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Purpose and Method

The purpose or the present work is to outline the main structural features or standard spoken Thai, the official language or Thailand, and also to elaborate by sub-classification and example those structural features which are least covered by existing grammars and dictionaries. In this latter category are the numerous minor form-classes or Thai ('sign-words,' 'functional words,' 'empty morphs,' etc.) consisting lexical items whose arrangement and conditions or occurrence are not easily described in terms or quickly understood grammatical labels, and whose largely non-referential meanings are not easily translated, or translatable only in terms so broad as to be almost meaningless. An index or these minor form-classes-class members is provided at the end or the grammar.

The approach to classification or grammatical features attempts to follow current techniques or American descriptive linguistics or the 'item-and-arrangement' school. Certain insights directly attributable to other grammatical techniques (transformational, traditional, etc.) have been exploited, but the results are presented in terms or morphemes and order. From the point or view or general method and specific categories the most useful hints have been gleaned from descriptions or languages with structures similar to Thai. It would be impossible to mention all or them, but two were outstanding in this respect: The work or Charles F. Hockett on Chinese (Pelplng) and Wllllam A. Smalley's 'Outline or khmu' Structure.'


Standard spoken Thai, the subJect or this grammar, is not simply the audible version or a nationally accepted written language. As an oral manifestation, in fact, it has no official sanction or any kind. But it is the language or communications media, the desired if not actual medium of instruction in public schools throughout Thailand, and the prestige dialect, representing the speech habits or the majority or educated speakers, regardless or origin. Those who are not born to it adapt to it, or suffer the consequences. Perhaps even more important, it is what foreigners learn: standard spoken Thai enjoys considerable status as a second language in Laos, and some status even in parts of Cambodia and Burma.

The regional dialect most closely resembling the standard language is that spoken in the geographical area or Thailand called the Central Plain.

This dialect centers around Bangkok, the capital. It extends to the west as far as the Burmese border, and to the southwest at least as far as Ratchaburl; to the north and northeast it is generally bounded by mountains, but can be found as far away as Pltsanuloke; the eastern limit is the Cambodian border, including the whole section of Thailand which is east of the Gulf of Slam. Except for some islands of non-Thai speakers, the central and most populous portion of the country is thus entirely blanketed by native speakers of a dialect close to the standard spoken language.

The principal isoglosses separating the Central Plains dialect from its neighbors to the south, north, and northeast involve the phonetic shapes and phonemic distribution of tones. Consonant and vowel correspondences play an important, but lesser role. There are also considerable differences among the dialects in lexicon, but apparently very few in syntax. At this date it is probably safe to say that no native speaker of Thai within the borders of Thailand proper has much difficulty in understanding either the Central Plains dialect or the standard spoken language, given a short period of adjustment. Ability to speak standard Thai, in all areas, varies with the extent of formal education, social status, and contacts with other groups through work or travel.

On the phonetic level, the principal difference between the standard language and the Central Plains dialect is the /r/ - /1/ distinction. As a legitimate phoneme of a colloquial Thai dialect, /r/ probably does not exist above the Malay peninsula. In the Central Plains dialect, [r] exists only as an unpredictable variant of the /1/ phoneme, alone and in clusters. Most speakers of the standard language make the distinction a phonemic one, but vary as to the lexical items to which /r/ and /1/ are assigned. In the present work the choice between the two phonemes is made arbitrarily, but in accordance with dictionary spellings wherever possible.


Two separate periods of field research in Thailand were involved in the preparation of this grammar, 1950-52 and the summer of 1961. The first research work was undertaken with the help of concurrent grants from the Southeast Asia Program of Yale University and the American Council of Learned Societies, and the results were submitted in 1954 as a Yale dissertation entitled 'An Outline of Siamese Grammar.' The second period of research came during a tour of duty by the author as FSI Regional Language Supervisor for Southeast Asia, with a contract between FSI and the Office of Education for the production of a Thai reference grammar as a stimulus. It was decided to take the original dissertation as a basis for the grammar and expand it, and the summer of 1961 was devoted to testing the analysis, shoring up the weak spots, and collecting further examples.

The specific informants consulted for this study included speakers of the Central Plains (CP) dialect as well as standard (ST) speakers, both in Thailand and the United states. CP informants were interviewed entirely in Thai, and ST informants partly in Thai and partly in English. A list of the principal informants follows with their backgrounds and time and place of interviews indicated.

  1. Mr. Han Dltkum, student at Royal Military Academy, Bangkok, 1951-52 (CP, Ayuthya Provlnce)
  2. Miss Chaluay Kanchanagama, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn Unlverslty, Bangkok, 1951-52 (ST)
  3. Mr. Chote Raktlprakara, graduate student, Yale University, New Haven, 1953-54 (ST)
  4. Mrs. William J. Gedney, wlfe of American Linguist, Bangkok, 1951-52, and New Haven, 1954. (CP, Ayuthya Province)
  5. Mrs. Churee Indanlyom, employee of AUA Language Center, Bangkok, 1961 (ST)
  6. Mr. Prasert Crupltl, Instructor, FSI Language School, Washington, 1962-63 (CP, Chantaburl Provlnce, and ST)
  7. Miss Chotchol Kambhu, Instructor, FSI Language School, Washington, 1962-63 (ST)

Of modern descriptive work on Thai, the most frequently consulted publications have been those of Mary R. Haas, especially her Spoken Thai (with Heng R. Subhanka, Henry Holt and Co., 1945). Many original conclusions of Dr. Haas, including the broad outline of phonemic analysis itself, of necessity recur in the present work, and it is impossible to determine which parts of the analysis are original here and which are merely logical extensions of conclusions implicit in her pedagogical work. The same could be said of the unpublished but equally valuable suggestions of Dr. William J. Gedney, whose guidance in the original research proJect and later has considerable relevance to whatever appears on these pages.

A number of descriptive studies of Thai by linguistically-oriented Thai speakers, some of them graduate students at American universities, have been done recently, but their findings have not been incorporated, explicitly or implicitly, in the present work.