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(pä`lē), language belonging to the Indic group of the Indo-Iranian subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages. Some scholars classify it as a PrakritPrakrit
, any of a number of languages belonging to the Indic group of the Indo-Iranian subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages (see Indo-Iranian). The Prakrits are usually classified as Middle Indic languages that followed the Old Indic stage of Sanskrit and Vedic
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, or vernacular dialect of classical SanskritSanskrit
, language belonging to the Indic group of the Indo-Iranian subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages (see Indo-Iranian). Sanskrit was the classical standard language of ancient India, and some of the oldest surviving Indo-European documents are written in
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. Pali, a tongue of the Middle Indic period (see Indo-IranianIndo-Iranian,
subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages, spoken by more than a billion people, chiefly in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka (see The Indo-European Family of Languages, table).
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 languages) in which the Buddhist scriptures or canon (Tipitaka) were composed, became the main literary language of the Buddhists. As the number of Buddhists in India declined, Pali ceased to be employed in that country. The Buddhists of Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand, however, still use Pali as a liturgical language.


See W. Geiger, Pali Literature and Language (tr., rev. ed. 1968).



one of the best-known Middle Indic languages of the Indic (Indo-Aryan) group of the Indo-European language family.

Apparently, Pali was originally based on one of the archaic western Middle Indic dialects but later absorbed eastern Indic elements, Magadhi-isms. Pali is native to India but spread to Sri Lanka before the Common Era and to a number of countries east of India in the late first and early second millennia. The form established in Sri Lanka became Buddhist canonical language. Numerous religious, philosophical, scholarly, legal, and fiction works are written in Pali.

Four varieties of Pali are distinguished: the archaic language of the verse portions of the Pali canon, Tipitaka; the more uniform and regular language of canonical prose; the even more simplified and standardized language of commentary literature; and the language of recent literature, with its many new formations, deviations from rules, and foreign influences. Because of the exceptional cultural and historical significance of Pali that distinguishes it from other Middle Indic languages, Pali has been preserved as a living literary language in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It is used for religious and scholarly works, and is part of the spoken language of educated Buddhists. Pali has exerted considerable influence on a number of languages in Southeast Asia.

Characteristic of Pali is its system of five vowel phonemes, the absence of syllabic resonants, and the opposition of aspirated and unaspirated and cerebral and noncerebral consonants. The language shows an intolerance for the clustering of most obstruent phonemes, except germinates, and a tendency toward open syllables. The two-syllable law determines whether a syllable is long or short. Pali has a maximum of six cases that are contracted in a number of declensions and a verb system with three tenses and two aspects that interact. It also possesses a well-developed and regular syntactical system and the exceptionally complex semantic structures and vocabulary needed to transmit the ideas of the Tipitaka.


Minaev, I. P. Ocherk fonetiki i morfologii iazyka pali. St. Petersburg, 1872.
Elizarenkova, T. Ia., and V. N. Toporov. Iazyk pali. Moscow, 1965.
Mayrhofer, M. Handbuch des Pali, vols. 1–2. Heidelberg, 1951.
Perniola, V. A Grammar of the Pali Language. Colombo, 1958.
Warder, A. K. Introduction to Pali. London, 1963.
Rhys Davids, T. W., and W. Stede. The Pali Text Society: Pali-English Dictionary, parts 1–8. London, 1947–59.
Trenckner, V. A Critical Pali Dictonary, vols. 1–2. Copenhagen, 1924—60. (Ongoing publication.)


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