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21-05-2015-LESSON 01 on Tipiṭaka by Online FREE Tipiṭaka Research and Practice University in all Classical Languages
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21-05-2015-LESSON 01 on Tipiṭaka by Online FREE Tipiṭaka Research and Practice University  in all Classical Languages


translate this GOOGLE translation in your Mother Tongue and all other
languages you know to  become a SOTTAPANNA , a STREAM ENTERER to attain


Tipiṭaka was originally written in a ancient Indian language called
Pali which is very close to the language spoke by Buddha himself. The
Tripitaka is a very large book and in English translation it takes up
nearly forty volumes

There are different parts to the tipitika,
and different parts were created by different people.  The Sutta-Pitika
and the Vinaya-Pitika were created primarily by the Buddha.  All of the
other parts were created by various people in the centuries that

Book of Buddhism: Pali Canon

1st century BCE, earliest of Buddhist texts were gathered to form a
comprehensive collection. The collection was referred to as  “Tipiṭaka”
(in Pali), which translates to “three baskets,” as it is divided into
three main sections. Book of Buddhism’s Pali version is also known as
“Pali Canon.” Verses in the Tipiṭaka are not considered completely
authentic, as it was compiled 480 years after Buddha’s death, still it
is considered as Theravada Buddhism’s doctrinal foundation, and its
verses are acknowledged as sayings of Buddha.

The First Buddhist Council

originated after death of Buddha in 480 BCE, when about 500 of Buddha’s
disciples gathered in Northwest Jambudipa, which was previously known
as Rajagaha. This gathering was later regarded as the First Buddhist
Council, and its purpose was to review and preserve Buddha’s teachings.
Mahakasyapa, convener of the Council was Buddha’s most outstanding
student, who became the leader of sangha (community of ordinate monks),
after Buddha’s death. The Council reviewed Buddha’s rules regarding
monastic discipline, after they were recited by a monk named Upali. Monk
named Ananda, a close companion of Buddha had a prodigious memory,
recited Buddha’s sermons, and the Council agreed that his recitation was

Two of Three Baskets

and Upali’s presentations helped form the first two sections.The
Vinaya-pitaka (the basket of discipline) is attributed to Upali’s
recitation. This collection of texts concerns rules of conduct and
discipline for nuns and monks. The writings not only list the rules but
also provide an explanation of circumstances in which they came into
being.The Sutta-pitaka (the basket of suttas), contains thousands of
discourses and sermons attributed to Buddha and his closest disciples
recited by Ananda. The basket is subdivided into five collections
(nikayas). Some nikayas are again divided into vaggas. It is believed
that Ananda recited all of Buddha’s sermons, but some of these -
Khuddaka Nikaya (collection of little texts) ? were not incorporated
into the book before the Third Buddhist Council.

The Third Buddhist Council

Pali Canon version was completed following the Third Buddhist Council.
Another basket, The Abhidhamma-pitaka (basket of special teachings)
contains analyses and commentaries of suttas. It describes the spiritual
and psychological phenomenon of suttas, and provides enough theoretical
foundation to understand them. The contents of the third basket were
formulated by Buddha during the early days of awakenment. After seven
years had passed, he preached its teachings to devas (gods). Its
teachings were passed onto monks by one of Buddha’s disciples named
Sariputta. Teachings were preserved by memorizing and chanting.

At Last the Tipiṭaka is Written

Fourth Buddhist Council was convened during the 1st Century BCE in Sri
Lanka, where the Tipiṭaka was finally written on palm leaves. Buddha’s
sermons had been chanted and sung for over five centuries before they
existed in written form. As about five centuries had passed since
Buddha’s death, there appeared no certainty regarding authenticity of
Tipiṭaka’s text. In any case, the truth behind these teachings has been
confirmed by generations of practicing Buddhists.

book of Buddhism known as Tipiṭaka in Pali is one of the earliest
Buddhist scriptures. It is the most comprehensive of Buddhist spiritual
texts, written in Pali language. The verses in Tipiṭaka are believed to
be Buddha’s own words that were chanted and memorized for centuries
before being written down on leaves during 1st century BCE. Tipiṭaka is
divided into three sections or baskets, collection of Buddha’s sermons,
disciplines for monks, and analyses of different Buddhist concepts.

Translations of
Three Baskets



ပိဋကတ် သုံးပုံ
[pḭdəɡaʔ θóʊɴbòʊɴ]

(pinyin: sānzàng)

(rōmaji: sanzō)


(RR: samjang)



Tam tạng

Akkhara Muni

Ian James
© January 2010, November 2011

script name

This is an experimental script for Pali, the ecclesiastical language of Buddhism.
Pali is normally written in the Sinhala, Khmer, Burmese, Devanagari,
Lao or Thai scripts, or with the Latin alphabet using diacritics.
This script has a Classical serif font style,
with shapes based on those of ancient Brahmi and Pallava,
which were the ancestors of the Indic scripts just mentioned.
It aims at a unified, linear effect, without complicated
vowel placement or diacritics. The name means Letters of the Sage.


Most letters are quite easily recognizable from their counterparts in other Indic scripts.
As with almost all Indic scripts, and different from Ariyaka,
consonants have an inherent short /a/ if no vowel letter is written.



The glottal plosive acts as a prefix for initial vowels, as is found in many Indic scripts.
The two extra /s/ glyphs are for Sanskrit words. The dotted /m/ suffix is a vowel nasalizer,
being a common Pali morpheme. It may be noted the retroflex laterals are not encoded;
they are considered allophones of the retroflex plosives, emerging in speech when between vowels.


The written vowels follow their consonants in all cases,
in a linear, single-channel manner; this is unlike most Indic scripts,
whose vowels end up all over the place. The /ai/ and /au/ glyphs are for Sanskrit words.
A “no vowel” mark may be used to cancel the inherent short /a/,
as is required for consonants which close a syllable.


Punctuation etc

The “no vowel between” mark is for non-final, cluster or sandhi situations
where the consonants run together. Where a consonant is doubled, a colon-shape is used in place of the
second component. Note that where an aspirated consonant is doubled, an unaspirated form arises as the first
component of the gemination; in Akkhara Muni, only the aspirated consonant is written, and any loss
of aspiration due to doubling is ignored in writing.


Please note that Akkhara Muni seeks to capture the phonetics of the language,
and not duplicate existing systems of spelling. Even so, some further work may be required to
deal with all phonological conditions adequately, and/or simplify common morphological situations.


These are based on my own poor reading of the Romanized Pali, and so may not perfectly reflect the
classical pronunciation. Ideally, we will want to read and hear something close to what the Buddha
himself might have said.

1. This is the first verse of the Dhammapada.

example of script

transliteration in Pali

“Mind precedes all mental states, mind is their chief, they are all mind-wrought.
If a person speaks or acts with an impure mind,
Suffering follows him like the wheel follows the foot of the ox.”

2. This is the 154th verse of the Dhammapada.

another example of script

“Oh house-builder! You are seen, you shall build no house (for me) again.
All your rafters are broken, your roof-tree is destroyed.
My mind has reached the unconditioned; the end of craving has been attained.”

A version of this page can also be found on

See also:
Thai and Lao for writing Pali, and
the Ariyaka script created by King Rama IV of Siam.

the Buddha teaching (anonymous image)


All material on this page © Ian James.
Last modified May.25,2012

Thai & Lao Scripts for Writing Pali

Ian James
© March 2010

Pali language name in Thai script

Thailand and Laos are important guardians of Buddhist scriptures,
preserving in particular scriptures in the Pali language. For the writing
(or transliteration) of Pali, the Thai and Lao scripts have had to be
modified slightly. While the letters match the earliest assignments of
Indic writing systems to Thai/Lao phonemes, pronunciation adheres to the
modern local system, rather than the original Pali phonemes.
For reading Pali in Thai it is perhaps enough to remember
that the inherent (unwritten) vowel is /a/ instead of /o/.

Series consonants

This shows the usual arrangment of Pali letters.
Thai is a tonal language, and assigns a tonal class to each consonant:
those in red are high-class, green are middle-class, black are low-class.
See the Pitch chart below for the implications of tonal class.
All consonants have an inherent vowel /a/.

series consonants: Thai-Pali

tail-less letters

Non-series consonants

This shows the usual arrangment of Pali letters:

non-series consonants: Thai-Pali


The non-final vowel /a/ is not written. For the many clusters and doubled consonants
of Pali we must make use of the vowel-silencing dot phinthu.

vowels: Thai-Pali


A syllable’s tone (pitch contour) is determined by the class of the
syllable’s initial consonant. The tone rules for standard spoken Thai are then
evoked to supply the chant’s melody. It should be noted that a simpler chart than usual
is sufficient, because in Pali closed syllables are always short.
Note: long includes short-vowel syllables ending with a nasal consonant.

Consonant class: high middle low
Syllable length: short long short long short long
Tone: low tone rising low tone mid tone high tone mid tone

Chanting of Pali in Thailand typically engages Dorian mode; a pitch example might be:

high tone F
mid tone D
low tone C
rising CD or CE or CF


punctuation: Thai-Pali

Lao consonants and vowels for Pali

These charts include * Pali-specific letters invented by the Institut Bouddhique in 1937.

Series Consonants:

series consonants: Lao-Pali

Non-series Consonants:

non-series consonants: Lao-Pali


vowels: Lao-Pali

See also:
the Ariyaka script for Pali, created by King Rama IV of Siam,
and my Akkhara Muni script.

big Buddha statue (photo by Saijai Thammawat)

All material on this page © Ian James.
Last modified May.19,2010

Resources for Learning Pali

The classical, literary language of Theravada Buddhism

With special reference to problems of indigenous orthography and phonology

[Image: a Pali quotation in the Ashokan and Classical Burmese scripts]

“All rights reserved, all wrongs reserved”, by…

Eisel Mazard (大影)

Last update: September, 2010

Revised editions of three, free Pali textbooks, for download as PDFs!
Narada’s Textbook De Silva’s Textbook Duroiselle’s Textbook
(introductory) (intermediate) (compendious)



While there are many pages with resources for learning Pali, there is very
little available on the web today to ease the transition from (reliance upon)
Romanized phonetics to indigenous scripts. In order to make Pali seem easier to
learn, many websites and textbooks seem to suggest that the Roman alphabet is
all that you’ll ever need to know. I hope I’m not the first to tell you this is
not true

Learning at least one traditional Pali system of orthography will actually
make understanding the language easier, and learning several different
systems of writing will open up a vast world of published materials to you –not
to mention the beautiful and ancient traditions of palm-leaf manuscripts and
stone epigraphy.

The Pali language has not one script but many; the fact that there
are so many scripts is hardly a pretext for learning none of them. The
greatest number of books and manuscripts are found in Sinhalese,
Burmese, Khmer-Muul, or closely related scripts of South-East Asia
(Lao-Dhamma, Lanna, etc.). There are also some modern Indian
publications that typeset Pali in Devanagari (i.e., the same script used
for modern Hindi and Sanskrit), and, of course, the modern vernacular
script of Thailand has been adapted to print Pali (although the
classical tradition uses Lanna in Thailand’s North-West and and Khom
throughout the rest of the country).

A “Rosetta Stone” of Four Palic Scripts

This “Rosetta Stone” file will provide a basic overview of how three Asian
writing systems relate to one-another, along with a short
quotation from a Pali sutta to be comparatively examined with the Romanized phonetics
provided. While this may seem daunting at first, consider that most of what you need to know is here displayed on a single page.

Pali Rosetta Stone

There’s a further table of Pali alphabets provided here.
This is not an exhaustive manual for the writing systems in question,
however, this website as a whole provides sufficient information so as
to enable you to make use of vernacular textbooks (viz., for
modern Khmer, Burmese, etc.) with a degree of certainty as to how the
writing systems apply to the classical language (and, e.g., an awareness
of the differences between modern and classical phonetic values
assigned to the glyphs). There are certainly some drawback to this
method, and I recall sitting down with a copy of Learn Yourself Sinhalese
[sic!] years ago, and trying to figure out how the modern ligatures
compared to the classical in writing Pali (as opposed to Vernacular

There is yet another leap for the imagination in moving from ink to
the scratches found on palm leaf manuscripts. Practice in reading
printed editions needs to be supplemented both with one’s own
penmanship, and, eventually, with reading the word as scribes set in
down on palmyra in various eras and regions.

