Pali and Sanskrit: Linguistic similarities and differences

Sutra, karma, and nirvana are English words derived from Sanskrit, and Pali has corresponding words sutta, kamma, and nibbana. Notice how these Pali words lack the letter 'r' but have double consonants instead.

The Pali language is primarily associated with Theravada Buddhism, as it is the language of the main texts in the Theravada Buddhist tradition (a collection of scriptures called the Pali Canon).

Sanskrit is a classical language of India that has played a significant role in the development of both Hinduism and yoga. Sanskrit is the language of many ancient Hindu texts, including the Vedas and Upanishads, as well as Yogic texts such as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

In ancient India, Sanskrit was a scholarly language in contrast to Pali which was a language spoken by the common people. This explains why Pali words are often simpler to pronounce than Sanskrit words.

Similarities in vocabulary

Pali and Sanskrit have many similar vocabulary words in common.

Pali words tend to be easier to pronounce than Sanskrit words, which often have consonant clusters and diphthongs (combinations of adjacent vowel sounds within the same syllable).

Many of the Pali words which come from Sanskrit have undergone simplifications such as assimilation (the blending into one of two consonantal sounds) or elision (the deletion of a sound). In particular, in many cases the ‘r’ sound which is present in a Sanskrit word has disappeared from the corresponding Pali word.

Table: Examples of related Pali and Sanskrit vocabulary words which have some minor differences
Pali Sanskrit English
mitta मित्र (mitra) a friend
nibbāna निर्वाण (nirvāṇa) nirvana
dhamma धर्म (dharma) teachings of the Buddha
sacca सत्य (satya) true / truth
puñña पुण्य (puṇya) merit
kamma कर्मन् (karman) action / karma
pāṇa प्राण (prāṇa) breath / life
pīti प्रीति (prīti) joy
paññā प्रज्ञा (prajñā) wisdom
passati पश्यति (pasyati) to see
saññā संज्ञा (saṃjñā) perception
cakka चक्र (cakra) wheel / circle
canda चन्द्र (candra) moon
kodha क्रोध (krodha) anger
siri श्री (śrī) splendor / good fortune
vijju विद्युत् (vidyut) lightning
sīha सिंह (siṃha) lion
niddā निद्रा (nidrā) sleep
sīsa शीर्ष (śīrṣa) head
pitu पितृ (pitṛ́) father
vijjā विद्या (vidyā) knowledge
saddhā श्रद्धा (śraddhā́) confidence
dakkhiṇā दक्षिणा (dakṣiṇā) donation
taṇhā तृष्णा (tṛ́ṣṇā) desire / thirst
magga मार्ग (mārga) path / road
majjha मध्य (madhya) middle
piya प्रिय (priya) dear / beloved
natta नक्त (nakta) night
sāmin स्वामिन् (svāmin) owner / master
dīpa द्वीप (dvīpa) island
āpa अप् (ap) water
muddā मुद्रा (mudrā) seal
maccha मत्स्य (matsya) fish
sukka सुख (sukha) pleasant agreeable
sutta सूत्र (sūtra) a text / scripture
paṭimā प्रतिमा (pratimā) an image / a figure
dosa द्वेष (dveṣa) anger / ill-will
dukkha दुःख (duḥkha) suffering

Some of the Pali words which are derived from Sanskrit have shifts in meanings, or additional meanings compared to the original term.

There are also many Pali and Sanskrit vocabulary words that are identical or very similar (aside from the scripts used to write them). Some examples of these are provided in the table below:

Pali Sanskrit English
sīla शील (śīla) morality
ānanda आनन्द (ānanda) joy / happiness
karuṇā करुणा (karuṇā) compassion
dāna दान (dāna) a gift
moha मोह (moha) delusion
nadī नदी (nadī) river
citta चित्त (citta) mind / heart
pūjā पूजा (pūjā) homage / veneration
bīja बीज (bīja) seed
eka एक (eka) one
manas मनस् (manas) mind
maṅgala मङ्गल (maṅgala) auspicious
gacchati गच्छति (gacchati) to go
bheda भेद (bheda) separation / difference
bhavati भवति (bhavati) to be / to become
hetu हेतु (hetu) a cause / a reason
loka लोक (loka) world
jīvati जीवति (jīvati) to live
mūla मूल (mūla) a root
bala बल (bala) strength / power
tvaṃ त्वम् (tvam) you
guṇa गुण (guṇa) a quality

The relationship between Pali and Sanskrit

Both Pali and Sanskrit belong to the Indo-European family of languages, which also includes English, Latin, and several other European languages.

Sanskrit is an ancient language that predates Pali. Sanskrit is over 3000 years old, with the oldest known Sanskrit text being the Rigveda, which dates from the second millennium BCE. In comparison, Pali is a younger language, estimated to be between 2300 and 2500 years old.

In ancient India, Sanskrit was primarily used as a literary, scholarly, and scriptural language, while other languages and dialects were spoken by the general population. Those vernacular languages spoken during that period which belong to the same language family as Sanskrit are called Prakrits.

The term Prakrit comes from the Sanskrit word « प्राकृत » (prākṛta) which means “natural” or “ordinary”. Pali is among the best-known languages from this group. (see [1], [2])

The relationship between Sanskrit and the Prakrits is similar to the relationship between the Classical Latin used by Caesar and the form of Latin used by the common people, known as “colloquial Latin” or “vulgar Latin.”

Similar prefixes

Many prefixes used in Pali are similar to the corresponding Sanskrit prefix.

In both of these languages, the prefix « a- » means “not”:

In both languages, the prefix « vi- » is used to express separation or opposition:

Writing systems

Certain languages are closely linked to a specific writing system, such as Chinese with its Chinese characters or Russian with the Cyrillic alphabet. In contrast, Pali and Sanskrit have been written using various scripts throughout history and in different regions.

For example, Pali has been written in the Thai script in Thailand, the Sinhala script in Sri Lanka, and the Devanagari script in some other places. However, for English-speaking readers, Pali texts are typically written in Roman script with some extra diacritical marks.

Sanskrit has been written using different scripts, such as the Brahmi, Devanagari, and Kannada scripts. Nowadays, Sanskrit texts published for English-speaking readers are either in the Devanagari script (also used for Hindi and Nepali) or transliterated into the Roman alphabet.

  1. [1] Pali and the Prakrits - University of Washington, Department of Asian Languages and Literature
  2. [2] Theravāda Buddhism: Primary Texts - University at Buffalo