A classifier, in linguistics, sometimes called a measure word, is a word or morpheme used in some languages to classify the referent of a countable noun according to its meaning. In languages that have classifiers, they are often used when the noun is being counted or specified (i.e., when it appears with a numeral or a demonstrative). Classifiers are not used in English (for instance, "people" is a countable noun, and to say "three people" no extra word needs to be added), but are common in East Asian languages (where the equivalent of "three people" is often "three classifier people") and in sign languages.
Definition and examples
In a language with noun classifiers, a noun may or may not be accompanied by a noun classifier, which shows a conceptual classification of the referent of a noun (not the noun itself) and is commonly used when counting. Noun classifiers are not grammatical but lexical items, and a language may have hundreds of noun classifiers. For instance, in Mandarin Chinese, the general noun classifier for humans is ge (個), and it is used for counting humans, whatever they are called:
- 3-ge xuesheng (三個學生) lit. "3 human-classifier of student" — 3 students
And for trees, it would be:3-ke shu (三棵樹) lit. "3 tree-classifier of tree" — 3 trees; for birds: 3-zhi niao (三隻鳥) lit. "3 bird-classifier of bird" — 3 birds; for rivers: 3-tiao he (三條河) lit. "3 long-wavy-shape of river" — 3 rivers;
Since noun classifiers are words, not grammatical functions, they are sometimes borrowed from other languages. They are very much like measure words in this respect; when counting cups of coffee, it does not matter what the type of cup is, or the brand of the coffee. The referent can also be omitted in both systems when answering a question about quantity:
- Q: duoshao-tong (classifier) shui? (多少桶水?) — How many bucket (measure word) of water?
- A: liang-tong. (兩桶.) — Two buckets.
Languages with noun classifiers include Chinese (see Chinese classifier), Persian, Japanese, Korean, Southeast Asian languages, Austronesian languages, and Mayan languages. Classifiers are a very typical feature of sign languages.
A less typical example of classifiers is explained at Southern Athabaskan grammar: Classificatory verbs.
English does not use classifiers productively, although classifiers sometimes separate a few idiosyncratic nouns from number adjectives modifying them:
- Idiosyncratic nouns requiring singular classifiers in that use of a plural form would indicate a different meaning:
- "five head of cattle" (said by ranchers), a linguistic holdover from when the Anglo-Norman and Law French ancestor term chattel was a mass noun and, moreover, referred to movable non-monetary property generally rather than to livestock specifically: "Five heads of cattle" would refer to the severed heads of five bovines.
- "ten stem of roses" (said by florists), used to disambiguate from "ten roses" (possibly with stems removed) and "ten stemmed roses" (possibly denoting a single unit such as an arrangement or bouquet, especially in the floral business): "Ten stems of roses" would refer to ten rose stems, in implicit contrast against ten rose blooms or ten roses complete with stems.
- Idiosyncratic nouns requiring plural classifiers to disambiguate the intended meaning of a noun from another meaning frequently associated with it:
- "five sheets of paper" (to distinguish from, e.g., five academic papers; note the absence of an equivalent classifier in languages with different words for the two terms (e.g., German, which uses Papier for a sheet of the material and Referat for an academic writing)
- Idiosyncratic nouns permitting either singular or plural classifiers:
- "three pair/pairs of pants" (a linguistic holdover from when singular pant or pantaloon referred to what is known in modern parlance as a pant leg or pants leg): Use of the plural term is in most contexts unambiguous because pants (in the modern sense of the term) are almost always sold individually rather than as part of a set including others of matching style, size, and/or color.
- "three pair/pairs of shoes" (to specify matches in style and size and complementarity in chirality: Contrast "six shoes" (each possibly of any style, any size, and/or either chirality), "three left and three right shoes" (each possibly of any style and/or any size), etc. Use of the singular term does not create ambiguity because the term "pair" itself denotes a two-member set that, if its elements are of a type useful only when one of each of two complementary forms is present, has one member having one form and one member having the other.
