Pāḷi is the language in which the Buddha’s teachings were written down, a few hundred years after he taught.
- Although the Buddha’s language remains unknown, it’s likely that he taught in one or more of a variety of closely related Middle Indo-Aryan dialects, of which Pali may be a standardisation.
It is not certain that the Buddha actually spoke in Pāḷi, but it was probably that or a related language Magadhi. Magadhi is still spoken in the area where the Buddha lived.
Both were languages spoken by the common people, and did not have their own alphabets at that time. So we read Pāḷi in transcriptions of different alphabets.
Why learn Pali?
The terms which are used in the Buddha’s teachings just have no equivalent in other languages. If we try to use Christian terms (ordination, confession, salvation, etc.) or Sanskrit terms (karma, nirvâna, etc.) we will be missing the real idea — they are not only different, but sometimes even in opposition to the true meaning of the Pali term. (So don’t try to study the Pali terms — because they have no real translation! Just chant them, read them, use them, and gradually their meaning will become clear.)
- The English language is rich in many ways, particularly when explaining the features of the material world, but it is remarkably clumsy when it comes to articulating the nuanced terrain of inner experience. This is one of the reasons the current conversations about consciousness, meditation, and psychology in general can be somewhat confusing.
- One of the satisfactions of studying the languages and literatures of India is the exposure it offers to a richer and more precise vocabulary for speaking about internal states of mind. At the time Greek philosophers were seeking to identify the universal substances out of which all matter is constructed, their counterparts in India were exploring, empirically and directly, the textures of consciousness. By the time Socrates suggested that care of the soul was an appropriate thing for philosophers to attend to, a detailed and highly developed map of the mind and body as a system of lived experience had been delineated by the Buddha and his immediate followers.
- Andrew Olendzki
There’s a nice discussion about learning Pali for Buddhism practice on StackExchange
How to pronounce
We have a page on the basics of how to pronounce Pali words, with more resources there for those interested.