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Pali: Language of Theravada Scripture

Pali: A Grammar of the Language of the Theravada Tipitaka, with a Concordance to Pischel’s Grammatik Der Prakrit-Sprachen by Thomas Oberlies (Indian Philology and South Asian Studies, 3: Walter De Gruyter)  It is merely a coincidence that after Oskar von Hinuber's A Handbook of Pali Literature we now have Thomas Oberlies' Pali. A Grammar of the Language of the Theravada Tipitaka. But this coincidence is not by any means unwelcome in that it once more underlines an important turning point in the development of Indian philology (in the continental sense of the word), viz. the breaking away from one-sided concentration on Sanskrit and Sanskrit literature alone and the extension of Indological studies to Middle Indo-Aryan languages, and the literature written in them. This 'change-of-paradigm' is not, as is well-known, a recent event; but in spite of the, indeed, already long tradition of Pali and Prakrit studies it is not yet possible to say that they are on a par with Sanskrit studies and have fully caught up with them.

The general significance of Dr. Oberlies' Pali grammar, which we are most happy to be able to publish in our series, is therefore a twofold one: Firstly, it is an attempt, and in my view a highly successful one, to bring together, analyse critically and utilize for his new handbook of the Pali language all that has been achieved by scholars working almost exclusively or mainly or even sporadically on problems connected with this language, in the last eighty years, i.e. since the publication in 1916 Wilhelm Geiger's Pali Literatur and Sprache as part of the predecessor of the JPSAS, the old Grundriss der Indo-Arischen Philologie and Altertumskunde.This new grammar of Pali will promote no less the study of this language and the vast literature composed in it. It is meant not only for fellow-scholars as a work of reference but also for students as an indispensable tool. Indeed, it is primarily for their benefit that all Pali elements are also translated.

Yet this new grammar is not, of course, just the outcome of an intelligent, diligent and comprehensive gathering of relevant materials. In reality it is the original work of a young scholar, and close friend of mine, who after his doctorate familiarized himself systematically with Pali philology, his first two articles in this field of studies being devoted, significantly enough, to problems of the language and to a Jataka story from the famous collection. The continuation of this twofold interest is further attested in his list of publications if one goes through it from 1989190 to the last entry (of the year 2000). Yet another feature of Oberlies' involvement with Pali studies becomes evident when one reads this list: Studies of individual problems, linguistic, text-critical or literary, lead finally to a comprehensive and fundamental discussion of the overarching problems. Thus his meticulous examination of various Jatakas - which shows how much Oberlies was able to learn from Alsdorf - are crowned by his two articles of 1993 and 1997 "Der Text der Jataka-Gathas in Fausbolls Ausgabe (Stand and Aufgaben der Jataka-Forschung 1)" and id. "II". Similarly, he winds up his studies on problems of the grammar of the Pali language in the article "Stray remarks on Pali phonology, morphology, and vocabulary. Addenda et corrigenda to Geiger's Pali Grammar" of 1996. And yet, reading this article again one realizes that even this was no more than a prelude to the much more comprehensive, original and also ambitious undertaking of writing himself a new grammar of Pali, offering a synthesis of the present state of our knowledge, on the one hand, and of his own opinions, observations and conclusions, on the other.

The result is in my view a big step forward in Pali philology, and Middle Indo-Aryan philology at the same time. I hope that this new handbook will be well received by all those who already know this language as also by those who wish to learn it and to thus gain access to the marvellous and highly fascinating world of Theravada Buddhist thought.


WILHELM GEIGER's Pali Literature and Language is truly a monumentum sere perennius - one of the great achievements of Indology. Since its publication in 1916, however, much water has flowed down the Rhine and a great number of scholars have added to our knowledge of Pali, in particular the `Northern' school of Pali philology as represented by e.g. DINES ANDERSEN and HELMER SMITH. And "however valuable as a descriptive grammar and as collection of material ... the Pali - Literatur and Sprache of Wilhem Geiger ... undoubtedly is, it is far from linguistic in purpose" (LOUIS H. GRAY, BSOS 8 [1935/37] 563). And so the fact that this grammar published so long ago has been "reprinted only slightly modified as a handbook and an introduction for beginners is truly remarkable. This is exactly what happened to GEIGER's Pali grammar ... when it was re­published by the Pali Text Society as `A Grammar of Pali by WILHELM GEIGER, translated into English by BATAKRISHNA GHOSH, revised and edited by K. R. NORMAN"' (VON HINOBER 1999: 148). This publication should therefore not be regarded as a new Pali grammar, which is still a desideratum. What a pity HEL­MER SMITH declined when asked by WILHELM GEIGER to prepare a second edition of his grammar!

