Review: A Guide to Thai Grammar Books

A Guide to Thai Grammar Books

A Guide to Thai Grammar Books…

Presented here are short introductions to Thai grammar books, both in the English language for foreign learners and Thai language books for Thai school and university students which are also useful for foreign learners with a good Thai reading ability. As these are reference books, not tutorials, they are not intended to be read from cover-to-cover, but instead used to support continued studies.

Each book overview here covers the general structure and content together with comments about any specific, notable features. However, no opinion or rating is given about their suitability for any particular learning approach which is, of course, very subjective to each learner.

The books listed here are not the only books available. I welcome comments and further suggestions on this topic which would assist us all with our continued studies.

English Language Grammar Books…

The in-print books listed here can usually be found at all large book shops in Thailand which stock foreign language books. Many online shops (both Thai and foreign) sell them too. Google Books has free previews of some and, where relevant, a link is provided.

The Fundamentals of the Thai LanguageThe Fundamentals of the Thai Language (5th edition)
Author: Stuart Campbell and Chuan Shaweevongs
Format: out-of-print but available online (free)
Language: English with examples in Thai script and transliteration.
Website: Fundamentals of the Thai Language

While this is more of a language course than a grammar book, it does have a strong emphasis on basic grammar and outlines some key differences from English which is useful for beginners. Each topic is presented with basic vocabulary lists and example conversations. The first edition was printed in 1956 so some of the vocabulary is showing its age but the clear explanations and well structured content make this a useful book.

Thai: Essential GrammarThai: An Essential Grammar
Author: David Smyth
Formats: paperback, hardback, eBook (Kindle, PDF, ePub, Microsoft Reader)
ISBN: 978-0415226134 (paperback)
Language: English with examples in Thai script and transliteration.
Google Preview: Thai: Essential Grammar

Thai Reference Grammar: The Structure of Spoken ThaiThai Reference Grammar: The Structure of Spoken Thai
Authors: James Higbie and Snea Thinsan
Format: paperback
ISBN: 978-9748304960
Language: English with examples in Thai script and transliteration.

These two books are perhaps the most commonly available grammar books for foreign learners. They’re good introductions to Thai grammar and language patterns and useful for beginners as well as advanced learners. Both are written for general learners and only use basic grammatical terminology (eg. nouns, verbs, conjunctions etc) and therefore are straight forward to read and very approachable.

Different styles of transliteration are used in each book. Smyth’s system is not too different from that developed by Mary Haas and is easy to learn for readers familiar with Haas’ works or the system used in the Thai for Beginners book. Higbie’s transliteration style is unique, using under- and over-scoring representing tones, but after the initial “what is that?” reaction, it’s quick to learn and intuitive.

Given the rising popularity of eBook readers and tablet computers, Smyth’s publisher (Routledge) deserves praise for making his work available in digital formats. However, the Kindle and ePub editions use miniature graphics files for the Thai text and some transliteration symbols so resizing the layout doesn’t work properly on all readers (the graphic files don’t resize along with the normal text). The PDF version does not have this problem. (I’ve not seen the Microsoft Reader version so can’t comment about it.)

Thai Reference GrammarThai Reference Grammar
Author: Richard B. Noss
Formats: PDF (free online), paperback
ISBN: 978-1456503307 (paperback)
Language: English with transliteration (no Thai script)
Website: FSI: Thai Reference Grammar (PDF link near the end of the page)

Obviously written at a time when people didn’t worry about the health effects of smoking, this book introduces the topic of classifiers with a demonstration of how to buy cigarettes as “the yellow pack”, “those five packs”, “the big pack” etc. – not something found in modern books! Printed in 1964, this is an updated version of the author’s PhD dissertation so academic linguistic terminology is heavily used throughout eg. nouns are defined as “any substantive which occurs as the head of an endocentric expression”, but there are plenty of examples which help if the lingo is hard to understand. It’s perhaps unfortunate that only transliteration is used – no Thai script at all – but this is a book about spoken Thai.