French does not use classifiers productively, although a few idiosyncratic nouns do sometimes appear with classifiers:
- Une tête de bétail (same meaning as a head of cattle in English)
- Une paire de lunettes/jumelles/gants/chaussures/baguettes (a pair of glasses/binoculars/gloves/shoes/chopsticks...)
- Une botte de radis (a stem (literally: boot) of radishes)
- Un pied de roses (a stem (literally: foot; used for trees/berries) of roses)
Korean uses special counting words to count objects and events.
In English, one must say, "two sheets of paper" rather than "two papers". In Korean, the term jang (장) is used to count sheets, blankets, or paper-like material in general. So for instance "three shirts" would be wai-shirts se-beol (와이셔츠 세벌) "office-shirts three-items."
There are two systems of numerals in Korean: native Korean and Sino-Korean. Native Korean numerals are used with most counter words. yeol gwa (열 과) would mean "ten lessons" while sip gwa (십 과) would mean "lesson ten". Sino-Korean numerals are used with many time counters.
In Malay grammar, classifiers are used to count all concrete nouns, including phrasal nouns. Nouns are not reduplicated for plural form when used with classifiers, definite or indefinite. In informal language, classifiers can be used with numbers alone without the nouns if the context is well-known.
|Malay||Literal translation||English translation|
|Seekor kerbau||One-[classifier for animals] water-buffalo.||A water-buffalo.|
|Dua orang pelajar itu||Two [classifier for people] students [definite marker].||The two students.|
|Berapa buah kereta yang dijual?
|How many [general classifier for items] cars [relative word] sold?
Three [general classifier for items].
|How many cars are sold?
Three cars. / Three of them.
|Secawan kopi.||One-cup coffee||A cup of coffee.|
|Saya terdengar empat das tembakan pistol.||I heard four [classifier for gunshots] gunshots.||I heard four gunshots.|
Classifiers are required to refer to tangible objects, thus they are not used in abstract nouns, i.e. "satu wawasan" (one vision).
In Burmese, classifiers, in the form of particles, are used when counting or measuring nouns. They immediately follow the numerical quantification. Nouns to which the classifiers refer to can be omitted if the context allows, because many classifiers have implicit meanings.
|Burmese||Literal translation||English translation|
θù tù n̥ə t͡ʃʰáʊ̃ ʃḭ dè
Thu tu hna chaung shi de
|He-chopstick-two-[classifier for long and thin items]-[have-particle indicating present tense].||He has two chopsticks.|
zəbwé kʰù̃ n̥ə kʰṵ ʃḭ là
Zabwe khun-hna khu shi la
|Table-seven-[general classifier for items]-have-[particle indicating question]||Do you have seven tables?|
lù tə ú
lu ta u
|one-[classifier for people]-person||one person or a person|
|Chinese||Literal translation||Grammatically correct/idiomatic translation|
Tā yǒu sān shuāng kuaìzi.
|He have three pair chopstick.||He has three pairs of chopsticks.|
yī ge rén
|one [general classifier] person||one person or a person|
sān jiàn chènshān
|three [clothing classifier] shirt||three shirts|
Classifiers are not used often in Classical Chinese, and it is not obligatory to use them. In all modern Chinese languages, however, measure words are obligatory in all Numeral + Countable Noun phrases; yī rén in modern Chinese is grammatically incorrect. The choice of a classifier for each noun is a matter of grammar, is somewhat arbitrary—though frequently corresponds with a relatively well-defined classification of objects based on physical characteristics—and must be memorized by learners of Chinese. The classifier assigned to a noun often images it, e.g. zhāng, whose one meaning is table, is used for large and thin objects. (Though uncommon, it is even possible to omit the noun if the choice of classifier makes the intended noun obvious–like the Bengali example below.) Not all classifiers derive from nouns. For example, the word bǎ can also be a verb meaning to grab, and is the measure word for objects that have handles.
