Pāli Words – Writing and Pronunciation

Pāli words written in Latin (Roman) script use a unique convention. “Tipiṭaka English” is a convention adopted by early European scholars in the 1800s for transliterating Pāli texts. It is critical to understand the adopted convention to write and pronounce Pāli words correctly. Many today are unaware of this “Tipiṭaka English” convention.

May 27, 2023

Download/Print:C. Pāli Words – Writing and Pronunciation

Translation and Transliteration

1. Transliteration means converting letters or words from one script or alphabet into another. Unlike translation, which communicates the meaning of a text from one language to another, transliteration is concerned with representing the phonetic sounds of the original language in the new script. See “Transliteration.”

  • Let us consider the “Taṇhā Sutta (SN 27.8)” as an example. On the right is the transliteration version, and on the left is the English translation at Sutta Central. 
  • In the transliteration version, the Pāli words are written in the Latin (Roman) script. The Latin script is used here to transliterate (not translate) the Pāli text. This enables people familiar with the Latin script (e.g., English speakers) to read and pronounce Pāli words.
  • On the other hand, a translation provides the meaning in any given language, English in the above example.
Transliteration of Pāli Tipiṭaka to Other Languages

2. The Pāli Tipiṭaka was transliterated with the Sinhala (Sinhalese) script in the 1st century BCE since Pāli does not have a script (alphabet.) The Sinhala language is based on Pāli and shares many common words, including all the keywords in Paṭicca Samuppāda.

  • The Chinese transliteration of the Pāli Tipiṭaka was completed in the 4th century CE.
  • The next transliteration was to Burmese and Tibetan in the 11th century CE. (I got these dates of transliteration from Google Bard, the new AI search tool; a regular internet search did not provide this information.)
  • Subsequently, transliteration to several other languages, including Khmer, Lao, Thai, Vietnamese, and Tibetan, was carried out. 
Translation of Pāli Tipiṭaka to Other Languages

3. Pāli Tipiṭaka was not meant to be translated word-by-word for two reasons:

(i) It is mainly in summary (uddesa) form; see “Sutta Interpretation – Uddēsa, Niddēsa, Paṭiniddēsa.”

(ii) Some key Pāli words (like anicca and anatta) do not have a corresponding word in other languages; see Word-for-Word Translation of the Tipiṭaka.”

  • It was not directly translated into even the Sinhala language until about 20 years ago (following the mistake made by the Pāli Text Society in translating it into English in the 1800s.) See #7 below.
  • Instead, parts of the Tipiṭaka (e.g., individual suttās) were discussed in long-form translations with examples and analogies. For example, I translate a given sutta in detail. See “Sutta Interpretations.”
Transliteration of Pāli Suttās Do Not Follow Standard English Pronunciations

4. Some of you familiar with Pāli’s pronunciation may have noticed that the pronunciation does not follow the standard pronunciation of English words. 

  • Let us consider the word “citta” in the verse.”Yo, bhikkhave, rūpataṇhāya chandarāgo, cittasseso upakkileso” in the “Taṇhā Sutta (SN 27.8).
  • The letter “c” can make different sounds depending on the word it is in. The most common sound for “c” is the “hard k” sound, as in “cat.” However, when the letter “c” is followed by an “e,” “i,” or “y,” it usually makes the soft “s” sound as in “cent” or “city.”
  • Furthermore, the “t” is usually pronounced as that in “Tom.”
  • However, the correct Pāli pronunciation of “citta” is in Table in #10 below.
  • The “c” in “citta” is pronounced with the “ch” sound instead of the “hard k” sound as in “cat” OR the soft “s” sound as in “cent” or “city.” 
  • What is the reason for that? That particular writing/pronunciation was adopted in the 1800s by the early European scholars who took a keen interest in the Tipiṭaka. There were two reasons to adopt that unique convention.
Two Reasons for Adopting a New Convention for Transliterating Pāli Texts

5. There are two specific issues in writing Pāli words in any script. Note that this is not regarding translation to English. It is about transliterating Pāli texts with the Latin (Roman) script, as mentioned in #1 above. 

  • First: It is critical to pronounce Pāli words correctly; original sounds embed the meaning of many keywords. Many words have their meanings explicit in the way they sound. See “Why is it Necessary to Learn Key Pāli Words?
  • In “Standard English,” the same letter combinations may yield different sounds. For example, “th” is pronounced differently in “them” than in “thief.” In #4 above, we saw how “c” can be pronounced in two ways in English words.
  • Therefore, using “Standard English” to transliterate Pāli texts will lead to problems in getting the correct pronunciation sounds. A specific convention that PRESERVES Pāli pronunciation must be adopted.
  • The second issue is related to the first.
Pāli Words Are Too Long When Written with the Latin Script

6. The word “citta” is written as “චිත්ත” in the Sinhala script. However, if it is written in “standard English” to provide the correct sound, it should be “chiththa,” which is pretty long. The word “cittasseso” in #4 above becomes “chiththasseso.”

Adoption of “Tipiṭaka English”

7. When the early Europeans started writing the Pāli Tipiṭaka using the English alphabet (a Latin alphabet), they ran into the above two problems. They realized the importance of preserving the original sounds (pronunciations.) They also wanted to keep the “word length” manageable. To address both those issues, they adopted a new convention in the 1800s. The Pāli Text Society — established by pioneering scholars like Rhys Davids — has done an excellent job of transliterating Pāli texts; see “Pāli Text Society.” (However, the errors made in the English translations continue to be a huge problem: Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars.“)

Many are Unaware of the “Tipiṭaka English” Convention

8. These days, many people are unaware of the “Tipiṭaka English” convention adopted by early European scholars. By the way, the transliterated Pāli texts at Sutta Central are taken from the early work of the Pāli Text Society and are correct. However, many translations at Sutta Central are incorrect (they follow the original incorrect translations by scholars like Rhys Davids); see “Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars.

9. Another good example word is ”Satipaṭṭhāna.” Per the convention, the “t” must be pronounced as “th” (as in thief) and “” as “t” (as in trip); in “ṭh,” the “t” sound is even more emphasized. I suggest going through the two posts referred to in #6 carefully.

  • Similarly, the Pāli word “gati” was in the Tipiṭaka as “ගති.” If they wrote that in English letters with the correct pronunciation, it would be “gathi.” However, with the adopted “Tipiṭaka Convention,” it is written as “gati,” and now it rhymes like the “th” in “thief.” Even in the Sinhala language, one unaware of the “Tipiṭaka Convention” may mispronounce gati in Sinhala as “ගටි.”
  • I have used “gathi” in parenthesis with “gati” in some posts to show the correct pronunciation.
Writing/Pronunciation of Common Pāli Words

10. The following short table provides the correct writing/pronunciation of some common Pāli words in “Tipiṭaka English” versus “Standard English”—more pronunciations are in “Pāli Glossary – (A-K)” and “Pāli Glossary – (L-Z).

Pāli Word (Tipiṭaka English)Pāli Word (Standard English)Pronunciation
AnattaAnaththa
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AniccaAnichcha
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AttaAththa
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CetanāChethanā
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CittaCiththa
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GatiGathi
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JātiJāthi
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MettāMeththā
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NimittaNimiththa
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PaccayāPachchayā
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PaṭiccaPatichcha
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Sacca (Truth)Sachcha
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SatipaṭṭhānaSathipatthāna
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SotapannaSothapanna
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TaṇhāThaṇhā
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