One feature that stands out is the focus on stress, rhythm and intonation in spoken Thai and the transliteration (also based on Mary Haas’ system) includes symbols to represent these features. Other grammar books generally give less focus on this topic so its inclusion here is welcome.

The PDF version at the above website is free and is a scan of the original print edition. It’s mostly of good quality although there are a few faint or illegible words to be found. There are “new” editions of this book being sold online, but they seem to be identical to this PDF except for the front cover.

A Reference Grammar of ThaiThai Reference Grammar A Reference Grammar of Thai
Authors: Shoichi Iwasaki and Preeya Ingkaphirom
Formats: paperback, hardback
ISBN: 978-0521108676 (paperback)
Language: English with examples in Thai script, transliteration and part-of-speech analysis.
Google Preview: A Reference Grammar of Thai

This book is also for a more academic audience. The terminology used is somewhat difficult at first if the reader is not familiar with technical linguistic terms (eg. chapter titles such as “Deontic Modal Auxiliaries”, “The Periphrastic Causative” etc), although each chapter has a short, less-technical introduction but not totally jargon free. Reading the chapter summaries first will give a clearer overview of the content and the terminology is arguably easier to understand than that used in Noss’ book.

The academic approach used to compile this book is clear from the conversational data: transcriptions of real conversations between teachers & parents, parents & children, business meetings etc. Even hesitations and repetition of words are transcribed, transliterated and analysed into parts of speech as spoken. Top marks for the analysis of real-life speech as this is something that’s not evident in the other books presented here.

The part-of-speech analysis is a feature not found in the other books in this article, although it’s common in many academic papers. For example:

นัดคงไม่มาแล้ว
nát khoŋ mây maa lɛ́ɛw
(name) may NEG come ASP
“Nat may not come any more.”

Lines 1, 2 and 4 are the Thai script, transliteration and translation respectively. Line 3 is the part-of-speech analysis showing how each word fits in the sentence: (name) denotes a persons name, NEG is a “negative marker” (“not”) and ASP is an “aspect auxiliary” (for time/tense).

However, there are a few mistakes: a few transliterations and translations are incomplete, and some incorrect spellings can be found too. But don’t let these minor negatives put you off though as this is otherwise a detailed, insightful (albeit expensive) book. The Smyth and Higbie books are great quick references for learning language structures but this one is more detailed and will often better answer the question “how does that word really work?”

Thai Language Grammar Books…

These grammar books are primarily for native Thai speakers so the focus is very different from those above. The foreign language books are about second language acquisition and understanding whereas books for native speakers explain the workings of the reader’s own native language which they already use fluently in daily life.

The first two books can be found in Thai university bookshops and larger general bookshops. The บรรทัดฐานภาษาไทย books are limited in availability and details are provided separately below.

หลักภาษาไทยหลักภาษาไทย [The Fundamentals of the Thai Language]
Author: กำชัย ทองหล่อ
Formats: paperback, hardback
ISBN: 978-9742466350
Language: Thai

Previews: Two chapters with partial translations can be found on the thai-language.com website:

Modifiers
Parts of Speech

This book is the standard reference book of the Thai language, first printed about 60 years ago. It’s a very detailed, academic tome (540 pages) covering the evolution of the Thai script, alphabet, tones, types of words, their use (including royal vocabulary or “ratchasap”), clauses, sentences, loan words (mainly Pali and Sanskrit with limited discussion of Khmer, Chinese and English), prose and poetry.

This book has no index but the table of contents is very detailed (spanning 11 pages) and lists all chapters, sections and subsections making it quick and easy to find the right page.

This reference manual is the definitive reference book for the Thai language.

