1. Was Pali the language spoken during the time of the Buddha, and would he have spoken this language?
  2. Are the suttas contained in the Pali Canon verbatim what the Buddha said, or would things have been changed due to centuries of oral transmission?

5 Answers 5


The short answer is no, and no. The Pāḷi Canon is a translation. Although people in Central Ganges Valley all spoke closely related dialects at the time we think the Buddha lived. The problem of having different words for things was noted at least once in a Pāli text. In MN iii.234 (Araṇavibhanga Sutta) that there can be many local words for the same object, e.g. pāti, patta, vittha, serāva, dhāropa, poṇa or pisīla (all variations on 'bowl'). The text says that to insist on one name would be to cause conflict, and in any case one knows the object whatever it is called.

Pāḷi is a kind of formal language which was no one's vernacular, but was probably widely understood. It is similar in some ways to two different dialects as represented by the Asoka inscriptions: one in the West of Indian (Girnar) and one in the East (Magadha). In some of the earlier parts of the Pāli Canon, such as the Suttanipāta, the dialects are quite mixed up and it is confusing trying to translate them. Later things settled down.

The first answer, by Buddho, is rather speculative about the Buddha's language. There is no basis for this speculation. It's a guess with no evidence one way or another. As I say we do not know what language the Buddha spoke. In fact we do not really know what his name was, so how could we know his language!?

Secondly the texts are very clearly the result of a long process of telling, retelling, and editing. This is most clear when one compares the Pāli texts with those in Gāndhārī and Chinese. The different Canons are organised differently and within suttas words, phrases and large chunks of text get moved around. Some texts have clearly been tampered with and other were clearly written much later than the rest.

It's entirely possible that some of it was said by the Buddha and translated into Pāli with little loss of meaning. But we'll never know how much and how faithfully.

But the texts are no less fascinating for this I find.

  • 1
    Source material for these claims?
    – Adamokkha
    Commented Aug 16, 2015 at 21:10
  • 3
    For Pāḷi as a language see e.g. Jan Nattier. Church Language and Vernacular Language in Central Asian Buddhism. Numen. Vol. 37, Fasc. 2 (Dec., 1990), pp. 195-219 or K R Norman. A Philological Approach to Buddhism. - there are pirate copied online. For the structure of the different Canons see The Pāḷi Canon, the Chinese Tripiṭaka, etc. Many recent articles by Bhikkhu Anālayo which can be found here: uni-hamburg.academia.edu/venerableanalayo
    – Jayarava
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 6:48
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    Thanks for the much better answer. Quite honestly all matters of history are murky, especially when it is 2600 years old. I didn't want to definitively say no to the questions, because even that isn't a certainty. It's only the considered intellectual opinion of historians, not a certain fact. At best the answer is, we don't know.
    – Buddho
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 6:51
  • Hi Buddho. Yes, the answer is often "we don't know". With care we can often infer things about history. For example the Pāḷi canon mentions certain cities that we have good archaeological evidence for and thus the earliest texts must have been composed after the 6th century BCE. And they don't mention Asoka anywhere so must have been composed before the middle of the 3rd century BCE. And so on. But many facts are lost to history and we only have the later tradition to go on.
    – Jayarava
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 6:58
  1. The Buddha likely spoke in several dialects that were quite similar to Pali. He was immensely well traveled for his time, so in his travels he likely adopted the native dialect to be better understood by the locals. His words were only a small part of his teaching - his enlightened presence and conduct were likely better vessels of his teaching.

  2. The Pali canon is a consolidation of his talks, created only after his death. The content is very likely the same, but the rendition is only as Ananda and other disciples remembered him. The standardized repetitive form was created as an aid to rote memorization and oral rendition. There was certainly doubt in their minds as they set down the teachings that they'd not be able to replicate the vastness of the Buddha's being in mere words, but all the same they resolved to make a sincere effort, and the Canon that emerged was a result of seven months of deliberation.

See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Buddhist_council

Pali (Pāli) is a Prakrit native to the Indian subcontinent. It is widely studied because it is the language of many of the earliest extant literature of Buddhism as collected in the Pāli Canon or Tipiṭaka and is the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism.

Many Theravada sources refer to the Pāli language as "Magadhan" or the "language of Magadha". This identification first appears in the commentaries, and may have been an attempt by Buddhists to associate themselves more closely with the Maurya Empire. The Buddha taught in Magadha, but the four most important places in his life are all outside of it. It is likely that he taught in several closely related dialects of Middle Indo-Aryan, which had a high degree of mutual intelligibility. There is no attested dialect of Middle Indo-Aryan with all the features of Pāli. Pāli has some commonalities with both the western Ashokan Edicts at Girnar in Saurashtra, and the Central-Western Prakrit found in the eastern Hathigumpha inscription. 

