The Buddha taught in Pali: A working hypothesis

Stefan Karpik


The Theravada tradition claims that the Buddha taught in Pali. This conflicts with most current scholarship. Yet insights from linguistics and close reading of sources suggest that the Theravada account has not been disproved, that it could be correct, and that it even represents a stronger hypothesis than the current consensus. Instead of authorising translation of his teaching into dialects, the Buddha promoted a fixed transmission and the use of standard language. That the Buddha spoke Māgadhī is a late tradition; Tipiṭaka commentaries instead defined Māgadhabhāsā, ‘Magadha language’, as Ariyaka, ‘Aryan’, the canonical term for the Indo-Aryan language. Pali has the expected features of a natural standard language and can be seen as a precursor of Epigraphic Prakrit. This working hypothesis suggests a bolder stance for Pali studies of claiming that Pali is in all probability the formal language of the Buddha.

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