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Review of  A Reference Grammar of Thai

Reviewer: Mark William Post
Book Title: A Reference Grammar of Thai
Book Author: Shoichi Iwasaki Preeya Ingkaphirom
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Thai
Issue Number: 21.584

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AUTHOR: Shoichi Iwasaki and Preeya Ingkaphirom
TITLE: A Reference Grammar of Thai
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2009

Mark W. Post, Research Centre for Linguistic Typology


The volume under review is a landmark in Tai linguistics. Although largely
surpassed in terms of scope and depth of analysis by Enfield's (2007) 'A Grammar
of Lao', 'A Reference Grammar of Thai' (henceforth RGT) - first published in
2005 and reissued in paperback in 2009 - is the first comprehensive grammar of a
Tai language written from a functional perspective. It makes extensive and
effective use of well-transcribed interactional data, as well as of the insights
and decades of experience of both authors.

As its title suggests, RGT is conceived somewhat differently from most grammars
being written by descriptive linguists nowadays. Namely, as a ''reference
grammar,'' RGT is explicitly designed to be of equal use-value to linguists and
to students and teachers of the Thai language. This is no simple task. To
satisfy the needs of the first group, the authors must provide sufficient and
theoretically well-grounded information regarding the distribution, semantics,
and grammatical status of every form and construction which is identified. To
satisfy the needs of the second group, the authors must provide accessible,
well-exemplified descriptions of use which can be readily built on in practice,
with a minimum of jargon and theoretical or typological discussion. Added to
this is the seemingly simple matter of representation of data, which must be
both accurate and normative if it is to provide both the level of detail
(regarding variation) and reliability to satisfy the needs of both groups. In
this reviewer's opinion, the authors achieve their desired balance about as
effectively as anyone could. Nonetheless, by the very nature of the enterprise,
there are likely to be areas in which description and analysis are insufficient
for the purposes of some linguists, and, indeed, there are many. Thus, while RGT
is and will almost certainly remain the leading ''first stop'' reference work on
Thai grammar for many years to come, it is far from the last word on the topic.
Below, I provide a summary of RGT's presentation, followed by a brief appraisal
of some general issues encountered in its use, largely from a general linguist's


RGT is divided into 30 chapters, each one helpfully introduced by a succinct
functional overview of the topic at hand (usually illustrated with examples from
English). This main body is preceded by a very helpful general preface which
includes information regarding data and transcription employed in the work, and
is followed by both a subject index and a very handy index of Thai words which
are prominently employed in grammatical constructions (in Romanization). Here,
the authors' transcription conventions are worthy of note. Faced with the
difficulty of representing ''natural'' discourse in a major national language
notorious for complications relating to speech register, effects of orthography
and pedagogy, and extensive importation of loanwords and other conventions from
languages of diverse structure (Diller 1988, among others), the authors settle
on the insightful solution of including two lines of transcription throughout
the work: a first line in Thai orthography, in essence representing the
conservative view of what ''should'' have been said, and a second line in
IPA-based Romanization, representing what actually was said. The only exception
is with ''constructed'' data which, kept to a minimum in this work, is
scrupulously identified as such.

Chapter 1 is a useful, if brief, introduction of the Thai language, summarizing
its phonological structure, orthography, lexicon, and syntax. Especially helpful
for students will be the discussion of orthography and tones, which is
exemplified by several excellent reference charts. This chapter also, however,
reveals one of RGT's major weaknesses from a descriptive perspective, which is
its thin treatment of phonology (totalling less than three-and-a-half pages).
For example, ''stress'' is only mentioned as a concomitant of the lengthening or
reduction of certain types of monosyllabic morpheme; there is no overall
treatment of rhythm, nor is the word ''iambic'' even mentioned. In addition,
certain orthographic conventions are introduced here which are designed to
''increase readability'', including the decision not to represent an ostensibly
phonemic glottal stop except in contexts where it is ''unpredictable'' (so, for
example, glottal stops which follow short vowels, since no short vowel can occur
without a following glottal stop, are not transcribed). It remains to be learned
whether certain readers will find the text easier to follow as a result of this
decision or not, but in view of the relevance of glottal stop to certain
grammaticalization processes (Diller 2001), some readers will probably find its
under-transcription unnecessary and unfortunate.