In Japanese grammar, classifiers must be used with a number when counting nouns. The appropriate classifier is chosen based on the kind and shape of the noun, and combines with the numeral, sometimes adopting several different forms.
|pencil five cylindrical-things||five pencils|
|dog three animal-things||three dogs|
|child four people-things||four children|
|chicken three bird-things||three chickens|
|yacht three boat-things||three yachts|
|car one mechanical-thing||one car|
|playing card two flat-things||two cards|
|shirt three flat-things||three shirts|
Vietnamese uses a similar set of classifiers to Chinese, Japanese and Korean.
|ba chiếc áo dài||three [clothing counter] upper garment+long||three (sets of) áo dài|
Although not typical for an Indo-European language, Bengali makes use of classifiers. Every noun in this language must have its corresponding classifier when used with a numeral or other quantifier. Most nouns take the generic classifier ţa, although there are many more specific measure words, such as jon, which is only used to count humans. Still, the number of measure words in Bengali is much less than that of Chinese or Japanese. As in Chinese, Bengali nouns are not inflected for number.
|Bengali||Literal English translation||Normal English translation|
|Nôe-ţa ghoŗi||Nine-CL clock||Nine clocks|
|Kôe-ţa balish||How.many-CL pillow||How many pillows|
|Ônek-jon lok||Many-CL person||Many people|
|Char-pañch-jon shikkhôk||Four-five-CL teacher||Four or five teachers|
Similar to the situation in Chinese, measuring nouns in Bengali without their corresponding measure words (e.g. aţ biŗal instead of aţ-ţa biŗal "eight cats") would typically be considered ungrammatical. However, it is common to omit the classifier when it counts a noun that is not in nominative case (e.g., aţ biŗaler desh (eight cats-possessive country ), or panc bhUte khelo (five ghosts-instrumental ate)) or when the number is very large (e.g., ek sho lok esechhe ("One hundred people have come.")). Classifiers may also be dropped when the focus of the sentence is not on the actual counting but on a statement of fact (e.g., amar char chhele (I-possessive four boy, I have four sons)). The -ţa suffix comes from /goţa/ 'piece', and is also used as a definite article.
Omitting the noun and preserving the classifier is grammatical and common. For example, Shudhu êk-jon thakbe. (lit. "Only one-MW will remain.") would be understood to mean "Only one person will remain.", since jon can only be used to count humans. The word lok "person" is implied.
Nepali has a system very similar to Bengali's, using -waṭā (-वटा) for objects and "-janā" (-जना) for humans.
American Sign Language
In American Sign Language classifier constructions are used to express position, stative description (size and shape), and how objects are handled manually. The particular hand shape used to express any of these constructions is what functions as the classifier. Various hand shapes can represent whole entities; show how objects are handled or instruments are used; represent limbs; and be used to express various characteristics of entities such as dimensions, shape, texture, position, and path and manner of motion. While the label of classifiers has been accepted by many sign language linguists, some argue that these constructions do not parallel oral-language classifiers in all respects and prefer to use other terms, such as polymorphemic or polycomponential signs.
- 1 hand shape: used for individuals standing or long thin objects
- A hand shape: used for compact objects
- C hand shape: used for cylindrical objects
- 3 hand shape: used for ground vehicles
- Y hand shape: used for aircraft
Classifiers are part of the grammar of most East Asian languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Malay, Burmese, Thai, Hmong, and the Bengali and Munda languages just to the west of the East and Southeast Asia linguistic area. Among indigenous languages of the Americas, classifiers are present in the Pacific Northwest, especially among the Tsimshianic languages, and in many languages of Mesoamerica, including Classic Maya and most of its modern derivatives. They also occur in some languages of the Amazon Basin (most famously Yagua) and a very small number of West African languages.
In contrast, classifiers are entirely absent not only from European languages, but also from many languages of northern Asia (Uralic, Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic and mainland Paleosiberian languages), from Australian Aboriginal languages, and also from the indigenous languages of the southern parts of both North and South America. In Austronesian languages, classifiers have been acquired as a result of contact with Mon–Khmer languages but the most remote members such as Malagasy and Hawaiian have gradually lost them.
