ), however, do not appear in Pali, nor do vowel r and l or the diphthongs ai and au. In addition, Pali uses short e and o as counterparts to the long ē and ō of Sanskrit. In the place of consonant connections in Sanskrit there are single or double consonants in Pali (for example Sanskrit Nirvana , Pali Nibbana ).

Despite its similarities to Rigvedic Sanskrit, it has morphonological and lexical differences that suggest that it is derived from one or more dialects that differed from Rigvedic Sanskrit.

Research history

Copy of Girnar's Ashoka inscription (written in Brahmi script .)

TW Rhys Davids suspected that Pali was the language of the Kingdom of Kosala , which also included the Kingdom of Shakya, the home of the later Buddha Siddhātta Gotama . Westergaard and Kuhn saw the dialect of Ujjayini, today's Ujjain ( Madhya Pradesh ) in Pali, because Pali is closest to the language of the Ashoka inscriptions of Girnar ( Gujarat ) and because Mahinda (273–236 BC, son of Ashoka ), which dates from around 250 BC. Preached Buddhism in Sri Lanka when the native language was the dialect of Ujjayini.

Pali and Magadhi

In Sri Lanka and other Theravada Buddhist countries, Pali was believed to be identical to Magadhi, the language of the area where Buddhism originated, i.e. H. the area of ​​today's Patna . However, it could be shown that there are two different dialects (see Prakrit ). In addition, a number of Sinhala words later penetrated the Pali in Sri Lanka , as well as words of the local languages ​​in the other countries of Theravada Buddhism; Pali shares this effect with most of the world's sacred languages.


Pali does not have its own script , but is written with different local scripts depending on the country. In Sri Lanka , Pali was recorded mainly in Sinhala , in Myanmar with the Burmese script ; both scriptures are derived from the Brahmi script . Pali texts have also come down to us in Siddham script. In the West and in the academic world in general, the Latin script has become common today (using the Romanization of the National Library of Calcutta ).

The pronunciation of Pali is basically characterized by the application of the usual pronunciation rules of the script used or by the phonetic content of the respective mother tongue of the person who recites or reads Pali by heart.


In Thailand, sacred texts were written in the Khom script ( Khmer script ) for a long time . Prince Vajirananavarorasa , a son of King Mongkut (Rama IV) , developed a system for writing correct Pali using the Thai script . The consonants and vowels hardly differ from the common Thai script, but different rules apply to the reading. The reading is based on the origin of the Thai script, the Indian Brahmi script . With a small modification, this system is still used today in the sacred area and especially in Pali studies. In the books for recitation in the temple, the Pali text for Thai laypeople is usually written in the way they are used to, i.e. without the use of special characters and with writing out the short A, which according to the Brahmi reading is automatically inherent in a consonant is, if it is not switched off by a special character or replaced by another vowel diacritical (vowel mark).

Although the Thai script is based on the Indian Brahmi script and has retained all the consonant signs from Indian, the different phonemes in Thai and the change in sound mean that Pali sounds different from the Thai mouth than the pronunciation rules for Indian languages ​​suggest.

Literary testimonies

The Chronicles of Sri Lanka

Mahāvaṃsa ("Great Chronicle") and Dīpavaṃsa ("Chronicle of the Island") are the chronicles of the Sinhalese written in Pali. The Mahavamsa is a chronicle that has been handed down orally for over a thousand years and is finally written down by the Buddhist monk Mahānāma. The Dipavamsa was thought to have been around since the 4th century BC. Written in BC. Mahānāma wrote the Mahavamsa in the time of King Mahāsēna (274-301). The first sequel to the Mahavamsa was written by a poet named Dhammakitti, who lived at the time of King Parakrāmabāhu I (1153–1186). A second sequel extends to the time of Parākramabāhu IV (1302–1326), and the final part deals with the history of the island up to the time of King Kīrti Srī Rājasiṃha (1747–1781). The Mahavamsa cannot be regarded as a historically reliable source as it states, among other things, that the parents of the Sinhalese founding father, Vijayan, were children of a lion and a Pali woman. The Indologist Wilhelm Geiger presented the authoritative, critical edition of the Mahāvaṃsa in 1908 and a translation into English in 1912.


  • Achim Fahs: Grammar of Pali. Leipzig (2nd corr. Edition), 1989, ISBN 3-324-00284-2 .
  • Thomas Oberlies: Pāli - A Grammar of the Language of the Theravāda Tipitaka. Hamburg 2001, ISBN 3-11-016763-8 .
  • Klaus Mylius: Dictionary Pali-German - With Sanskrit index. Buske, Hamburg 1997, ISBN 3-87548-393-6 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. See, for example, Ludwig Alsdorf : The Āryā stanzas of the Pali canon, produced metrically and examined in terms of the history of the text (= treatises of the humanities and social sciences class of the Academy of Sciences and Literature in Mainz. Born 1967, No. 4).
  2. ^ Thomas Oberlies: Pāli: A Grammar of the Language of the Theravāda Tipiṭaka . In: Indian Philology and South Asian Studies . tape 3 . Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 2001, ISBN 3-11-016763-8 , p. 6 .
  3. ^ Niels Ludwig Westergaard, Ernst Wilhelm Adalbert Kuhn: A simplified grammar of the Pali language .