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Review of  A Reference Grammar of Thai

Reviewer: Richard Watson Todd
Book Title: A Reference Grammar of Thai
Book Author: Shoichi Iwasaki Preeya Ingkaphirom
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Thai
Issue Number: 16.2546

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Date: Fri, 02 Sep 2005 10:23:36 +0700
From: Richard Watson Todd
Subject: A Reference Grammar of Thai

AUTHOR: Iwasaki, Shoichi; Ingkaphirom, Preeya
TITLE: A Reference Grammar of Thai
SERIES: Reference Grammars
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2005

Richard Watson Todd, King Mongkut's University of Technology Thonburi,


'A Reference Grammar of Thai' describes itself as "a clear and
comprehensive guide to Thai grammar, designed for intermediate to advanced
learners" and "an invaluable resource for linguists". The book is
therefore aiming at two markets: language learners and linguists.

As with most reference grammars, 'A Reference Grammar of Thai' consists of
a large number of fairly short chapters, each focusing on a specific
aspect of the language. There are, in fact, 30 chapters starting with an
introduction, going on to traditional grammatical categories such as noun
phrases, demonstratives and adjectives, followed by aspects unique to Thai
including the challengeability marker and the linking particle, and
finishing with more functionally-oriented issues such as causatives and
benefactives. Although the book claims that "it places a special emphasis
on functional accounts", these only come to the fore in the second half of
the book.

Each chapter follows roughly the same pattern. There is an introduction to
the grammatical aspect focused on in the chapter using examples from
English to help non-linguists gain a grasp of the content of the chapter.
There are then a series of sections, organised either by different ways of
expressing the same function or by different uses of the same word or
phrase. Each section has a usually brief explanation and three or four
examples. These examples consist of four lines: the Thai orthography, a
phonetic transcription, a gloss, and an English translation. Over half of
the examples come from natural (as opposed to constructed) data with the
majority of these being spoken data. Finally, there are two useful indexes
to the book, one of grammatical terms and one of Thai words.


In reading 'A Reference Grammar of Thai', I was taking primarily the
perspective of an advanced learner of the language, the main target
audience for the book. From this perspective, the indexes are very helpful
and it is easy to find some useful basic information about aspects which a
learner may be interested in.

However, most of the chapters provide only basic information. There are
only four or five chapters which provide sufficiently detailed
explanations to satisfy the needs of most learners (the chapter on
passives is one excellent example). In general, much useful information is
obliquely referred to but not explained. For example, discussing the
speech-level particle 'ca', the authors temptingly say that "female
speakers use [this particle] more frequently, though male speakers may use
[it] in certain situations", but give no indication of the types of
situations in which male speakers may use the particle. Indeed, pragmatic
issues of choice are largely ignored with only a few limited aspects
discussed in the final chapter on discourse.

Similarly, from a learner's perspective, the dearth of non-examples (or
unacceptable sentences) is unhelpful. For a learner, it is often just as
important to know what cannot be said as to know what can be said. As a
learner, then, I would have preferred to see maybe two examples
illustrating some aspect of language together with a non-example, rather
than the current three or four examples all showing the same feature of

Also of concern for learners is the reliance on technical terms and
phrasing in the explanations. Although helpful illustrations of the main
points of each chapter are given, the language used in explanations is
often daunting for the non-specialist. For instance, not many non-
linguists are going to feel comfortable with sentences such as "the
normative form of the resultative potential is the negative form".

More worryingly, there are quite a few mistakes in the book. Some of these
are proofreading mistakes, such as a whole clause missing from the Thai
orthography in one example and inappropriate features underlined in the
phonetic transcriptions of other examples. There are also misspellings in
the Thai (for instance, 'Pim' as a name does not have a final silent 'p').
More seriously, the book also contains some misinformation. Discussing
benefactives, in one of the few non-examples in the book, a sentence is
identified as unacceptable because of an inappropriate use of the
word 'hay'; later in the same chapter, the same example is revived, this
time stating (incorrectly) that 'hay' can be used in the sentence.
Elsewhere, the word for chair, 'kaw-ii', is incorrectly identified as a
possible classifier. Finally, and with potential for litigation, it is
stated that the Thai slang for condom, 'miichay', is derived from the
first name of Michay Ruchupan, a Thai senator; while 'miichay' does
originate in a person's name, the source is actually Michay Viravaidya, a
prominent social activist.

