Part 1 - Introduction and Lesson #1

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The Alphabet

Pali (pāḷi) is written in a number of scripts derived from the ancient Indian Brāhmī character, and in the romanized script used in this book (sometimes with slight variations).

The Indian script was a phonetic one based on an approximately phonemic analysis of the language, one letter (akkhara) being assigned to each significantly distinct sound (vaṇṇa).

The derivative scripts preserve this characteristic, and the roman alphabet likewise has been adapted and enlarged so that one roman letter is assigned to each Indian letter (counting the aspirates kh, etc., written as digraphs, as single letters).

The ancient Indian grammarians classified the letters, or rather the sounds they represent, as shown in the table.

place of articulation
manner of articulation (payatana)
consonants (vyañjana)vowels (sara)pure nasal (niggahīta)

(nasal only. i.e. no release in the mouth, avivaṭena mukhena)
stops (phuṭṭha or vagga)semi-vowel (īsaka phuṭṭha) (voiced)sibilant (sakāra) (voice-less)short (rassa)long (dīgha)com-pound (asa-māna)
voiceless (aghosa) non-aspirate (sithila)voiceless aspirate (dhanita)voiced (ghosa-vant) non-aspiratevoiced aspiratevoiced nasal (nāsika)
gutturals (kaṇṭhaja)kkhgghhaāe
palatals (tāluja)cchjjhñyiī
cerebrals (muddhaja)ṭhḍhr, ḷ, ḷh
dentals (dantaja)tthddhnlso
labials (oṭṭhaja)pphbbhmvuū

The distinction of quantity (short and long vowels or syllables) is very important in Pali, but distinctions of stress are insignificant.

A syllable is long if its vowel is long or if the vowel, though short, is followed by the pure nasal or by two or more consonants. A long syllable is exactly equal to two short syllables. (The total length of a long syllable being constant, a double consonant tends to compress and shorten a long vowel preceding it, and itself to be shortened by the long vowel.)

Double consonants are very frequent in Pali and must be strictly pronounced as long consonants, thus nn is like English nn in "unnecessary".

The dictionary order of letters is a, ā, i, ī, u, ū, e, o, ṃ (this may also stand in the place of one of the other nasals, according to the consonant which follows), stops: guttural (k, kh, etc.), palatal . . . labial, y, r, l, ḷ, ḷh, v, s, h.








The Sentence

The analysis and the learning of any language should be based on the study of sentences, that is, of the language as it is actually found in use. It is useful to study words in order to understand the sentences, but, like roots and stems, isolated words are in fact mere abstractions devised by grammarians for the analysis of language. (In the Indian tradition of writing "words" are not separated and each sentence appears as a continuous piece, as in speech. Only by grammatical analysis can words be abstracted: marked by certain "inflections".)

It is the sentences which are the natural units of discourse and which are the minimum units having precise, fully articulated meaning. For purposes of study we have to assign approximate meanings to words and list these in vocabularies, but these generalised meanings of words are extremely vague, whereas sentences have exact meanings. In translation one may find close equivalents for sentences, whilst it is often impossible to give close equivalents for words.

Ideally one should learn a language as children pick up their mother tongue, by learning a sufficiently large number of its sentences, but this would take too long for most students. Hence the study of words and inflections offers a short cut to proficiency, though at the risk of lack of precision and of idiomatic fluency.

The uninflected form of a Pali word, without an ending, is called the stem. In dictionaries and vocabularies nouns (nama) are usually listed in their stem forms, less often in the form of the nominative singular. Verbs (akhyata), however, are usually given under the form of the third person singular of the present tense (indicative active), sometimes under the "root".

In this book verbs are given in the root form (but with their prefixes where these are used, hence in the alphabetical position of the prefixes in these cases), nouns in the stem form except in the case of stems in -a, where it is more convenient to learn them in the form of the nominative singular since thereby one learns the gender at the same time (-o = masculine, -aṃ = neuter).

The prefixes (upasagga), of which there are about twenty, are regarded as a separate part of speech in Pali.

The various verbs, consisting of prefix + root, have all to be learned separately as regards meanings.

Although the separate prefixes and roots can be assigned meanings—usually rather broad and vague ones—the meaning of a prefix + root cannot usually be accounted for adequately as simply the product of the two separate meanings. A good many roots are used also without prefixes, but prefixed forms are very much more frequent in Pali. A number of verbs have two or three prefixes to their roots.

We have noticed also that words may be classified as verbs … nouns … and prefixes. There is one other (fourth) class, that of indeclinables (nipāta), defined as not taking any inflections.

(Thus far the analysis of sentences into words, roots, suffixes and inflections.)

Examples of indeclinables are evaṃ, meaning "thus", "so," ti, meaning "end quote" and yena, meaning "towards".

 In Pali we find two numbers ("singular" and "plural") in both nouns and verbs, three persons in the verb and in pronouns ("third" "he", etc., "second"="you", "first" = "I" pronouns are not regarded as a separate class of words but as a kind of noun, although their inflections do not entirely coincide with those of nouns), eight cases in the noun and three genders (" masculine ", " neuter ", and " feminine ") in nouns.

As a rule "substantive" nouns have only one gender each, whilst "adjectives" (and pronouns) have all three genders according to the nouns with which they "agree" as attribute-words: the inflections of adjectives are the same as those of nouns of the corresponding genders, hence they are not regarded as a separate class of words.

In sentences (vākya) there is usually one verb, which generally expresses an action (kiriyā), and a noun, ordinarily in the nominative case, expressing the agent (kattar) who does the action.

(If there is another noun, it will be in the "accusative" case, expressing the patient (kamma) who or which undergoes the action.) The agent and the verb agree in number.

