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Everyone Speaks Pali if Left Alone: The Buddhist Language Ideology in the Pali Commentaries Around 500 CE

Monday, February 6, 2023 at 12:15pm

Uris Hall, G02
Central Campus

Talk by Liyu Hua (Asian Studies, Cornell University)

This talk will address Pali language ideology in Buddhaghosa’s commentaries around 500 CE and the traces of its inheritance from Patañjali’s Mahābhāṣya. The often-quoted discussion of the Pali language as “the natural language” (Pali sabhāvanirutti) in the Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) and the Dispeller of Delusion (Sammohavinodanī) presents an ideal speaker of a language who speaks a grammatically correct language without external intervention. Patañjali first referred to the model speakers of Sanskrit as people who speak from their own nature (Sanskrit svabhāvena). The concept of the natural language postulates a nonarbitrary or eternal relationship between word form (sadda/śabda) and meaning or objects (attha/artha). Thus, Pali language ideology in Buddhaghosa’s works resembles Sanskrit language ideology, which can be traced back to the tradition of Patañjali’s Mahābhāṣya. The formation of Pali language ideology not seen in other Buddhist schools is probably a result of the textual conservatism in the Mahāvihāra of fifth-century Lanka. It explains why the Theravada tradition shows less linguistic flexibility than other Buddhist schools in the early first millennium CE.

Liyu Hua is a Ph.D. candidate in Asian Literature, Religion, and Culture Program at Cornell University. Working on the history of Buddhism, he is interested in the interaction between various Indian religious traditions and premodern forms of knowledge. His dissertation project focuses on the Buddhist commentaries in various Indic languages and how commentaries shaped interpretative frameworks in the early first millennium CE.


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Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Asian Studies, South Asia Program


asianstudiescal, cashum



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