Pali Day 1

I cracked open my Pali book today when I had some free time at work and I have to say I’m quite excited! I am now one of the privileged few in Japan who can call themselves Pali students. I may be the only person in my entire prefecture to be studying this language. I won’t go so far as to say country though. I’m sure there are some universities here that have Indian philology departments or offer a major in early Buddhism. Even so, I feel like I have some special gem that nobody else knows about.

I have two Pali textbooks that I am working from. One is the famous Introduction to Pali by A.K. Warder. For years this has been the textbook for learning Pali. Admittedly it doesn’t have much competition, so it remains to be seen if it’s really all that brilliant. It’s quite thick, pulls all of its exercises straight from the Pali Canon and has detailed linguistic explanations for everything. The other book I’m using is called Pali Primer by Lily de Silva. It’s a skinny book, very concise and full of exercises.

There are some interesting things that come up when learning an ancient dead religious language. In most foreign language classes I’ve taken, the textbook opens up with greetings and introductions. “Hello,” “My name is Cornelius,” “Nice to meet you.” Pretty standard. Check out the vocabulary list for lesson one of the Pali book:

  • lay disciple
  • body, substance
  • warrior, noble
  • village
  • thus-gone (one of the titles for the Buddha)
  • god, king (honorific)
  • son
  • man
  • priest, brahman
  • road, way
  • human being
  • non-human being
  • minister
  • world, people, universe
  • ascetic, wanderer, philosopher
  • a time, occasion

It really shows you what you’re getting into, doesn’t it? Some interesting lesson one example sentences:

  • A god is a non-human being.
  • The son who is a lay disciple sees.
  • The priest goes away.
  • The god dies.

The god dies? That’s pretty intense! All example sentences were entered into Mnemosyne, the spaced repetition software I will be using for Pali.

One interesting side note: the words for “human being” and “non-human being” are “manussa” and “amanussa” respectively. The A.K. Warder book says that “a-” is a negative prefix. I wonder if this is the same prefix that we find in English with word pairs such as typical/atypical and sexual/asexual. Both English and Pali are Indo-European languages, so it’s not impossible. Does anybody know the story on this?

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4 Comment(s)

  1. Google Books has some interesting (albeit old) stuff. Here’s a Pali grammar from the 1820s, fully downloadable as a PDF.

    Bravo on studying Pali. I should probably study it more systematically myself, being as Thai etymology is one of my main interests, and so many Thai words come from Pali. Everything I know about Pali right now comes through the filter of Thai. One of these days..

    rikker | Oct 27, 2007 | Reply

  2. rikker: Great find! That book predates the Pali Text Society! The old writing style is so cool to read. It has some funny example sentences in there too: “Amongst cows, the black cow is that which gives most milk.” “The dying of cloth, by a person not a dyer, is wonderful.” Someday I hope to get around to learning the Sinhalese script.

    Learning Pali through Thai might be a lot like studying Latin for us. Of course Thai and Pali aren’t related, but as you said a lot of the Thai vocabulary is borrowed from Pali. I wonder if knowing Pali will make learning Thai easier in the future.

    thomas | Oct 27, 2007 | Reply

  3. I think knowing Pali will make it easier to learn Thai, yes. Once you learn to start making connections with words you know from Pali, you’ll probably be able to remember Pali/Sanskrit-derived words more easily, be able to recognize P/S loanwords, and so forth. Or so think I.

    rikker | Oct 31, 2007 | Reply

  4. rikker: That’s good to know, although I don’t plan on tackling Thai until I’ve mastered Japanese. I like to see connections in languages though. If I’m writing a post about Pali and you happen to notice a word that has a corresponding word in Thai, feel free to let me know in the comments.

    thomas | Nov 2, 2007 | Reply

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