Pali and Sanskrit: Linguistic similarities and differences

Sutra, karma, nirvana, and dharma are Sanskrit words that have entered the English language. The corresponding words in Pali are sutta, kamma, nibbana, and dhamma. Notice how these Pali words lack the letter 'r' but have double consonants instead.

“You say nirvana, and I say nibbana…” One could imagine a version of the classic song “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” by George Gershwin, which instead of contrasting British and American pronunciation, would compare Pali and Sanskrit words.

Yet, unlike British and American English, which are dialects of the same language, Pali and Sanskrit are separate —although closely related— languages.

In ancient India, Sanskrit was a scholarly language, while Pali was one of the languages spoken by the common people. As a result, Pali words are often easier to pronounce than Sanskrit words.

The Pali language is primarily known for its connection to Theravada Buddhism; it is the language of the principal collection of texts in that tradition, known as the Pali Canon.

While Theravada Buddhism has used the Pali language, Mahayana Buddhism has often used Sanskrit instead. That’s why Mahaya texts are called sutras (examples include the Lotus Sutra and the Heart Sutra). Theravada Buddhism uses the Pali word “sutta” instead.

Sanskrit is a classical language of India that is used in 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.

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 that 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

For more vocabulary words, refer to this list of the thousand most common Sanskrit words and this article about Sanskrit yoga vocabulary.

The relationship between Pali and Sanskrit

Pali and Sanskrit are related languages; they both belong to the Indo-European language family, which also includes English, Latin, and several other European languages.

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

In ancient India, Sanskrit primarily served as a literary, scholarly, and scriptural language. The general population mostly spoke other languages and dialects. Vernacular languages from that period are called Prakrits if they belong to the same language family as Sanskrit.

Prakrit is a term derived from the Sanskrit word « प्राकृत » (prākṛta) which means “natural” or “ordinary”. Pali is one of the well-known languages from this group. (see [1], [2])

In a sense, the relationship between Sanskrit and the Prakrits resembles the relationship between the Classical Latin used by Caesar and the form of Latin used by the common people —a form 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

Some languages are closely linked with a particular writing system, like Chinese with its Chinese characters or Russian with the Cyrillic alphabet. A variety of different scripts, however, have been used for writing Pali and Sanskrit depending on the region and period in history.

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 regions. However, for English-speaking readers, Pali texts are typically written in the Roman script with some additional 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.

Double consonants and vowel length

The Sanskrit terms “karma” and “kama” are easy to tell apart due to the presence of the letter ‘r’ in the first term. The second term, by the way, means “wishing” or “desire” and appears, for example, in the title of the Kama Sutra.

The Pali version of these words, “kamma” and “kāma,” are more difficult to tell apart unless one correctly pronounces the double consonant (in the first term) and the long vowel sound (in the second term).

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