The word Pali is used as a name for the language of the Theravada canon. According to the Pali Text Society's Dictionary, the word seems to have its origins in commentarial traditions, wherein the Pāli (in the sense of the line of original text quoted) was distinguished from the commentary or vernacular translation that followed it in the manuscript. As such, the name of the language has caused some debate among scholars of all ages; the spelling of the name also varies, being found with both long "ā" and short "a" , and also with either a retroflex or non-retroflex "l" sound. Both the long ā and retroflex ḷ are seen in the ISO 15919/ALA-LC rendering, Pāḷi; however, to this day there is no single, standard spelling of the term, and all four possible spellings can be found in textbooks. R. C. Childers translates the word as "series" and states that the language "bears the epithet in consequence of the perfection of its grammatical structure".
In the 19th century, the British Orientalist Robert Caesar Childers argued that the true or geographical name of the Pali language was Magadhi Prakrit, and that because pāli means "line, row, series", the early Buddhists extended the meaning of the term to mean "a series of books", so Palibhasa means "language of the texts". However, modern scholarship has regarded Pali as a mix of several Prakrit languages from around the 3rd century BCE, combined together and partially Sanskritized. The closest artifacts to Pali that have been found in India are Edicts of Ashoka found at Gujarat, in the west of India, leading some scholars to associate Pali with this region of western India.
Pali, as a Middle Indo-Aryan language, is different from Sanskrit more with regard to its dialectal base than the time of its origin. A number of its morphological and lexical features show that it is not a direct continuation of Ṛgvedic Vedic Sanskrit. Instead it descends from one or more dialects that were, despite many similarities, different from Ṛgvedic.