What language did the Buddha speak?

Textual analysis and comparative discussion on early Buddhist sects and texts.

What language did the Buddha speak?

Postby smokey » Fri Jun 11, 2010 2:38 pm

Some sources say Sanskrit and some Magadhi. Now I wonder is there any evidence? I apologize if the question has been asked previously on this forum.
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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Postby Kare » Fri Jun 11, 2010 3:43 pm

smokey wrote:Some sources say Sanskrit and some Magadhi. Now I wonder is there any evidence? I apologize if the question has been asked previously on this forum.


He did not speak Sanskrit. At the Buddhas time different dialects were spoken in Northern India. They were probably not very different from each other, and not very different from Sanskrit. Pali is a standardization from these dialects (we find traces of different dialects in Pali), a couple of hundred years after Buddha, and the Pali texts therefore probably are as close to the Buddha's own language as we can reasonably expect to get.

The term Magadhi is ambiguous. It means "from Magadha", and so we have to ask what area was called Magadha, and at what time.

At the Buddha's time Magadha was one of several states in Northern India. We do not know if, or how much, the dialect in Magadha at that time differed from the neighboring dialects. As far as I know, we have no documentation for the use of Magadhi as a linguistic term at that time.

Magadha was a rather aggressive kingdom, and after the Buddha's time it conquered other states and expanded until it covered most of India at the time of Asoka. Asoka was king of Magadha, that is, he was king of "greater Magadha" - most of India. At his time Buddhism was exported to Sri Lanka, and so were the Pali texts. But Sri Lankan commentators did not call the language "Pali". They called it Magadhi, which is quite logical, since the texts had been brought to them from Magadha, from "greater Magadha", that is - from the Indian mainland. Therefore the term Magadhi for the Pali language as used in the commentaries, probably mean nothing more than "Indian".

Later, the Asokan dynasty fell from power, and the name Magadha was again restricted to the area, the province that had been the original state of Magadha at the Buddha's time. During the centuries the dialects in different parts of India had diverged (as is normal for languages), and the dialect of Magadha had acquired its own distinctive features. Now came the time of the great Sanskrit dramas, and the Sanskrit authors consciously used different dialects and cultivated these as written sociolects, which were called Prakrit. Thus there arose a Prakrit language/dialect called Magadhi.

There seems to have been quite a lot of confusion due to these different usages of the term "Magadhi".

To sum up:
"Magadhi 1" - whatever dialect was spoken in Magadha at the Buddha's time. We do not know to what degree, if at all, this was any different from the language spoken over most of Northern India.
"Magadhi 2" - the language of the texts from "greater Magadha" that arrived in Sri Lanka at the time of Asoka. This "Magadhi 2" is the same as we today call Pali.
"Magadhi 3" - the later dialect of the province of Magadha that became a Prakrit language in the Middle Ages. No special connection to Buddhism or the Pali texts.
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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Postby PeterB » Fri Jun 11, 2010 3:45 pm

Illuminating as always Kare.
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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Postby smokey » Fri Jun 11, 2010 3:51 pm

Thank you Kare.
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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Postby Sekha » Fri Jun 11, 2010 4:17 pm

I would have another related question:

To which extent can one state rightly that there was no evolution of the Pali langage as well as the content of the tipitaka from the day they reached the shore of Sri Lanka?
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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Postby Bankei » Mon Jun 14, 2010 6:08 am

The Buddha probably spoke a number of dialects since his travels took him over a wide distance.

Pali certainly did change after its arrival in Sri Lanka. There are differences in the languages of the canon and the commentaries and later commentaries. All languages change. Just think how much English has changed over the last 10 years.

Prof Kenneth Roy Norman has written a lot on this topic.
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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Postby Kare » Mon Jun 14, 2010 7:36 am

Bankei wrote:The Buddha probably spoke a number of dialects since his travels took him over a wide distance.


I have seen this point of view expressed before, and I do not believe it. He may have modified his own Kapilavatthu dialect slightly over the years, but to regard him as a man who changed his dialect for every second mile he walked, is rather ridiculous. This theory probably arose because we find traces of different dialects in the Pali texts. But it is much more plausible to see these variants as reflections of the dialects of the different persons who listened to and remembered the words of the Buddha - not as some kind of exact sound recordings of the Buddha himself.

Pali certainly did change after its arrival in Sri Lanka. There are differences in the languages of the canon and the commentaries and later commentaries. All languages change. Just think how much English has changed over the last 10 years.


That is right. But the main reason for the differences between the sutta style and the commentary style is probably the fact that the suttas were oral, while the commentaries were written texts right from the start.
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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Postby Bankei » Sat Jun 19, 2010 4:06 am

hi Kare

This may be so, but wouldn't you expect large variations in language across the vast distances in which the Buddha traveled? eg. from Lumbini to Buddhgaya it is about 400km in distance.

Good point about the dialects of the listeners too.

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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Postby mikenz66 » Sat Jun 19, 2010 4:28 am

Kare wrote:That is right. But the main reason for the differences between the sutta style and the commentary style is probably the fact that the suttas were oral, while the commentaries were written texts right from the start.

Also, the Pali commentaries that we have were, according to the tradition, preserved in writing in Sinhalese and translated back into Pali by Ven Buddhaghosa many centuries after the time of the Buddha, which would have meant further changes in style.

This translation into Pali still happens in the modern era. For example, Mahasi Sayadaw translated his "The Progress of Insight" http://aimwell.org/Books/Mahasi/Progress/progress.html into Pali, presumably to make it accessible outside of Burma.

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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Postby Kare » Sat Jun 19, 2010 9:25 am

Bankei wrote:hi Kare

This may be so, but wouldn't you expect large variations in language across the vast distances in which the Buddha traveled? eg. from Lumbini to Buddhgaya it is about 400km in distance.



