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Numeric Classifiers

1. Overview

In the Thai language, It's important to use the correct classifier when enumerating (counting) or quantifying more than one object (noun). Each noun has a specific classifier word which should be used in a sentence when you're referring to a determinate number of items. This is a form of grammatical "agreement," such as we find pervasively in languages such as English (for example, English 'subject-verb agreement'), but which is uncommon in Thai.

Thai does not use determiner words in the same way as the English words, 'a,' 'an,' 'the,' 'this,' and 'that,' but as you'll see in the Starter Grammar of Thai Classifiers below, classifiers can be used to specify definiteness.

People often note that English also has a sort of classifier system:

I'll have two loaves of bread.

Here, the word loaves can be considered a classifier for bread; bread comes in loaves. Also as in English, powders, grains and other fluid substances are typically counted by the containers they come in.

He bought twelve sacks of rice.

2. Definite and Indefinite Quantification

Without a classifier or demonstrative determiner, a sentence such as the following is underspecified in its quantification.

เขามีลูกฟุตบอล  /khaoR meeM luukF footH baawnM/ "He has a soccer ball." — "He has the soccer ball."

Definiteness can be added as in the following example:

เขามีลูกฟุตบอลลูกเดียว  /khaoR meeM luukF footH baawnM luukF diaaoM/ "He has only one football."

Perhaps the closest thing to the English definite determiner 'the,' in Thai is to use a demonstrative determiner. This permits reference to some specific item that has already been mentioned in the discourse.

เขามีลูกฟุตบอลลูกนั้น  /khaoR meeM luukF footH baawnM luukF nanH/ "He has that football."

3. A Starter Grammar of Thai Classifiers

a. Basic examples are when you're talking about more than one item:

saL nitL seuuH nangR seuuR saamR lemF
NAME buy book three CLAS
Sanit bought three books.

khaoR meeM luukF chaaiM saamR khohnM
he have child male three CLAS
He has three male sons.

b. Only when you're talking about exactly one item, there are two positions for the classifier. These two sentences mean the same thing.

saL nitL seuuH rohtH seeR khiaaoR khanM neungL
NAME buy car green CLAS one
Sanit bought one green car.

saL nitL seuuH rohtH seeR khiaaoR neungL khanM
NAME buy car green one CLAS
Sanit bought one green car.

c. The classifier interacts with the demonstrative determiners in interesting ways:

saL nitL meeM rohtH seeR khiaaoR saamR khanM
NAME have car green three CLAS
Sanit has three green cars.

saL nitL seuuH rohtH seeR khiaaoR saamR khanM neeH
NAME buy car green three CLAS this
Sanit bought these three green cars.

rohtH khaawngR phohmR kheuuM khanM nanH
car of I COP CLAS that
My car is that one.

maaR dtuaaM neeH chaawpF ginM suuM chiH
dog CLAS this like eat sushi
This dog likes to eat sushi.

d. The group classifier 'พวก' makes the demonstrative determiner plural. A number isn't specified but 'more than one' is implied.

maaR phuaakF neeH naawnM
dog CLAS this sleep
These dogs sleep.

rohtH phuaakF neeH seeR khiaaoR
car CLAS this green
These cars are green.

e. Using the demonstrative determiner when you're talking about exactly one item. Notice from the first two examples, the number (one) can be omitted.

saL nitL seuuH rohtH seeR khiaaoR khanM neeH
NAME buy car green CLAS this
Sanit bought this green car.

saL nitL seuuH nangR seuuR lemF neeH
NAME buy book CLAS this
Sanit bought this book.

saL nitL seuuH rohtH seeR khiaaoR khanM neungL neeH
NAME buy car green CLAS one this
Sanit bought this one green car.

saL nitL seuuH rohtH seeR khiaaoR neungL khanM neeH
NAME buy car green one CLAS this
Sanit bought this one green car.

f. Two examples from Iwasaki and Ingkaphirom (2005)

phaawM daiF dtemM graL bpaoR saawngR chaawngF laaeoH khaoR gaawF lohngM maaM
enough ASP-GET fill bag two CLAS ASP-FINISH he LP descend DIR
When he finished filling two bags, he came down.

maaeoM dtuaaM neeH dtaaiM yuuL laaeoH dtangF dtaaeL chaaoH
cat CLAS this die ASP-CONT ASP-FINISH since morning
This cat was already dead this morning.

4. More example fragments and sentences

Please visit the category, Classifier Example Sentences, for additional classifier example usage.

5. Terminology

นามนับได้  /naamM napH daiF/ [grammar] n. countable noun
นามนับไม่ได้  /naamM napH maiF daiF/ [grammar] n. uncountable noun

6. Vocabulary

A list of the classifiers currently listed in our online dictionary, along with the nouns they classify, can be found here: Classifier List.

7. References and Acknowledgement

The analysis in this section was prepared with the assistance of Emily Bender, who had "numerous" useful insights based on her work with Japanese numerical classifiers.

Where noted, examples are from: Iwasaki, Shoichi., & Horie, Ingkaphirom. P. (2005). A reference grammar of Thai. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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