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Name Origin: derived from prakta, meaning 'ordinary', 'natural', 'vulgar'.

Classification. Indo-European, Indo-Iranian, Middle Indo-Aryan.

Overview. Prakrits were several related, but independent, popular languages of early and medieval India recorded in the first inscriptions of the country and used for the scriptures of Jainism as well as in classical dramas.

Varieties. There were four main Prakrits: Māhārāṣṭrī, Śaurasenī, Māgadhī and Ardhamāghadī. Pāli is sometimes considered as an early Prakrit but most often is treated separately. Similarly, Apabhraṃśa is a late form of Middle Indo-Aryan which generally is excluded from Prakrits.

Status. Extinct. Attested from the 3rd century BCE to about 10-11th centuries CE.

Distribution. Prakrits were spoken in northern and central India:

  1. Māhārāṣṭrī in western India, corresponding approximately to the state of Maharashtra.

  1. Śaurasenī in Madhyadeśa, the country around Mathura in Uttar Pradesh.

  1. Māgadhī in Magadha, northern Bihar.

  1. Ardhamāghadī: between Śaurasenī and Māgadhī, around the old city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh.

Oldest Documents. They are the moral edicts of king Aśoka engraved, in c. 270-260 BCE, in rocks and pillars of polished stone. Distributed all across ancient India, they are the first inscriptions of the country.


  1. a) Early Stage

  2. Aśokan Prakrit: the earliest documented Prakrit, recorded in inscriptions commissioned by king Aśoka of the Maurya dynasty. They exalt moral behavior.

  1. Sinhala Prakrit: evidenced in inscriptions from Sri Lanka since the 3rd century BCE. According to Buddhist tradition, it was originary from northeast India but there are no known inscriptions from the mainland. As it developed some divergent features, it will not be treated here.

  1. b) Middle Stage (the typical Prakrits)

  2. Māhārāṣṭrī: was the literary Prakrit used as the standard of comparison with other Prakrits. In the Sanskrit drama, women used Māhārāṣṭrī as a vehicle for their songs. A variant of Māhārāṣṭrī, known as Jain Māhārāṣṭrī, was the main language of the non-canonical books of the Śvetambara sect of Jainism.

  1. Māgadhī: was spoken by the low classes in the Sanskrit drama.

  1. Śaurasenī: was the Prakrit closer to Sanskrit, and the ordinary Prakrit in the Sanskrit drama, spoken by women and the buffoon. A form of Śaurasenī, known as Jain Śaurasenī, was the main language of the non-canonical books of the Digambara sect of Jainism.

  1. Ardhamāghadī: similar to Māghadī in some respects, it is the main language of the Jain Canon.

  1. c) Late Stage

  2. Apabhraṃśa: was an ensemble of dialects or closely related languages that preceded the eclosion of the modern Indo-Aryan languages.


Vowels (10). The vowel systems of the Prakrits are more symmetrical than that of Sanskrit, having 5 short and 5 long vowels:


Short and long e, as well as short and long o are allophones; before a consonant cluster e: and o: are shortened.

The syllabic (liquid) vocals of Sanskrit (ṛ, ṝ, ḷ) are replaced by a, i, u, and  the Sanskrit diphthongs ai, au by e:, o:, respectively.

Consonants. Prakrits preserve the whole range of stops and nasals from Sanskrit, including a complete set of voiceless stops (unaspirated and aspirated) and voiced stops (unaspirated and aspirated). Stops and nasals are articulated at five different places, being classified as labial, dental, retroflex, palatal and velar. The palatal stops are, in fact, affricates.


The retroflex stops ɖ/ɖʰ often become ɭ/ɭʰ in intervocalic position (allophones). The three sibilants (fricatives) of Sanskrit are reduced to one (s in most Prakrits but ś [ʃ] in Māgadhī). Prakrits have another fricative sound, the aspirated ɦ. The two liquids of Sanskrit (r, l) merge in Māgadhī where r always becomes l.

A number of consonantal restrictions, not present in Sanskrit, developed in the Prakrits:

  1. Final consonants are avoided.

  2. No more than two consonants can follow a short vowel, nor more than one follows a long vowel.

  3. There is assimilation of consonant clusters  (raktaratta, dharmadhamma, aryaajja).

Sandhi (sound changes at the juncture of words ) is not imperative as in Sanskrit and is limited mainly to vowels; consonantal sandhi has disappeared.

Script and Orthography. Prakrits were written mainly in the Brāhmī script, but Karoshti was favored in northwestern India. Today, the Latin script with diacritical marks is employed:

*the aspirated stops and affricates are written as digraphs (pʰ = ph, dʰ = dh, etc).

