origins of Pali

L.S.Cousins selwyn at DTN.NTL.COM
Tue Jan 11 10:29:48 UTC 2000

Professor Witzel writes:

(I wrote:)

<excerpt>>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.




<excerpt>This takes a very narrow view of a much larger complex of
data. The view

that Pali represents an (increasingly Sanskritized) eastern dialect 


I presume you meant 'western' here.

<excerpt>is a

not dependent on Girnar alone but on a broad range of phonetical

grammatical forms, and on the clear substitution of more western forms

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.


This depends upon the degree of dialect variation further east. In
fact, it is clear that Pali contains material with origins in various
dialects. But that is not the issue. The issue is whether

a specific geographical link can be shown for the third or second
centuries B.C. If Girnar is discounted (as it must be), then there is
very little evidence as to precisely what the dialects were on the
ground in the third century B.C.

So it is no use claiming a 'broad range of phonetical features', etc.
What precise evidence do you have which locates specific features and
forms with specific geographical areas in this period?


>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.


Debatable, yes. But there is no justification for the 'to say the

<excerpt>See above. For summaries, see O.

v. Hinuber (Oskar von Hin¸ber),  Das aeltere Mittelindisch im

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]

pp. xiii + 257 (


The latter states: 'The evidence, on which these conclusions are based,
are (sic) the inscriptions of A'soka (3rd century BC), which allow us
to draw a very rough linguistic map of northern India'. So OvH does
indeed give primacy to the inscriptions of Asoka. In the present
context that means the inscriptions at Girnar (and the fragments from
Sopara), as these are the only western examples.

He also gives a footnote reference to his Ueberblick, but I have so far
been unable to buy a copy of that. (It went out of print rather quickly
!) I will check the reference in the library later on today. But I do
not doubt that he takes a rather conservative view on this issue.

Possibly one of the most recent discussions by K.R. Norman is:

"The A'sokan Inscriptions and Prakrit Dialect Geography" in
N.N.Bhattacharyya, _Jainism and Prakrit in Ancient and Mediaeval India:
Essays for Prof. Jagdish Chandra Jain_, Delhi, Manohar, 1994, pp.

As far as I know, Roy Norman is not a subscriber to Indology; so let me
cite from p. 55 (in the concluding paragraph):

"If we can disregard the evidence of the A'sokan inscriptions and
assume that the situation in the second century B.C. reflects the
pattern of dialect distribution of the third century, then it would be
open to us to conclude that the dialect upon which Pali is based had
its home much nearer Magadha. As I have recently pointed out, when the
Maagadhisms and Sanskritisms in Pali have been disregarded, there is,
in fact, very little difference between the language of the Theravaadin
canon and the language of the Haathigumphaa inscription."

(The reference is to <fontfamily><param>Geneva</param><smaller>Norman,
K.R., "The Languages of early Buddhism," in
Colloque Étienne Lamotte</fontfamily><fontfamily><param>Geneva</param>,
pp. 83-99, 1993.)

</fontfamily></smaller>Earlier in the paper examples are given of
various cases (some of them new) in which A'sokan inscriptions are in a
dialect which cannot have been that locally current. The most striking
example remains Sopara (near to Girnar) which consistently changes l to
r, even when this is historically inappropriate. It is very difficult
to believe that the local dialect actually had phara (for phala) or
ma.mgara (for ma.mgala).

Lance Cousins  



L.S.Cousins at or selwyn at
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