I’m still making my way slowly through Nicholas Ostler’s The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel, and I’ve gotten to a very interesting section on Pali (pp. 146ff.). He starts off with an anecdote about how some monks proposed to the Buddha that his words be translated into Sanskrit so that people all over India could understand them; the Buddha refused, adding anujānāmi bhikkhave sakāya niruttiyā buddhavacanam pariyāpunitum. Ostler says:
The proper interpretation of this fairly simple sentence has never been agreed and will never be because of the heartrending dilemma just considered. The Buddha had clearly picked up the phrase used by the monks to mean “in their own dialects”—sakāya niruttiyā—and stated, “I authorize the monks to learn the Buddha-words sakāya niruttiyā.” But does this mean “each in their own dialect”? Or rather “in my own dialect”? Clearly the Buddha was rejecting the Sanskrit option, probably because of its then association with the Brahmanical religion from which he was attempting to distance his teaching, or (just possibly) because it might have been less accessible to the uneducated. But was he saying that monks could learn (and hence propagate) his teaching in any language they spoke? Or was he rather hinting that a language good enough for the Buddha should be good enough for them?”
Ostler quotes the fifth-century commentator Buddhaghosa as saying “Here, ‘own dialect’ means Magadhi speech as spoken by the Buddha.” But what was that? He goes on:
The Buddha had come from Kosala (modern Awadh) in the Himalayan foothills (where the language would have been Awadhi, a predecessor of modern Hindi), but passed his preaching life in the area of modern Patna and Bodh Gaya, where the local language was indeed Magadhi. We know something of this language: it was similar to modern Bengali in that the s sound is replaced by a hushing š, and the r by l. But the language that became established for Buddhist discourse was something else, the lingua-franca now called Pali, in which all the documents of the Buddhist canon … have been preserved. [Footnote: Originally a Sanskrit word pāli 'line' came to refer to lines of text; pālibhāsā is then originally 'language of the text'. Hence Pali, like Avestan and Vedic, is a holy language that derives its name from the canon of texts preserved in it.... As such, the name has no local resonance.] Although southern commentators thought it was Magadhi—especially in Buddhism’s early stronghold of Sri Lanka, where everyone spoke Sinhala—it is phonetically unlike it. It appears to be a compromise mixture of dialects, related to, but mostly less highly inflected than Sanskrit. It might have evolved among a mixed community in the generations after the Buddha’s death, or even be the Buddha’s approach to talking intelligibly for an audience known to speak many different Prakrits. In the event, this lingua-franca is neither Magadhi nor a Babel of different dialects, but, in a sense, a new Prakrit.
Glenn Wallis starts off his Buddhavacana: A Pali Reader with the Buddha’s quote about learning the Buddha-words (buddhavacanam) cited at the beginning of this post, and points out that “there is great irony here: the language in an ostensibly decisive canonical statement concerning language contains ambiguous language. Exploring this statement and the irony it contains will allow me to explain the purpose and scope of this Reader.” I like that approach to teaching language.