I noticed @sandrajapandra having an interesting exchange on Twitter. Of course, I can only see one side, which makes it even more intriguing. The subject: counter words or counters in Japanese.
► I learned this week that squid are counted as 杯 (?!) while alive and 枚 once they’re dried and pressed as snacks.
► Crabs are also 杯, I’m told. Do you ever feel like Japanese is just messing with you?
► Okay for crabs, but what about the squid?
► Someone (Japanese) suggested it was because they’re stored in buckets once caught.
► Hm, so what is the counter for scallops?
► I still wanna know why all small animals are counted as 匹. Except rabbits, which are 羽, like birds.
► Rabbits counted 羽 like birds so that Buddhists could eat them?
► Or was it fish counted as vegetables?
► Pretty sure it was so that monks who swore to eat no meat could eat rabbits, since they count as fowl.
Just a couple of weeks ago I finally got around to reading Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. Among the many examples he gives are languages that don’t allow numerals to quantify nouns. Japanese is such a language. (Disclaimer: Japanese is not a working language for me; I lived in the country for nearly two decades, that’s my only qualification.)
There are, of course, exceptions. In most cases, however, nouns themselves are uncountable and you need a number combined with a counter word to enumerate whatever the noun represents.
Now, it wouldn’t be Japanese if this were the end of the story. Depending on the meaning of the noun, the required counters vary. The counter for weeks is different from the counter for long thin objects, for example. If you are interested, you can visit an on-line list of Japanese numeral counters.
This post contains Japanese characters.