When towards the end of 1997 Professor Dr. GEORGE CARDONA asked me to write the chapter on Asokan Prakrit and Pali for The Indo-Aryan Languages (ed. by GEORGE CARDONA and DHANESH JAIN) I was obliged to bring together and sift through my Pali collectanea. During 1998 I prepared a draft Pali gram­mar in order to have a solid base for my contribution to CARDONA's and JAIN's handbook (to be published by Curzon Press). Since then I have continually re­worked my Pali grammar, included references therein to secondary literature covering research done down to the year 2000; and I have prepared extensive indexes. The result now lies before you. But restricted as it is to the language of the canonical Pali texts - despite some exceptions (e.g. Dip, Mhv, Mil) - this grammar can be regarded only as a complement to `Geiger', and like `Geiger' it lacks a chapter on Pali syntax. To make a long story short: a new `Geiger' com­prising all stages of Pali, registering all forms with their references and giving an up-to-date description of the Pali syntax has yet to be written. That this grammar may prove helpful for such an enterprise, I have taken the step of adding mea­nings to all words and references if such cannot be found with the help of CPD or PED; and I have appended concordances of the present grammar to `Geiger' and

VON HINUBER's Uberblick (see p. 356-360) and to RICHARD PISCHEL's Gramma­tik der Prakrit-Sprachen (see p. 361-380). As the phonological development of Pali in the main runs strictly parallel to that of the various Prakrits, this Pali grammar might be of some help for the study of Prakrit as well. And as it is unlikely -to the best of my knowledge -that a new `Pischel' will be published in the near future, I have decided to include a short summary of the paragraphs of `Pischel' and to add a number of addenda et corrigenda pertaining to particular problems.


Pali is the language of the texts of the Theravadins, an ancient school of Hinayana Buddhism. The Theravada tradition has always claimed that the language the Buddha spoke was Magadhi - i.e. an eastern language - and that this language was the same as that of its canonical texts, a language now called Pali (a designation which originally meant `text' and whose use as the name of a particular language seems not to antedate the 18th cen­tury'). And indeed we might expect that the language early Buddhism made use of was essentially an eastern one, current in the Gangetic basin in the 5th century B.C Pali, however, as we have it, is basically a langua­ge of western India, as the edicts of Asoka clearly show. Some of its salient features it shares with the western edicts.

Many Pali words and forms - "with `frozen' phonetics" are relics from an earlier eastern dialect in which the `texts' of early Buddhism were (orally) handed down. This proto-canonical language - akin to the administrative language of the Maurya king Asoka (268-232 B.C.) and based on an artistic MIA `Dichtersprache' which was in use long before the time of the Buddha - was in many ways, when compared with 01A, further advanced than the western dialects of its time': Internal voiced occlusives had been lost, while the surds were voiced (p- to -v-), original initial y- had (at least in some words) already become j_2 , and the gender distinction was about to break down (etc.). That meant that the `texts' were transformed into a more archaic language (unless the words were taken over unaltered) as Bud­dhism spread westward'. And that process over-reached itself in not a few instances. In that way Pali originated as a mixture of different dialects, as a kind of lingua franca. From the west of mainland India, where the Buddhist communities using Pali as their sacred language settled, the `texts' were brought to Ceylon during the reign of Asoka. In the monasteries of that island they were handed down orally until they were committed to writing during the coun­cil of Matale, held under the auspices of king Vattagamani Abhaya (27-19 B.C.). The main part in the tradition of the Tripitaka and its commenta­ries' was played by the Mahavihara of Anuradhapura; this fundament of the Theravada school was so dominant that another Pali tradition independent of it is now documen­table only in traces. The Pali of the 'Mahavihara'-texts has phonetic features which it shares with no other form of MIA and which strongly suggest Sanskritisation. This is the result of the great influence Sanskrit exercised on Pali, notably in the 12th century when the texts were revised on the basis of (the Burmese) Pali grammars which were heavily influenced by the works of Panini and other Sanskrit grammarians.

Pali as a MIA language is different from Sanskrit not so much with regard to the time of its origin than as to its dialectal base, since a number of its morphonological and lexical features betray the fact that it is not a direct continuation of Rgvedic Sanskrit; rather it descends from a dialect (or a number of dialects) which was (/were), despite many similarities, different from Rgvedic. Pali is by no means younger than (`classical') Sanskrit as archaisms prove.

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