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Counters And Plural Formation

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.

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5 Responses to “Counters And Plural Formation”

  1. Rachel says:

    I remember being very interested in the classification system used for counters when I was learning Japanese in college. It’s fun to speculate on why certain characteristics or objects are grouped together with the same counter.

    I am now learning Farsi, which also uses counters. I haven’t learned very many of them yet, but some of the classification is the same. (One difference: Human and animals get the same counter in Farsi, whereas they have different ones in Japanese.) Another interesting thing in Farsi is that you can make nouns plural, but you don’t make them plural if they have a counter. Example:

    peerahhan-ha = noun(shirt)-plural = shirts

    doh-ta peerahhan = number(two)-counter shirt = two shirts

    Disclaimer: Farsi is not a working language for me; I am still learning it. It’s possible that this is not a universal rule, but it is an interesting phenomenon!

  2. Jocelyne says:

    Counters are a real bugaboo in Japanese. I used to practice at my local liquor shop when I was first learning Japanese. I would count the beers I was buying and the shop owner would clap and congratulate me if I used the right counter. Made learning much more fun than just using a chart or something.

  3. Jocelyne says:

    (Also, I still sometimes feel that Japanese is just messing with me.)

  4. Andy Heath says:

    Counters have been my nemisis in my brief stint studying Chinese. I had no idea they did the same thing in Japanese, so that is interesting. If I ever take it up, I’m sure it will be a challenge. But I thought it was hilarious that the counter for small animals is different than the one for rabbits! lol Just goes to show how illogical all language can be sometimes. In the defense of Japanese, English is often worse.

  5. My English teacher once said that you lived so many lifes as foreign languages you knew. True! Mainly because of the niceties you described: you have to know foreign culture, traditions and what’s the most important: their perception of the world.

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