Little by Little

Little by Little – Stuart Jay Raj

One of the first things many learners of Thai learn to say when responding to the question พูดไทยได้มั้ย pʰû:t tʰai dâi mái? (Do you speak Thai), is นิดหน่อย nít nɔ̀:i ‘a little bit’.

Yesterday, I heard a Farang confusing น้อย nɔ́:i with a High Tone and หน่อย nɔ̀:i with a low tone and it reminded me of this clip that I put together a while back.

I hope it’s helpful in explaining the two very different meanings of น้อย nɔ́:i with a high tone and หน่อย nɔ̀:i with a low tone.

It’s an easy mistake to make – and as mentioned with the whole เผ็ดน้อย pʰèt nɔ́:i (spicy<- Little) and เผ็นหน่อย pʰèt nɔ̀:i (A little spicy = spicy to very spicy), it could get you into trouble! … for your tongue at least

Rikker Dockum added this clarification:

One way of looking at it is that น้อย describes decrease from 100%, while หน่อย describes increase from 0%.

– หิวน้อย “not very hungry” = less than completely hungry (less than 100% hungry)
– หิวหน่อย “a bit hungry” = more than not hungry at all (greater than 0% hungry)

Or another (mildly comical :P) example I just made up:

– ทำงานแบบนี้ต้องฉลาดหน่อย “to do this job you have to be a bit smart” (be more than 0% smart)
– ทำงานแบบนี้ต้องฉลาดน้อย “to do this job you have to be a bit stupid” (be less than 100% smart)

Of course it quickly gets tricky because their syntax differs. I’d break it down at its most basic as this:

น้อย is often more modifier like = little/few
หน่อย is often more classifier like = a little/a few

Thoughts on น้อย:

1. น้อย modifies both count and mass nouns:
– Count nouns: คนน้อย “few people”
– Mass nouns: เงินน้อย “little money”

2. Perhaps cases where น้อย appears to modify a verb actually have an omitted noun in their underyling structure:
– กินน้อย: “eat very little” = underlyingly กิน(ข้าว)น้อย “eat very little (rice)”
– มีน้อย: “there are very few” = underylingly มี(noun)น้อย “there are very few (noun)”

Thoughts on หน่อย:

1. หน่อย is more classifier-like because it can be modified with นึง/หนึ่ง, which I suspect might be grammaticalizing into an indefinite article. (I’m talking about the tone-bleached form of หนึ่ง that comes after a classifier instead of before it):
– You can say หน่อยนึง “a little”, just like you would say เล่มนึง or คนนึง or เรื่องนึง — classifier-like behavior
– But you can’t say หนึ่งหน่อย สองหน่อย, like you could หนึ่งเล่ม สองเล่ม, so it doesn’t behave like a normal classifier, either

2. If it’s classifier like, it must be quantifying something. And หน่อย seems to quantify the amount of action, for better way to put it, measuring from zero/inactivity. So หน่อย in the meaning “please” that you discuss in the video probably from a noun/classifier like meaning. Compare these two sentences:
– ช่วยฉันหน่อย
– ช่วยฉันหน่อยนึง

Both work, of course. So idiomatically comparing it with “just” is fine, but I’d say strictly speaking it’s more akin to “Help me (out) a little bit” or similar.

This is a really interesting question, and I must say the confusion for learners is understandable. It’s especially interesting because they both likely developed from the same word historically. Great food for thought!

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