origins of Pali

Michael Witzel witzel at FAS.HARVARD.EDU
Mon Jan 10 22:00:23 UTC 2000

>Prof. Witzel, Substrates in OIA, EJVS, 1999 is quoted as saying:
>>But it has a form closer to meluHHa in Middle Indian (MIA): Pali, the
>>church language of S. Buddhism which originated as a western N. Indian
>>dialect (roughly, between Mathura, Gujarat and the Vindhya) has
>>milakkha, milakkhu.
>The view that Pali is a western dialect is largely dependent upon the
>Girnar version of the edicts of the Emperor Asoka. But there is much
>evidence to show that the similarities are due to the scribe at
>Girnar i.e. he has in effect Sanskritized (or put in a more 'learned'
>form) his exemplar. This naturally produces similarities with Pali,
>itself a Sanskritized form of Middle Indian.

This takes a very narrow view of a much larger complex of data. The view
that Pali represents an (increasingly Sanskritized) eastern dialect is a
not dependent on Girnar alone but on a broad range of phonetical features,
grammatical forms, and on the clear substitution of more western forms for
eastern ones (often retained in verses, well known since Lueders,
Urkanon: thus closer to the Koine the Buddha used in the greater
Bihar area). Unless all these data  can be explained away, no eastern
(Greater Magadha) origin of the Pali Koine.

(see: H. Luders, Beobachtungen uber die Sprache des buddhistischen
Urkanons; aus
dem Nachlass hrsg. von Ernst Waldschmidt.  Berlin, Akademie-Verlag, 1954. )

>K.R.Norman has discussed this point in various papers. It seems more
>likely that Pali originates somewhere further east i.e. in the area
>of larger Maagadha, rather than in the narrower area where the
>Maagadhii dialect (as later defined by grammarians) was spoken.

This view is, to say the least, debatable. See above. For summaries, see O.
v. Hinuber (Oskar von Hin¸ber),  Das aeltere Mittelindisch im Ueberblick.
Wien: Verlag der Oesterreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 1986;
and:cf. his: A Handbook of Pali Literature (Indian Philology and South
Asian Studies (IPSAS), vol. 2, Berlin/New York (W. de Gruyter), [July] 1996
pp. xiii + 257 (


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