Chapter 2 discusses the structure of words, and presents several categories of
prefix, suffix, compound, reduplication and other word-formation type - some of
which have only rarely been discussed in the literature, such as acronyms -
together with ample illustrative word sets. Non-Tai origins of certain formative
types (such as Mon-Khmer infixes) are also discussed in passing, although more
detailed discussions of productivity and selectivity in this context would have
been ideal. The difficult topic of prefixal depth of grammaticalization is also
broached here, together with the topic of ''prefixes'' which take certain phrase
types under their scope. Little analysis of the latter, however, is offered,
leaving room for additional research in this area.

Chapters 3-6 discuss noun phrase structure and constituents. Chapters 3 and 6
are particularly useful and worthy of note here: 3 introduces ''personal
reference terms'', and encompasses pronouns, proper names, kinship terms and
titles. Drawing heavily on Cooke (1968) as well as previous work by the authors
(Iwasaki and Ingkaphirom Horie 2000) the authors illustrate a very insightful
discussion of social hierarchy, viewpoint deixis and reciprocal use conventions
with extended passages culled from actual discourse (then summarized in several
useful charts). Missing here is a discussion of the (mainly nominal) lexical
origins of many terms involved, which can also help explain some aspects of
their conventional uses. Chapter 6 similarly discusses demonstratives from a
highly informed discourse perspective, and includes detailed and
well-exemplified discussions of prosodic functions (also drawing from discussion
in Diller and Juntanamalaga 1989); these discussions are sure to be as helpful
to Thai language students as they will be to general linguists, shedding light
on aspects of Thai vernacular discourse rarely treated in textbooks or other
general works.

Chapters 4 and 5 - discussing noun phrase structure and classifiers respectively
- are somewhat less remarkable, mainly making use of constructed examples and
containing little discussion of use and variation. Particularly confusing is the
authors' treatment of NP ''headship'' and ''headless'' NPs. As the authors note in
passing, many (probably most) NP operators in Thai are derived from lexical
nouns which continue to occur as such in the language, such as the genitive
linker 'khɔ̌ɔŋ' < 'possession' and the primary relativizer thîi < 'place', not to
mention dozens of familiar classifiers. NP ''headship'' in Tai languages has
accordingly long posed an analytical challenge (cf. Hundius and Kölver 1983 for
one possible solution). The authors are not by any stretch alone among Tai
scholars in being a little less than clear about the respective ''head'' statuses
of, say, lexical nouns and classifiers and the structural and functional
implications of ellipsis of either constituent; suffice it to say, then, that
these are topics which remain to Tai scholars to fully and explicitly work out.

Chapters 7 and 8 treat adjectives and adverbs, being two aspects of one of the
most controversial topics in South-East Asian linguistics, namely the lexical
class-affiliation of such terms (cf. Prasithrathsint 2000, Enfield 2004a and
Post 2008, among others). The authors largely sidestep this controversy, by
treating ''adjective'' and ''verb'' as labels for particular 'constructional slots'
rather than as labels for independent word classes as such (i.e., the same
lexeme is viewed as an ''adjective'' when it modifies a noun and as a ''verb'' when
it heads a predicate). This division notwithstanding, many constructions then
analysed as centrally adjectival are also based on, or may apply to, the
predication construction, such as comparatives, leaving the class status of such
forms somewhat unclear (since only property terms can usually head a predicative
comparative construction; see Enfield 2004a and Post 2008). Far more useful is
the treatment of adverbs, which contains an effective distributional
subclassification that has not, so far as I am aware, been found in any other
work to date.

