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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Perceptual and cultural salience in noun classification : the puzzling case of standard Thai lêm Placzek, James Anthony


In Standard Thai (ST), the national language of Thailand, the noun classifier lêm applies to books, oxcarts and candles, as well as a variety of sharp cutting implements. This classification seems to make no sense whatsoever to Western logic and in fact is inexplicable to Thais themselves. In this dissertation I work out a probable solution to this puzzle, and in so doing produce insights into the ST classifier system, and into the principles of noun classification in general. The orientation of this dissertation is empirical, using historical, linguistic and ethnographic data in a perceptual prototype model (cf. Hunn 1976), which is in turn part of a semantic theory of cultural stereotypes or Idealized Cognitive Models (cf. Lakoff 1982). The viewpoint of the naive realist observer (cf. Lyons 1977) is also an important theoretical factor. First, word association data on the above group of artifacts was collected from university students in Thailand and submitted to a computer-programmed cluster analysis in which, the item "book" emerged as the contemporary prototype. Next I investigated the shapes, construction procedures and symbolic or ritual associations of these objects. Perceptual similarities rather than symbolic relations or generic notions dominated the structure of the grouping. The next enquiry was into actual usage among speakers of a sample Thai dialect which, divides up the ST domain among two different classifiers, one a cognate of ST lêm. It was found that the other classifier applied more clearly to the iron tools, and the cognate of ST lêm more to the bound complex objects. In a broader comparison to other languages of the Tai family, it was found that most languages appeared to apply cognates of ST lêm according to a criterion of length or sharpness, and a focus on books and binding was peculiar to ST and neighbouring languages strongly influenced by ST. As a result of these investigations, and in accord with the theoretical principles outlined in previous chapters, the best scenario for the development of this classifier was presented. From an original grouping around a simple bamboo knife prototype, the group underwent a later restructuring around a bark paper manuscript prototype, with the shift due to cultural and historical factors. In a summary the main contributions of this dissertation were reviewed: (i) the importance of the Basic Level of reference and its attendant canonical view to the relationship between the perceptual prototype and the cultural stereotype (or ICM), (ii) the use of word association data and prototype theory in the study of noun classification, and (iii) the unexpected fidelity of this important Asian classifier system to shape criteria despite the influence of strong symbolic and generic factors.

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