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 二匹の犬 ni hiki no inu (literally "dog of small-animal-count-two"). Here inu means "dog", ni is the number 2, "の" "no" is a possessive particle, and hiki is the counter for small animals. These counters are not independent words and always appear with a number (or question word) before them. If the number is unknown, a question word is used, most often 何 nan, as in 何名様 nan-mei-sama "how many guests", or sometimes 幾 iku as in 幾晩 iku-ban "how many nights?".

Counters are similar in function to the word "pieces" in "two pieces of paper" and "cup" in "two cups of coffee". They differ, however, in that they cannot take non-numerical modifiers. So where "two pieces of paper" translates fairly directly as "paper two-flat-pieces", the phrase "two white pieces of paper" requires the addition of another noun to accept the modifier: "paper white sheet[s] two-flat-pieces."

Just as in English, different counters can be used to convey different types of quantity. In English, one can say one loaf of bread or one slice of bread. In Japanese, the equivalents would be パン一斤 pan ikkin ("bread one-loaf") and パン一枚 pan ichimai ("bread one-flat-piece").

Grammatically, counter words can appear either before or after the noun they count; they generally occur after the noun (following particles), and if used before the noun, they emphasize the quantity; this is a common mistake in English learners of Japanese. For example, to say "[I] drank two bottles of beer", one can say either ビールを二本飲んだ bīru o nihon nonda, which is more normal, or 二本のビールを飲んだ nihon no bīru o nonda, which conveys "[I] drank two bottles of beer", and would only be appropriate when emphasizing the number, as in response to a question ("How many beers did you drink?").

Substitution of counters[edit]

In Japanese, virtually all nouns must use a counter to express number. In this sense, virtually 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 syntactically correct way because one does not know, or cannot remember, the appropriate counting word. With quantities from one to ten, this problem can often be sidestepped by using the traditional numbers (see below), which can quantify many nouns without help. For example, "four apples" is りんご四個 ringo yonko where ko is the counter, but can also be expressed, using the traditional numeral four, as りんご四つ ringo yottsu. These traditional numerals cannot be used to count all nouns, however; some, including nouns for people and animals, require a proper counter.

Some of the more common counters may substitute for less common ones. For example, 匹 hiki (see below) is often used for all animals, regardless of size. However, many speakers will prefer to use the traditionally correct counter, 頭 , when speaking of larger animals such as horses. This yields a range of possible counters, with differing degrees of usage and acceptability – for example, when ordering kushikatsu (fried skewers), one may order them as 二串 futa-kushi (two skewers), 二本 ni-hon (two sticks), or 二つ futa-tsu (two items), in decreasing order of precision.

Counters may 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 匹 hiki, the counter for small animals, humorously suggests that the person is overpowered by massive obstacles.

Table of the traditional numerals[edit]

Numeral Japanese Pronunciation (romaji) Writing (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 はたち

Common counters by category[edit]

This is a selective list of some of the more commonly used counting words.

Pronunciation Japanese Use
People and Things
bu Copies of a magazine or newspaper, or other packets of papers
だい dai Cars, bicycles, machines, mechanical devices, household appliances
はい hai, ぱい pai, ばい bai Cups and glasses of drink, spoonsful; cuttlefish, octopuses, crabs, squid, abalone, boats (slang)
ひき hiki, ぴき piki, びき biki Small animals, insects, fish, reptiles, amphibians, oni (demons/ogres)
ほん hon, ぽん pon, ぼん 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.
かい kai, がい gai Number of floors, storeys
ko , , , or General measurement word, used when there is no specific counter. Implies that the item is small and/or round.[1] 個 is also used for military units.
まい mai Thin, flat objects: sheets of paper, photographs, plates, articles of clothing (see also: chaku)
めい mei People (polite) (名 means "name")
めん men Mirrors, boards for board games (chess, igo, shogi), stages of computer games, walls of a room, tennis courts
にん nin People (but see table of exceptions below)
ri り or People, used in the words 一人 (ひとり) and 二人 (ふたり)
さつ satsu Books
tsu General-purpose counter, used as part of the indigenous Japanese numbers 一つ ("one thing"), 二つ ("two things"), 三つ ("three things"), etc.
wa Stories, episodes of TV series, etc.
Time, Calendar, etc.
びょう byō Seconds
ふん fun, ぷん pun Minutes
がつ gatsu, also つき tsuki Months of the year. Month-long periods when read tsuki (see also: kagetsu)
はく haku, ぱく paku Nights of a stay
ji Hours of the day
じかん jikan 時間 Hour-long periods
ka Day of the month
かげつ kagetsu ヶ月, 箇月 Month-long periods (see also: gatsu). 箇 is normally abbreviated using a small katakana 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.
ねん nen Years, school years (grades); not years of age
にち nichi Days of the month (but see table of exceptions below)
さい sai (or ) Years of age (才 is used informally as a shorthand)
しゅう shū Weeks
Extent, Frequency, etc.
ばい bai Multiples, -fold as in "twofold"
ばん ban Position, turn, sports matches
do, also たび tabi Occurrences, number of times, degrees of temperature or angle (see also: kai).
じょう 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
かい kai Occurrences, number of times (see also: do)

