Commentaries, Sub-Commentaries and Pāḷi Grammatical Literature

Māgadhabhāsā (Pāḷi) – A Compendious Grammar on the Language of Pāḷi Buddhism

A. Bhikkhu
Sāsanārakkha Buddhist Sanctuary (SBS)

Commentaries, Sub-Commentaries and Pāḷi Grammatical Literature

The aṭṭhakathā and ṭīkā traditions take the language of Magadha (māgadhabhāsā) to be a natural language – a delightful language indeed (Sv-pṭ – sīlakkhandhavaggaṭīkā, p. 6). As presented already above, the Samantapāsādikā vinaya aṭṭhakathā (Sp IV – cūḷavagga-aṭṭhakathā, p. 23) proffers the following annotation of the phrase sakāya niruttiyā as used by two Brahmins in the context of one cardinal (as it relates to linguistics) incident recorded in the vinaya, where they, still attached to things Vedic, complain about the way or language by adopting or use of which the Buddha’s teaching was spoiled:

“[…] herein ‘own tongue’ is certainly the common speech belonging to Magadha (māgadhiko vohāro) in the manner spoken (vuttappakāro) by the Perfectly Enlightened One.”

The 12/13th century CE Vimativinodanīṭīkā (Vmv, p. 125) interprets the relevant portion of the episode thus:

“They ruin (dūsenti) the word of the Buddha with their own language (sakāya niruttiyā) as it relates to the canon (pāḷi): ‘Surely, those of inferior birth who learn [memorize; the buddhavacana] are ruining [it] with the language of Magadha (māgadhabhāsāya) to be spoken by all with ease (sabbesaṃ vattuṃ sukaratāya)’ – this is the meaning.”

The Vinayālaṅkāra-ṭīkā (Pālim-nṭ, p. 180) from the 1600’s CE in turn as succinctly as possible glosses sakāya niruttiyā as māgadhabhāsā, the “language of Magadha.” 24 The Samantapāsādikā on another occasion (Sp I – pārājikakaṇḍa-aṭṭhakathā, p. 94) equates māgadhabhāsā seemingly with the Aryan language as a whole, thereby possibly referring to a supra-regional language.25 The indigenous Pāḷi grammars basically concur with the above. The Padarūpasiddhi, for example, mentions explicitly that the Buddha spoke a tongue belonging to Magadha (māgadhika), as recorded in the tipiṭaka (Rūp, 1999, p. 32) – for a detailed discussion concerning themes related to the last-mentioned point see Gornall (2014). The above is, as we have already seen at the beginning of this chapter, a sensible account of what language the Buddha employed, at least primarily.

In this connection it appears relevant to mention that the aṭṭhakathā tradition is not just an alternative scholarly opinion but rather constitutes strong additional evidence (cf. Karpik, 2019, p. 74), as Norman (1983, p. 119) spelled it out:

[…] some parts of the commentaries are very old, perhaps even going back to
the time of the Buddha, because they afford parallels with texts which are
regarded as canonical by other sects, and must therefore pre-date the schisms
between the sects. As has already been noted, some canonical texts include
commentarial passages, while the existence of the Old Commentary in the
Vinaya-piṭaka and the canonical status of the Niddesa prove that some sort of
exegesis was felt to be needed at a very early stage of Buddhism.

Furthermore, Buddhaghosa’s Samantapāsādikā contains over 200 quotations of earlier material, according to the indigenous tradition harkening back in parts to the first council (paṭhamasaṅgīti) held shortly after the demise of the Buddha (von Hinüber, 1996, p. 104). Surely Geiger must have based his deliberations to some extent upon the exegeses of the aṭṭhakathā, ṭīkā and grammatical traditions showcased throughout this section when he wrote (1916/1956, pp. 4–6):

[…] Pāli should be regarded as a form of Māgadhī […] Such a lingua franca
naturally contained elements of all the dialects […] I am unable to endorse the
view, which has apparently gained much currency at present, that the Pāli
canon is translated from some other dialect (according to Lüders, from old
Ardha-Māgadhī). The peculiarities of its language may be fully explained on
the hypothesis of (a) a gradual development and integration of various
elements from different parts of India, (b) a long oral tradition extending over
several centuries, and (c) the fact that the texts were written down in a
different country. I consider it wiser not to hastily reject the tradition
altogether but rather to understand it to mean that Pāli was indeed no pure
Māgadhī, but was yet a form of the popular speech which was based on
Māgadhī and which was used by Buddha himself.

Whatever the case may be when it comes to the nature of Pāḷi, perhaps Bodhi
(2020, p. 3) is right when suggesting: “If by some unexpected miracle transcripts of the original discourses should turn up in the exact language(s) in which they were delivered, one who knows Pāli well would be able to read them with perhaps 90 percent accuracy.”27 In thus manner the scope of modern scholarly assessments concerning the nature of Pāḷi partially extends, but a brief survey of the sociological environment and conditioning of the Buddha will conclude the account on the nature of Pāḷi as a language with the following section.

Pāḷi and the Buddha

The Pāḷi canon does not contain any record about which language the Buddha spoke, either as his native tongue, regarding potential standard dialects, a lingua franca or a koine. As a Sakyan, having possibly been nothing less than “junior allies”28 of the Kosalan kingdom, he possibly spoke an eastern Indic dialect as his native tongue but having received a thoroughgoing education in an aristocratic or royal family, he in all likelihood was multilingual (cf. Edgerton, 1953, p. 2; Karpik, 2019, p. 21; Levman, personal communication, April 28, 2020; Rhys Davids, 1911, p. 153; Warder, 1970/2000, p. 200). There is also evidence that his clan – the Sakyas – spoke Munda (part of the Austroasiatic language family) and/or Dravidian (Levman, 2019, p. 64). Be that as it may, as Warder (p. 201) and others pointed out, the Buddha spent most of his time in the kingdom of Kosala and much less so in the Magadhan or others, and it is outside of Magadha where Buddhism at first in the main spread, 29 although it expanded significantly already during his lifetime and reached nearly all other ancient Indian countries before the Magadhan supremacy (ca. 410 BCE30 and onwards; Warder, p. 202).

Thus, although we cannot be certain what kind of language the Buddha habitually
employed, it is at least safe to assume that he was multilingual. It is also well possible that he made regular use of a more universally established and widespread form of language – such as a pan-Indic high language, koine or lingua franca, the existence of which some scholars have argued for as we have come to see in the foregoing sections. This indeed might have been the Pāḷi language as preserved in the voluminous scriptures of Pāḷi Buddhism as we know them today, described by the tradition throughout under various names, such as māgadhabhāsā. Of that language the following grammar is a study.


It should be noted that both China and India have many dialects, but they both have a “common people’s language” that spans across greater unified regions. So while the language of Māgadhī might not match, it might not need to match.

  • 2600 years is a long time.
  • Half way around the globe is a long distance.

Judging things based on our own time and cultural land is a highly erroneous supposition to start one’s research.