ไวยากรณ์ไทยไวยากรณ์ไทย [Thai Grammar]
Author: นววรรณ พันธุเมธา
Formats: paperback, hardback
ISBN: 974-9993276
Language: Thai

This book covers all the essentials and isn’t overly technical. It’s less detailed than หลักภาษาไทยand perhaps easier to understand while being organised in a similar manner. It starts with chapters covering word types (verbs, nouns, conjunctions etc) and then phrase and sentence construction. The book only discusses the modern Thai language as used in normal daily life so there’s limited discussion of royal vocabulary, and nothing on the language history or traditional forms of verse that are covered in หลักภาษาไทย. Plenty of examples are given throughout and there are also exercises at the end of each chapter.

Unfortunately, finding information in this book can be slow as there’s no index and the table of contents is short (one page) which lists only the chapter titles, not subsections. Also, the page headers only contain the author’s name, book title and page numbers (no chapter or section titles) so the reader must scan the pages for section headings instead.

However, this book does have a logical organisation and its non-technical approach makes it useful as both a tutorial and reference guide.

บรรทัดฐานภาษาไทย เล่ม ๑-๖บรรทัดฐานภาษาไทย เล่ม ๑-๖ [Standard Thai, Books 1-6]
Author: Thai Language Institute, Office of Academic and Educational Standards, Office of the Basic Education Commission, Ministry of Education
Format: paperback
Language: Thai

Availability generally limited to ศึกษาภัณฑ์พาณิชย์ (Suksapan Phaanit) shops.
Branch locations can be found at suksapan.or.th and an online ordering service is available.

เล่ม ๑ ระบบเสียง อักษรไทย การอ่านคำและการเขียนสะกดคำ
Book 1 Phonology, Thai alphabet, Reading and Spelling Words

เล่ม ๒ คำ การสร้างคำและการยืมคำ
Book 2 Words, Word Construction and Loan Words

เล่ม ๓ ชนิดของคำ วลี ประโยคและสัมพันธสาร
Book 3 Types of Words, Clauses, Sentences and Discourse

เล่ม ๔ วัฒนธรรมการใช้ภาษาไทย
Book 4 Cultural use of the Thai Language

เล่ม ๕ กระบวนการคิดและการเขียนร้อยแก้ว
Book 5 The Art of Writing Prose

เล่ม ๖ ฉันทลักษณ์และขนบการเขียนร้อยกรอง
Book 6 Prosody and Patterns for Writing Verse

Notes:
1. Book 1 of the current print-run has sold out (as of November 2011)
2. Books 5 and 6 have not yet been published (as of November 2011)
3. This review is based on books 2, 3 and 4

These recent books, published in 2009 and 2010, present a modern approach to understanding Thai for “teachers of Thai, students at secondary school level or higher and anyone interested in the Thai language”. They are written by “contemporary academic researchers and experts in the Thai language” which is evident from the bibliographies referencing many modern academic papers (from both Thai and foreign universities). By using a modern, broad base of linguistic research, the authors have developed a series of books that explain the Thai language clearly and concisely.

The vocabulary in these books is relatively straightforward and good use is made of charts and tables where appropriate. Some technical terminology has come from English and translated into Thai (eg. “socio-cultural information” translated to “ข้อมูลด้านสังคมและวัฒนธรรม”) but the English terms/phrases are also given on first use, which is helpful for foreign readers.

Footnotes are used to highlight where deviations have been made from older books such as หลักภาษาไทย (above) and its predecessor, the almost century-old work of พระยาอุปกิตศิลปสาร (not included here because it’s out-of-print). Such deviations are primarily where different terminology is used eg. the new books use คำนามวิสามัญ (proper noun) instead of วิสามานยนาม as used in the older books.

The up-to-date nature of these texts can be clearly seen in the second book (Words, Word Construction and Loan Words). The loan words chapters in the older books focus on Pali, Sanskrit and Khmer with a little Chinese and English but these newer books have extensive chapters for Pali, Sanskrit, Khmer, Chinese, Java-Malaya, and English. Likewise, in book 4 (Cultural use of the Thai Language) there are chapters on regional dialects in Thailand and modern language use in business, advertising, media, legal, religion, ceremonies, and word play/humour too.