From the perspective of a Thai-language linguist, the emphasis placed on
spoken language in the book, and especially on conversation, is useful. As
with most languages which have a written form, previous work on Thai has
focused largely on the written language, and it is pleasant to see a
reference grammar which explicitly attempts to redress this bias. However,
somewhat strangely, many of the examples of natural conversation data come
from Thais living in the U.S., and in these examples, English words are
frequently inserted into Thai sentence structures. The main reason for
including these examples appears to be simply ease of access to the data -
not a very persuasive reason for a book which appears to want to set
itself up as the benchmark in the field.

Even with this focus on spoken language, 'A Reference Grammar of Thai'
does not include anything that would be new to a linguist specializing in
the Thai language. This, however, should not be viewed as necessarily
being a bad thing. The purpose of a reference grammar is not to present
new research; rather, it is to collate and collect the findings from
previous research into one comprehensive volume. Generally, for those
aspects of the language that are covered, the book under review does do
this well if briefly, although the information on discourse is severely
limited and ignores a lot of work published in Thai-language publications.

There are, however, a multitude of areas which could have been included in
the volume but were not. I realise that restrictions of space mean that
tough decisions on what to include may have had to be made, but the lack
of any real worthwhile analysis of written Thai represents a serious
deficit. The book should perhaps be titled 'A Reference Grammar of Spoken

A lack of coverage of some key aspects of spoken language, such as
ellipsis, may be due to attempts to make the description of Thai in this
book comparable to descriptions of other languages. In deciding on
categories to form the chapters organising the book, preference has been
given to the traditional linguistic categories which historically have
been applied in much of linguistics with only a few chapters reserved for
the peculiarities of Thai. While this allows linguists of other languages
to compare their languages with Thai easily, it may not really be the most
appropriate approach. At times in reading the explanations, there is a
feeling that the authors are having to shoehorn Thai into the mould of
traditional categories of linguistic description. This may be due partly
to the nature of Thai as a language and partly to the emphasis placed on
spoken language in the book. For the latter, traditional categories can
result in convoluted descriptions. For example, spoken Thai is a highly
elliptic language but traditional categories of linguistic description may
restrict the treatment of ellipsis as a grammatical phenomenon to the use
of zero anaphora. While zero anaphora are covered briefly in the book,
other aspects of Thai could also be usefully discussed in terms of
ellipsis. One instance concerns oblique nominals, as in the example "She
fell the horse's back". The authors laboriously argue that "the horse's
back" should be considered as a direct object rather than using the far
more parsimonious explanation of preposition ellipsis.

In writing 'A Reference Grammar of Thai', then, the authors appear to have
been torn between fulfilling the demands of mutually incompatible
audiences. On the one hand, meeting the needs of general linguists has
reduced the value of the book for Thai-language specialists. On the other,
producing a linguistics reference book means that the finished product is
not as helpful to learners as it should be. This does not mean that 'A
Reference Grammar of Thai' is not going to be a useful addition to the
shelves of most libraries and learners; indeed, the book usefully fills a
gap in the literature on Thai. However, the weaknesses of the book mean
that it is unlikely to become a classic, either for learners of Thai or
for linguists.


Richard Watson Todd has been living in Thailand for the last fifteen years
and is still struggling to learn the language. Working at King Mongkut's
University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok, most of his research and
publications concern English language teaching and applied linguistics
with a particular focus on classroom discourse.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0521650852
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 416
Prices: U.S. $ 100.00
U.K. £ 60.00