Without exception, all of the writing systems described on
this page have, in the last 200 years, made an imperfect transition from
glyphs wrought with knives to the “cold type” of the modern era. In
each of these countries, the current generation is more familiar with
the forms of letters produced by typewriters (and found in newspapers)
than the ligatures required by the anicent language. Whereas a total
outsider may find these differences small, native readers of the
vernacular tend to come to a complete halt at an unfamiliar consonant
cluster (so too, the difference between Latin and Greek is small, yet
most native English speakers would be stumped in reading a text peppered
with occasional Greek consonants). In some instances, the
simplifications that have made the modern language easier to render in
metal type are obstructions to the classical form, and, resultantly, we
now require entirely separate typography for Pali; in other instances,
the differences are negotiable.

Three “Renditions” of the Loka Sutta

The following set of three files will also be useful to beginners:
presents an excerpt of text from the Loka Sutta (with an English
translation) in
a different South East Asian script, with parallel Romanized phonetics
on the
right. Thus, for practise, you might want to download all three, and
compare them. This translation (”perhaps more provocative than
precise”) is now many years old, and so there is a temptation for the
author (gradually advancing in his own ability) to remove it from the
internet; however, I don’t think the function of these files would be
improved by smothering such a rendering in grammatical observations, and
so the reader may enjoy it all the same.

Loka Sutta Excerpt (Khmer) | Loka Sutta Excerpt (Sinhalese) | Loka Sutta Excerpt (Burmese)

Converting Pali Text Between Scripts

Pali works are increasingly available in (imperfect) e-texts, almost
all of them Romanized. In the few years since this website first
appeared, a greater and greater portion of these electronic editions
have come into conformity with the Unicode standard for the peculiar
glyphs that Romanized Pali requires (ṭ, ḍ, ṇ, etc.) –ensuring that the text is at least stable and can be properly manipulated in various formats.

However, in all of its native scripts, Pali combines consonants and
vowels into clusters, with one cluster representing one syllable; it is
thus neither a strictly alphabetic system nor truly a syllabary. The
Unicode standard is not nearly so well adapted to this Indic tradition
of stacks and ligatures joining complex sounds together; most of the
problems are dealt with “at the software level”, which is to say that a
line of Unicode Pali text is unlikely to display properly across
platforms. Unicode ensures that the sequence of letters is recorded, but
the way they combine and display as sets of syllables is left to the
software and the font to resolve. This means that separate software
engineers will have to come up with separate solutions for separate
platforms (Xenotype did it for Mac, but quite a lot of work has to be
done and re-done with each new version of the O.S., just to keep these
complex languages working on a single platform).

This is fundamentally different from the situation with (e.g.)
Chinese. While Chinese may be difficult to write with a pen, from the
computer’s perspective it follows a simple one-to-one correspondence
between symbols and encodings (the sequence doesn’t matter, and the
symbols do not modify one-another by adjacency, neither combining nor
stacking nor even joining with ligatures). Conversely, Sinhalese,
Burmese and Cambodian are quite well suited to the pen, but the computer
has to figure out how to assemble (e.g.) k+kh+i into a syllable, so that the i is on top of the k, and the kh
is properly aligned underneath them both. Of course, the computer
“figures it out” by following a set of instructions written by a human

Thus, if you want to convert Romanized Pali into any of its native
(Asian) scripts, you will need to write up a long series of instructions
for every possible syllabic combination. The pattern would need to
replace kkha with ក្ខ, kkhā with ក្ខា, and so
on, organized in descending order of complexity, so that the program
substitutes the longer sequences of combined consonants first (then
moves on to shorter, simpler syllables). It is not possible to
substitute isolated consonants (nor vowels) because the “combining mark”
itself must be encoded (as a separate keystroke) in every syllable of
more than one consonant. Obviously, to replace Latin a with the Pali initial vowel a (අ, အ, អ) would be uniformly incorrect, for any or all of the native scripts.

In theory, this can be accomplished through any transliteration
application or programmable editor (e.g., BBEdit). In practice, your
time might be better spent copying out palm-leaf manuscripts in

Quick link to: Orthography, Phonology, Organization of the Canon, Download Textbooks, & Further Resources.

Phonology in Praxis (§1)

Every Pali textbook opens with a description of the language’s phonology in theory,
but few students will be aware of how huge a gap there is between those
theoretical values and what they will encounter in Pali recitation,
conversation, and cognates. A large part of this will make sense (and
can only make sense) if you understand the way in which the same systems
of orthography inconsistently express classical and vernacular
phonetics; thus, e.g., while Cambodian textbooks rightly claim that the
vernacular language is “entirely phonetic”, and Pali textbooks claim
that the classical language is “entirely phonetic”, there are two
different systems of interpretation applied to one system of orthography
(viz., Khmer script, in this instance) to yield two conflicting sets of phonetic values.

The influence of the Mon and Khmer scripts spread over a huge range
of mainland South-East Asia, adapting to serve as the medium of an
amazing array of (vernacular) languages; when used to write Pali, the
great variety of these writing systems are revealed as stylistic
variations on one and the same “system” inherited from India (with two
predominant sources of inspiration in the Mon and Khmer respectively)
but with very different phonetic assumptions arising from the habit of
reading the same script as used for the local vernacular. Thus, e.g.,
in modern Thai orthography, the reader has to interpret a Pali loan-word
quite differently from a word of Thai origin (or, indeed, a word of
Khmer origin); to pronounce one as the other would sound absurd –and,
nevertheless, many absurdities have crept into the pronunciation of Pali
in Thailand. Generally, the modernization of orthography has
exacerbated the tendency to conflate the classical and the vernacular
(in Thailand); the old Lanna and Khom scripts helped to keep the
pronunciation of “proper Pali” discrete from its cognates in the spoken

Many Europeans have a similar problem with Romanized Pali, e.g., mis-pronouncing the Pali digraph th as indicating the English eth sound (ð), the Greek theta (θ), or the Norse thorn (Þ); but in Romanized Pali “th” always
indicates a “hard t” sound of the aspirated, dental variety. I continue
to meet Western PhD candidates who cannot pronounce “Theravada”
correctly. I would imagine that if no-one in their PhD program has
informed them that θɛrəvɑdə is wrong, their thesis examiner may owe them a refund.

This suffices to say that many of the problems of phonology (in
praxis) are closely related to issues of orthography –as the latter
often entails phonetic assumptions that either directly stem from the
local vernacular, or are related to some prior stage of the language’s
development and interchange with spoken and written forms in the region.

While I’ve called these phonological “problems”, they aren’t “problems” at all if you’re properly prepared for them. With practice, you can simply adapt to hear “gissami” and interpret it as “gacchāmi
(in this instance, the monk speaking would be Burmese); but the
available Pali textbooks do little or nothing to help the student
prepare to deal with these issues, and it is rare to find a vernacular
language textbook written by someone with enough specialized knowledge
to say anything useful about Pali.

Worse, many Westerners (and Westernized Asians) seem to assume that
monastic orthodoxy can be expected to adapt to the aesthetic norms set
out by the “Western tradition” (viz., A.K. Warder). The study of the language as it is
has been perceived to be of little importance compared to the dogmatic
assertion of what it “should be”. What Western Buddhists imagine they
know about the language, and assert as a trans-historical ideal is
certainly not informed by the Pali language’s own grammatical and
prosodical literature; we should look to the latter literature if we
want to speak of an historical ideal, or else direct our attention to
the real (in all its quizzical imperfections) as we encounter it in the
extant, indigenous traditions.

Although the observations I can offer below are by no means
exhaustive, they may be numerous enough to seem rather discouraging
(depending upon the attitude of the student). If you have “grown up” on
Romanized Pali, imagining that you would hear the langauge (in Asia) the
way it looks on the printed page of European editions, you may well
wonder how it is possible to undertand Pali chanting at all; the answer
is that it is quite easy, provided you have already memorized the
passage being recited.

How Cambodians Pronounce Pali

(Phonology §2)

The struggle to reform the Khmer pronunciation of Pali is ongoing,
along with the general concern for the restoration of Cambodian culture,
literature, and religion, after the devastation of several sequent
cycles of war (ending only in 1998). The notion of what constitutes a
refined accent (in Phnom Penh) has utterly changed in recent decades,
and will likely change again in the decade to come. The way Pali is
recited, and that classical loan words are pronounced, must be expected
to change also, though all of the same forces that ensure the mutability
of the spoken word in Cambodia ensure that nothing shall change the way
these words are written on the page. While derivative spellings in
Thailand and Laos are slipping further and further into gobbledygook, we
find the original terms preserved on the street-signs of Phnom Penh,
just as they’re spelled on Cambodian stone inscriptions of centuries

Some will wonder why Sanskrit is not mentioned before Pali in the
Cambodian context. Contrary to popular belief (and much of the history
as manufactured for tourists) the advent of Sanskrit influence (and its
preeminence as a source of vocabulary) in the 7th century is now known
to be coeval with the earliest extant Pali inscriptions (variously found
at Angkor Borei and Go Xoai; Peter Skilling, 2002, JPTS XXVII, p. 160 et seq.).
While Sanskrit certainly had the greater eminence (though not
precedence) in that early period, Pali has been of increasing linguistic
importance (in providing loan-words, etc.) since the 11th century.
(Judith Jacob, 1993, Cambodian Linguisitcs, Literature and History, S.O.A.S., London. p. 151) It is thus a bit misleading when sources suggest that the Theravada has merely dominated the last millennium, as it is naturally this relatively recent
“legacy” that the modern language is burdened with. While the early
history of Buddhism and Pali in Cambodia remains speculative, there is a
widespread assumption based on the epigraphic record (or lack thereof)
that Pali had supplanted Sanskrit as the literary language of Cambodia
from the 14th century onward; M.V. wrote in to emphasize to me that this
assumption is poorly founded, and indeed the reader should be warned
that this is the case. Thus, e.g., Goonatilake remarks that the
succession of 1327 “…saw the abrupt end of Sanskrit inscriptions giving
way to Pāli as the official language.” (Hema Goonatilake, 2003, “Sri
Lanka-Cambodia Relations with Special Reference to the period 14th-20th
centuries”, J.R.A.S.S.L., XLVIII, 2003, p. 201). This sounds
reasonable, but it is really an argument ex silentio. To this,
we may contrast Vickery’s interpretation of an inscription of 1308 as as
the first appearance of formal, royal patronage for Theravāda Buddhism
in Cambodia. (Vickery, 2004, Cambodia and its Neighbors in the 15th Century, Asia Research Institute, Working Papers Series № 27, N.U.S. [available online], p. 5).

Of the 31 contrasting vowel sounds that Huffman considers vernacular
Cambodian to employ, the (mis-)pronunciation of Pali should (logically)
only stumble over 16. (Huffman, 1970, p. 8-9, downloadable here) This is because Pali employs 8 vowel glyphs (a, ā, i, ī, u, ū, e, o)
that are then interpreted with reference to the context provided by the
two classifications of Khmer consonants (none-too-memorably dubbed
“series 1″ & “series 2″); these classifications each entail their
own implicit assumptions (or “rules”) governing adjacent vowel sounds.
Thus, 8×2=16. To this must be added the reduction of more complex
sequences of vowels and consonants to sounds inferred from familiar
vernacular usage (and these are not so easily enumerated).

With time, changes in phonetic assumptions can result in changes in
lexical semantics. Two different Pali words are now conflated as Khmer piel (ពាល), namely, vāla, “malicious”, and bāla, “youthful; ignorant, foolish”.

The Cambodian word for grammar reads veyyākaraṇa (if transcribed letter by letter, as we would read Pali in the same script), but is pronounced something like weɪ-yɪə-kɔː (retaining its v-, unlike vāla in the former example). Simplifying classical polysyllables like -karaṇa to modern monosyllables such as -kɔː is a difficult habit for a native speaker to break from, and harder still for an outsider to imitate.