Chapters 9-12 turn to purely predicate-oriented matters, treating lexical and
functional verbs and other verbal modifiers. Chapter 9 divides lexical verbs
into intransitive, transitive and ditransitive types, and also helpfully
identifies a number of verbal subclasses whose semantic properties (e.g. object
thematic role subcategorization) correlate with certain syntactic features (e.g.
accessibility to ''passivization''). Ambitransitive verbs are treated as
''lexically hybrid''; in essence, polysemous among two or more verbal subclasses.
Oblique noun phrases and their marking are also treated in this chapter, for
reasons which are somewhat less than clear. Chapter 10 presents what, as far as
I am aware, is a new analysis of the often-discussed particle 'càʔ' (cf. Diller
2001), a form usually labeled ''Irrealis'' and which the authors here describe as
a ''challengeability marker'' (that is, indicating the speaker's assessment of
whether the information mentioned is or is not challengeable by an addressee as
fact). In suggesting that 'càʔ' may mark a speaker's modeling of the addressee's
belief state, the authors depart radically from the traditional view that 'càʔ'
primarily conveys the speaker's own evaluation of information as real/factual or
unreal/hypothetical. Accordingly, this would seem to provide a useful departure
for additional discourse-based empirical investigation. Chapter 11 turns to
modality, and treats a number of ''modal auxiliaries'' which are, in essence,
pre-head serialized verbs giving functions related to necessity, obligation, and
degree of conjecture (they are not auxiliaries in the sense of hosting most
predicate operators, for example). The addition of a section treating
periphrastic expressions of ''evidentiality'' is a little odd, as this does not
seem to constitute a well-grammaticalized category in Thai, although it is of
course useful to understand how Thai handles things like hearsay (particularly
from a learner's perspective). Finally, Chapter 12 is a very effective chapter
on aspect; here, the authors quickly and quite correctly dispense with the
applicability of ''tense'' to Thai grammar (in the sense of deictically-bound time
pointers, which certainly do not occur in Thai), and instead provide an overview
of no fewer than nineteen aspectual operators and their interactions with
different verbal subclasses and with temporal adverbs. The discussions of
lexical sources and functional values for the forms concerned are in general
lucid, and the examples - mainly drawn from discourse - are well-chosen.

Chapters 13-15 discuss ''particles'', and focus on the ''linking particle'' 'kɔ̂' in
Chapter 13, ''speech-level'' formality particles such as 'khráp' and 'khâ' in
Chapter 14, and the very large collection of ''pragmatic particles'' (mainly
marking speaker attitude towards the information expressed in a clause and to
its function and status in the speech situation) in Chapter 15. Chapter 15 is
especially worthy of note: drawing on previous research by the authors (Iwasaki
and Ingkaphirom Horie 2000), the authors subdivide a very wide array of
particles on the basis of functional content; namely, ''general'' particles occur
with all varieties of speech act, and primarily assist the speaker in
negotiating common understandings in the speech situation.
''Information-oriented'' particles more closely depict speaker attitude towards
information content, and do not, for example, generally occur on imperatives,
and a minor category of ''action-oriented'' particles relate only to imperatives.
Especially useful here, and indicative of the functional principles guiding the
authors' presentation, are attention to the functional values of prosodic
variation in particles, sensitivity to the emergence of ''new'' particles from
construction-based variation, and the lexical and constructional sources of
well-established particles. Approximately twenty pages of primarily
conversational data exemplify the analyses.

Chapter 16 treats ''body-part expressions'', a topic which was effectively
analyzed in previous work by Matisoff (1986) and Iwasaki (2002) (i.e.,
constructions such as 'khǎw caj dii' 'S/he is kind' and 'khǎw dii caj' 'S/he is
happy'). Treating the nominal attributee as a ''topic'' and the
body-part-term/attribute complex as a ''comment'', the authors decline to relate
the structure to a construction-free account of grammatical relations between
the three terms (if any such thing exists). Treating order variation as
expressing an alternation between ''external'' and ''internal'' states, as is done
in studies by the previously-cited authors, RGT offers a broad semantic
subclassification of Physical traits, Personalities, Sensation and Emotion
together with dozens of well-chosen examples.

Chapter 17 discusses copular predication, primarily treating clauses based on
equative/identity and attributive copulas 'khɨɨ' and 'pen'; a ''semi-verbal''
status of the latter is argued-for in terms of non-prototypical behaviour in
negative polarity contexts (section 17.3), and functional extensions of the
copulas are also covered (including uses in clause-linking and hesitation).
Verbless clauses are also briefly treated as cases of ellipsis of one or the
other copula; very usefully, the authors also discuss discourse conditions for
ellipsis in this context.

Chapter 18 covers the perennially challenging topic of serial verb constructions
in Thai, for their analysis of which the authors rely considerably on the
well-known work of Thepkanjana (1986). A broad division is made between
''subordinative'', ''coordinative'' and ''hybrid'' types. The choice of terminology
here is not entirely clear, since no argument is made for the existence of
syntactic subordination in absence of morphological marking, and coordination
with overt syntactic linkers in Thai is quite different from ''coordinative''
serialization (for example, no purposive implication is entailed by the former,
unlike the latter); nevertheless, several functional bases underlying the
division are adduced in passing. The overview is ultimately extremely rich in
content; so much so that a tabulated summary of the findings (indicating
subject-coreference, entailed event structure, semantic implications, mechanics
of negation, and verbal classes open to the constructions identified, at a
minimum) would have been helpful.

