ตัว, คน, or ดอก?

I’ve admittedly been putting this subject off for a long time now. It’s not necessarily an overly-complex subject, but it’s one that gets somewhat overlooked by many beginning Thai language students.

I feel that knowledge of classifiers – what they are and how they work – seem to fall somewhere in the “intermediate” language learning area for Thai. They aren’t something beginners necessarily need to worry about, but they should definitely have been figured out (the concept, at least) well before one considers themselves fluent. (I’m not one of those people, btw…)

So without further adieu, I give you Thai Classifiers…

What Are Classifiers?

The best explanation I can come up with is that classifiers are words used with nouns to help with classifications (hence the name). Yes, that sounds a bit roundabout, so see if this helps. I believe that this concept of classifiers came about because many Asian languages don’t have plural noun forms. Whereas in English we have the singular “dog” and plural “dogs,” Thai, Japanese, and some others only have “dog” for both singular and plural forms.

In most cases this makes language learning much easier, as you don’t have to try and learn plural noun forms. But, ambiguity can become a big problem. Here’s an example of where things can get wonky:

หมาใหญ่
/mǎa yài/
(dog big)

Now, normally you would say, “Okay, no big deal, this means ‘big dogs’.”

But that’s not entirely accurate. What if the person was actually trying to say “a big dog,” meaning one specific dog that is big? That’s a different animal (pun intended) than talking about a group of dogs that are big. And so this is where classifiers become very useful.

By including the classifier for “dog,” which is “ตัว” /dtua/ (a generic classifier for animals), we can now infer that the speaker is talking about a specific big dog. The sentence will look like this:

หมาตัวใหญ่
/mǎa dtua yài/
(dog [CLS for animal] big)
A big dog

The addition of the classifier takes a lot of ambiguity out of the sentence.

Classifier Placement

The general rule is to place classifiers after the noun they are referring to. This seems counter-intuitive for most, but you get used to it with Thai. However, when you are talking about numbers (how many of a certain object) then the grammatical structure becomes:

noun + number + classifier

So, for example:

แมวสองตัว
/
mɛɛo sɔ̌ɔng dtua/
(cat two [CLS for animal])
Two cats

As always, the folks at TLC have a great list of classifiers – both noun classifiers and a more in-depth discussion of numeric classifiers. I will leave the advanced materials to them and stick with the basics here. If you can wrap your head around the basic concept and have a good number of classifiers memorized then you should be just fine.

I should also mention that there is the generic classifier อัน /an/, so if you get really stuck you can just use it in place of the actual classifier and people won’t hold it against you.