The President of India, Shri Pranab Mukherjee, presenting the Presidential Award to the Scholars of Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian & Pali/Prakrit & Mahrshi Badrayan Vyas Samman for the year 2014 at Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Pali is an ancient language derived from Sanskrit, used in the scripture and liturgy of Theravada Buddhism. Its use virtually died out in the 14th century in India, dwindling on until the 18th century.
Some religious studies scholars believed that Pali is related to Magadhi, the language that the Buddha allegedly spoke. This theory is still taken seriously in S. G. F. Brandon’s Dictionary of Comparative Religion (1970).¹
However, a more recent Wikipedia entry questions whether or not the Buddha spoke Magadhi, suggesting this claim could be more an opportunistic strategy (i.e. politically motivated) instead of an actual fact. Old Magadhi was a high-class language, the lingua franca of the nobility. And its use was one way the ancient elites could separate themselves from, as they likely would have seen it, the riffraff.
This doesn’t meant that the Buddha did not speak Magadhi. But it does mean that we do not know.²
¹ In fairness, the entry in this outstanding dictionary (for 1970) does offer a footnote suggesting further scholarly study, which I haven’t yet followed up on.
² See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pali. Similar questions arise with regard to the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. That is, did things always happen as the text says or are we often reading, for example, ancient invective, hyperbole or theologically infused storytelling. However, fundamentalists who refuse, or who find it too psychologically painful to examine their literal beliefs, will usually turn a blind eye to (or demonize) earnest attempts to get at the truth with the cognitive and scholarly tools available to us today. Many of these folks believe they have a pipeline to God, so for them, whatever idea pops into their head is a “revelation” from the Holy Spirit. In most cases this probably doesn’t involve too much high spirituality but, rather, a significant lack of self-knowledge and intellectual formation in this particular area.