Chapters 19-22 discuss multi-clause constructions, including relative clauses
(Chapter 19), complement clauses (Chapters 20 and 21) and adverbial clauses
(Chapter 22). Chapter 19 quite lucidly presents markers and subtypes of
restrictive relative clauses; non-restrictive relative clauses are treated as
''subordinate clauses'', and are shown to associate relatively more closely with
the ''formal'' relativizer 'sɨ̂ŋ'.

Chapter 20 discusses complementation types other than those involving the speech
verb-derived complementizer 'wâa', most of which are analyzed as being based on
a juxtapositive ''topic-comment'' presentation. Chapter 21 contains an extremely
detailed and comprehensive overview of the many functions of grammaticalized
speech verb 'wâa'. Here too, a summary table would have been helpful.
Particularly useful here is discussion of the more or less verbal properties of
'wâa' in various constructions, often justified on the basis of complement
semantics (discussion of the structural possibilities of negation here would
also have been helpful).

Chapter 22 treats ''adverbial clauses'', including temporal adverbial phrases,
conditional subordinations, and reason and cause connectives. Markers of
subordination, of which there are several, receive primary focus (rather than
syntax), although some discussion of bare juxtaposition (in which lexical
semantics and contextual pragmatics serve to decode an implied logical relation
among clauses) is also included.

Chapters 23-24 treat polar (''yes/no'') and content (''wh-'') questions and related
constructions respectively. Here, Chapter 23 notably provides a very useful
chart giving several sample question types, illustrating the various types of
rejoinder required by different polar question constructions. The distinction
between polar question markers 'mǎy' and 'rɨ̌ɨ' is somewhat unusually treated in
this chapter as a matter of speaker's ('mǎy') versus public ('rɨ̌ɨ') ''territories
of information'' (rather than degree of speaker confidence in his/her model of
the addressee's information state). This topic would certainly merit additional

Chapter 24 divides question words into the traditional ''nominal'', ''adjectival''
and ''adverbial'' forms (although the adjectival forms, at least, do not
distribute very much like adjectives at all), and reveals a host of mainly in
situ uses of question words in Thai. Of particular value in this chapter is the
section on indefinite constructions - which employ the same set of lexemes as do
content interrogatives - helpfully identifying indefinite uses in terms of
construction; namely, conditional, negative, ''modified'', and marked via a
question marker such as 'mǎy'. However, since indefinite readings are not
exclusively licensed via particular constructions in Thai - contextual
pragmatics and intonation also often play a role - it would have been useful to
also discuss and explain cases of syntactic ambiguity among interrogative and
indefinite readings, since these can be a real source of difficulty for
intermediate to advanced learners.

Chapters 25-29 focus on specific constructions which are prominent in Thai
grammar, most of which involve functional uses of serialized verbs. Chapter 25
discusses reciprocals, distributives and collectives, all of which make use of a
post-verbal, plural subject-referencing operator 'kan'. Here, the different
semantics and referential values of the three construction types are explained
in terms of interaction between verb type (verbs of affect yield a reciprocal
reading while activity verbs yield a distributive) the composition of the
subject noun phrase, as well as the addition of certain disambiguating operators
(such as 'duây' 'also' in the case of collectives).

Chapter 26 on ''the passive'' defines a passive functionally as an operation of
''viewpoint shifting'' between agent and patient (without recourse to syntax or
argument marking), and primarily treats the transitive verb-derived passivizers
'thùuk', 'doon' and 'ráp' and the more preposition-like 'dooy'. It is a pity
here that treatment of objects is not more extensive in this chapter, as the
interaction between object treatment and passivizer type in Thai is a topic of
considerable potential interest. However, a closing section on 'ráp'-V
constructions is very thorough, and contains a novel and well-exemplified
analysis of a complex predicate nucleus which should provide numerous avenues
for additional research.

Chapter 27 discusses causative functions, distinguishing between lexicalized and
periphrastic causatives in which an action verb serves as a serialized result
complement to a main verb of causation like 'do', 'make' or 'give'. Here, the
authors draw a clear distinction among causative verb types in terms of degrees
of control. Of particular typological interest here will be the authors' special
focus on the role of 'hây' 'give' in causative functions, which is shown to
enable fine-grained control over depiction of causee volitionality.

Continuing on from Chapter 27 and building on extensive research in the area by
the first author, Chapter 28 treats benefactive and purposive constructions also
employing the verb 'hây' 'give'. The analysis here is extremely fine-grained and
well-exemplified, and includes extensive discussion of constructional semantics.
Last in this group, Chapter 29 discusses functions of post-head serialized verbs
'dây' ~ 'dâay', 'pen' and 'wǎy' in terms of varying semantics of potential
projected onto the subject.

