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A Guide to
Learning the Pali Language

by John Bullitt
Revised: Tue 9 November 1999

I've gathered here some basic information that may be helpful as you embark on your study of the Pali language.


How to learn Pali

It's not difficult to learn a litte Pali through self-study, using a textbook or two or three as a guide. Many people find it helpful (not to mention just plain more fun) to study with others, either in a formal classroom setting or in an informal Pali study group. For many of us, the goal is not to become expert scholars and translators of the language, but simply to become acquainted with the basics of the language so as to enrich our personal understanding of the suttas and the Buddha's teachings. For self-study, Warder's Introduction to Pali or de Silva's Pali Primer are the basic texts. Johansson's Pali Buddhist Texts Explained to the Beginner is also useful.

Formal classroom courses in Pali are offered at many universities with strong Eastern Religions departments, as well as several Buddhist studies centers and institutes. Some university-level Pali courses require previous acquaintance with Sanskrit. If you are looking for a Pali teacher, consider asking around at a university to see if there might be a graduate student willing to tutor you or your study group, perhaps for a small fee. Also, some professors may be willing to let you audit a course without going through the official university registration process.

There are a number of good websites offering Pali resources that may be of help in your search for Pali teachers and study aids.

Coping with Pali diacritical marks and fonts

Alas, there is no standardized method for displaying Pali's accented characters on computer screens. Over the years, many different methods have been adopted in an attempt to express Pali diacritics using the limited character sets available to personal computers. Some of these strategies are:

Pali language textbooks

There are quite a few Pali books out there, but so far none surpasses the breadth and depth of A.K. Warder's superb Introduction to Pali. de Silva's Pali Primer, a relative newcomer to the Pali textbook scene, offers a light and refreshing complement to the high-density Warder. If you're trying to learn Pali on your own, it can be helpful to have several books to turn to, as each offers its unique perspective on the language.

Pali language reference books

Revised: Tue 9 November 1999