Japanese counter word

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In Japanese, counter words or counters (josūshi 助数詞) are used along with numbers to count things, actions, and events.

In Japanese, as in Chinese and Korean, numerals cannot quantify nouns by themselves (except, in certain cases, for the numbers from one to ten; see below). For example, to express the idea "two dogs" in Japanese one must say inu nihiki (犬二匹, literally "dog two-small-animal"). Here inu means "dog", ni is the number 2, and hiki is the counter for small animals. The counters are not independent words and always appear with a number before them.

Counter words are similar in function to the word "sheet" in "two sheets of paper" or "cup" in "two cups of coffee", but in Japanese, nearly all nouns require a counter. In this sense, all Japanese nouns are mass nouns. This grammatical feature can result in situations where one is unable to express the number of a particular object in a grammatically correct way because one does not know, or cannot remember, the appropriate counting word. The problem is partially solved for the numbers from one to ten by using the traditional numbers (see below) which can be used to quantify some nouns by themselves. For example, "four apples" is ringo yonko (りんご四個) where ko () is the counter), but can also be expressed using the traditional numeral four as ringo yottsu (りんご四つ). These traditional numerals cannot be used to count all nouns however; some, including people and animals, require the proper counter.

Counters can also be intentionally misused for humorous, sarcastic, or insulting effects. For example, one might say 男一匹なのに (Otoko ippiki nano ni; "I am only one man..."). Using the counter hiki (匹), the counter for small animals, humorously suggests that the person is overpowered by massive obstacles.

Some of the more common counters may be used instead of less common ones. For example, 匹 hiki (see below) is often used for all animals, regardless of size. However, many speakers will correct themselves and use the traditionally "correct" counter, 頭 , when speaking of, for example, horses.

Just as in English, different counters for the same thing can be used to convey different meanings. In English, one can say one loaf of bread or one slice of bread, and the referent is different. In Japanese, the same effect is made by saying パン一斤 pan ikkin, literally "bread one-loaf" versus パン一枚 pan ichimai, literally "bread one-flat piece".


[edit] Table of the traditional numerals

Numeral Japanese Pronunciation (romaji) Pronunciation (hiragana)
1 一つ hitotsu ひとつ
2 二つ futatsu ふたつ
3 三つ mittsu みっつ
4 四つ yottsu よっつ
5 五つ itsutsu いつつ
6 六つ muttsu むっつ
7 七つ nanatsu ななつ
8 八つ yattsu やっつ
9 九つ kokonotsu ここのつ
10 とお
20 二十 hatachi (used for age) はたち

[edit] List of counters

This list also includes some counters and usages that are rarely used or not widely known.

