A common problem learners of Pāli encounter, especially during the beginning phase, is how to write Pāli diacritics. This article introduces some facts about Pāli and scripts to write it with, before it explains what diacritics are and gives detailed help with writing Pāli diacritics, including how to install a keyboard that allows you to write Pāli diacritics.
Introduction to writing Pāli
First of all, it is important to note that Pāli is a language, not a script. There is no such thing as a Pāli script; Pāli can be written in any script. In the West it has traditionally been written in the Roman script. This way of writing Pāli is clear and unambiguous if one adds some diacritical marks to the normal Roman alphabet. Along with the use of the Roman script goes a small set of conventions in punctuation, etc; unlike in, say, Indian manuscripts, academic literature about Pāli separates words by spaces, uses capital letters for proper names, and often uses such punctuation as full stops, question marks and quotation marks. These conventions also apply to the learning material from the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies (e.g.: our online courses on the ocbs-courses.org platform).
What are Diacritics?
The following passage is a well-written introduction by the University of Sussex:
“Diacritics, often loosely called `accents’, are the various little dots and squiggles which, in many languages, are written above, below or on top of certain letters of the alphabet to indicate something about their pronunciation. Thus, French has words like été `summer’, août `August’, ça `that’ and père `father’; German has Wörter `words’ and tschüss `good-bye’; Spanish has mañana `tomorrow’ and ángel `angel’; Norwegian has brød `bread’ and frå `from’; Polish has łza `tear’, źle`badly’ and pięć `five’; Turkish has kuş `bird’ and göz `eye’; Welsh has tŷ `house’ and sïo `hiss’, and so on. When you are citing a word, a name or a passage from a foreign language which uses diacritics, you should make every effort to reproduce those diacritics faithfully. Fortunately, most word processors can produce at least the commoner diacritics.”¹
What does that mean for you, a Pāli learner? In the Pāli alphabet, several letters are written with diacritics, i.e., signs like those above which differentiate letters. Some vowels have a bar over them; this is the diacritic called a macron and means that that vowel is long: ā, ī, ū. Some consonants have diacritics as well. Examples are: ṇ, ñ or ḍ
Again, remember that the diacritic makes the letter it is applied to into a different letter (not some kind of variant form). In other words, to mix up, say, a with ā is just as bad a mistake as to mix up a with o.
If you want to see all letters which have diacritics, you can subscribe to the Pāli Level 1 Preview Course. The Preview includes full access to “Lesson 4 – The Pāli Alphabet”, including access to our Alphabet Table PDF.
How to write Pāli diacritics
Now, in order to write Pāli diacritics, you need two things: (1) A font that includes the necessary diacritical signs and (2) a way of writing the Pāli characters that have these signs.
(1) Fonts for writing Pāli
There are numerous available fonts for writing Pāli diacritics. Some of them are used for all kinds of languages, others have been specifically developed for writing Pāli. Examples for general fonts which have all Pāli diacritics are: Adobe’s Source Sans Pro (used for this website) or Gāndhārī Unicode.
Downloading Source Sans Pro is unfortunately surprisingly counterintuitive: (1) Click on “Select this font” on the top right, (2) a small box appears in the bottom right corner, click on it, (3) now you can click on the download arrow in the top right corner of the new box.
An example for a designated Pāli font is URW Palladio Pali (used by the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy, Sri Lanka).
It doesn’t matter which font you choose, since they all have the diacritics you need for Pāli. You can choose the font that appeals the most to your aesthetic preferences. But choosing one, downloading and installing it needs to be the first step you have to do. Prior to installing fonts, you will likely need a programme to unzip the downloaded fonts (which are usually in a zipped format). There are plenty of software options out there, e.g. WinRAR or 7-Zip. Those can unzip the files and enable you to install the font.
(2) How to write Pāli diacritics
Once you have installed a font (and can choose to write in it in your preferred text editor, like MS Word or Pages on a Mac), you will have to decide for a method to write the Pāli diacritics. There is a very comprehensive page on the Access to Insight website which outlines 7 Methods to cope with Pāli diacritics.² However, for the sake of this article, we are only interested in one of these methods: Installing a Pāli keyboard that will enable you to write Pāli diacritics. At OCBS-Courses, we prefer to use the Pāli keyboard that you can find on the Vipassana Research Institute website, see HERE.
Writing Pāli diacritics with a Pāli keyboard
On the above website, you will find detailed instructions on how to install the Pāli keyboard for the most common operating systems: Windows, MAC OSX 10.2 or later and Ubuntu (Linux). Follow the guidelines for your operating system and install the keyboard. It will most likely choose automatically to work with the font that you have installed in the previous step. Once you have the keyboard installed as well, you can choose to write in it. Please google “how to choose keyboard Windows 7 / 10 / Mac / Ubuntu / …” (the last word of the search depends on your operating system), if you don’t know how to choose a keyboard to write with.
When you have selected the keyboard, you can start writing Pāli diacritics by using the keyboard strokes the Pāli keyboard uses. The Vipassana Research Institute website shows all the keystrokes in their guidelines. For a PC, they look like this:
As you can see, one can either press “Alt” + “Ctrl” and then all the diacritics appear with the relevant keystrokes, or just “Alt Gr”. For the capitalized version, it is then “Alt Gr” + “Shift” and then the respective keystroke. Of course, the latter is easier to type. Simply look for these keys on your keyboard. Some programmes seem to override the keyboard shortcuts but this should not be the case for your web browser. So when you are doing one of our translation exercises in our online Pāli courses, it should work fine.
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¹ Copyright © Larry Trask, 1997. Available from http://www.sussex.ac.uk/informatics/punctuation/misc/diacritics. [As viewed on 19 August 2018]
² “Coping with Diacritics”, edited by Access to Insight. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 21 December 2013. Available from: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/diacritics.html. [As viewed on 19 August 2018]