*the retroflex stops ʈ , ɖ are represented as ṭ , ḍ

*the affricates tʃ , dʒ are written c , j

*the glottal fricative ɦ is written h

*the nasals ɳ , ɲ , ŋ are represented as ṇ , ñ , ṅ

*the retroflex liquid ɭ is written ḷ

*the glide w is written v


  1. Nominal. Prakrits are inflective languages using a variety of grammatical cases to indicate the relative function of nouns, adjectives and pronouns, a process called declension. All adjectives agree with their nouns/pronouns in case, gender, and number.

  2.     As a consequence of the loss of final consonants and the disappearance of ṛ, the declension system has been largely reduced to the following paradigms: a (masculine/neuter), ā (feminine), i  (masculine/neuter), ī (feminine), u (masculine/neuter), ū (feminine). Consonant declension is vestigial and of marginal importance.

  1. gender: masculine, neuter, feminine.

  1. number: singular, plural. The dual number of Sanskrit has disappeared.

  1. case: nominative, vocative, accusative, instrumental, dative, ablative, genitive, locative. The dative of Sanskrit has been almost eliminated, its functions assumed by the genitive; it is restricted to express purpose.

  1. pronouns: personal, demonstrative, interrogative, indefinite, relative, reflexive.

  2. Personal pronouns are genderless and they do not have a form for the 3rd person; demonstrative pronouns, which distinguish gender, are used, instead. There are four demonstrative pronouns (two proximal and two distal).

  1. Verbal. The Old Indo-Aryan verbal system was reorganized and simplified.

  1. person and number: 1s, 2s, 3s; 1p, 2p, 3p.

  1. voice: active and passive. There was a gradual eclipse of the middle voice. The middle personal endings of Sanskrit were lost or remained as a relic.

  1. mood: indicative, optative, imperative.

  1. tense: present, past, future, conditional.

  2. The aorist, imperfect and perfect of Sanskrit merged into a single past tense. Conjugations are based on the third person singular of the present indicative. Past participles tend to be used instead of the past tense.

  3. Instead of the ten verb-classes of Sanskrit only two are usual (the inflections of the two classes are the same):

  4. (i)the great majority of verbs add the thematic vowel a after the root.

  5. (ii)Causatives and most Denominatives as well as some simple verbs use the infix e (derived from the Sanskrit aya).

  1. secondary (derivative) conjugations: causative and denominative (a verb derived from a noun).

  1. non-finite forms: infinitive, gerund, and several participles, including past passive, present active and passive, future active and passive. The latter, called gerundive, expresses obligation or necessity.     


Word order is quite free though not totally random. There is extensive and productive use of compound words, like in Sanskrit, though inordinate length is avoided. Nominal sentences (without a verb) and participial constructions are frequent.

Basic Vocabulary. Ardhamāgadhī words when they are different from those of other Prakrits appear between brackets.

one: ekka (ega)

two: do/duve

three: tiṇṇi (tao)

four: cattāri/cauro (cattāro)

five: pañca

six: cha

seven: satta

eight: aṭha (aṭṭha/aḍha)

nine: nava

ten: dasa

hundred: sada (saya)

father: piu, piua

mother: māyā, māi

brother: bhāā, bhāi, bhāia , bhāu, bhāua

sister: sasā, susā

son: putta

daughter: duhiā, dhū(d)ā, dhī(d)ā

head: sira

eye: akki, acchi

foot: pāda, pāya

heart: hiaa, haḍaka, halaa (Magadhi). In Apabhraṃśa: hiaḍa, hiaḍulla, hiaülla.

tongue: jibbhā, jihā

Key Literary Works (all dates CE)

Only a handful of literary works in Prakrit have survived and they are all composed in Māhārāṣṭrī.

  1. 700-800  Setu-bandha (The construction of the bridge). Anonymous

  2. An epic poem, inspired in the Ramayana, relating the construction of a bridge  between the southern tip of India and Sri Lanka by the hero Rama and an army of monkeys, followed by their invasion of the island and rescue of Sita abducted by the ogre Ravana.

  1. 700-800   Gauda-vaho (Gauda's slaying). Vākpatirāja

  2. An overwrought panegyric of Yaśovarman, king of Kanauj.

  1. 700-900    Gatha-sattasai (Seven hundred stanzas). Anonymous

  2. An anthology of 700 one-stanza poems, suggestive and lyric, erotic and pastoral.

900-1000    Karpura-mañjari (Karpura-mañjari). Rajasekhara

  1. A drama composed, by exception, entirely in Prakrit (dialogues in Śaurasenī, poetic sections in Māhārāṣṭrī). Its argument is nevertheless quite conventional.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

-The Indo-Aryan Languages. C. P. Masica. Cambridge University Press (1991).

-Introduction to Prakrit. Alfred C. Woolner. Calcutta (1917).

-Grammatik der Prakrit-Sprachen. R. Pischel. Trübner (1900). Translated into English as: A Grammar of the Prakrit Languages. Motilal Banarsidass (1981).

-A Comparative Dictionary of the Indo-Aryan Languages. R. L. Turner. Oxford University Press (1969).

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