Notes on Technical Terms and Proper Names

1 October 2550

Notes on Technical Terms and Proper Names

Technical terms and proper names of Pali and Sanskrit origins

In romanizing technical terms and proper names of Pali and Sanskrit origins, there have developed different practices over the many years since Buddhism became known to the West. Here are some general observations on such practices.

1. Use and non-use of diacritics. When precision in transliteration is called for, especially when chunks of scriptural texts are cited, diacritics are needed. For example, the underdot (  ̣) is primarily used to distinguish the retroflex (or cerebral) series , ṭh, , ḍh, and from their respective dental counterparts t, th, d, dh and n. Without the underdot, ambiguity can occur, e.g. vaṭṭa “round of rebirth” vs. vatta “observance,” which might lead to confusion and misinterpretation when the word in question is cited without context.

However, due to typographic difficulties, many publishers omit diacritics altogether. Thus, we find, for instance, nibbana alongside nibbāna, and sangha as opposed to saṅgha. Two digraphs are sometimes used in place of consonants with diacritics. For instance, nyana is actually ñāṇa “direct knowledge.” The ny in this case is meant to be a digraph for ñ, and must not be confused with the regular ny cluster as in Nyāya, in Hindu philosophy. Similarly, the digraph sh are sometimes used in place of either ś as in Ashoka (= Aśoka) or as in moksha (= mokṣa).

2. Variants in transliteration. For the same Pali or Sanskrit letter, variants in transliteration might occur. In particular, the Pali niggahīta, or nasal consonant ŋ, is also transliterated as and . Likewise, some writers use the simple n not only for the dental nasal, but also for the velar (or gutteral) nasal even when all words are otherwise fully spelled with diacritics, e.g. sankhāra as opposed to saṅkhāra.

3. Direct borrowings in English. Several Buddhist terms have been so frequently used by English speakers as to warrant their inclusion in the English lexicon as permanent loanwords. For instance, nirvana, sutra and tripitaka, which can be found in most unabridged general-purpose dictionaries, are from the Sanskrit nirvāṇa, sūtra and tripiṭaka, respectively. In such cases, the use of diacritics is considered to be no longer necessary.

4. Anglicization. Like most loan words, Buddhist terms from Pali and Sanskrit tend to be anglicized in pronunciation. For instance, the word jnana (Sanskrt: jñāna) “direct knowledge” is pronounced as /dʒəˈnɑːnə/. Some of such terms in more common use have been further anglicized in morphology as well, as evidenced from the fact that they can take English derivational suffixes. Apart from Buddhism, Buddhist and Buddhahood (from the Pali and Sanskrit buddha + -ism, -ist and -hood, respectively), we find karmic (from the Sanskrit karma + -ic), and Arhatship, (from the Sanskrit arhat + -ship). Perhaps even more productive is the inflectional plural suffix -s, which can be found freely added to borrowings, whether permanent or not. Among writers who adopt this practice, sometimes only the Pali or Sanskrit stems, with or without diacritics, are italicized while the suffix -s is set in roman type. This typographic convention seems to be especially observed when the permanent status as loanword of the term in question is still in doubt; hence, jātakas “birth-stories” and devas “deities,” as opposed to Buddhas, whose permanent loanword status has been established.

5. Sanskrit forms and their Pali counterparts. Owing to Western scholars’ prior interest in the study of Sanskrit and Hinduism, the Buddhist names and terms that first entered the English language were almost exclusively Sanskrit. In earlier books on Buddhism, and even in today’s publications, especially on Mahayana Buddhism, Sanskrit forms are predominantly used throughout. However, there has been a growing tendency among scholars in Theravada Buddhism to replace Sanskrit forms with their Pali counterparts. For example, Siddhattha, Gotama, dhamma, kamma and nibbana (or nibbāna) are preferred to Siddhartha (or Siddhārtha), Gautama, dharma, karma and nirvana (or nirvāṇa), respectively.

With these observations in mind, the reader may find in the present volume both Pali and Sanskrit forms, e.g. kamma and karma. The Sanskrit forms are more prevalent in earlier works, while the Pali forms are to be found in more recent works, which reflects the current trend mentioned above. In addition, diacritics will only be used for more specific technical terms, e.g. paṭiccasamuppāda. Those words deemed to be familiar to most Buddhists are spelled without diacritics, e.g. nibbana and Theravada.

Proper names in Thai

Not unrelated to the romanization of Pali and Sanskrit borrowings in English, there is a problem of how to romanize proper names in Thai.

It is all too well known that different people, Thais and Westerners alike, might spell the same name differently, in some cases according to their own system, but in most cases without any system at all. The problem is further complicated by the fact that many Thai proper names contain elements of Pali and Sanskrit origins. Some people, even with a slight knowledge of these two languages, might be tempted to spell such names as closely as possible to their original forms, e.g. Ayudhya rather than Ayutthaya. To cite another example, for the name ประยุทธ์ might be found Prayuddh, Prayudh, Prayoot and Prayut, reflecting different degrees of modification and mixture between etymologically-driven transliteration and pure transcription.

As far as standards for the romanization of Thai words and names are concerned, the Royal Institute’s system is worth considering for two reasons. It is systematic enough to guarantee the uniform romanized spelling of every Thai word. In addition, as the official system sanctioned by the government authorities, it is used for the great majority of place names in Thailand, and has thus gained wide currency. However, one major shortcoming of this system, which is based on transcriptional principles with a view to facilitating keyboarding, is oversimplification. The neutralization of the five different tones, of short and long vowels, and of different consonants sharing the same phoneme often results in ambiguities. To cite a rather extreme case, the romanized form sap may represent as many as ten words: ซาบ, ทราบ, สาบ, สาป, ซับ, ทรัพย์, สับ, ศัพท์, สรรพ, and สัพ. In this light, while the Royal Institute’s system is generally followed as far as possible, modifications can also be found in the present volume to get round both extremes of transliteration and transcription. Thus, the romanized form Sārd for สารท is felt to be preferable to the ambiguous Sat, and the ecclesiastical title พรหมคุณาภรณ์ spelled as Brahmagunabhorn looks more appropriate than either the heavily etymologically-driven Brahamagunabharana or the purely phonetic Phrom Khunaphon.


Finally, there remains a problem of whether and when to capitalize technical terms. Again, in books on Buddhism published over the years there have been discrepancies and sometimes inconsistencies in the capitalization of technical terms. We find, for example, the Law of Karma alongside the law of cause and effect.

In this volume, capitalization is kept to a minimum. Only those terms that might otherwise not be properly understood in the given context will be capitalized, e.g. the Path, the Order, and the Dispensation.

Somseen Chanawangsa

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