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

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

A. Bhikkhu
Sāsanārakkha Buddhist Sanctuary (SBS)


Grammar and phonetics are a vital part of the indigenous Buddhist traditions,
right from the era of the Teacher’s (i.e. the Buddha’s) floruit and throughout history up until modernity, constituting not only the foundation for preaching the dhamma to the people but also for understanding the subtleties of it in the first place (Subhūti, 2018, p.4). Thus we find evidence that those disciplines were invested with integral significance already in the nearly ubiquitously accepted earliest layers of Buddhist lore, to quote the Aṅguttaranikāya:

These two things, bhikkhus, lead to the confusion and disappearance of the
good dhamma (saddhammo), which two? Badly- (or “wrongly”, “incorrectly”)
settled words and syllables (or “letters”) and misinterpreted meaning.
Bhikkhus, the meaning of badly-settled words and syllables is misinterpreted
[…] These two things, bhikkhus, lead to the continuance of the good dhamma,
what two? Well-settled words and syllables and well-interpreted meaning.
Bhikkhus, the meaning of well-settled words and syllables is well interpreted
(AN II – dukanipātapāḷi, p. 7 [AN 2.20]).

Bearing that in mind, the attempt to elucidate, elaborate upon and enrich the grammar of the Pāḷi language as undertaken with the present work seems a meaningful endeavor.

This Māgadhabhāsā (Pāḷi) grammar, as it is named, was originally not intended
to reach the extent it has now. The initial prospect was to create an informal and more or less makeshift conglomerate of relevant material mainly for personal studies and general use. However, the inspiration roused by the thought about the spiritual merit (puññaṃ) gained by creating and sharing something more fundamental and reliable by investing just some extra labor (quite a bit in the end actually) led to the initial makeshift design being worked upon to lose its rough edges and growing in bulk.

With that, the aims, methods and rationales of the present Pāḷi grammar are as

(a) Lubricating access to the information contained in numerous modern Pāḷi
grammars written in English by collating the dispersed material contained within them. People who wish to learn about grammatical rules and principles – either on a broader spectrum or at all – are compelled to track them down in the thicket of the widely scattered grammar inventories as separately given by the various available grammars.These works, mostly fine and outstanding works of scholarship in their own right, each individually often contain valuable data and perspectives not found in the other ones, and these are attempted to be distilled and presented with this Pāḷi grammar.

(b) Facilitating identification of and providing explicit reference to most of the grammatical rules contained in the Kaccāyanabyākaraṇaṃ (Kaccāyana), the oldest extant Pāḷi grammar, as well as to selected ones from other traditional grammars. The complete lack of or just sporadic referencing to the indigenous grammars – a commendable exception to this being Collins’s A Pali Grammar for Students (2006) – is not a trifling defect. Not to say that the content which is tendered in such manner is thereby flawed per se, but it possibly presents disbenefits for a variety of individuals, such as those who wish to gain familiarity also with the source grammars, or those who are more skeptical by nature about the validity of unreferenced material. To my knowledge, neither such a blend as attempted here nor the consistent referencing to classical grammars has been effected as of this writing, so that some benefit – however small – might hopefully be derived for the reader from the following pages. This potential benefit will, it is hoped as well, not suffer much from the following limitations of the present grammar.

• It does not throughout throw into relief the different ancient grammarian’s
views and presentations (that of Moggallāna, Aggavaṃsa etc.)
• Some informative modern grammars have not been taken into consideration.
• It does not deal with prosody.

The structure is primarily modelled after that of Kaccāyana and references (incl.
page numbers) to works in the Pāḷi language as well as quotations from them are directed to and from the Chaṭṭhasaṅgāyana editions (PDF files) of the Vipassana Research Institute, Igatpuri, India, also commonly known as the Burmese edition (Be), with the exception of one quotation from a European edition (Ee). Since traditionally proper names and titles of books are not capitalized in the Pāḷi language, this practice is continued here for the actual Pāḷi texts quoted; however, it is, for obvious reasons, discontinued for such individual Pāḷi words contained in the running text written in English.

Those who are not interested in word formation and derivation but mainly wish
to have an avenue quickening access to specific rules – and thereby to the Pāḷi texts themselves – may skip entire chapters and/or the sections on formation contained within most of the remaining ones. They may directly proceed to those parts of the book discussing actual usage, holding the most relevant information for comprehending the syntax and meaning of the Pāḷi text one wishes to understand.

Let it be finally remarked, however, that a proven way to gain a broader and deeper grasp of the Pāḷi language is to get also familiar with word formation and derivation principals; therefore, it is recommended.

Most copiously consulted grammars in English medium were:

Ānandamaitreya, B. (2012). Pali made easy.
Buddhadatta, A. P. (1997). The new Pali course (Vols. I–II).
Collins, S. (2006). A Pali grammar for students.
Dhammajoti (2018). Reading Buddhist Pāḷi texts.
Duroiselle, C. (1997). Practical grammar of the Pali language.
Frankfurter, O. (1883). Handbook of Pali.
Gair, J. W., & Karunatillake, W. (1998). A new course in reading Pāli.
Kaccāyana Pāli Vyākaraṇaṃ (Vol. 2; 2016) (Thitzana, Trans.)
Ñāṇadhaja (2011). Light on the pronunciation of Pāḷi.
Oberlies, T. (2019). Pāli grammar. The language of the canonical texts of Theravāda Buddhism – Phonology and morphology (Vol. I).
Perniola, V. (1997). Pali grammar.
Warder, A.K. (1967). Pali metre.
Warder, A. K. (2001). Introduction to Pali.
Yindee, P. P. (2018). A contrastive study of Pali and English.

Traditional grammars which were utilized (except for Kaccāyana, mainly, but not exclusively, used for the chapter on Pāḷi pronunciation):

Kaccāyanabyākaraṇaṃ (1999). Vipassana Research Institute.
Moggallānavyākaraṇaṃ (1999). Vipassana Research Institute.
Padarūpasiddhi (1999). Vipassana Research Institute.
Saddanītippakaraṇaṃ I (1999). Vipassana Research Institute.
Saddanītippakaraṇaṃ II (1999). Vipassana Research Institute.
Vidyabhusana, S & Punnananda (Eds.) (1935). Bālāvatāra – An elementary Pali grammar abridged for the undergraduate course.