English has similar vices; we are no less arbitrary in our
appropriations from ancient languages. The reduction of the Greek prefix
sun- to English “syn-” changes the vowel sound, but not the meaning; the adaptation of Old English āwiht into both “aught” and “ought” is, just as inexplicably, pronounced as ɔt in either case. The digraph gn appears with the same etymology and even the same modern meaning in “pugnacious” and “impugn” –yet the correct pronunciation is utterly different in the two [gneɪʃəs vs. ɪmpjun].
In English as in Cambodian, wherever readers see familiar patterns of
spelling in alien languages (ancient or modern) they tend to impose the
assumptions closest to their own experience. Untold millions of English
speakers continue to mispronounce the Latin loanword “mores” as if it
rhymed with “stores” (whereas the correct pronunciation [mɔreɪz]
rhymes with “rays” and “faze”). So too, Pali and Sanskrit must be
forgiven such idiosyncrasies as they’ve developed during their long
period of retirement in Cambodia.

The sixteen principle possibilities may thus be summed up as follows, with some clarifications following after the chart:

[Image: a chart of some of the oddities detailed below]

We must clarify the information provided in the chart under two
headings: the vowel sounds implied by the phonetic symbols, and the
rules (along with their exceptions, sometimes not indicated above).

  • The sound implied by the simple vowel symbol o (e.g., #5 in the chart above, c + u = co)
    is not quite so simple. Huffman (1970, p. 10) remarks that his use of o
    sometimes tacitly indicates a “slightly dipthongized [oᵘ̯]” . Possibly
    reflecting a real difference in the dialects observed, this same vowel
    sound is identified as IPA ɔ (viz., as in the pronunciation of the English word “awe” as a whole) by Jean Michel Filippi, et al., 2004, Everyday Khmer,
    Editions Funan. In general, Filippi’s textbook uses the IPA system to
    describe Khmer with a high degree of accuracy, and is thus much more
    useful than its modest binding might make it appear (especially as a
    comparative study with Huffman, 1970, as the latter is not entirely precise in its use of phonetic symbols).
  • We have something of a modern mystery as to exactly what
    sound Judith Jacob intends with the symbol ɤ (e.g., #2 in the chart
    above, j + ā = iɤ. Jacob’s articles on things Cambodian were collected into one rare volume as Jacob, 1993, op. cit. supra).
    This symbol is now technically denominated as “the ram’s horns”; the
    IPA modified the Greek consonant gamma (ɣ) to represent a vowel sound
    not easily indicated by the Latin script. Unfortunately, this was a
    relatively recent change to the IPA standard, and one has to raise an
    eyebrow at ɤ for most sources before 1993. Apart from the symbol,
    various published authorities differ as to the actual sound observed
    (i.e., likely reflecting different dialects and even idiolects found
    amongst Khmer speakers). Filippi (2004) prefers ɜ, whereas Huffman (1970, p. 26) simply uses the schwa (e.g., for the same combination given as
    on the chart above). In every case, it is an unrounded vowel sound of
    some kind, perhaps most easily imagined by English speakers as an “eu”
    or “uh” sound. All sources indicate that it is somewhat more “open”
    than the central, unrounded ɨ, but they seem to disagree as to how far back toward the throat the sound may originate.
  • Another example of such a problem of imprecision is the sound denoted as εe (#7, c + e = cεe); this could arguably be written as εi instead, and Huffman transcribes it simply as ei (1970, p. 9, though the definition of the sound suggests that neither e nor i is quite accurate here).
  • Rule 5 notes the possibile addition of a glottal stop in parenthesis (thus, j + u = jʊ or jʊˀ).
    These glottal stops are in no way marked in the Khmer script, but
    arise as if tacit in the vernacular formation of words; they are
    fundamentally alien to the logic and phonetic range of Pali. Huffman
    tries to describe their arising in terms of a distinction between
    stressed and unstressed syllables; if this is a working hypothesis, it
    would entail the need for a separate article broaching the logic of
    imputing stressed syllables to Pali loanwords and Khmer-Pali chanting.
    If not, a better hypothesis will be wanting. In either case, the
    question goes beyond the scope of this website.
  • Rule 3 gives an instance whereby the addition of a glottal stop also changes the vowel sound before it: c + i = ci, however, c + i + glottal = cεˀ.
    This lends some further interest to the question of whether or not
    glottalization (in Pali and Sanskrit loanwords) arises through pure
  • The question of how a palatal consonant modifies the
    outcome of rule 7 is raised by Huffman, 1970, pg. 27 (№27). The
    modifications Huffman observes are (prima facie) highly
    plausible, as they both move the vowel sound further back in the mouth
    (in advance of a consonant sound similarly located); thus, e.g.,
    permuting to ɨ eases the transition to a palatal consonant, such as a “ch” sound (NB: Pali c = IPA ). However, no such change is observed in the Phnom Penh dialect by Filippi, et al., 2004, p. 292 et seq.

The rules, above, are merely illustrative, yet they are sufficient to
demonstrate the tendency of Cambodian speakers to modify Pali and
Sanskritic vowels (in accordance with the strange logic implied by the
adjacent consonants they are clustered with, in the Khmer orthography).
Unless an effort is made to overcome this reflex, the tendency prevails
as “naturally” as the imputation of tone by native speakers of tonal
languages. An outsider’s reaction to all this would likely be, “Wouldn’t it be simpler to pronounce Pali as Pali, and Khmer as Khmer?”

Indeed, native English speakers may well be asked why they do not
simply pronounce Latin as Latin, or Greek as Greek; evidently, the vast
majority of us cannot even perceive these as separate phonetic systems
at work within our own language. It would indeed be simpler to
extricate the ancient from the modern, and address ourselves to them as
discrete, yet what is simple cannot always be easy. Inevitably, a very
small minority of Cambodians will develop an interest in Pali (either as
a language and literature unto itself, or for its strange role within
the vernacular Cambodian tradition) –just as a small minority of
English speakers must wince as the majority go on mispronouncing mɔreɪz.

How the Burmese Pronounce Pali

(Phonology §3)

We begin with the caveat that modern Burma is comprised of many
different cultures belonging to several fundamentally different language
groups: what may be said (in general) about the pronunciation of a
“Burman” monk may not hold true for a Shan, Mon, or Arakanese monk.

Obversely, Burmese orthodoxy has had a massively centralizing (and
standardizing) effect over several centuries –so much so, that (e.g.)
the Shan no longer consider their own script(s) suitable for Pali, and
even prefer to use Burmese letters for tattoos (perhaps the most
tangible form a dead language can assume).

My summary of Burmese pronunciation of Pali has been wholly based on audio recordings;
as such, it is perhaps the weakest part of this website, because my
observations have not been verified by the experience of living with the
spoken language (as of 2010, I’ve never spent any length of time in
Myanmar, cf. the map
below). At long last, I received some feedback from a native speaker
of Burmese (A.K.) who evidently had a very good understanding of I.P.A.,
and who offered some corrections, based on his own experience (and some
of these suggestions are now incorporated into the text following, with

One of the problems with phonetic observations is that the use of Pali loan-words (as assimilated into the vernacular language) inconsistently correlates
to the formal recitation of Pali texts. Conversely, the tiny minority
of monks who have achieved a high level of literacy in Pali are likely
to pronounce the language in unique idiolects (influenced by their
studies, at home or abroad, by a comparative knowledge of Indian
languages, or a number of language attitudes and ideologies). In the
ensuing discussion, we’re limited to imprecise heuristics –though my
informant (A.K.) insists that the vast majority of Burmese monks
formally chant the language with the same phonetic patterns applied to

The Burmese pronunciation of Pali can be summed up in two aspects:
the fairly consistent consonant-substitutions, and the inconsistent,
context-sensitive vowel changes.

The consonant substitutions will not present any special difficulties
for the student, as they are perfectly arbitrary, and therfore make
perfect sense:

[Image: a chart of some of the oddities detailed below]

  • The Pali c is pronounced as “s” (& ch becomes “sh”).
  • The Pali j is pronounced as “z” (& jh becomes “zh”, with no audible distinction, I am told, from “z”).
    • I note there is a nice coincidence here, as it may well have been that 2,500 years ago the Pali j
      was pronounced as “z”; I believe K.R. Norman suggested this on the
      evidence of comparing Avestan to Vedic, with some corroboration derived
      from the earliest extant transliterations of Pali and Prakrit words into
  • The Pali p is pronounced as “b”; there may yet be some audible distinction from the the Pali b proper, but I am oblivious to it. Geminates involving b, p and their aspirated counterparts seem to be mutually-indistinguishable.
  • The Pali r is inconsistently pronounced as “y”. It may be that sometimes an initial r is sounded out as “r”, but a medial (especially subscript) r seems inescapably reduced to a “y” sound.
  • In the audio recordings of Pali being formally chanted, the s
    (သ) is normally pronounced as “t” or “d” (but, exceptionally, as “g”,
    explained below). In normal usage, Burmese-Pali loan-words transform
    this “s” to (IPA:) θ (i.e., a “soft th” sound, as in the English word thought). Correspondingly, my informant tells me that Burmese monks recite (Pali) sukha as
    (IPA) “θṵ kʰa̰”, i.e., consistent with its usage as a loan-word. The
    audio recordings I have heard are not consistent with this, but this may
    be a point whereby educated monks distinguish their own learning (I
    have no direct experience within Burma, but I recall a Cambodian monk
    telling me proudly how he reproached younger monks for failing to
    pronounce the Pali a vowels correctly, i.e., that he displayed his own learning with this shibboleth).

    • The Pali ss (သ္သ) is often pronounced like a “g”; my
      informant writes in to correct me, that this is more accurately a
      glottal stop (IPA: ʔ). As an example, he offers manussa appropriated as (IPA:) manouʔθa̰.
      However, the audio recordings, I could hear this glyph instead
      pronounced as a double “s” sound from time to time, i.e., again showing
      that formal Pali chanting is not entirely consistent with the pattern of
      interpretation that native speakers apply to loan-words.
    • Even the (single) initial Pali s is sometimes spoken as a “g/ʔ” sound, especially where it follows after a complex sound/glyph, such as a velar-n compound. In the recordings, words starting with sam- are frequently indistinguishable from gam-, and this seems almost to be a form of vernacular euphony, following on the final niggahīta (ŋ) sound of the prior word.
  • It is needless to say that the Burmese rules for the
    simplification of a final consonant sound could be erronenously applied
    to a medial Pali consonant, but I have found this to be very rare in the
    Burmese recordings, most likely because the Burmese/Mon script so
    clearly shows the difference between a medial and final consonant
    (whereas modern Thai script does not) –and a competent Pali reader
    should be aware that the language has no final consonants except the niggahīta.
    I would expect that more errors of this kind are made where the reader
    relies on a text in simplified modern script that uses the “Thating” as
    a substitute for the classical ligatures and stacked glyphs; this sort
    of simplification is the exception, rather than the rule, in Burmese
    editions of Pali texts, I am pleased to say (this is an unflattering
    contrast to the increasing reliance of new Sinhalese editions on the
    “Hal Akuru”, a mark that serves the same purpose, viz., serving as a substitute for properly joined letters).

The vowel changes are inconsistent in that they arise from the
context, and follow the tendency (common to the Tibeto-Burmese family of
languages) of eliding complex sequences of sounds; the logic of these
simplifications is internal to the modern language, and applied
inconsistently to classical texts. I observe that in several recordings
made of one and the same Burmese monk chanting Pali, he will make some
vowel errors consistently in some suttas, but then not make the error
even once in reciting another sutta, likely reflecting that he learned
the texts in question from different masters, and retains their
shibboleths respectively. Initial and final vowels tend to be
preserved, but the medial vowels are transformed most adventitiously; of
these, the most striking are:

  • The Pali short a is pronounced as an “i” especially when
    interpreting the implicit vowel prior to a geminate or in any syllable
    involving the letter c (the latter is, recall, itself mispronounced as “s”). The pronunciation of paccayo as “pissayo”, and gacchāmi as “gissami” are frequent examples.
  • Similarly, my informant (A.K.) points out, Pali u-vowels transform into a dipthong along the lines of (IPA:) when they appear in the context of a cluster of consonants (such as Pali ddh, cch, etc.).
  • Both the Pali short a and the short i are
    sometimes pronounced as a hard “e” sound; this seems to be most often
    the case prior to a geminate, and does not seem to be directly
    determined by the medial vowel’s antecedent consonant. ☛ My informant
    differs on this point, writing, “I think you may be confusing the ‘e’
    sound with the creaky toned versions of those vowels (since the short a
    and i in Pali are equivalent to the creaky tone in Burmese): [ḭ] and
    [a̰]…”. This is certainly a useful observation (and my thanks, again,
    to A.K.) but cf. my concerns at the opening of this section about the
    asymmetry between loan-words and Pali recitation.

