The chronology of the Pali Canon: The case of the aorists

Paul Russell Kingsbury, University of Pennsylvania


The early Buddhist canon written in Pali comprises some 4 million words of text written across several centuries in early India. As such, it is of interest not only to scholars of Buddhism but also linguists and historians for the insight it gives into the social, linguistic, and religious culture of the time. Such insights are hindered however by the fact that it is difficult to determine which texts refer to which historical period. Previous attempts at this determination, while based on the work of the brightest scholars of the field, have relied on vague impressionistic criteria or have been extremely limited in the number of texts they classify. With the advent of electronic corpora, however, it becomes possible to do rigorous large-scale studies on the Canon. This study examines the evidence found in the aorist system of the Pali language. This system was undergoing a great change from the complex inflectional system used in Old Indic to the much simpler participial system used in later Indic. I examine five different types of aorist formations and show how each can be used to confirm or deny the “conventional wisdom” on the chronology of the Canon, or how and why the type cannot be used to say anything about the chronology. Finally, I demonstrate how the patterns of usage of aorists, combined with recent work in statistical historical corpus linguistics, can be used to propose a new chronology for the Canon which is both methodologically rigorous and wide in scope.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

Kingsbury, Paul Russell, "The chronology of the Pali Canon: The case of the aorists" (2002). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3073020.