Pronunciation Japanese Use
ba Scene of a play
bai Multiples, -fold as in "twofold"
ban Nights (see also: ya)
ban Sports matches
bi Small fish and shrimps (used in the fish trade; most people say hiki instead)
bu Copies of a magazine or newspaper, or other packets of papers
bun Sentences
byō Seconds
byōshi 拍子 Musical beats
chaku Suits of clothing (see also: mai)
chō Guns, sticks of ink, palanquins, rickshaws, violins
chō Tools, scissors, saws, trousers, pistols, cakes of tofu, town blocks,
chō Town blocks
dai Generations, periods, reigns
dai Cars, bicycles, machines, mechanical devices, household appliances
danraku 段落 Paragraphs
do, also tabi Occurrences, number of times, degrees of temperature or angle (see also: kai).
fuku, puku Bowls of matcha (powdered green tea); packets or doses of powdered medicine; puffs (of, e.g., a cigarette); rests or breaks
fuku, puku Hanging scrolls (kakejiku)
fun, pun Minutes
furi Swords
gakkyū 学級 Classes (in pre-university education)
gatsu, also tsuki Months of the year. Month-long periods when read tsuki (see also: kagetsu)
go Words
gon, also koto Words
gu Suits of armour, sets of furniture
gyō Lines of text
haku Nights of a stay
hai Cups and glasses of drink, spoonfuls, cuttlefish, octopuses, crabs, squid, abalone, boats (slang)
hai Losses (sports bouts)
hari Umbrellas, parasols, tents
hashira Gods, memorial tablets
hatsu, patsu Gunshots, bullets, aerial fireworks; orgasms, sex acts
hiki, piki Small animals, insects, fish, reptiles, amphibians, oni (ogres)
hin, pin Parts of a meal, courses (see also: shina)
ho, po Number of (foot)steps
hon, pon, bon Long, thin objects: rivers, roads, train tracks, ties, pencils, bottles, guitars; also, metaphorically, telephone calls, train or bus routes, movies (see also: tsūwa), points or bounds in sports events. Although 本 also means "book", the counter for books is satsu.
hyō Votes
ji Letters, kanji, kana
ji Children. As in 'father of two (children)', etc.
ji Hours of the day
jikan 時間 Hour-long periods
Tatami mats. The kanji 畳 is also read tatami and is the same one used for the mats. The room size of a washitsu in Japan is given as a number of mats, for example 4½
ka Day of the month
ka Frames
ka Lessons
kabu Stocks; nursery trees
kagetsu ヶ月, 箇月 Month-long periods (see also: gatsu). 箇 is normally abbreviated using a small katakana ヶ in modern Japanese. Alternatively 個, hiragana か, small katakana ヵ and full-size katakana カ & ケ can also be seen, although only か is similarly frequent.
kai Occurrences, number of times (see also: do)
kai Number of floors, stories
kakoku ヶ国, 箇国 Countries
kakokugo ヶ国語, 箇国語 (National) languages
kaku Strokes in kanji
kan Pieces of nigiri-zushi
kan Warships
ken Abstract matters and cases
ken Houses
ki Aircraft, machines
ki Graves, wreaths, CPUs, reactors, elevators, dams
kire 切れ Slices (of bread, cake, sashimi etc.)
ko , , , or General measure word, used when there is no specific counter. 個 is also used for military units.
ko Houses (戸 means "door")
稿 Drafts of a manuscript
koma , コマ Frames, panels. 齣 is virtually unused nowadays.
ku Sections, city districts
ku Haiku, senryū
kuchi (Bank) accounts, donations (口 means "opening" or "entrance")
kumi Groups, a pair of people (twins, a husband and a wife, dancers, etc.)
kurasu クラス School classes
kyaku Desks, chairs, long-stemmed glasses
kyaku Pairs of cup and saucer
kyoku Pieces of music
kyoku Board game matches (chess, Igo, Shogi, Mahjong); radio stations, television stations
mai Thin, flat objects, sheets of paper, photographs, plates, articles of clothing (see also: chaku)
maki or kan Rolls, scrolls, kan for volumes of book
maku Theatrical acts
mei People (polite) (名 means "name")
men Mirrors, boards for board games (chess, Igo, Shogi), stages of computer games, walls of a room, tennis courts,
mon Cannons
mon Questions
nen Years, school years (grades); not years of age
nichi Days of the month (but see table of exceptions below)
nin People (but see table of exceptions below)
ninmae 人前 Food portions (without exceptions, unlike nin above)
pēji ページ, Pages
rei Bows during worship at a shrine
rin Wheels, Flowers
ryō Railway cars
sai or Years of age
sao Chests of drawers, flags
satsu Books
seki Seats, Rakugo shows, (drinking) parties
seki Ships
shina Parts of a meal, courses (see also: hin)
sha used for businesses, i.e. 会社
shiki Sets of things, such as documents or furniture
shō Wins (sports bouts)
shu Tanka
shū Weeks
shurui or shu 種類 or Kinds, species
soku Pairs of footwear, pairs of socks, stockings, tabi
taba bundles (of banknotes), bunches (of flowers, vegetables), sheaves
tai Images, statues, person's remains, dolls
tawara Bags of rice
teki Drops of liquid
ten Points, dots
Large animals, cattle, elephants (頭 means "head")
tōri 通り Combinations, puzzle solutions
tsū Letters
tsūwa 通話 Telephone calls (see also: hon)
toki Time periods, a sixth of either day or night (in the traditional, obsolete way of telling time). See also: jikan
tsubo Commonly used unit of area equal to 3.3 square metres.
wa Birds, rabbits* (see note); 羽 means "feather" or "wing."
wa Bundles
ya Nights (see also: ban')
zen Pairs of chopsticks; bowls of rice

*Japanese Buddhist monks were not allowed to eat any meat other than birds, but liked rabbit meat so much they came up with the contrived "explanation" that rabbits are actually birds, and that their ears are unusable wings. The rationale was that while moving, ther rabbits touched ground only with two feet at a time. Nowadays, hiki is the usual counter for rabbits.

[edit] Euphonic changes

Systematic changes occur when particular numbers precede counters that begin with certain phonemes. For example, ichi 一 + k- = ikk-, roku 六 + h- = ropp-. The details are listed in the table below.

These changes are followed fairly consistently but exceptions and variations between speakers do exist. Where variations are common, more than one alternative is listed.

is replaced by either ju- or ji- (じゅっ/じっ) followed by a doubled consonant before the voiceless consonants as shown in the table. Ji- is the older form, but it has been replaced by ju- in the speech of recent generations.