Extended list of counters[edit]

This list also includes some counters and usages that are rarely used or not widely known; other words can also be used as counters more sporadically.

Pronunciation Japanese Use
ba Scene of a play
ばい bai Multiples, -fold as in "twofold"
ばん ban Nights (see also: ya)
ばん ban Position, turn, 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
ぶん bun Sentences
びょう byō Seconds
びょうし byōshi 拍子 Musical beats
ちゃく chaku Suits of clothing (see also: mai)
ちょう chō Guns, sticks of ink, palanquins, rickshaws, violins
ちょう chō Tools, scissors, saws, trousers, pistols, cakes of tofu, town blocks, servings at a restaurant
ちょう chō Town blocks
だい dai Generations, historical periods, reigns
だい dai Cars, bicycles, machines, mechanical devices, household appliances
だん dan levels, ranks, steps (of stairs).
だんらく danraku 段落 Paragraphs
do, also たび tabi Occurrences, number of times, degrees of temperature or angle (see also: kai).
ふで fude Sequences of letters or drawings that you write or draw without removing your pen off the paper. Not to be confused with "hitsu" (筆) below.
ふく fuku, ぷく puku Bowls of matcha (powdered green tea); packets or doses of powdered medicine; puffs (of, e.g., a cigarette); rests or breaks
ふく fuku, ぷく puku Hanging scrolls (kakejiku)
ふん fun, ぷん pun Minutes
ふり furi Swords
がっきゅう gakkyū 学級 Classes (in pre-university education)
がつ gatsu, also つき tsuki Months of the year. Month-long periods when read tsuki (see also: kagetsu)
go Words
ごん gon, also こと koto Words
gu Suits of armour, sets of furniture
ぎょう gyō Lines of text
はく haku Nights of a stay
はい hai, ぱい pai, ばい bai Cups and glasses of drink, spoonfuls, cuttlefish, octopuses, crabs, squid, abalone, boats (slang)
はい hai Losses (sports bouts)
はこ hako Boxes
はり hari Umbrellas, parasols, tents
はしら hashira gods, memorial tablets
はつ hatsu, ぱつ patsu Gunshots, bullets, aerial fireworks; orgasms, sex acts
ひき hiki, ぴき piki Small animals, insects, fish, reptiles, amphibians, oni (ogres)
ひん hin, ぴん pin Parts of a meal, courses (see also: shina)
ひつ hitsu, ぴつ pitsu Pieces of land
ho, ぽ po Number of (foot)steps
ほん hon, ぽん pon, ぼん bon Long, thin objects: rivers, roads, train tracks, ties, pencils, bottles, guitars; also, metaphorically, telephone calls (see also: tsūwa), train or bus routes, movies, home runs, points or bounds[clarification needed] in sports events. Although 本 also means "book", the counter for books is satsu.
ひょう hyō, ぴょう pyō Votes
ji Letters, kanji, kana
ji Children. As in "father of two (children)", etc.
ji Hours of the day
じかん jikan 時間 Hour-long periods
じょう 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 yo jō han
じょう Pills/capsules
じょう Articles of law, thin objects, rays or streams of light, streaks of smoke or lightning
ka Day of the month
ka Frames
ka Lessons
かぶ kabu Stocks; nursery trees
かげつ 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.
かい kai Occurrences, number of times (see also: do)
かい kai, がい gai Number of floors, storeys
かこく kakoku ヶ国, 箇国 Countries
かこくご kakokugo ヶ国語, 箇国語 (National) languages
かく kaku Strokes in kanji
かん kan Pieces of nigiri-zushi
かん kan Warships
けいとう keitou 系統 Bus routes
けん ken Abstract matters and cases
けん ken, げん gen Houses
ki Aircraft, machines
ki Graves, wreaths, CPUs, reactors, elevators, dams
きん kin Loaves of bread
きれ 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")
こう Schools
こう 稿 Drafts of a manuscript
こう Banks
こま koma , コマ Frames, panels. 齣 is virtually unused nowadays.
こん kon shots (of drink)
ku Sections, city districts
ku Haiku, senryū
くち kuchi (Bank) accounts, donations (口 means "opening" or "entrance")
くみ kumi Groups, a pair of people (twins, a husband and a wife, dancers, etc.)
