Japanese Numerical Classifiers are Great!

While surfing on youtube for videos to watch with my daughter, I came across this gem:

What’s it about? Why, counters, of course. (scroll down for a translation)

Numerical classifiers (or “counters”) in Japanese (josuushi or 助数詞) are just what they sound like, words that you can use to count otherwise uncountable nouns such as a PIECE of paper, or a BIT of wood. However, Japanese (and Chinese and Korean too) has no countable nouns, so ALL nouns must be attached to a counter before a number can be given to them.

You don’t have “a computer” you just have “computer” until you get together with your friends and collect “7 MACHINES of computer” (7 DAI no konpyuuta) 7のコンピュータ).

And there are a whole bunch of these counters, including special ones for people, birds, small animals, large animals, flat objects, round, edible objects, long, rod-like objects, pairs of shoes, books, things that you don’t know what they are, loaves of bread, and swords.

I admit the above explanation was a bit exocitized. In English we say things like “3 head of cattle,” a perfect translation of “3 tou no ushi.” So it isn’t a stretch to think about “3 wing of bird.” You could argue that the “loaf” in “three loaves of bread” is an English counter.

But it is fun to expand the system to include ALL nouns and make it productive so you can create new counters based on verbs (kire, “a slice of something” from kiru “to cut”) or even foreign words (peeji, “a page of a book”). And from the counter someone uses, you can tell about what they think about the thing they are describing. Is it “3 people of child” (3 NIN no kodomo) or “3 critters of child” (3 BIKI no kodomo)? My daughter is two, and I tell ya, some days…

And now for the translation of that song. Ahem:

One! One rod of carrot. Ichi! I-ppon de mo ninjin.

Two! Two pairs of sandals. Ni! Ni-sou de mo sandaru.

Three! Three boats of yacht. San! San-soku de mo youto.

Four! Four grains of sesame-salt. Yon! Yotsu-bu de mo gomashio. 

Five! Five machines of rocket. Go! Go-kai de mo rokketo.

Six! Six wings of turkey. Roku! Roku-wa de mo shichimencho.

Seven! Seven critters of bee. Shichi! Shiki-hiki de mo hachi.

Eight! Eight head of whale. Hachi! Ha-ttou de mo kujira.

Nine! Nine cups of juice. Kyu! Kyu-hai de mo jyuusu.

Ten! Ten small round things of strawberry. Jyu! Jyu-kko de mo ichigo.

A few notes: Notice how the numbers and the counters sometimes change in pronunciation? Ichi is “one” and hon is “rod,” but “one rod” is i-ppon. Also “4” is sometimes pronounced shi and sometimes yon. Just to keep you on your toes.

And notice how the “bees” in “seven bees” are hachi, the same word for “eight” in “eight whales”? And how “strawberry” (ichigo) sounds a lot like “one” (ichi)? My God. This goes so much deeper.


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