    • The sequence yi is also very frequently spoken as a hard “ye” sound.
  • A short “a” sound is sometimes inserted between compound consonants where there is none to be found in the text (e.g., tasmiŋ
    read aloud as “tasamiŋ”; perhaps an especially significant example
    given the frequency of the word, and the clarity of the Burmese
    orthography on the subscript sequence sm-).
  • In loan-words, my informant would add, the standard
    substitution for Pali “o” is (IPA:) ɔ (the vowel sound formed by the
    entire word “awe” in English).

Further feedback is welcome, but this section is unlikely to improve
significantly if I do not relocate to Myanmar myself (a possibility I am
open to considering). When this website was first posted, there was
hardly any material of this kind on the internet (and Unicode Burmese
was very rarely seen, and just barely working for Pali) but it is now
more and more likely (with each passing year) that Burmese authors and
websites will supersede this sketch that I’ve set out.

How the Lao Pronounce Pali

(Phonology §4)

The Lao pronunciation of Pali cannot be explained without reference
to the orthography; it is both the case that some orthographic changes
have been imposed upon the phonology, and, obversely, the phonological
changes made to Pali cognates (appropriated into vernacular Lao) are now
foisted onto the pronunciation of the classical language. Such
confusion is both natural and inevitable in the interchange of two
radically different languages. Lao is comprised of tonal monosyllables,
whereas Pali is non-tonal and polysyllabic. The classical language is
synthetic and grammatically complex, whereas vernacular Lao is in some
measure analytic and agglutinative, with a grammatical system of protean
simplicity (e.g., Lao neither distinguishes words according to gender,
nor number, nor case, nor declension).

As discussed in the Thai section below, nine tenths of what you’ll
learn here is applicable to Thai, and you can combine what you’ll learn
in this section with the Burmese (above) to try to sort out Shan, Lanna,
and Lao-Tham scripts.

In future, I may or may not find time to publish a more extensive
article on this subject; for the time being, I’ll provide the following
observations in brief.

[Image: a chart of some of the oddities detailed below]

  • The modern language has fewer consonant sounds than the classical,
    and so both the modern orthography and the vernacular phonetic
    assumptions are imperfectly mapped onto the full grid of classical
    consonant sounds. This yields certain, consistent misapprehensions,
    such as:

    • In the modern alphabetic order, a single “j” sound (by the English
      “j” I mean the I.P.A. phoneme “dʒ”) now stands where the classical
      language formerly had a range of four consonants “c-ch-j-jh”. The
      sibilants (viz., two “s” glyphs, distinguished according to tonality)
      have here been interposed (as if to fill in the gap left by the collapse
      of these four distinct sounds into one!). One direct result of this is
      the imposition of a vernacular “s” sound (writ ຊ, never ສ) onto words
      with classical “j”, e.g., jāti → sāt, and jarā → salā. This can apply equally to medial j, jj, or jjh, e.g.: vijjā → visā.
    • The classical distinction between k and g has largely disappeared; the modern use of the three “k” glyphs remaining in the vernacular (viz.,
      ກ, ຂ, & ຄ) primarily distinguishes them in respect of tonality
      (although some lowland speakers insist on the first “k” [ກ] being spoken
      as “g”, as with Khmer, minor consonant-sound variations of this type may or may not distinguish them in any given local dialect; this can only be considered as part of the language a posteriori, and with inconsistency).
    • The vernacular “d” (ດ) and “plosive d” (ຕ, translit. đ,
      distinguished by a phonetic criterion that did not exist in the
      classical language) are inconsistently used to indicate the Pali t and the aspirated th
      respectively. Obversely, aspiration is a distinction that does not
      exist in the modern vernacular, with confusion ensuing. Thus we find ຕ
      (đ, the “plosive d”) used where we might logically expect to find d (ດ) in Pali cognates, viz., representing classical dental-”t” in the initial position after monosyllabization, e.g., kataveditā → ກະຕະເວທີ; kattari → ກະໄຕ/ກະຕັດ.

      • The glyph ຕ, now used to express the “plosive d” sound
        is, unfortunately, the same as was used in classical times to represent
        one of the “k” sounds (this can still be seen, e.g., in the Lanna “k”,
        and in some styles of Lao-Tham script), and is largely similar to
        certain forms of the Khmer “b” (ព) –this opens another possible avenue
        for confusion, albeit arising rarely outside of the study of epigraphy.
    • The two vernacular “t” glyphs (ຖ & ທ) are a complementary source of confusion, being associated with classical d and dh,
      and also serving as inconsistent substitutes for the retroflex sounds
      (ḍ/ḍh) that exist in the classical language, not the modern. While the
      the second (low tone-class) “t” (”ທໍ-ທຸງ”) would be theoretically
      equivalent to Pāli dh (and as a substitute for Pāli ḍh), we find in fact that it is often used to represent the classical (unaspirated) dental “d” in cognates, e.g., dāna → tān (ທານ) –this invites further confusion.
    • Similarly, the paired “b” and “abrupt/plosive b” (ບ & ປ,
      translit. b & ƀ) are now used to represent the classical “p” and
      “aspirated p” sounds in an uncertain and inconsistent manner (e.g., pandita becomes ປັນດິດ with the “plosive b”, but pañha
      becomes ບັນຫາ with “b”); even the name of the language itself (Pāli) is
      sometimes written in Lao with one, sometimes with the other character
      (ປາລີ vs. ບາລີ).

      • Confusion on this point will also arise with loan-words and
        cognates from modern languages. Despite the fact that Laotians are
        quite capable of distinguishing “b” from “p”, the two cities of Paris
        (France) and Bali (Indonesia) are both transliterated into Lao with
        precisely the same spelling (ປາລິ), using the “Plosive b” for both (and,
        following Phumi Vorachit’s system, reducing “r” to “l” in phonetically
        rendering “Paris”).
    • There is ever the possibility of confusion between ñ and y in the contact between the classical and the vernacular, with the proximate causes being:
      • The graphical similarity between the two in Lao (ຍ vs. ຢ).
      • Confusion over which glyph to use due to rules (internal to Lao) concerning the representation of the y sound in initial vs. final position.
      • Confusion due to similar looking characters in Thai (ย) and “Tai-Noi” scripts, that do not follow the same logic (viz., ย = ຢ, but ย ≠ ຍ).
      • Confusion in the transcription of classical “subscript-y
        forms into vernacular scripts that either lack such forms entirely, or
        may employ the equivalent symbols for them with a logic differing from
        the method used in writing Pali (as in the use subscripts of Lao-Tham
        for old vernacular Lao, or Lanna script for vernacular Northern Tai; the
        subscripts are graphically the same as those used for Pali, but their
        signification is different, especially so far as implied vowels are
        concerned). The common concomitant of an alteration arising from this
        cause would be the insertion of spurious medial vowels in-between
        (classical) compound consonants where a formerly-subscript y was misinterpreted.
    • As an example (of historical confusion of ñ vs. y) Prapandvidya proposes that the Sanskrit word kriyā entered Thai as krayā (กระยา) from krañā, with the unusual vowel change explained by reference to the medium of a (supposed) Khmer pronunciaton of the Sanskrit as kreya;
      thus, Prapandvidya’s semantic claim is that the modern Thai meanings
      “Mode, thing, edible,” derive from the ancient (Sanskrit) meaning
      “rite/offering”. [Chirapat Prapandvidya, 1996, “The Indic Origin of Some
      Obscure Thai Words”, Proceedings of the 6th International Conference of Thai Studies, Theme IV, Vol. I, p. 415-426] It seems more likely to me that the implicit vowel “a” (in-between the first two letters) has been lost in appopriating one of the various Pali words starting with kara-
      and (semantically) indicating the means of action, mode, or grammatical
      instrumentality; thus, any number of Pali words (or compound words)
      related to karaṇa would provide a semanitcally appropriate origin for a sequence of substitutions along the lines of karaṇā → karañā → krañā → krayā.
      Whereas the latter sequence does not make sense if we assume the
      source must be Sanskrit transmitted via Khmer, it makes perfect sense
      for a Pali loan word transmitted via Lao (or one of various “Laoesque”
      pre-modern scripts of Thailand, then transliterated into modern Thai).
      The classical retroflex “” is commonly enough supplanted with Lao “ñ” (e.g., the realted Pali term karaṇā → ກຣິຍາ, kariñā),
      and the latter could then be mis-read as “y” due to Thai confusion when
      reading a Lao (or “Laoesque”) “ñ” (ຍ) as if it functioned as
      modern/central Thai’s graphically identical “y” (ย).
  • Although the modern and vernacular alphabets have maintained
    the pattern of ending each row with a nasal, the dental “n” (ນ) that
    concludes the third row must also serve to represent the classical
    retroflex , as the vernacular affords no closer equivalent.
    Generally, the (classical) retroflex sounds have (modern) dental
    substitutes, but the nasal sounds are especially prone to being
    simplified, especially where a modern reader would interpret them as
    being in the final position of a monosyllable, dropping the final vowel
  • Confusion between b and v has both ancient and
    proximate causes. The similarity between the figures used for these
    glyphs in Fa-Kham script may be a proximate cause (Fa-Kham is a script
    adapted from Cambodian and used extensively in inscriptions in central
    Thailand from the Sukhothai period, or earlier); confusion about the
    separate existence of the classical v seems to have prevailed in
    all Khmer/Khom-related scripts from a very early period, and may derive
    in part from the South-Indian pronounciation of b & v
    in transmitting Sanskrit to mainland South East Asia [see: Michel
    Ferlus, 1997 ,”The origin of the Graph b in the Thai script”, in South East Asian Linguisitc Studies in Honour of Vichin Panupong,
    Arthur S. Abramson [ed.], Chulalongkorn University Press, p. 79-82].
    While Ferlus’s article on this subject is very useful, it overlooks the
    fact that substituion rules and variant spellings within Pali already
    indicate some mutability between v and b before
    undertaking the passage to Cambodia, and (as Ferlus notes) no similar
    confusion can be seen in the Monic scripts (he posits that the solution
    was finally to derive a new b-glyph in the Khmer group from a Mon source/inspiration, replacing the pre-11th century square/blob b-glyph
    that, up to that time, still resembled the form used by Aśoka).
    Ferlus’s article also omits to mention the source of confusion in the
    use of vernacular “v/w” as both a consonant and a semi-vowel in
    Tai-Kadai langauges, and that this was sometimes an impetus for
    orthographic changes (note, e.g., that in Lanna script this entails an
    orthographic distinction between two subscript forms of v & w respectively).
  • The classical language has no “f” sound whatsoever (so the two
    vernacular “f” glyphs do not enter into the confusion), but either of
    the (tonally distinct) vernacular “p” sounds may now be found
    representing the classical b sounds, or, less often, will be found where we should expect a v in Pāli (for the reasons outlined above).
  • The labial row of the alphabet presents a relatively simple instance of the “inversion” of of the sequence of sounds (viz.,
    the order of classical “p” and “b” are exchanged, reading the
    vernacular equivalents from left to right) more uncertainty will be
    found in praxis, as the moderns have had to resolve many complex
    geminates and consonant clusters (involving classical “p”, “ph”, “b”,
    “bh”, or occasionally “v”) into simple monosyllables with these
    mutually-confusing symbols. Thus, so far as initial consonants are
    concerned, we observe the general transformation of classical b/bh into the two (tonally distinguished) vernacular “p” sounds, and, vice-versa, classical p
    becomes modern “b” or “the plosive b”, but with less consistency than
    the inversions of former rows (as discussed above). Thus, e.g.,

    • bhāsā → pāsā (ພາສາ)
    • pañha → banhā (ບັນຫາ)
    • padesa → ƀatet (ປະເທດ), though one might instead expect to find the latter as ບະເທດ (as per the pattern of the preceding examples).
  • One of the two Lao “h” glyphs is derived from (and often
    graphically identical to) the Khmer “v” (ຮ vs. វ), and closely resembles
    “r” in either script (Lao: ຣ, Khmer: រ, Thai: ร). This allows the
    conflation of a range of Pali and Khmer loan-words (in both Lao and
    Thai). [Updated, 2009:] Apart from the obvious
    orthographic difficulty involved, there is a native source of confusion
    in the Phnom Penh dialect; it recent centuries, it seems, the residents
    of Cambodia’s capital regarded it as very refined to accent their speech
    by eliding the written r (រ) and supplying both an h-sound and a change-of-pitch in place of the elision. [Naraset Pisitpanporn, 1999, “A note on colloquial Phnom Penh Khmer”, in: The 9th Annual Meeting of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society,
    Arizona State University.] This seems to belong to the artificial
    changes of language that denote social status (and thus, as Pisitpanporn
    observes, it became less widespread during the Communist period) –and
    was influential far beyond Phnom Penh. At any rate, the logic of these
    changes is innate to Khmer, and difficult to anticipate in its effects
    on other languages; thus, one has to watch for the interchange of “h”,
    “v” and “r” (with “r” sometimes reduced to “l” thereafter), with no
    consistent direction or pattern to the permutation. Vernacular Lao
    frequently has h (ຣ) where Thai preserves the written r (ร) scilicet, in imitation of old Khmer cognates, that would continue to be written /r/ (រ) in Cambodia, but given a lilting h
    sound among the sophisticaes of pre-revolutionary Phnom Penh. These
    changes do not consistently reflect confusion between classical v and h.