In summary, these are well-thought out, up-to-date books with clear explanations, ample examples and a broad scope. They are likely to satisfy the most inquisitive students of the Thai language.

The in-print books listed here can usually be found at all large book shops in Thailand which stock foreign language books. Many online shops (both Thai and foreign) sell them too. Google Books has free previews of some and, where relevant, a link is provided.

Mark Hollow

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12 Responses to “ Review: A Guide to Thai Grammar Books ”

  1. Mark and Catherine – An excellent review of some of the best Thai grammar books which are available to students who have reached the fine tuning stage of their language skills. I’m not too sure if I’ll ever get to that point but it’s good to see there’s plenty of useful books out there if I do. Some are available online too, that’s even better.
    Martyn recently posted..Thai Village Life – A Star is ShornMy Profile

  2. Martyn, I was chuffed when Mark offered to write this grand review. I have the English grammar books listed above but no way could I write a post on the subject as knowledgeable as this. Thanks Mark!
    Catherine recently posted..A Guide to Thai Grammar BooksMy Profile

  3. Mark & Cat,
    Excellent write up of a very important facet of the Thai language. Everyone seems to concentrate too much on words alone when the Grammar really needs attention. I have The David Smyth book but I really need to get my head back into it all.
    Talen recently posted..Thailand Public & National Holidays 2012My Profile

  4. Catherine – It is indeed an excellent piece by Mark and adds to the many informative guest posts which you add to your site from time to time. They not only add value to your site but must also allow you a few needy hours to catch up on your long list of draft posts.

    Keep up the winning combination of you and your guests.
    Martyn recently posted..Cute Quotes and SayingsMy Profile

  5. Talen, “…but I really need to get my head back into it all” which reminds me… ‘we’ have a post to write :-)

    Martyn, “…but must also allow you a few needy hours to catch up on your long list of draft posts”. You know me so well! The list just keeps on growing.
    Catherine recently posted..A Guide to Thai Grammar BooksMy Profile

  6. Interesting post. Thanks – will now have to track down the Thai language books you mention.

  7. Dan, the easiest place is DCO Books.
    Catherine recently posted..Successful Thai Language Learner: Stephen ThomasMy Profile

  8. Hi Mark and Cat

    David Smyth’s An Essential Grammar was the very first Thai language book I read (and am still reading!). It makes for a very good companion to the Teach Yourself Thai book/CD. Amongst the list of the grammar books reviewed, I can therefore vouch for this.

    I’m hoping and wishing hard that Khun Benjawan would someday write a Thai grammar book to add to her extensive list of publications! :)

  9. Sany, you are so right – Benjawan has an amazing collection of learning Thai products (I love her new venture into the iPhone/iPad market) but there’s not a grammar book amongst the bunch. Curious. And now that I’m dying to know why too, I’ll ask.

  10. Oh, do that Cat. I’m hoping to meet her this March whilst in San Francisco, so will ask her too. Maybe if enough people ask for a grammar book she’ll relent :)

  11. Sany, here’s Benjawan’s reply: One day I will write a grammar book. Right now we are trying to perfect our talking dictionary.

    I know she’s been working around the clock on the dictionary. The android version was just released and now they are working to update the iPhone, iPad version (I believe it’ll be ready next week). It really is a fantastic dictionary.

    “Maybe if enough people ask for a grammar book she’ll relent”

    Hehh… I do believe you are right :-) And when you meet up with Benjawan in SF please tell her how much we’d all love a grammar book!
    Catherine recently posted..Thai Language School Review: Baan AksornMy Profile

  12. I picked up volumes 1-4 of บรรทัดฐานภาษาไทย at the ศึกษาภัณฑ์พาณิชย์ store in Lad Phrao today (February 2014). They had plenty of stock on the shelves (so maybe volume 1 is back in print), but said volumes 5 and 6 had still not been published. Also got some alphabet and vowel posters and some matiyom level 4 Thai language VDOs. Worth a trip.

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