Pali and Sanskrit: Linguistic similarities and differences

Pali and Sanskrit are closely related languages which both originate from India.

Pali is studied because it is the language of texts from Theravāda Buddhism (which are referred to as the Pali Canon), while Sanskrit is an important language for Hinduism and yoga.

Pali and Sanskrit are both in the Indo-European family of languages. This language family also includes English, Latin, and many of the languages which are spoken in Europe.

Pali and Sanskrit similarities in vocabulary

Many Pali vocabulary words are similar to the corresponding Sanskrit words.

The table below which lists Pali and Sanskrit vocabulary words side by side, makes it possible to notice some of the patterns in the differences between Pali and Sanskrit.

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 which are identical or very similar (aside from the scripts used to write them). Some examples of these are provided in the table below:

Table: Examples of related Pali and Sanskrit vocabulary words which are identical or very similar (aside from the scripts used to write them)
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

Sanskrit is an older language than Pali. Sanskrit is over 3000 years old, the oldest known Sanskrit text is the Rigveda which dates from the second millennium BCE. The Pali language is between 2300 and 2500 years old.

In Ancient India, Sanskrit was a literary, scholarly and scriptural language. Alongside Sanskrit were other languages and dialects which were spoken by the ordinary people. These vernacular languages spoken during that period and belonging 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 languages is similar to the relationship between the Classical Latin used by Caesar and the form of Latin which was later used by the common people (known as “colloquial Latin” or “vulgar Latin”)

More similarities between Pali and Sanskrit

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

In both Pali and Sanskrit, the prefix « a- » means “not”.

In both Pali and Sanskrit, the prefix « vi- » is used to express separation or opposition.

Pali and Sanskrit writing systems

There are languages which are closely tied to a particular writing system (for instance Chinese and the Chinese characters, or Russian and the Cyrillic alphabet).

In contrast, Pali and Sanskrit are languages which have been written using a variety of writing systems depending on the epoch and location.

In Thailand, the Thai script has been used to write Pali. In Sri Lanka, Pali has been written with the Sinhala script. In some other places, the Devanagari is used to write Pali. But Pali texts published for an English-speaking audience are usually written in Roman script with some additional diacritical marks.

A variety of different scripts have been used to write Sanskrit, including the Brahmi script, the Devanagari script and the Kannada script. Today, Sanskrit texts which are published for an English-speaking audience are often either in the Devanagari script (which also is used for Hindi and Nepali), or transliterated to the Roman alphabet.

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