Other Theravada Sources
A Guide to
by John Bullitt
Learning the Pali Language
Revised: 10 November 1999
I've gathered here some basic information that may be helpful as you embark on your study of the Pali language.
It's not difficult to learn a litte Pali through self-study, using a textbook or two or three as a guide. Many people find it helpful (not to mention just plain more fun) to study with others, either in a formal classroom setting or in an informal Pali study group. For many of us, the goal is not to become expert scholars and translators of the language, but simply to become acquainted with the basics of the language so as to enrich our personal understanding of the suttas and the Buddha's teachings. For self-study, Warder's Introduction to Pali or de Silva's Pali Primer are the basic texts. Johansson's Pali Buddhist Texts Explained to the Beginner is also useful.
Formal classroom courses in Pali are offered at many universities with strong Eastern Religions departments, as well as several Buddhist studies centers and institutes. Some university-level Pali courses require previous acquaintance with Sanskrit. If you are looking for a Pali teacher, consider asking around at a university to see if there might be a graduate student willing to tutor you or your study group, perhaps for a small fee. Also, some professors may be willing to let you audit a course without going through the official university registration process.
There are a number of good websites offering Pali resources that may be of help in your search for Pali teachers and study aids.
Alas, there is no standardized method for displaying Pali's accented characters on computer screens. Over the years, many different methods have been adopted in an attempt to express Pali diacritics using the limited character sets available to personal computers. Some of these strategies are:
- Ignore them altogether. This is the method generally used here at Access to Insight (although I have used the palatal nasal ñ because it is easily implemented using HTML).
For example, the first precept would be written thus:
panatipata veramani sikkha-padam samadiyami.
- Double the vowels, punctuate the consonants. Two basic rules are observed: (1) long vowels are doubled: aa ii uu. (2) For consonants, the diacritic mark precedes the letter it affects. Thus, the retroflex (cerebral) consonants are: .r .t .th .d .dh .n .m .s .l; the palatal nasal becomes ~n; the guttural nasal becomes "n. This method has been used for many years in e-mail correspondence among Pali and Sanskrit scholars. It's precise, although it does take some getting used to:
paa.naatipaataa verama.nii sikkhaa-pada.m samaadiyaami.
- Fake it using HTML. HTML has a few characters that take care of some of the letters OK. For the long vowels you can use some sort of accent: ä ï ü, à ì ù, â î û etc. The palatal n is straightforward: ñ. Whatever method you adopt, be consistent. Example:
pâ.nâtipâtâ verama.nî sikkhâ-pada.m samâdiyâmi.
- Use capital letters. Capitalized letters represent letters with an accompanying diacritic. This method is simple, but it has ambiguities (e.g., how to distinguish between palatal and guttural n?). Example:
pANAtipAtA veramaNI sikkhA-padaM samAdiyAmi.
- Use a Pali font. There are several Pali fonts available for both Macintosh and Windows computers. K.R. Norman's Pali fonts (TrueType and PostScript versions, for Mac and Windows) are good -- and free:
these fonts may be found in the "extras" folder of this CD.
Pierre Robillard's DPalatino and DTimes fonts (for Macintosh computers) are excellent, and have been used for many years by Wisdom Publications. Many of their books, including The Long Discourses of The Buddha (by Maurice Walshe) and The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli & Bhikkhu Bodhi), were set almost entirely in DPalatino. Several years ago these fonts were available as part of Robillard's "Tibetan on the Macintosh" font package, at a cost of about US$70 from Snow Lion Publications (PO Box 6483, Ithaca, NY 14851-6483; Tel: 800-950-0313 or 607-273-8519).
There are quite a few Pali books out there, but so far none surpasses the breadth and depth of A.K. Warder's superb Introduction to Pali. de Silva's Pali Primer, a relative newcomer to the Pali textbook scene, offers a light and refreshing complement to the high-density Warder. If you're trying to learn Pali on your own, it can be helpful to have several books to turn to, as each offers its unique perspective on the language.
- Introduction to Pali, by A.K. Warder
London: Pali Text Society, 1963; rev. 1991
464pp, with exercises.
About $13 from Pariyatti Book Service, Seattle. Companion cassette tape also available.
Known popularly as "Warder," this is the standard Pali textbook widely used today. It is systematic and thorough, ideally suited to those with some prior familiarity with basic linguistic concepts (case, declension, gender, etc.) or to the motivated newcomer. Although beginners may at first find some of Warder's explanations impenetrable, it's still the best overall Pali textbook around.
The companion cassette tape is well worth purchasing, as it gives the student a good idea of what "real" spoken Pali should sound like.
The newest edition of the book contains answers to many of the exercises. If you own a copy of one of the earlier editions, you might want to have a look at some of the answers to the exercises.
- Pali Primer, by Lily de Silva
Igatpuri, India: Vipassana Research Institute, 1994
Vipassana Research Institute
Available by mail order via the Pariyatti Book Service.