    • In Filliozat’s catalogue of the Wat Po collection of manuscripts
      (viz., poorly copied from Sinhalese sources, into Khom script, in the
      second quarter of the 19th century, in Bangkok), she comments on the
      confusion of r vs. h as the most peculiar of the numerous transliteration errors made by the scribes, such as a scribe reading hemāyavatthu and writing out romāyavatthu.
      In sum, the abysmal quality of the MS demonstrates “…that the scribes
      had no real understanding of Pāli language or were not paying attention
      to the meaning…”, but she remarks that confusion of r & h
      is especially inexplicable as they “cannot be confused in any script”.
      This only seems true if the scripts under consideration Khom and
      Sinhalese only; however, the confusion is easier to understand if we
      keep in mind that the Bangkok court was (at that time) brim-full of
      educated slave labour brought back as captives from the total
      depopulation, sacking, and incineration of Vientiane in 1828. (This may
      also give some context to the lack of zeal on the part of the scribes!)
      Even if they were put to the task of copying Sinhalese into Khom, “r” in
      the latter would have resembled “h” in the script they were most
      familair with –viz., Lao. [See: The Pāli Manuscript Collection Kept in the Vat Phra Jetuphon Vimol Mangklaram (Vat Po) the Oldest Royal Monastery of Bangkok, Jacqueline Filliozat, École Française d’Extrême-Orient, 2002-2003].

Tertiary patterns of simplification of geminate morphemes, and
substitution of dental sounds for retroflexes, etc., are pretty well
self-evident, and are not much worse than the attempts of Europeans to
pronounce Sanskrit.

How the Thais Pronounce Pali

(Phonology §5)

Much that applies to Thai has already been explained in the section
on Lao (above). The problems that are unique to the Thai recitation of
Pali can be most easily (although not with great certainty) explained by
orthographic developments that were ancient in their causes, but modern
in their effects.

From about the 13th century until the modern period, central Thai
vernacular languages were written in a tradition of “Fa-kham” scripts. Notwithstanding several nationalistic myths to the contrary,
these scripts were, originally, derived from classical Cambodian, and
imperfectly modified in response to the phonetic (and tonal) needs of
Tai-Kadai languages; this vernacular development can be thought of as a
separate line of succession from the scripts used to write Pali. At the
dawn of the modern era, Khom (classical Khmer) script was still used for
Pali in the majority of Thailand’s land-mass, with the Lanna script
used in the North-West. There are some remarkable exceptions to that
generalization, with (ornate) local variations in Pali scribal
traditions (extant both on Palm leaf and on stone), presumably fostered
by the patronage of local rulers, and monasteries that acted as
educational institutions.

For the vernacular, this mix of influences has had mixed results.
There are now many monstrous problems of interpretation that Thai
speakers encounter both when reading Pali (or Sanskrit) cognates in
their own language, and also when attempting to learn or recite Pali (or
Sanskrit), precisely because of the vernacular modifications that the
Fa-Kham orthographic tradition underwent have now been foisted back onto
the classical language.

While Lao orthography has been modernized to be almost perfectly
phonetic, Thai has moved somewhat in the opposite direction: official
spellings are heavily Sanskritized, as if to draw special attention to
both the Indic and classical Cambodian origins of much of its
vocabulary. This only makes it more difficult for native Thai speakers
to pronounce Pali (or Sanskrit) correctly, as they are accustomed to
eliding so many Sanskritic elements that appear in their written
language, but are not now (and likely never were) part of the spoken,
vernacular form. For example, “…confusion may arise because there is no
indication if two consonants are a compound or not, such as: candra may be pronounced can-tha-ra, can-thra, or even can-thom.” [”Changes of Pali-Sanskrit Loan-words in Thai”, Prof. Visudh Busyakul, in Sanskrit in Southeast Asia, 2003, Sanskrit Studies Centre, Silpakorn University, Bangkok, pg. 522]

The example just given also shows that Thais are burdened with an
inherently confusing system of implicit vowels, and, when faced with
Pali text (or cognates) in their own script, will frequently
misapprehend where the implied vowel is “a”, “o”, or none at all. A
native Thai reader will be accustomed to guessing where to reduce a
consonant to a nasal sound, or where to treat it as non-final and assign
an implicit vowel sound following it (note, above, “can-tha-ra”, vs.
“can-thom”). On the whole, this entails that Thais are highly inclined
to omit/elide morphemes from Pali words, ranging from the simplification
of initial compound consonants, to the reduction of medial geminates to
terminal consonants, or, very often, the omission of the entire
terminations of polysyllabic words, i.e., making it impossible to
determine the grammtical significance of any/all words in a sentence.

So far as Pali is concerned, it may be complained that these problems are not endemic to the Thai orthography (per se),
but merely arise from the inappropriate (vernacular) assumptions of
native speakers in reading it. Naturally, the overlap of the modern and
the ancient in the form of cognates used in everyday language has a
powerful influence over the interpretation of the classical language (as
the script used for both is now one and the same, at least in the Royal
editions, and the government-controlled monastic education system). In
reading classical cognates (etc.) the reader has no clear direction or
consistent rule to follow (in modern Thai script), and so inevitably
develops a habit of anticipating what is left indeterminate by the
script. Needless to say, these “anticipations” (that serve to fill in
the unwritten portion of the phonics of ancient words) are subject to
variations of dialect and locality, and project social status and
ethnicity within Thai society.

I have already made reference to a very short article on this subject
(fewer than four pages) titled “Changes of Pali-Sanskrit Loan-words in
Thai”, by Prof. Visudh Busyakul [Op. cit. supra]. One of the
peculiarities of the article is that it describes the changes in the
Thai pronunciation of Sanskrit (and, thus, by extension, Pali) as if
they were part of a quite intentional plan carried out by king Ram
Khamheng (who may well be fictional, N.B., as according to Michael
Vickery’s articles in The Ramkhamheng Controversy, published by the Siam Society). Busyakul thus regrets that no
phonological distinction was assigned to first four consonants of the
classical alphabet by the latter king, as the Khmer system of
distinguishing the consonants by means of vowel changes was lost, and
nothing to replace it was devised. Thus, the sequence that was
originally k, kh, g, gh, now appears to the Thai reader as a
nearly undifferentiated sequence of four “k” sounds; this would indeed
be an astounding error if we beleived that any such change was actually
devised by a single man’s conscious intention, and we can even less
believe that this was the grand plan of a mythic king.

Ferlus instead presumes that at a remote date (both unspecified and
unknown) ancient spoken Thai distinguished “a non-voiced dorsal
fricative” and also a “voiced dorsal fricative”, and that these have
since dropped out of the spoken language, leaving their fossils (so to
speak) in the odd array of “k” glyphs that were modified from Khmer to
make up the first row of the Fa-Kham alphabet. [Op. cit. supra, p. 79-80] This is certainly a more plausible explanation, but relies to an uncomfortable extent on speculation.

Busyakul’s account of Thai phonological simplifications (of
classical, Indic phonemes) provides another detail of significance in
contrast to Lao: “As a rule,” he writes, “the unaspirated sonant and
aspirated sonant of all five series [i.e., rows of the alphabet] are
pronounced as the aspirated surd of the corresponding series”. [Op cit.,
pg. 521] Thus, e.g., he would define the Thai pronunciation of the
second line of the (pseudo-pali) alphabet as “ca-cha-cha-cha-ña”. This
is a significant difference from the Lao interpretation of the
equivalent row of glyphs (see above), and my experience would tend to
affirm that the central Thais do apply a hard “cha” sound to many
Pali/Sanskrit loan-words where a Laotian would read “s” (both being
equally incorrect, as the classical spelling of the words in question is
j or jh).

Another example in the history of Thai phonetic and orthographic shifts is examined at some length by Michel Ferlus, op. cit. supra.
Ferlus provides some interesting illustrations as to how the Fa-Kham
scripts (that were later reduced to modern Thai) both initially diverged
from Cambodian (to suit Thai phonetic requirements) and then changed
over time with the vernacular.

The interchange of classical “t” for modern “d”, and “p” for “b”
(described at length for Lao, above) is very simply accounted for by
Busyakul as follows: “…these words have been imported into Thai not
directly, but through the Khmer medium.” [Op cit., pg. 522]
Although there is some small measure of truth to this, I honestly do not
see how the Cambodians can be blamed any more than Ram Khamheng for the
change; this seems to merely defer the question (petitio principii).
Briefly, the Khmer system provides vowel-sound distinctions as
substitutes for classical consonant distinctions (i.e., the listener can
distinguish one classical consonant from another by hearing a
difference in the associated vowel sound). More likely by accident than
by design, the Thais dispensed with this system and (as mentioned
briefly above) have instead created new grounds for confusion as to
which vowels are associated with which consonants (both for cognates and
classical texts rendered in modern script); but even so, the particular
problem discussed would not have existed before the mid-19th century,
when vernacular Thai script was suddenly foisted onto the ancient
language, and a combination of Western model schools (created by
Christian missionaries) and Thai state education (following the former
“model”) replaced the monastic transmission of literacy, with
predictable results for the Pali tradition.

So far as listening comprehension of Pali chanting, the issues in
Thailand are largely similar to those with modern Lao in the “Buddhist
heartland” of Thailand, viz., the upper Issan plateau in the
North-East, where the predominant language remains lowland-Lao (but
state education is entirely in central-Thai). Although the Issan country
is among the regions least often visited by tourists in Thailand, all
the quantitative measures of Buddhist education and religious activity
seem to affirm what many would report anecdotely, i.e., that the Issan
remain (disproportionately) the staunchest supporters of Buddhist
monasticism in Thailand. Thus, while some students who are new to the
field may find it odd that so much attention is given to Lao on this
website, the fact is that the language spoken in the environs of the
monasteries (in modern Thailand) where so many Westerners ordain is not
Thai, but Lao (e.g., Wat Nanachat outside of Ubon Ratchathani, or the
famous Dhutanga monasteries along the Mekong, both to the west and east
of Nong Khai; notably, Ajan Chah spoke Lao as his first language, and,
for the sake of Thai nationalism, editions of his work tend to
euphemistically mention that they were translated from lectures given in
“a north-eastern dialect”). In brief, the Lao section will be of more
utility for those intending to ordain in Thailand than they might

Although I have more enthusiasm for adapting my ear to dialectical
changes of this kind than most, it must be complained that the paucity
of (mutually-distinguishable) consonant sounds in the vernacular
(without the Khmer remedy of systematically-associated vowel changes)
when combined with the tendency toward “monosyllabization” (e.g.,
omitting final sounds, and so depriving the classical language of its
marks of declensions and conjugations) has resulted in the real
incomprehensibility of Pali as it is recited in most of Thailand today.

