Chiang Mai Thai

Ever wanted to learn Thai, in Chiang Mai? I did just that from November 2010, returning home in October 2011. If you don't want a headache, start HERE, it will explain the preceding posts. I'm Snap, Stray's other half. COOEE is our (other) travel blog.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Rock, Paper, Scissors...Candle?

Growing up, we just know how to use words and in what order to use them. Four pairs of scissors, three cups of coffee or one sheet of paper. I knew the time would come that I'd have to learn the infamous Thai classifiers...but so far I have been managing quite fine without them, thank you very much. Even if I do sound like a big dumb farang.

When I order two fried rice with chicken, I have faith that they’re going to be delivered in a bowl or on a plate, so I can get away with just saying 'fried rice chicken two please'.

I know I MUST learn them, they’re part and parcel of the language. So to help me learn I often look for a way to remember things, whether it be visual or by association.

In class we were running through a few of them, nineteen out of an unmerciful 259 or more, to be precise. We get to 'khan', the classifier for: spoons, forks, cars, carts, prams etc. Sure, I can see the similarities between cutlery and forms of transportation...NOT!

My eyes are glazed over at this point, so I didn’t have any questions forthcoming, but someone else asks, "what about knives?" Kruu K was obviously armed and ready for this question and referred to 'lêm', saying “we'll get to that in a minute”.

Lêm (เล่ม) the classifier for: knives, books, needles etc. BUT WHY?????

“Because they were all once made from rock” she explains “and people used to write on rock in the old days” hence, books. Oh, cool, thanks, that makes it easier to remember.

I think of other items than may have been made of stone, back in the day. Axe, spear, sickle, pickaxe...which all have lêm as their classifier.

So, I'm sitting here doing my homework and click on the classifier 'lêm' in my computer dictionary. Hmmmmm, what's a 'candle' doing in amongst that lot? I ponder for a while and try to find a way getting a ‘candle’ out of a ‘rock’. Nope...sorry, can’t see the connection.

I decide to Google it and find that 'umbrella' also has the same classifier. I remember being told that most Thais don’t even know the reason why nouns are classified the way they are. Comforting? Not really, they just know what goes with what, like I do in English.

'Things with handles'...OK...this is getting weird! I'm starting to think that I should have been learning classifiers along with the, realising I had to learn to read and write, to be able speak.


Is there a method to the madness? Are there reasons why nouns are classified the way they are?


  1. You know, I've never seriously asked that question. Let me see if I can get an answer for you (today hopefully).

  2. Thanks Catherine, I'm really hoping (dreaming) that there are stories as to why classifiers, classify. It would make life just that little bit easier. I doubt whether we'll be spending too much time on them in class, at this stage of the game.

  3. According to my Thai book 'lem' is the classifier used for books and but also for flat or pointed objects so I guess a candle could be included in that.
    Oh, and ox-carts because 'kun', the classifier for vehicles does not include ox-carts, well not the pointy ones anyway!
    Ah, wait, also things with handles like wheelbarrows and ox-carts. so pointy things and things with handles. There, I hope that helps.

  4. @DanPloy Thanks Dan...not! ;) I can think of a few pointy things with handles I'd like to drive into those classifiers right now.

  5. Snap, I'm down with yet another cold/flu so I forgot to ask (brain has shut down). Have you contacted Rikker? He's the font of all good Thai language knowledge.

  6. For God's sakes woman! Another cold? I hope you get better fast. No, I hadn't thought of Rikker, but will go search his blog and or contact him...I'm not looking forward to the answer, which I think will be an adamant NO...there is no rhyme or reason to Thai Classifiers :(

  7. Yeah. Another cold. I'm past fed up with it all. I'm finally sleeping but now I'm SICK? Life has a blinking awful sense of humour.

  8. Catherine, I contacted Rikker, but haven't heard a reply...I'm sure he has more pressing matters to attend to, but I'm still hoping he does.

    You know you probably wouldn't get sick so often if you stayed home once in a while instead of going clubbing every night...just kidding! Get better soon.

  9. Clubbing? Hah! I wish. If you remember, I'm supposed to be in Burma. But do you think they'd let me on the plane with fire red cheeks? Not on your life.

  10. @Catherine Burma, I've never been but would like to.

    I haven't given up on the classifiers, I've been surfing the net for the answer...if there is one. On the positive side, I've found lots of other interesting stuff! :)

  11. I heard it explained that lem was a classifier for things with an edge. . .knives, books, umbrellas (?) and I suppose a candle can have quite the edge :P

  12. @Lani Only you could find an analogy between edgy things and candles ;)

    I suspect if there is an answer to my question, it may be hidden in a Thai Grammar School book for children... somewhere ...and I just can't read it yet!

  13. A quote from one of my (many) Thai language books:

    '...language is is one of the things that is better learned by practice than by explanation.'

  14. @DanPloy I don't like your book ;) however I'm beginning to agree with it. I've stopped beating myself up with the classifier issue and concede I'll just have to learn them as I go.

    Secretly, I'm still hoping though!


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