Numeral k- (か きゃ etc.) s/sh- (さ しゃ etc.) t/ch- (た ちゃ etc.) h- (は ひ へ ほ ひゃ ひゅ ひょ) f- (ふ) p- (ぱ etc.) w- (わ)
1 ichi ikk- いっか iss- いっさ itt- いった ipp- いっぱ ipp- いっぷ ipp- いっぱ
3 san sanb- さんば sanp- さんぷ sanb- さんば
4 yon yonh- よんは

yonp- よんば

yonf- よんふ

yonp- よんぷ

yow- よわ

yonw- よんわ yonb- よんば

6 roku rokk- ろっか ropp- ろっぱ ropp- ろっぷ ropp- ろっぱ rokuw- ろくわ

ropp- ろっぱ

8 hachi hakk- はっか hass- はっさ hatt- はった happ- はっぱ happ- はっぷ happ- はっぱ happ- はっぱ

hachiw- はちわ

10 jikk- じっか

jukk- じゅっか

jiss- じっさ

juss- じゅっさ

jitt- じった

jutt- じゅった

jipp- じっぱ

jupp- じゅっぱ

jipp- じっぷ

jupp- じゅっぷ

jipp- じっぱ

jupp- じゅっぱ

jipp- じっぱ
100 hyaku hyakk- ひゃっか hyapp- ひゃっぱ hyapp- ひゃっぷ hyapp- ひゃっぱ
1000 sen senb- せんば senp- せんぷ
10000 man manb- まんば manp- まんぷ
nan nanb- なんば nanp- なんぷ

[edit] Exceptions

The traditional numbers are used by and for young children to give their ages, instead of using the age counter sai 歳. The kanji is sometimes written using the simpler kanji 才.

Some counters, notably nichi 日 and nin 人, use the traditional numerals for some numbers as shown in the table below. Other uses of traditional numbers are usually restricted to certain phrases, such as hitotsuki 一月 and futatsuki 二月 (one and two months respectively), hitokoto 一言 (a single word) and hitotabi 一度 (once).

Sometimes common numbers that have a derived meaning are written using different kanji. For example, hitori (alone) is written 独り, and futatabi (once more, another time) is normally written 再び instead of 二度. The counter for months kagetsu (derived from kanji 箇月) is commonly written ヶ月.

Nana and shichi are alternatives for 7, yon and shi are alternatives for 4, and kyū and ku are alternatives for 9. Having said that, nana, yon and kyū are more commonly used. Some counters, however, notably nin 人 (people), gatsu 月 (month of the year), ka/nichi 日 (day of the month, days), ji 時 (time of day) and jikan 時間 (hours) take certain alternatives only. These are shown in the table below.

While kai 回 (occurrences) and sen 銭 (0.01 yen, now rarely used) follow the euphonic changes listed above, homophones kai 階 (storeys/floors) and sen 千 (1000) are slightly different as shown below, although these differences are not followed by all speakers. Thus 三階 ("third floor") can be read either sankai or sangai, while 三回 ("three times") can only be read sankai.

Numeral nichi 日 nin 人 gatsu 月 ji 時 jikan 時間 kai 階 hyaku 百 sen 千
1 tsuitachi* hitori
2 futsuka futari
3 mikka sangai sanbbyaku sanzen
4 yokka yonin*** shigatsu yoji yojikan
5 itsuka
6 muika roppyaku
7 nanoka shichinin shichigatsu shichiji shichijikan
8 yōka happyaku hassen
9 kokonoka kugatsu kuji kujikan
10 tōka
14 jūyokka jūyonin jūyojikan
20 hatsuka
24 nijūyokka nijūyonin nijūyojikan
nan ** nangai nanzen

* But when counting number of days rather than days of the month, ichinichi is used. Ippi is also heard.

** Both ikunin 幾人 and nannin 何人 are used to mean "how many people".

*** In remote rural areas (ie. Northern Honshū and Eastern Hokkaido) older speakers might use yottari.[1]

[edit] Ordinal numbers

In general, the counter words mentioned above are cardinal numbers, in that they indicate quantity. To transform a counter word into an ordinal number that denotes position in a sequence, me (目) is added to the end of the counter. Thus "one time" would be translated as ikkai (一回), where as "the first time" would be translated as ikkaime (一回目).

This rule is inconsistent, however, as counters without the me suffix are often used interchangeably with cardinal and ordinal meanings. For example, sankai (三階) can mean both "three floors" and "third floor."

[edit] Periods of time

To express a period of time one may add kan 間 to the following words: byō 秒, fun 分, ji 時, nichi 日(and its irregular readings aside from tsuitachi), shū 週, kagetsu ヶ月 and nen 年. Usage varies depending on the word, though. For example, omitting kan in the case of jikan 時間 would be a grave mistake, whereas shūkan and shū are both in frequent use. What's more, kagetsukan is rarely heard due to essentially being superfluous, the ka already functioning to express the length.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ "Language Contact and Lexical Innovation" (PDF). http://www.wsc.uni-erlangen.de/pdf/tsou.pdf. Retrieved on 2007-02-14.  Table 1. Native Counting in Japanese
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