This reduction of the languge to un-grammatical, mutually-indistinguishable, and genuinely incomprehensible monosyllables in the context of ritual performance has encouraged the tendency of religious followership to presume to take the source texts as tabula rasa,
attributing to them both pre-Buddhist myths that are wildly at variance
with the explicit meaning of the texts in question, or, with equal
ease, taking the texts as a corroboration for relatively recent
innovations in the popular faith. Obversely, I must imagine that it is
discouraging to a native Thai reader to have to figure out the obtuse
way in which the familiar (vernacular) script is made to express the
classical sounds, with an unfamiliar system of both implicit vowels and
explicit consonant values –though it is a very small minority of monks
in Thailand who learn even this much about the ancient language. The
tradition of Thai word-for-word glosses (which is the one part of the
Pali tradition that is indispensible for sermons and rituals)
effectively severs the study of lexis from grammar or even
pronunciation; in modern Thailand, it is primarily the ability to gloss
Pali words in isolation that is cultivated among the clergy.

Quick link to: Orthography, Phonology, Organization of the Canon, Download Textbooks, & Further Resources.

The Organization of the Pali Canon and its Commentaries

Introductory note & recommended reading

Considered as a text, the Pali canon is unwieldy; there is more than
one system of organization to be found within it, and all of them aim at
ease of memorization –not ease of reference.

One of my first experiences in grappling with the canon arose when a
Sinhalese monk (who briefly tutored me) asked me to find and photocopy a
particular passage in the monastic library. I was told only the name of
the Sutta (and of the Nikaya) and proceeded to sit down in front of the
(Sinhalese-script) B.J.E. Tipitaka, to leaf through the lengthy tables
of contents, searching for the correct volume, correct chapter,
sub-chapter, and, eventually, the correct page. I found the sutta, but,
more, I gained a direct appreciation of how difficult it is for someone
without a very rigorous introduction to the organization of the texts to
find anything in them whatsoever. Although I was still pre-occupied
with very elementary questions of the language, I began to study the
structure of the canon as a separate matter. With the advent of
computer indexing, many will eschew such an introduction to the
difficulty of searching the canon on paper; to search through stacks of
palm leaves is an even more visceral demonstration of how puny a single
scholar is against the mass of text that we would presume to study.

The single most useful resource (if you can only have one) is Oskar von Hinüber’s A Handbook of Pali Literature;
however, this work was planned as a chapter in a larger volume, and so
(as its foreword explains) it has certain explicit limitations. The
survey of Pali literature in Sri Lanka by G.P. Malalasekera approaches
much of the same material from a different perspective, and works within
a different set of limitations
(e.g., Malalasekera’s work includes a brief history of Pali grammatical
literature, but, as its title suggests, does not treat Thai sources). I
have not yet found a copy of M. Bode’s survey of Pali Literature in
Burma; although the book is a century old, it has not yet been
superseded, except for the usual tide of academic articles. It was
suggested to me that Bode’s work will soon be reprinted by the B.P.S. in
Kandy. I do not recommend Bhante H. Saddhatissa’s articles in
this genre, such as his survey of the history of Pali literature in
Thailand, and so on. In this wise, I also do not recommend the Guide to the Tipitaka
authored by an anonymous council of monks in Burma (and reprinted by
White Lotus), although the latter is instructive as a kind of
cross-section of Burmese monastic opinion on some of the more renowned

A Simple (Romanized) Map of the Canon

The map here provided shows the sub-divisions of the Tipitaka as
simply as possible. By far the most confusing part of the Theravada
canon is the Vinaya, which was re-organized after its arrival in Sri
Lanka (now providing a striking contrast to the organization of the
Mahasanghika, Mulasarvastivadin, and Dharmaguptaka recensions).

The map makes use of bracket to indicate optional aspects of titles and, in some cases, the relationship between volumes:

  • Square brackets mark inconsistencies in titles, such as
    alternate spellings, prefixes and suffixes that are sometimes omitted.
    For example:

    • [Sutta-]Vibhaṅga
    • Parivāra[-pātha/-pāli]
  • So-called “curly brackets” are employed to indicate an embedded text,
    i.e., a text that appears distributed within a larger work, but may (or
    may not) sometimes be extracted and presented as a separate chapter, or
    even as a wholly separate text. The presentation of these will vary
    considerably from one edition to the next (thus, they are well worth
    drawing attention to in this fashion), e.g., while Kammavācā texts have
    grown into a broad genre of books and manuscripts independent from the
    Vinaya, any particular edition of the Vinaya may not list “Kammavāca” as
    a separate section in its table of contents or index (as it is
    “embedded” in the flow of the text). This is a recurrent feature of
    Pali literature, most often discussed in terms of the Mātika (”Matrix”)
    system of organization found in the Abhidhamma Pitaka; however, similar
    embedded texts (with similarly confusing patterns of being extracted and
    presented as stand-alone works, sometimes as a preface to their source)
    are found in the Vinaya, grammatical and paracanonical literature.
    Debatably, e.g., the last two suttas of the Digha Nikaya could also be
    considered part of the Mātika tradition.

    • In just a few cases, the embedded texts marked with these
      brackets were formerly independent texts that are now subsumed within
      other units of organization (and so should not be described as a
      Mātika), e.g., the {Bhikkhuniikkhandhaka}.
  • A few works are marked with an asterisk, to indicate that
    their inclusion in the canon is disputed, e.g., the Jātaka may (or may
    not) be considered paracanonical.
  • In just a few cases I have provided further information such as the chapter number or total number of chapters in parenthesis.

My thanks are owed to Sebastian Krauß for making the computer program
that allowed me to generate this flow-chart; as I presume it will be of
use primarily to students at an early stage, I have provided it in
Romanized text.

A Map of the Structure of the Pali Canon [JPG]

A Simple (Romanized) Map of the Commentaries

The organization of the commentaries is not too terribly confusing,
however, unresolved questions as to their respective authorship and
dates of origin are a considerable area of study unto themselves. This
map does not list all Pali commentarial/exegetical literature, but the
primary commentaries corresponding to each of the major sections of the
canon, and the primary sub-commentaries that relate to the former. I
have excluded the titles that Hinüber informally groups under the
heading of “Later Subcommentaries” (this category consists primarily of
the 15th century works of Bhante Ñāṇakitti in Chiangmai); I have also
omitted to mention (both Sinhalese & Burmese) sub-commentaries that
are as late as the 18th or 19th centuries.

The orthodox Pali commentaries (per se) are considered
historically “closed”, and are mythically associated with a single
generation that assisted Buddhaghosa in expanding the Visuddhimagga
into a systematic gloss of the first four Nikayas, and then, in
uncertain stages, further developed the literature to cover the entire
Tipitaka. As I have said, this is mythic; assigning actual historical
dates and authors to these texts is another matter entirely, and Hinüber
provides an inspiring introduction to the questions of philology that
remain unresolved.

The assumptions surrounding these texts are a source of confusion
both for followers of the religion, and for non-specialists who develop
an interest in Pali, e.g., crossing over from Sanskrit or other Asian
studies. All that I need to make clear in this place is that each
canonical text has only one commentary per se, but an unlimited
number of sub-commentaries or other explanatory works can (of course) be
written about it –and many have been composed, but they are not
strictly called “commentaries” (Aṭṭhakathā). Thus, a student may be
confused that we often speak of the commentary to a given Nikaya,
and abbreviations to this effect are frequently found in scholarly
articles (e.g., DA = Dīgha Aṭṭhakathā, viz., the Sumaṅgalavilāsinī), while there seems to be a profusion of such texts available under various (rather vague) Pali titles.

Similarly, when scholarly sources speak of the sub-commentary
to a given work, they will invariably mean the corresponding work
written at the Mahavihara in Anuradhapura (at any time after
Buddhaghosa), although not all parts of the canon have a sub-commentary
by this definition, and many have additional sub-commentaries from
Burma, Thailand, or other sources, that would not be cited in this
fashion as “the sub-commentary”.

However, the voluminous commentaries and sub-commentaries are not the
whole of the Pali exegetical literature. Hinüber refers to hermeneutic
works that are outside of these traditional categories as “Handbooks” (a
term he applies even to the Parivāra and Nettippakaraṇa); we thus seem
to have a working definition whereby any exegetical work that is
excluded from the semi-historical narrative of the authoring of the
commentaries at Anurādhapura is called a “Handbook” –and this would
exclude works that pre-date Buddhaghosa as well as most of those that
follow after.

In popular belief, the extent to which the commentaries were all written at one and the same place and time is exaggerated (viz.,
at the Mahavihara in Anuradhapura, during Buddhaghosa’s lifetime), and
this tends to be supplemented with the belief that this huge bulk of
literature was produced (so quickly) by directly translating it from
(earlier, no longer extant) Sinhalese commentaries into Pali. Hinüber’s
account is an excellent antidote to these and many other misconceptions
about the commentarial literature; he reviews (in brief) all of the
information available as to assigning dates to these texts, and, more
generally, in reading his descriptions one gains a more balanced
appreciation that while Buddhaghosa’s commentaries do (selectively)
quote earlier material from Sinhalese sources, these quotations are most
often contrasted against other opinions, and are frequently enough
refuted. The composition of the commentaries should be considered as
acts of original authorship, although (as with all religious orthodoxy)
they worked closely from earlier sources. In our time a large portion of
the beliefs and practices of the popular faith originate from the
commentarial literature, and this often enough stands at odds with the
original (Buddhavacana) text. Many of these commentarial sources may be
described as the invasion of (wildly spurious) Jātaka-type stories into
the earlier layers of the canon –and these narratives have done more to
obscure the point of the source texts than to elucidate them. As with
interpretations of our own times, the commentaries tend to depart from
the reflective (and at times provocative) tone of the source texts by
insisting that (spurious) dogmatic preconceptions (contemporaneous with
the authors) are implicit therein, with the primary effect of
discouraging the reader from doing their own thinking as to what the
sutta (read in isolation) suggests, and with the pervasive secondary
effect of foisting a lot of later (popular) religious accretions onto
earlier layers of the tradition (e.g., refusing to allow that the Buddha
did not already know the answer to every question before asking it,
including practical questions such as “How many monks are staying
here?”, or “What were you talking about before I arrived?”, but
insisting that the Buddha only asked such things out of the coy
omniscience of one who has foreknowledge of the reply, etc.).

In the map below, it will be observed that the commentaries on the
first four Nikayas are grouped together as subsidiary to the
Visuddhimagga, whereas the last Nikaya has a more-or-less miscellaneous
list. This represents both Visuddhimagga’s claim to be a commentary on
the entire Sutta-pitaka, and the widely-held assumption that it served
as the common foundation for the composition of the commentaries on the
first four Nikayas (with Dhammapala and other authors later supplying
the material for the fifth). Refer to Hinüber’s handbook for further
arguments as to how these texts relate to one-another. This chart would
be somewhat complicated if we followed the traditional practice of
attributing all anonymous commentaries to Buddhaghosa (and accordingly
grouped them under the heading of the Visuddhimagga).

I have noted the titles of the canonical texts glossed in
parenthesis; this will be found useful because of the common practice of
citing the commentaries by the name of the text glossed rather than by
title (e.g., a reference to “the Dīgha-Aṭṭhakathā“, is more common than stating the commentary’s own title as “the Sumaṅgalavilāsinī“).

I have included the commentaries to the Milinda-pañha and the Jātaka
in this map for the sake of convenience; as noted in the first map
(above), they are considered either quasi-canonical, or para-canonical,
by the Burmese and Sinhalese respectively.

A Map of the Structure of the Pali Commentaries [JPG]

Using Electronic Texts of the Pali Canon (as a guide to printed editions)

The implicit suggestion of the title for this section is that electronic editions of the canon should only
be used as guides to
printed editions. This is not solely because the electronic texts
contain errors: printed editions and manuscripts contain errors, too,
but there is a significant difference in that they make errors for more
interesting reasons, and it is therefore more rewarding for the
reader to discover and correct them. The difference between a good
edition and a bad one (be it on paper or not) is not the absence of
errors, but the relative significance of the errors: in the comparative
reading of Asian editions and manuscripts, one can encounter
errors of real philological and historical significance, whereas the
electronic texts (and many modern, western editions) present us
with errors that are merely in need of correction.