Numeral classifiers exhibit striking worldwide distribution at the global level. The main concentration of numeral classifiers is in a single zone centered in East and Southeast Asia, but reaching out both westwards and eastwards. To the west, numeral classifiers peter out as one proceeds across the South Asian subcontinent; thus, in this particular region, the occurrence of numeral classifiers cross-cuts what has otherwise been characterized as one of the classical examples of a linguistic area, namely, South Asia. However, numeral classifiers pick up again, albeit in optional usage, in parts of western Asia centering on Iran and Turkey; it is not clear whether this should be considered as a continuation of the same large though interrupted isogloss, or as a separate one. To the east, numeral classifiers extend out through the Indonesian archipelago, and then into the Pacific in a grand arc through Micronesia and then down to the southeast, tapering out in New Caledonia and western Polynesia. Interestingly, whereas in the western parts of the Indonesian archipelago numeral classifiers are often optional, in the eastern parts of the archipelago and in Micronesia numeral classifiers tend once more, as in mainland East and Southeast Asia, to be obligatory. Outside this single large zone, numeral classifiers are almost exclusively restricted to a number of smaller hotbeds, in West Africa, the Pacific Northwest, Mesoamerica, and the Amazon basin. In large parts of the world, numeral classifiers are completely absent.
Noun classifiers vs. noun classes
The concept of noun classifier is distinct from that of noun class.
- Classifier systems typically involve 20 or more classifiers (separate lexemes that co-occur with the noun). One hundred classifiers are common, and 400 are attested.[clarification needed] Noun class systems typically comprise a closed set of two to twenty classes, into which all nouns in the language are divided.
- Not every noun need take a classifier, and many nouns can occur with more than one classifier. In a language with noun classes, each noun typically belongs to one and only one class, which is usually shown by a word form or an accompanying article and functions grammatically. The same referent can be referred by nouns with different noun classes, such as die Frau "the woman" (feminine) and das Weib "the wife" (neuter) in German.
- Noun classes are typically marked by inflecting words, i.e. through bound morphemes which cannot appear alone in a sentence. Class may be marked on the noun itself, but will also always be marked on other constituents in the noun phrase or in the sentence that show agreement with the noun. Noun classifiers are always free lexical items that occur in the same noun phrase as the noun they qualify. They never form a morphological unit with the noun, and there is never agreement marking on the verb.
- The classifier occurs in only some syntactic environments. In addition, use of the classifier may be influenced by the pragmatics of style and the choice of written or spoken mode. Often, the more formal the style, the richer the variety of classifiers used, and the higher the frequency of their use. Noun class markers are mandatory under all circumstances.
- Noun classifiers are usually derived from words used as names of concrete, discrete, moveable objects. Noun class markers are typically affixes without any literal meaning.
Nevertheless, there is no clearly demarked difference between the two: since classifiers often evolve into class systems, they are two extremes of a continuum.
- American Sign Language grammar
- Southern Athabaskan grammar: Classificatory verbs
- Noun class
- Analytic language
- Determiner (linguistics)
- Đình Hoà Nguyẽ̂n Vietnamese 1997 Page 174 "..occur to the left of the head noun [N, position 0] in precise positions represented by, respectively, -3 (tất cả 'all-all'), -2 (năm 'five'), -1 (chiếc 'CLASSIFIER'), vis-à-vis 0 (áo dài) in the phrase tất cả năm chiếc áo dài 'all five dresses' [áo dài is a compound noun "upper garment + long]"
- Emmorey, Karen (2002). Language, Cognition, and the Brain: Insights from Sign Language Research. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associations. pp. 73–74.
- Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. (2000). Classifiers: A typology of noun categorization devices. Oxford studies in typology and linguistic theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-823886-X.
- Allan, Keith. (1977). Classifiers. Language, 53, 2, 285-311.
- Craig, Colette. (ed.) (1986). Noun Classes and Categorization: Proceedings of a Symposium on Categorization and Noun Classification, Eugene, Oregon, October 1983. Typological Studies in Language, 7. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
- Senft, Gunther. (ed.) (2008). Systems of nominal classification. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.