A note on languages

Students and teachers alike find it difficult remembering all the non-English words used in books and other resources on Buddhism. It is also hard to know how to pronounce them. Some of these terms just have to be used as they are technical terms with no accurate English equivalent. A few, like karma or nirvana have entered into everyday English use over the last half century or so, which helps, or perhaps hinders, if the meaning is not quite the same. The oldest texts are written in two ancient Indian languages, Pali and Sanskrit, which like Latin in Europe are no longer spoken. As well as the Theravada canon (authorised collection of texts), written in Pali, there are Chinese and Tibetan canons, and resources will also use terms from other modern languages such as Japanese, Thai, Korean, Sinhalese, or Vietnamese. English textbooks tend to prioritise the classical Pali or Sanskrit terms, but there is no logic (but probably an interesting history) to which of these has become more familiar in English, for example nirvana is Sanskrit but anatta is Pali. If there are pupils from Buddhist families in the classroom they might be more familiar with terms in their own heritage language or as used in their particular Buddhist community rather than the classical ones used in textbooks. In this essay, where both Sanskrit and Pali terms are given, Sanskrit comes first. As giving both every time can become tedious, sometimes only one is used. Academic texts will use diacritic marks (for example Mahayana would be Mahāyanā) for accuracy, but this essay ignores them for simplicity. However, if trying to look things up in indexes of resources that do use diacritics, it might be useful to know for example that shunyata (emptiness) would be found as śūnyatā. Terms taken from other languages, especially Chinese, can also be rendered differently, for example Kwan yin can be found spelt Gwanyin and in other ways.

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