Language Theory, Phonology and Etymology in Buddhism and their relationship to Brahmanism


  • Bryan Geoffrey Levman University of Toronto



Early Buddhism, language theory, phonology, etymology, Bhagavā, Brahmanism, Aggavaṃsa


The Buddha considered names of things and people to be arbitrary designations, with their meaning created by agreement. The early suttas show clearly that inter alia, names, perceptions, feelings, thinking, conceptions and mental proliferations were all conditioned dhammas which, when their nature is misunderstood, led to the creation of a sense of ‘I’, as well as craving, clinging and afflictions. Although names were potentially afflictive and ‘had everything under their power’ (Nama Sutta), this did not mean that they were to be ignored or even neglected; words were to be penetrated and thoroughly understood, as an essential instrument for liberation. One of the problems of transmitting the Buddha’s teachings was the large number of disciples who did not speak an Indo-Aryan language as their first language or spoke a dialect different from that of the Teacher. This also led to altered transmission of the Vinaya and Suttas by disciples who could not hear certain phonological distinctions not present in their own language or dialect. Hundreds of these anomalies are preserved in the different editions of the canon, testifying to these transmission ambiguities. The passages dealing with this problem provide a valuable insight into the phonological issues that the early sangha had to deal with to try and preserve the integrity of the sasana. At the same time the etymological practices of Brahmanism were imported into Buddhism very early, probably from the time of the Buddha himself, to demonstrate the intellectual superiority of the Buddha and his teachings. Despite the Buddha’s teachings on the arbitrary nature of language, the commentarial and grammatical traditions developed a sophisticated theoretical framework to analyse, explicate and reinforce some of the key Buddhist doctrinal terms. Also, an elaborate classification system of different types of names (naman) was developed, to show that the language of the Buddha was firmly grounded in saccikattha, the highest truth, and that some terms were spontaneously arisen (opapatika), even though such a concept — that words by themselves could arise spontaneously and directly embody ultimate truth — was quite foreign to their Founder.

Author Biography

  • Bryan Geoffrey Levman, University of Toronto
    PhD, University of Toronto 2014 Currently Visiting Scholar at U of T


Bloch, J. 1950. Les Inscriptions d’Asoka. Paris: Société d’Édition ‘Les Belles Lettres’.

Collins, S. 1998. Nirvana and other Buddhist felicities: Utopias of the Pali imaginaire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cone, M. 2001–2010. A Dictionary of Pali. Oxford: Pali Text Society.

Hinüber, O. von. 1987. ‘Buddhist law and the phonetics of Pali: A passage from the Samantapasadika on avoiding mispronunciation in kammavacas.’ Studien zur Indologie und Iranistik 13/14 (Festschrift für Wilhelm Rau): 101–127. Also in Selected Papers on Pali Studies (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 2005), 198–232.

Holdrege, B. 1996. Veda and Torah: Transcending the Textuality of Scripture. Albany: State University of New York.

Kahrs, E. 1999. Indian Semantic Analysis: The Nirvacana Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Law, B. C. 1943. Tribes in Ancient India. Bhandarkar Oriental Series No. 4. Poona: Bhandarkar.

Levman, B. G. 2000. ‘Western theories of music origin, historical and modern.’ Musicae Scientiae. 4(2): 185–211.

———. 2008–2009. ‘Sakaya niruttiya Revisited’. Bulletin des Études Indiennes 26–27: 33–51.

———. 2014. ‘Linguistic ambiguities, the transmissional process, and the earliest recoverable language of Buddhism.’ Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Toronto.

———. 2016. ‘The language of early Buddhism.’ Journal of South Asian Languages and Linguistics 3(1): 1–41.

Mayrhofer, M. 1963. Kurzgefaßtes etymologisches Wörterbuch des Altindoarischen. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag.

Ñanamoli, Bhikkhu. 1960 [2005]. The Minor Readings (Khuddakapatha) and ‘The Illustrator of Ultimate Meaning (Paramatthajotika Part 1)’. London: Pali Text Society.

———. 1975 [1999]. The Path of Purification: Visuddhimagga. Onalaska: BPS Pariyatti Editions.

Ñanamoli, Bhikkhu and Bhikkhu Bodhi. 1995. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, a Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.

Narada, Mahathera. 2000. A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma: The Abhidhammattha Sangaha of Acariya Anuruddha, translation revised by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Onalaska, WA: BPS Pariyatti Editions.

Norman, K. R. 1983. Pali Literature. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.

———. 2006. The Group of Discourses (Sutta-Nipata). Lancaster: The Pali Text Society.

Pischel, R. 1900 [1981]. Comparative Grammar of the Prakrit Languages. Translated by Subhadra Jha. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Rhys Davids, T. W. 1890. The Questions of King Milinda. Oxford Clarendon Press.

Smith, H., 1928–1954. Saddaniti La Grammaire Palie d’Aggavamsa. Oxford: Pali Text Society.

Tan, P. 2003. ‘Commentary on the Madhupindakasuttam’.

Thanissaro, Bhikkhu. 2002. Handful of Leaves Volume One: An Anthology from the Digha and Majjhima Nikayas. United States: The Sati Center for Buddhist Studies and Metta Forest Monastery.

Vasu, S. C. 1891 [1962]. The Ashtadhyayi of Panini, vol 1. Poona: Published by R.N. Dandekar at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.

Walshe, M. 1995. The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.

Whitney, W. D. 1924 [2000]. Sanskrit Grammar. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. Originally published 1924.







How to Cite

Levman, B. G. (2017). Language Theory, Phonology and Etymology in Buddhism and their relationship to Brahmanism. Buddhist Studies Review, 34(1), 25-51.