Paali is a member of the Indo-European family of languages, together with most languages of Europe, Iran and northern India. Inside this family it belongs to so-called Middle Indo-Aryan languages. This group is also called Prakrits in Indian linguistic works. Paali can be considered as one of the oldest surviving Prakrits.


The origin of Paali is still unclear. It was for a long time considered to be identical with Maagadhii, the Prakrit of Magadha, where the Buddha spent most of his life and teaching career. This ancient region is situated in modern Indian state of Bihar, in North-Eastern India. But more careful examination in recent years showed that Paali bears closer resemblance to Prakrits of Western India than to that of Magadha. The famous Indian emperor and patron of Buddhism A`soka, who lived only a few centuries after the Buddha, left many inscriptions all over his empire which stretched far beyond the borders of present day India. All these inscriptions were written in local vernaculars, using different scripts that were in use in that place and time. Paali is very close in grammar and orthography to the language of the inscriptions in what is now the Indian state of Uttarpradesh.


Therefore it is safe to assume that Paali was created artificially, probably not on purpose, but rather as monks and nuns from different parts of India came into contact with each other and were forced to adapt their vernaculars to new environments in order to understand and be understood.


Paali was and is written in many different scripts. In India, it was written in ancient Indian scripts Braahmii and Kharo.s.thii. When Buddhism spread to other parts of the world, local people used either original Indian scripts (so Kharo.s.thii was used for a long time in Central Asia) or switched to their own local scripts. So in Sri Lanka, Paali is written in Sinhalese script, in Burma it is Burmese script, in Thailand Thai script and in Cambodia the Khmer script. Finally, when Western scholars and practitioners started to learn about Buddhism, they used Roman characters to write Paali language.


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Miroslav Rozehnal

November 2001