With that caveat stated, many thanks are owed to the Sri Lanka Tipitaka Project,
which is not the only project to produce
canonical etexts, but is all the more significant beause they are the
only one to distribute the results freely. This is a striking contrast
to several of their “competitors” in Thailand, who charge hundreds of
dollars for the privilege. I visited their offices on my first trip
to Colombo, and met the venerable Mettavihari, who has been the main
inspiration (and technical advisor) responsible for the project reaching
its current stage of development.

The nature of the project would seem to be one of perpetual
incompletion, as the task of proof-reading the texts,
adding notes on variant readings, and consolidating available
translations, aims at a very distant horizon –and traverses the
with a very small staff of unpaid volunteers. Periodically, the etexts
available on the web are updated by the project, and various
secondary websites (such as GRETIL and the JBE) re-format and
re-distribute the texts.

For my own use, I found it necessary to re-format the texts as
Unicode compliant PDF files; although the latter format is “larger” than
it is currently superior for automated search features, and has all
issues of font and glyph assignment resolved internally. Below are
links to the four Nikayas and the complete text of the Vinaya; the
Khuddaka Nikaya is excluded simply because I found too many problems
the current version of the source texts (e.g., one of the Sk. recensions
of the Dhp was erroneously included instead of the Pali!) and it may be

added in the future. Note that the romanization standard followed is the
same one set down in the various charts
above, and that the file
sizes listed below reflect the final size of the file after
decompression (or “unpacking”), not during the download.

The Vinaya (PDF, 5.2 megabytes)

The Digha Nikaya (PDF, 2.7 megabytes)

The Majjhima Nikaya (PDF, 3.6 megabytes)

The Samyutta Nikaya (PDF, 6.7 megabytes)

The Anguttara Nikaya (PDF, 2.7 megabytes)

Quick link to: Orthography, Phonology, Organization of the Canon, Download Textbooks, & Further Resources.

Further Resources for Pali Studies

I seem to find the time to create some extra files to post to this
part of the website every few months. These are “exceedingly
miscellaneous” in their subject-matter, as many of them began as side
projects or prospective appendixes for the textbook I’m writing; others
developed in response to an opportunity to bring together disparate
(hard to find materials) into a reference of some kind. Although you
may not find all of these files immediately useful, they tend to supply
deficiencies in the available textbooks, and may become more useful as a
student becomes more demanding of his (or her) resources.

A Guide to Indeclinable Particles (Avyaya & Upasagga)

The file below will be of more interest to advanced students, as it provides
a fairly extensive list of “indeclinable particles” (in both Sinhalese and
Burmese script) with English definitions. The Avyaya & Upasagga

(”indeclinable particles”) are short words equivalent to “but”, “if”,
etc., as well as prefix and suffix syllables equivalent to english
“con-”, “syn-”,
“para-”, and so on. I have never seen an attempt at a complete list of
these particles before; it seems to be a strange omission in both modern
and classical sources. My advice would be to memorize them all.

Avyaya & Upasagga

Pali Grammatical Terminology

Pali grammatical terminology has shifted around over the 2,500 year history
of the literature –and so students should expect some variation when comparing
various classical or modern sources. I here provide a short list of Pali terms
and “suggested abbreviations”; this is most of what a Pali student would need to
know, but it is neither exhaustive nor definitive for the terms that will arise
in all sources (e.g., Buddhaghosa uses significantly different terms from
Kaccayana and his followers). It is fairly important for every Pali student to
know “at least” these grammatical terms; English grammatical terms (such as
“continuative past participle”) are not much use outside of a university
classroom, and are not even used consistently by modern Pali lexicons and

Pali Grammatical Terms

If the Ashokan-script abbreviations in the left-hand column are too
obscure, by all means ignore them and invent your own set of scribbles;
every scholar may freely invent their own way to jot these things down
in brief. However, the prevalent abbreviations of English terms such as
“pr. pt. p.” tend to be confusing to native English speakers –and are
even more confusing for those who have studied English as a foreign
language. An innovation of some kind is in order, and Ashokan “Brahmi”
seems to be a more likely candidate for an international system of Pali
annotation than any one “national” script.

Concepts of Time in Pali Sources

This set of files will continue to grow as I gather more salient
material from various manuscript traditions. These charts have a
twofold inspiration: I was dissatisfied with the lunar calendar provided
by the Pali-English Glossary of Buddhist Technical Terms, and I
became increasingly concerned that no single source had brought together
the disparate material on concepts of time and date found in Pali
manuscripts from across South-East Asia. By putting these preliminary
(but moderately fascinating) files on the web, I hope to encourage a few
of my expert correspondents to send me some further sources to continue
the series (update: many thanks to M.L., the first to help me out in this respect).

Three Pali Textbooks (free to download)

I am distributing revised, reformatted, and corrected editions of
three Pali textbooks in the public domain. Some of these files have
been revised and re-issued in several stages, roughly once each year
since their advent on the website, with corrections and improved
formatting (such as tables).

Narada’s work offers a somewhat
simplified description of the language, accompanied by rote exercises,
whereas Duroiselle’s is quite compendious in its description of the
language, but offers almost nothing in the way of exercises for those
engaged in self-study. The third, De Silva’s “Pali Primer”, provides a
series of graded exercises intended for beginners, with very succinct
instuctions, rapidly expanding your vocabulary, if you’ve already worked
through the grammar with the prior two textbooks.

Each of these
textbooks has a separate, small web-page for direct downloading, with
further description of the books’ respective origins and contents as

Narada’s Textbook Duroiselle’s Textbook De Silva’s Textbook
(revised in 2008) (revised in 2008) (revised in 2008)

A few years ago, I also created a new edition of F. Mason’s 1868 Pali textbook Kachchayano’s [sic] Pali Grammar with Chrestomathy & Vocabulary,
however, I am not inclined to distribute it on the internet. Each of
these digital editions has involved a large volume of exceedingly minute
labour on my part, but the revision of Mason’s work required typing out
the full text (ex nihilo) in both Burmese and Sinhalese script,
with innumerable corrections. If any scholars have a special interest in
this work of Mason’s (or in Kaccayana generally) they may contact me by
mail to arrange receipt of a manuscript.

…and a Cambodian Textbook (free to download)

If you’re interested in learning more about Cambodian/Khmer/Khom,
either as a modern language or as a Pali tradition, there’s a great deal
of useful information in Huffman and Proum’s textbook, that I’ve
scanned in and made freely available for download here. The book is, of course, mentioned in the section on Pali in the Cambodian tradition, above.

Quick link to: Orthography, Phonology, Organization of the Canon, Download Textbooks, & Further Resources.

About the Author / Contact.

If you put my name into google, it should be pretty easy to find a
list of my recent articles and public lectures (I maintain such lists
elsewhere, so that this website isn’t updated too frequently).

My public e-mail address can be inferred from the tag on the map
below, showing some of the places I may have been seen during my first
five years in Asia (2004–2009). During that period, updates to this
website normally stated my “current location” somewhere along the dotted
line. If you’re not sure whether or not you recognized me down at the
archives the other day, you can consult this portrait
–a photo taken by Bhante Nyanatusita in Sri Lanka. I’m smiling
somewhat ruefully, as the Pali manuscripts I’m “surveying” have been
stacked up behind glass, on top of the statues, where we can be certain
nobody will read them.

Author: Eisel Mazard.


  • 2010-09: Revisions to the sections on Burmese and Cambodian phonology.
  • 2009-03-03: Added the long-belated section on Cambodian
    phonetics, with one interesting clarification under the Lao rubric, and
    something of a general overhaul to the opening sections. For the first
    time, due to stated demands from readers, a public e-mail address was
    made available (here).
  • 2007-10-30: Added Dr. Lily De Silva’s textbook to the
    selection; new editions of both Narada and Duroiselle (PDFs) rolled out
    (”…for 2008″). The mention of the author’s current location was (none
    too mysteriously) removed.
  • 2007-10-16: Changed “Bokeo” to “Yunnan”, reflecting my recent
    exit from Laos; a few new charts and minor additions; the page’s
    encoding was (laboriously) changed to UTF8.
  • 2007-04-11: Changed “Vientiane” to “Bokeo (province)” to reflect current “address”; revised the phonology section.
  • 2007-01-01: New “2007″ editions of Duroiselle and Narada,
    along with a new glossary for the latter, plus the second in the series
    on “Concepts of Time”.
  • 2006-08-12: Added five canonical etexts and the contact information about the author.
  • 2006-06-04: Attempted correction of technical errors and
    minor revisions; Unicode text was erroneously displaying as Chinese
    under some browsers.
  • 2006-05-03: Expanded section on phonology in praxis, added
    the maps of the canon, and “caught up” with past updates that apparently
    were not published to the web.
  • 2006-01-30: New (blue) html, added the “Concepts of Time” file, & misc. revisions.
  • 2005-12-3: Fixed broken Pali Grammatical Terms link (missing m).
  • 2005-11-16: Uploaded improved version of the ‘Avyaya’ text.
  • 2005-11-9: Uploaded lengthened & revised ‘Pali Grammatical Terms’
  • 2005-11-8: Uploaded new version of ‘Pali Rosetta Stone’ with
    corrected romanization of one syllable. Added Pali Gramatical Terms.
  • 2005-11-4: Site goes online.

Hosted at pratyeka.

The original language of the Buddha and his teachings (Suttas)

Extracted from the book “Buddhist Suttas: Origin Development” by Kogen Mizuno.

original language of the Suttas seems to have been Magadhi, which
Shakyamuni used in preaching. Of all the Indic language versions of
Suttas used as Buddhist texts today, those written in Pali are the most
numerous and are widely used in the Southern Buddhist countries Sri
Lanka, Burma, and Thailand. According to Southern Buddhist tradition,
Pali is regarded as the language that Shakyamuni spoke, and therefore is
called Magadhi or the fundamental language. However, recent studies
show that although a little of the Magadhi influence is still evident in
the Pali language, the basic characteristics of the two languages are
“The two important language families of India are Indic
and Dravidian. All Buddhist Suttas were originally compiled in Indic
languages, which developed in various parts of India over a period of
three or four thousand years. In present day India more than ten major
languages- including Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Bihari, Marathi, and Punjabi-
belong to this family, and together they number several hundred
dialects. Sanskrit and fourteen modern languages are now officially
sanctioned by the Indian constitution, and in a large house it is
possible for several of the recognized languages to be in use, since
servants from different areas and family members would all speak in
their own languages or dialects.

“This rich linguistic heritage
was noted in earlier times, when, for example, in plays one could
identify a character’s occupation and social status through the
prescribed language he or she spoke. Kings, ministers, and Brahmans
spoke Sanskrit, the most highly esteemed and inflected language; queens,
princesses, nuns and courtesans spoke a graceful language called
Shauraseni; the general populace, such as merchants and artisans, spoke
Magadhi; and the lower classes spoke Paishachi. Even lyrics had their
own pleasant to the ear language, Maharashtri.

“The five
languages just mentioned originated in the dialects of different areas,
but the languages in Shakyamuni’s time belonged to a period earlier than
that of these five languages. However, even in Shakyamuni’s time,
regional languages already differed, and each language had its own
unique characteristics, as we can see from the edicts of Ashoka, issued
about two centuries after the death of Shakyamuni. Ashoka had his edicts
carved on large rocks and stone pillars, and one particular edict was
written in a different language in each of the eight areas where it has
been found. The languages of the edicts in India, which can be divided
into four or five regional groups, correspond to the five languages used
in drama of later periods. In time they became regional languages of
the Apabhramsha family, and still later they developed into the modern
Indic languages.

“The language Shakyamuni spoke was the one in
general use around the middle reaches of the Ganges, where he was
active. Since the area was later called Magadha, its language was called
Magadi (or Old Magadhi), and because many of Emperor Ashoka’s edicts
have been found in this area, we have an idea of what the Magadhi
Shakyamuni spoke was like.