The final chapter, 30, is on discourse, and is - not surprisingly, perhaps,
given the authors' discourse orientation - probably the best in the volume.
Rarely is a more helpful introduction to these often challenging topics offered
by a descriptive grammar, and more rarely still in such a succinct form. The
distinction of ''topic'' and ''subject'' is clearly laid out, and non-subject topics
as well as proximate demonstrative-derived topicalizing operators are discussed
and exemplified in good detail. Sections on pronoun use and referent-tracking in
discourse are also clear and well-exemplified, and can be read profitably
together with previous work by Cooke. Finally, variation-with-seeming-stability
in the order of clause constituents is helpfully analyzed in terms of a
preferred core argument structure S-V-DO-IO, which is yet subject to continual
rearrangement due to factors of discourse prominence.


As an explicitly functional grammar, RGT generally achieves its aims. The
organization is clear, logical and fairly comprehensive, examples are in general
well-chosen and more than ample in quantity, and the inclusion of an index of
forms makes RGT a useful reference from the point of view of both
function-oriented and form-oriented queries. The presentation is succinct but
never lacking in either depth of analysis or innovation, and the discourse
perspective of RGT both suggests a solid empirical basis for the authors'
findings and provides ample scope and suggestive lines of inquiry for additional
discourse-based research. As was noted in passing at several points above, there
are certain aspects of RGT's analysis which differ (often strongly) with
traditional views in Thai linguistics, and the book could - in this reviewer's
opinion - have benefitted from a more solidly construction-oriented approach at
times (bracketing and labelling of constituents at many points would have been
extremely useful, although perhaps also a bit off-putting from a language
teacher or student's perspective).

My main criticisms have to do with some aspects of the book's presentation.
Several of these are not at all the fault of the authors, but rather reflect a
generally lacklustre editing of a volume which deserves better (and not once but
twice at that). The font chosen for phonetic characters, which appears to me to
be SIL Doulos Unicode - although the font developers are not properly credited -
produces a mismatched line spacing as well as sometimes illegible placements of
tone markers (particularly when forced into italics, which is something the font
was not designed for). Worse, the alignments of morphemes and glosses in
examples throughout the book are sometimes correct, but are much more often very
irregular; this sometimes makes it necessary to read through examples four or
five times to be sure one has matched up forms and glosses correctly. This is on
the publisher's side. My main criticisms of the authors' presentation - and this
criticism applies to many, many other works in the Tai linguistics tradition -
concerns glossing of functional morphemes, many of which in RGT receive no more
informative a label than PP (pragmatic particle), ASP (aspect marker) or CLS
(classifier). Particularly in a highly functionally/semantically-oriented
grammar, such glosses tell the reader next-to-nothing, and often severely impede
comprehension of examples. There are dozens of particles and classifiers in
Thai; in fact, classifiers in Tai languages are, arguably, an open class
(Enfield 2004b). Accordingly, it is no more appropriate to gloss a particle or a
classifier ASP or CLS than it is to gloss a lexeme ''N'', ''ADJ'' or ''V'' (i.e.,
leaving semantic content almost entirely to the reader's deduction). But as I
said, RGT is by no means unique in Tai linguistics in adopting this practice
whose days, I hope, are numbered.

In sum, RGT is an excellent functional grammar of the Thai language, marred by
only a few flaws of presentation and occasionally uncertain analyses. It should
prove to be as helpful to its two target audiences as the authors intend, and
should certainly be used as a model for the development of functional grammars
for other Mainland South-East Asian Languages - something of which we are very
much in need.


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Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press.
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Prasithrathsint, A. (2000). ''Adjectives as verbs in Thai.'' Linguistic Typology
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Post, M. (2008). ''Adjectives in Thai: Implications for a functionalist typology
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Thepkanjana, K. (1986). Serial Verb Constructions in Thai. PhD Dissertation. Ann
Arbor, University of Michigan Department of Linguistics.

Mark W. Post specializes in the typology and diachronic evolution of Mainland Southeast Asian languages, with recent work being most closely focused on the linguistic and cultural evolution of the Tani branch of Tibeto-Burman. Currently a post-doctoral research fellow at the Research Centre for Linguistic Typology at La Trobe University, he will be moving to The Cairns Institute of James Cook University in early 2010.

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