Difficult to say. This amount of variation would depend on many factors, such as how long time had passed since the indo-aryan languages were introduced in the area, how good the communicatians were, etc. I suppose the best way of trying to find an answer to your question, is to see if someone has made a comparative study of the dialects in the Asoka inscriptions.
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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Postby Bankei » Mon Jun 21, 2010 9:33 am

I wonder how much variation there is today in the modern languages of these regions.

Thanks Kare

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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Postby sphairos » Mon Jun 21, 2010 11:22 am

Mamaetad cetaso parivitakko udapādi: (This train of thought occurred to me) What if Buddha spoke two or more different languages?

it has never crossed my mind, though it seems plausible: Ancient Indians knew many slightly different languages, and for the learned middle and high social class or strata persons it was a "must" to know the language of the sophisticated culture, some local "high" languages, and the vernacular widely spread languages. We know that Buddha was a learned person, why should we suppose that he knew only one language?
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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Postby Kare » Mon Jun 21, 2010 12:20 pm

sphairos wrote:Mamaetad cetaso parivitakko udapādi: (This train of thought occurred to me) What if Buddha spoke two or more different languages?

it has never crossed my mind, though it seems plausible: Ancient Indians knew many slightly different languages, and for the learned middle and high social class or strata persons it was a "must" to know the language of the sophisticated culture, some local "high" languages, and the vernacular widely spread languages. We know that Buddha was a learned person, why should we suppose that he knew only one language?


The question is: How different should dialects be in order to classify them as separate languages? Linguists have no clear answer to this question.

Let me use Scandinavia as an example. We have three political units here: Norway, Denmark and Sweden. In these three countries there is a continuum of different dialects spoken, most of them mutually intelligible (apart from the Saami dialects, who belong to a different language family). As for myself, as a Norwegian, I understand Swedish and Danish, although some dialects - even some Norwegian dialects - strain my ears a bit. Therefore one might say that from a purely linguistic point of view, the continuum of Scandinavian dialects are ONE language. From a political point of view there are three languages, or in fact four, since Norwegian appears in two versions (there are historical and political reasons for this bizarre situation).

If I speak with a Swede or a Dane, I understand most of his conversation without any problem. I might ask him to repeat a word or to clarify his meaning now or then. I would speak in my normal Norwegian, but maybe I would modify a word a little now or then in order to get my meaning across. And if let's say a Swede told me a good story, I might retell it to a Norwegian friend. I would naturally concentrate on telling the contents in my own dialect, not trying to reproduce the grammatical forms of Swedish. I would not really be conscious of having "translated" anything.

Now, back to India at the time of the Buddha. I suppose the dialects of the Majjhimadesa were no more different than the different Scandinavian dialects are today. They would thus be mutually intelligible. A person who travelled around a bit, like the Buddha did, would be used to hear different dialects, and he would understand them without any problem. His listeners would understand him, even if they happened to speak a slightly different dialect. After he had left, they would probably tell their friends the contents of the speech of the Buddha. They would probably use their own dialect, not trying to reproduce the exact grammatical forms of the Buddha. They would not really be conscious of having translated anything.

I think this is the most probable scenario for how the words of the Buddha came to be transmitted in several dialects.
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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Postby Sekha » Mon Jun 21, 2010 4:41 pm

That would explain why there are so many synonyms and synonym expressions in Pali.

Is there any research trying to identify if some synonyms were used more often than others according to the place where the particular sutta was spoken?
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As a sweet-smelling and beautiful lotus flower may grow upon a heap of rubbish thrown on the highway, so also, out of the rubbish heap of beings may appear a disciple of the Buddha, who with his wisdom, shines resplendent in wisdom. -/ Dhp 58-59
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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Postby Kare » Mon Jun 21, 2010 5:35 pm

Dukkhanirodha wrote:That would explain why there are so many synonyms and synonym expressions in Pali.


Yes, I seem to remember that there is a sutta which gives just that explanation for the synonyms. I just can't remember which sutta that might have been. Anyone here who knows?


Is there any research trying to identify if some synonyms were used more often than others according to the place where the particular sutta was spoken?


If there is such a study, I should like to see it, too.
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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Postby Sekha » Wed Jun 23, 2010 11:16 am

Modern scholars suggest that Pali was probably never spoken by the Buddha himself.In the centuries after the Buddha's death, as Buddhism spread across India into regions that spoke different dialects, Buddhist monks increasingly depended on a common tongue for their discussions of Dhamma and their recitations of memorized texts. It was out of this necessity that the language we now know as Pali emerged.

http://www.peacehall.com/news/gb/englis ... 0400.shtml
Where knowledge ends, religion begins. - B. Disraeli

http://www.buddha-vacana.org

As a sweet-smelling and beautiful lotus flower may grow upon a heap of rubbish thrown on the highway, so also, out of the rubbish heap of beings may appear a disciple of the Buddha, who with his wisdom, shines resplendent in wisdom. -/ Dhp 58-59
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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Postby ajbombadill » Sun Nov 21, 2010 11:54 pm

http://www.indology.net/article36.html

here is an interesting discourse on the origin of the Pali language...
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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Postby Individual » Mon Nov 22, 2010 12:47 am

The Buddha didn't speak. Whatever people heard, it was always their own language which they thought they heard him speak. :)
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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Postby Paññāsikhara » Mon Nov 22, 2010 3:21 am

Individual wrote:The Buddha didn't speak. Whatever people heard, it was always their own language which they thought they heard him speak. :)


You may want to take that one to the "Discovering Mahasamghika" forum!
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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Postby alan » Mon Nov 22, 2010 4:23 am

Thank you Kare, You are a real treasure. Always well explained, always well researched. Bravo!
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