“In the time of Shakyamuni, the
Vedas, the holy scriptures of Brahmanism, were transmitted in Vedic
Sanskrit, which was the forerunner of classical Sanskrit. Both Vedic
Sanskrit and classical Sanskrit are elegant, highly inflected, complex
languages. The Vedic scriptures were transmitted only to the educated
upper classes, never to the lower classes. Shakyamuni, who wanted his
teachings to reach all classes of society equally, thought that the
lower classes would be the focus of his ministry and therefore preached
his teaching in Magadhi, the everyday language of the common people, so
that even the lower classes could understand him.”

excerpt from “Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on
the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India” by
Gregory Schopen

“We know, and have known for some time, that the
Pali canon as we have it- and it is generally conceded to be our oldest
source- cannot be taken back further than the last quarter of the first
century BCE, the date of the Alu-vihara redaction, the earliest
redaction that we can have some knowledge of, and that-for a critical
history- it can serve, at the very most only as a source for the
Buddhism of this period. But we also know that even this is problematic
since as Malalasekera has pointed out ‘…how far the Tipitaka and its
commentary reduced to writing at Alu-vihara resembled them as they have
come down to us now, no one can say.’ In fact, it is not until the time
of the commentaries of Buddhaghosa, Dhammapala, and others- that is to
say the fifth to sixth centuries C.E.- that we can know anything
definite about the actual contents of this canon.
“We also know that
there is no evidence to indicate that a canon existed prior to the
Alu-vihara redaction. Although Ashoka in his Dhabra Edict specifically
enjoined both monks and laymen to recite certain texts, which he named,
he nowhere in his records gives any indication that he knew of a canon,
or the classification of texts into nikayas.”
I personally have
great faith in the memory-power of the monks who memorized the Buddhist
Suttas from the time of the Buddha and transmitted them verbally from
generation to generation for about 400 years before they were actually
written down. And in terms of dating the earliest recorded Suttas, it is
my understanding that parts of the Sutta Nipata in Pali and parts of
the Mahavastu in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit (from the Shravastivadin
tradition) are the oldest known recorded Suttas- both dating back to
about 350 years after the Buddha. Again, I didn’t mean to be too
long-winded in this explanation, but I thought people might be
interested in knowing a little more, if they didn’t know already, about
these questions of language and the Buddhist Suttas.
A little
footnote: according to our tradition and the historical records of
Ancient China the earliest Sutta translated from the Indic languages
into Chinese was the Sutta in 42 Sections in 69 C.E.
Sincerely, in
Dharma, Heng Shun

History of the Pali Canon

from the Pali Text Society’s web page

is the name given to the language of the texts of Theravaada Buddhism,
although the commentarial tradition of the Theravaadins states that the
language of the canon is Maagadhii, the language spoken by Gotama
Buddha. The term Paali originally referred to a canonical text or
passage rather than to a language and its current use is based on a
misunderstanding which occurred several centuries ago. The language of
the Theravaadin canon is a version of a dialect of Middle Indo-AAryan,
not Maagadhii, created by the homogenisation of the dialects in which
the teachings of the Buddha were orally recorded and transmitted. This
became necessary as Buddhism was transmitted far beyond the area of its
origin and as the Buddhist monastic order codified his teachings.

tradition recorded in the ancient Sinhalese chronicles states that the
Theravaadin canon was written down in the first century B.C.E. The
language of the canon continued to be influenced by commentators and
grammarians and by the native languages of the countries in which
Theravaada Buddhism became established over many centuries. The oral
transmission of the Paali canon continued for several centuries after
the death of the Buddha, even after the texts were first preserved in
writing. No single script was ever developed for the language of the
canon; scribes used the scripts of their native languages to transcribe
the texts. Although monasteries in South India are known to have been
important centres of Buddhist learning in the early part of this
millennium, no manuscripts from anywhere in India except Nepal have
survived. Almost all the manuscripts available to scholars since the PTS
began can be dated to the 18th or 19th centuries C.E. and the textual
traditions of the different Buddhist countries represented by these
manuscripts show much evidence of interweaving. The pattern of
recitation and validation of texts by councils of monks has continued
into the 20th century.

The main division of
the Paali canon as it exists today is threefold, although the Paali
commentarial tradition refers to several different ways of
classification. The three divisions are known as pi.takas and the canon
itself as the Tipi.taka; the significance of the term pi.taka, literally
“basket”, is not clear. The text of the canon is divided, according to
this system, into Vinaya (monastic rules), Suttas (discourses) and
Abhidhamma (analysis of the teaching). The PTS edition of the Tipi.taka
contains fifty-six books (including indexes), and it cannot therefore be
considered to be a homogenous entity, comparable to the Christian Bible
or Muslim Koran. Although Buddhists refer to the Tipi.taka as Buddha-
vacana, “the word of the Buddha”, there are texts within the canon
either attributed to specific monks or related to an event post-dating
the time of the Buddha or that can be shown to have been composed after
that time. The first four nikaayas (collections) of the Sutta-pi.taka
contain sermons in which the basic doctrines of the Buddha’s teaching
are expounded either briefly or in detail.

The early activities
of the Society centred around making the books of the Tipi.taka
available to scholars. As access to printed editions and manuscripts has
improved, scholars have begun to produce truly critical editions and
re-establish lost readings. While there is much work still needed on the
canon, its commentaries and subcommentaries, the Society is also
beginning to encourage work on a wider range of Paali texts, including
those composed in Southeast Asia.


The Earliest Buddhist Canon of Literature

The Three Baskets
Discourses of the Buddha
Monastic Discipline
Higher Doctrine
Sutta Pitaka
Abhidhamma Pitaka

    Digha Nikaya
    Majjhima Nikaya
    Samyutta Nikaya
    Anguttara Nikaya
    Khuddaka Nikaya




For further study

the GWV Pali Language Resource Guide for
the Study of the, Tipitaka, Pali Language and Literature

Pali-English, English-Pali Dictionary (a work in
progress), Edited by Jhanananda

Other Pali Dictionaries Resources and

A Glossary of Key Buddhist
and Concepts

A Buddhist Timeline

Understanding the original language of
the Buddha and his teachings (suttas/sutras)

A Guide
to Learning the Pali Language
and access to Pali
by John Bullitt

One of the goals of the
Great Western Vehicle is to bring the Buddha’s
teachings to the broadest audience. In an effort to meet that goal
we have provided as much of the
original Discourses of the Buddha in English translation as we could find
in the public domain.

master directory of translations of the Tipitaka in English, Romanized
Pali and Sinhala is a compilation of the work of 24 different translators.
It includes the work of monastics, such as:
Upalavanna; Bhikkhus: Amaravati, ânandajoti, Bodhi,
Jhanananda, Ñanamoli, Ñanananda, Narada, Nyanaponika,
Nyanasatta, Piyadassi, Soma and Thanissaro; scholars such as: V.
Fausböll, Ireland,
A.D. Jayasundere, F. Max Müller,
Horner, Olendzki, T. W. Rhys Davids, Story, Strong, Vajira and Woodward. Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s English translations are thanks
to Access
to Insight
, which included the work of other excellent translators.
The translations of F. Max Muller, T.W. Rhys Davids et al are thanks
the PALI

Every culture that has embraced Buddhism has
spent the first few centuries of that endeavor in acquiring and translating
the Three
Baskets, which includes the Discourses of the Buddha (sutta/sutra pitaka).
It is a matter of history that the Buddha spoke in the common language
his region. The Pali language
is a liturgical language that is based upon that language.
Once the Buddha’s teachings were written down they were almost immediately
translated into Sinhala and Sanskrit. When Buddhism arrived in China, then
Korea, then Japan then Tibet, the Three Baskets were acquired in Sanskrit
then translated into the languages of those above regions.

As the English speaking peoples embrace Buddhism we have the
choice to acquire the teachings of the Buddha in the above mentioned languages,
however, why go through three layers of translation, which are only going
to increase the likelihood of translator bias and religious
dogma, when we can go back to
the original
of the Buddha, which was closest related
the Pali

For scholarly purposes we believe serious students of Buddhism
are going to want to penetrate through the fog of translator bias and
religious dogma to get as close to the original teachings of the Buddha
as one can. For that purpose we have included the Romanized form of the
Pali. We have also included the Sinhala version as a gift to the Sri Lankan
who have preserved the earliest sources of Buddhist literature.

The Romanized Pali is based upon the Sri
Lanka Buddha Jayanti Tipitaka Series.
The Sinhala is A.P. de Soyza’s translations. The English
is by 24 translators often downloaded from the Internet thanks to Metta
, Access to Insight, and
“Sacred Books of the Buddhists” and “Sacred
Books of the East
, thanks to Sacred Texts.

If only one person is relieved of suffering by our efforts,
then our work was well spent.

Sotapanna Jhanananda
Inyo National Forest, September 17 2005


the English Translators


Pali (1)

BJT Text

Pali (2)

New Text,
Study + Metrical Commentary

(1) Sister Upalavanna

(2) A.D. Jayasundere

(3) misc. & anon

(4) T. W. Rhys Davids

(5) Jhanananda

(6) Thanissaro

(7) Vajira/Story

(8) Piyadassi

(9) Narada

(10) Nyanaponika

(11) Ñanamoli

(12) Bodhi, Soma

(13) Horner

(14) Ñanananda

(15) Olendzki


(17) F. Max Müller

(18) Strong

(19) Buddharakkhita

(20) ânandajoti

(21) Amaravati

(22) Nyanasatta

(23) Ireland

V. Fausböll

Main Translation 
from the
A. P Soyza series

You may wish to download and install the fonts from here before
you proceed so that the Romanized Pali displays correctly. Fonts  were
uploaded on June, 30, 2000. Or Pali

The latest update of the MettaNet Tipitaka in
a single Zip file of 24.8 MB, uploaded
on June, 11, 2005

Please send us an email with
comments and suggestions

Pāli (पालि)

Pāli is the language of the scriptures of Theravada Buddhism,
(the Pāli Canon or the Tipitaka in Pāli), which
were written in Sri Lanka during the 1st century BC. Pāli has been
written in a variety of scripts, including Brahmi,
Devanāgarī and other Indic scripts,
and also using a version of the Latin alphabet devised by T. W. Rhys Davids of
the Pāli Text Society.

The name Pāli means “line” or “(canonical) text”, and probably comes
from the commentarial traditions, wherein the “Pāli” (in the sense of
the line of original text quoted) was distinguished from the commentary or
the vernacular following after it on the manuscript page. There are a number
of ways to spell the name of the language: Pali, Pāli, Paḷi,
Pāḷi, all four of which are found in textbooks.

Today Pāli is studied mainly by those who wish to read the original
Buddhist scriptures, and is frequently chanted in rituals. There are non-religious
text in Pāli including historical and medical texts. The main areas where
Pāli is studied are Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

Devanāgarī alphabet for Pāli

Devanāgarī alphabet for Pāli

Sample text in Pāli (Romanized script)

Manopubbangamā dhammā, manosetthā manomayā;
Manasā ce padutthena, bhāsati vā karoti vā,
Tato nam dukkhamanveti, cakkam’va vahato padam.


Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all
mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering
follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

(Translated by Acharya Buddharakkhita)

Sample text in Pāli (Romanized script)

Appam pi ce saṃhitaṃ bhāsamāno dhammassa
hoti anudhammacārī, rāgañ ca dosañ
ca pahāya mohaṃ sammāppajāno suvimuttacitto,
anupādiyāno idha vā huraṃ vā sa
bhāgavā sāmaññassa hoti.


Even if he recites a little of scriptures, but lives in truth according
to the Dharma, having abandoned lust, hatred and delusion, has the right
knowledge, with a well emancipated mind, is not attached to anything, either
in this world, nor in the other one, he shares the [blessings of] monkshood.
(Source: of Digital Library & Museum of Buddhist studies)

Hear a recording of this text by Oscar A. Solari

The information on this page comes mainly from Oscar A. Solari.


Information about the Pāli language

Pāli language sources and resources

A Guide to Learning the Pāli Language

Tipitaka Network - includes information about the Pāli language and some lessons

Pāli Text Society

Pāli-English dictionary

Nepal Bhasa / Newari,

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