This is a nice first book for those who think they're not ready yet for Warder. Each chapter focuses on a single concept of Pali grammar, and contains numerous exercises. I found, though, that there comes a point in the book (somewhere around Lesson 11) when the brief grammatical introductions in the beginning of the lessons begin to fall short. In particular, there is no explanation of word order in Pali sentences. At this point, Warder -- or a teacher -- can come to the rescue. An Appendix to the book, containing solutions to the exercises, is forthcoming from the publisher.
- Pali Buddhist Texts Explained to the Beginner, by Rune E.A. Johansson
Scandinavian Institute of Asian Studies Monograph Series, No. 14. London: Curzon Press, 1981
This book consists of 52 short chapters, each consisting of a brief passage from the Pali Canon along with a word-for-word grammatical analysis and translation. Useful to the student with some prior grasp of the fundamentals of Pali, or when used in parallel with Warder (above). It also stands well on its own for newcomers who wish to develop a "feel" for the language. An excellent 25-page summary of Pali grammar appears in the back of the book. The book has been difficult to find in the US lately, although it has surfaced in bookshops in Britain and Asia. If you can't find it, write to the publisher: Scandinavian Institute of Asian Studies, Kejsergade 2, DK-1155 Copenhagen K.
- A New Course in Reading Pali: Entering the Word of the Buddha
New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1998
207pp. ISBN 81-208-1440-1 cloth, 81-208-1441-x paper. About $20.
I haven't seen this one yet, although I've heard several favorable reports about it. From the dust jacket (courtesy of Henry Grossi):
"This book is intended to serve as an introduction to the reading of Pali
texts. For that purpose it uses authentic readings especially compiled for the
purpose drawn largely from Theravada canonical works, both prose and poetry.
The readings are in Roman script, and carefully graded for difficulty, but
they have also been selected so that each of them is a meaningful and complete
reading in itself, so as to introduce some basic concepts and ways of thought
of Theravada Buddhism. This book thus offers an opportunity to become
acquainted with the ways in which the teachings of the Buddha are embodied in
the language; a sense that is impossible to determine from English translations. The book contains 12 lessons. Each of them has three parts: (1)
a set of basic readings and an accompanying glossary, (2) grammatical notes on
the forms of the lesson, and (3) a set of further readings with its own
glossary. The further readings introduce no new grammatical points, but
reinforce ones already presented and give further practice in them. The work
concludes, fittingly, with the Buddha's first sermon, The
Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. A cumulative glossary and index to the grammar
is also provided."
- The New Pali Course -- Parts I & II, by A.P. Buddhadatta
Available for about $4 + shipping from the Buddhist
Cultural Centre, Sri Lanka.
Topics are arranged systematically in short, digestible chunks (e.g., "The Alphabet," "Pronunciation," "Parts of Speech"). Sometimes more explanation would be helpful. Lots of good exercises, but no answers are given. This would work best in a teacher-led course, rather than as a tool for self-study.
- Pali Language by E. Muller
Delhi: Bharatiya Book Corporation, 1986
144pp. Available at bookstores in Asia.
A compact grammar, written in 1884. Sanksrit students may find it useful, as it compares and contrasts Pali and Sanskrit at every turn. Not recommended for the rank beginner.
- A Pali Grammar, by N.C. Vidyabhushan and M.K. Ghose
Calcutta: Kiron Moy Ghose, 1982
90pp. Available at bookstores in Asia.
Another Pali grammar, similar to The New Pali Course, above, but without any exercises. Useful as a compact reference book after you've learned the basics.
- Buddhist Dictionary, by Nyanatiloka Thera
Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1988
260pp. About $20, from
Pariyatti Book Service, and the Buddhist Publication Society.
This one is a classic. It's a fascinating mixture of Pali and English words, arranged in English word order (e.g., "Killing... Kiñcana... Kiriya... Knowledge..."). Most entries have thorough explanations with references to passages in the Pali Canon. Excellent tool for beginner and veteran, alike.
- Concise Pali-English Dictionary, by A.P. Buddhadatta
Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1989
295pp. Available by mail from the publisher: Motilal Banarsidass, Bungalow Road, Jawahar Nagar, Delhi 110 007, India.
Very handy for quickly finding the meaning of a word, without the detailed grammatical and contextual analysis offered by the Pali-English Dictionary.
- English-Pali Dictionary, by A.P. Buddhadatta
London: Pali Text Society, 1979
588pp. $48 through Wisdom Publications.
What are the various Pali words for "mind"? How do you say "penknife" in Pali? (!) This handy book can be particularly valuable when exploring Pali-English translations -- your own or others'.
- Pali-English Dictionary
London: Pali Text Society, 1986
754pp. About $40, from Pariyatti Book Service.
The primary table-top reference tool for the Pali student. Affectionately known as the PED.
Revised: 10 November 1999