Thus in the sentence: loko vivaṭṭati, meaning "the world evolves", the verb is vivaṭṭati, … the inflection … third person singular, ti, …

The noun lokoo ending means - nominative singular third person masculine. In Pali there is usually nothing to express "indefinite" and "definite", corresponding to the "articles" in some languages.

Verb stems and noun stems may coincide in form, and in Pali both verbs and nouns with stems in a are much commoner than any others. The inflections of verbs and nouns, however, are nearly all quite distinct. Those of verbs are described according to tense (lakāra), person (purisa) and number (saṃkhā), those of nouns are distinguished according to number, gender (liṅga), and case (kāraka). The various cases express relations between the noun and a verb, or between the noun and another noun.

Pali sentences do not all contain verbs. When it is asserted simply that a thing is something (as epithet or attribute or "predicate") two nouns (one of them usually an adjective or pronoun) may merely be juxtaposed. Usually the "subject" stands first. In translating into English the verb "to be" must be used. e.g.: eso samaṇo, "this (is) the philosopher" (eso is a pronoun, nominative singular masculine, meaning "he", "this", samaṇo, meaning "philosopher", is a noun like loko).

This type of sentence is especially common in philosophical discourse, e.g.: idaṃ dukkhaṃ, "this is unhappiness".

Lesson 1

First Conjugation

3rd person (paṭhamapurisa)
"he", "it", "she", "they"
"he is"
2nd person (majjhimapurisa)
1st person (uttamapurisa)
"I" ,"we"

Verbs of the First Conjugation

3rd person singular
kam (to walk) (with the prefixes upa, meaning "up to", "towards", and saṃ, meaning "together")upasaṃkamatihe goes to, he approaches
kam (with the prefix (p)pa, meaning "out"," away ")pakkamatihe goes away
cucavatihe falls (from a form of existence), he dies
jīvjīvatihe lives (is alive, makes a living)
passpassatihe sees
pucchpucchatihe asks
bandhbandhatihe binds
bhāsbhāsatihe says, he speaks
bhūbhavatihe is, there exists
vadvadatihe says
sīdnisīdatihe sits (down)
harharatihe takes
har (with the prefix ā, meaning "to")āharatihe brings
hotihe is, there is

Present Tense

The present (vattamānā) tense (lakāra) is used to express present (paccuppanna) time (kāla), the limits of which are somewhat vague, or indefinite time (timeless statements such as "eternal truths"), sometimes the immediate future (which may include a shade of "imperative" sense ; cf. English "I'm going") and sometimes the past ("historic present").

It is used to express the duration of an action "until", a fixed future time (a vivid future visualized as present) "when", and in certain other constructions.

It is not necessary to express the person by a pronoun, as this may be understood from the inflection alone. (Pronouns in Pali usually refer back to words in previous sentences or merely emphasize the person.) The inflected forms express "she" and "it" as well as "he".


Masculine Nouns in -a

Nouns (masculine) inflected like loka > loko, nominative case singular:—
upāsakolay disciple, the lay disciple, a lay disciple
kāyobody, substance
khattiyowarrior, noble (member of the military-aristocratic class)
tathāgatothus-gone (from worldliness to a state of calm: epithet of the Buddha (usually) or of others like him)
devogod (usual meaning), king (as term of respectful address)
purisoman, person
brāhmaṇopriest, brahmin (member of the hereditary priesthood)
maggoroad, way
manussohuman being, person
amanussonon-human being (i.e. a god, etc.) (negative prefix a)
lokoworld, people, universe
samaṇoascetic, wanderer, philosopher
samayoa time, occasion (any time, time of an event)

Nominative Case

In Pali eight case-categories are needed in order to describe the colligations in which nouns are used. …

 The nominative (paṭhamā, paccatta) case is used for the agent (or "subject") of an active sentence (or "subject" of an active verb), e.g. brāhmaṇo passati, "the priest sees".

The nominative case is used for any attribute of an agent in the nominative, including one "predicated" of it by means of a verb meaning "to be"

The attribute usually follows the agent. e.g. (with verb): brāhmaṇo mahāmatto hoti, "the priest is a minister".

Without verb: eso samaṇo, "this is the philosopher." This curious feature of verbs meaning "to be" (the "copula"), distinguishing them from all other verbs, must be firmly fixed in mind.

When there is a verb expressing an action as well, such an attribute may still be applied to the agent (without any verb meaning "to be"): brāhmaṇo mahāmatto passati, "the priest (who is) the minister sees".

 As far as possible in Pali words referring to the same thing agree in case, number, gender, and person (exception: cases of relative pronouns).

 The nominative is used with certain indeclinables relating it to the action, … e.g. yena gāmo … upasaṃkamati = "he approaches … towards the village".

 The nominative form is used when a word is quoted or cited … e.g. kāyo ti = "'body'". (It is in accordance with this convention that Indian dictionaries and grammars cite words in the nominative, not in the stem form.)

Word Order

 The normal prose order of a sentence is: agent—attribute—patient (Lesson 2)—action, thus the verb is usually at the end.

The order is very rarely of grammatical value (the agent will still be the agent even if it follows the patient or the verb), but it is stylistically important.


Answers are given in Part 2

Translate into English

tathāgato bhāsati
upāsako pucchati
puriso evaṃ vadati
devo amanusso hoti
evaṃ vadāmi
khattiyo pakkamati

mahāmatto nisīdati
samaṇo tathāgato hoti
putto upāsako passati
brāhmaṇo upasaṃkamati
manusso jīvati
evaṃ vadaṅti

Translate into Pali

The man speaks
The ascetic is "thus-gone"
The priest goes away
The god says so
There is a time
The son sits down

The minister is a priest
The noble approaches
The god dies
You say so (Sing.)
You say so (Plur.)
We say so