Whatever the relationship of the Buddha's speech to Pāli, the Canon was eventually transcribed and preserved entirely in it, while the commentarial tradition that accompanied it (according to the information provided byBuddhaghosa) was translated into Sinhaleseand preserved in local languages for several generations. In Sri Lanka, Pāli is thought to have entered into a period of decline ending around the 4th or 5th century (as Sanskrit rose in prominence, and simultaneously, as Buddhism's adherents became a smaller portion of the subcontinent), but ultimately survived. The work of Buddhaghosa was largely responsible for its reemergence as an important scholarly language in Buddhist thought. The Visuddhimagga, and the other commentaries that Buddhaghosa compiled, codified and condensed the Sinhalesecommentarial tradition that had been preserved and expanded in Sri Lanka since the 3rd century BCE.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pali

See also, http://www.vridhamma.org/Pali-Overview-94-Seminar

  • 1
    I would like to state an ongoing objection to using wikipedia as a source.
    – Adamokkha
    Commented Aug 16, 2015 at 21:12
  • 1
    I respect that objection, however any encyclopedia is a starting point for research, not an ending point. Wikipedia is increasingly considered good enough evidence by many journalists, policy makers. Though not suitable as a primary source when writing a research paper, several research papers increasingly lean on Wikipedia as a tertiary source. For this forum, I believe Wikipedia is suitable since an answer relying on original sources in printed books is hard to follow up on. Perfect must not become the enemy of good.
    – Buddho
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 7:15
  • If you are still unconvinced I'd encourage you to start a thread on meta where you can state your concerns in greater length for others to weigh in on. Thanks.
    – Buddho
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 7:15
  • This thread continued on meta.buddhism.stackexchange.com/questions/1640/…
    – Buddho
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 18:30
  1. According to the Buddha's advice, early Buddhists composed and taught the Suttas in their respective vernaculars. So there was not an official language of Buddhism. Wherever Buddhism went, it adopted the local language of that region. Now, Pali was the native language of the region around Vidisha in central India as the Girnar inscription shows. The mother of Ashoka's son Mahendra was form Vidisha. Also, Mahendra started his missionary journey to Sri Lanka from here to reach the West Coast and sail to Sri Lanka. At that time, there was no written canon. So Mahendra just took some monks with him who knew different parts of the canon. Since these monks were from Vidisha region, they learned the Suttas in Pali and they taught these Suttas to the Sri Lankans who mistakenly thought that Pali was the mother tongue of the Buddha. Since then, this belief has been common in the Theravada countries. But it is clear from the above that there is no basis in this belief. The Buddha never went to Vidisha in his lifetime. He was a native of Koshala. So it is likely that he spoke the Koshalan dialect of Prakrit.

  2. Pali canon is the canon of the Theravada school which was just one of the many (the traditional number is eighteen but this is clearly an approximate one, the actual number may vary slightly) schools of sectarian Buddhism. These schools started to originate probably one and a half century after the demise of the Buddha. This schism process lasted till the birth of Christ and even afterwards. At present, we do not have the canon of the non-sectarian Buddhism. So we cannot expect whole of the Pali canon as verbatim words of the Buddha. Even so far as Theravada is concerned, the Pali canon was written in the last half of first century BCE, long after the formation of Theravada. Before that it was transmitted orally and might have been changed.


According to renowned Tripitaka translator and scholar Bhikkhu Bodhi (from here):

Scholars regard this language (Pali) as a hybrid showing features of several Prakrit dialects used around the third century BCE, subjected to a partial process of Sanskritization. While the language is not identical to what Buddha himself would have spoken, it belongs to the same broad language family as those he might have used and originates from the same conceptual matrix. This language thus reflects the thought-world that the Buddha inherited from the wider Indian culture into which he was born, so that its words capture the subtle nuances of that thought-world.

Please also see the book "The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts" by Bhikkhu Sujato and Bhikkhu Brahmali, as it contains a detailed analysis on how authentic are the Pali suttas. It may not be verbatim, but it is mostly authentic, according to their analysis.

The abstract states:

This work articulates and defends a single thesis: that the Early Buddhist Texts originated in the lifetime of the Buddha or a little later, because they were, in the main, spoken by the Buddha and his contemporary disciples. This is the most simple, natural, and reasonable explanation for the evidence.

Our argument covers two main areas:
1. The grounds for distinguishing the Early Buddhist Texts (EBTs) from later Buddhist literature;
2. The evidence that the EBTs stem from close to the Buddha’s lifetime, and that they were generally spoken by the historical Buddha.

Most academic scholars of Early Buddhism cautiously affirm that it is possible that the EBTs contain some authentic sayings of the Buddha. We contend that this drastically understates the evidence. A sympathetic assessment of relevant evidence shows that it is very likely that the bulk of the sayings in the EBTs that are attributed to the Buddha were actually spoken by him. It is very unlikely that most of these sayings are inauthentic.

The section called thesis states:

  1. That most of the Early Buddhist Texts (EBTs) are authentic.
  2. That the EBTs were edited and arranged over a few centuries following the Buddha’s demise. The texts as we have them now are not a verbatim record of the Buddha’s utterances, but the changes are in almost all cases details of editing and arrangement, not of doctrine or substance.
  3. That the inauthentic portions of these texts are generally identifiable.
  4. That the above points are supported by a substantial and varied body of empirical evidence.
  5. That the denial of authenticity is a product of excessive and unreasonable scepticism, not evidence.

The most important and genuine sayings are preserved, albeit scattered around, in Pali Tripitaka. Most are latter commentaries though.

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