くらす kurasu クラス School classes
きゃく kyaku Desks, chairs, long-stemmed glasses
きゃく kyaku Pairs of cup and saucer
きょく kyoku Pieces of music
きょく kyoku Board game matches (chess, igo, shogi, mahjong); radio stations, television stations
まい mai Thin, flat objects, sheets of paper, photographs, plates, articles of clothing (see also: chaku)
まき maki or かん kan Rolls, scrolls, kan for volumes of book
まく maku Theatrical acts
めい mei People (polite) (名 means "name")
めん men Mirrors, boards for board games (chess, igo, shogi), stages of computer games, walls of a room, tennis courts
もん mon Cannons
もん mon Questions
ねん nen Years, school years (grades); not years of age
にち nichi Days of the month (but see table of exceptions below)
にん nin People (but see table of exceptions below)
にんまえ ninmae 人前 Food portions (without exceptions, unlike nin above)
おり ori Boxes made of folded paper (compare to hako above, which refers to boxes in general)
ぺーじ pēji ページ, Pages
れい rei Cases, Examples
れい rei Bows during worship at a shrine
ri り or People, used in the words 一人 (ひとり) and 二人 (ふたり).
りん rin Wheels, Flowers
りょう ryō Railway cars
さい sai or Years of age
さお sao Chests of drawers, flags
さつ satsu Books
せき seki Seats, Rakugo shows, (drinking) parties
せき seki Ships, half of a pair (e.g., half of a folding screen), item carried in a bundle (fish, birds, arrows etc.)
しな shina Parts of a meal, courses (see also: hin)
しゃ sha used for businesses, i.e. 会社
しき shiki Sets of things, such as documents or furniture
しょう shō Wins (sports bouts)
しゅ shu Tanka
しゅう shū Weeks
しゅるい shurui or しゅ shu 種類 or Kinds, species
そく soku Pairs of footwear, pairs of socks, stockings, tabi
たば taba bundles (of banknotes), bunches (of flowers, vegetables), sheaves
たい tai Images, statues, person's remains, dolls
たわら tawara Bags of rice
てき teki Drops of liquid
てん ten Points, dots, pieces of a set
とう Large animals, cattle, elephants, whales, dolphins, butterflies (頭 means "head")
とき toki Time periods, a sixth of either day or night (in the traditional, obsolete way of telling time). See also: jikan
とおり tōri 通り Combinations, puzzle solutions
tsu Used as part of the indigenous Japanese numbers 一つ, 二つ, 三つ etc.
つう tsū Letters
つぼ tsubo Commonly used unit of area equal to 3.3 square metres.
つぶ tsubu Almonds, grain
つうわ tsūwa 通話 Telephone calls (see also: hon)
wa, ば ba, ぱ pa Birds, rabbits* (see note); 羽 means "feather" or "wing."
wa Bundles
wa Stories, episodes of TV series, etc.
ya Nights (see also: ban)
ぜん 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, rabbits only touched the ground with two feet at a time. Nowadays, wa is the usual counter for rabbits.

Euphonic changes[edit]

Systematic changes occur when particular numbers precede counters that begin with certain phonemes. For example, 一 ichi + 回 kai → 一回 ikkai, 六 roku + 匹 hiki → 六匹 roppiki. 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- よんぱ

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

Exceptions[edit]

The traditional numbers are used by and for young children to give their ages, instead of using the age counter 歳 (or 才) sai.

Some counters, notably 日 nichi and 人 nin, 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 一月 hitotsuki and 二月 futatsuki (one and two months respectively), 一言 hitokoto (a single word) and 一度 hitotabi (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. In those three pairs of options, nana, yon and kyū respectively are more commonly used. Some counters, however, notably 人 nin (people), 月 gatsu (month of the year), 日 ka/nichi (day of the month, days), 時 ji (time of day) and 時間 jikan (hours) take certain alternatives only. These are shown in the table below.

While 回 kai (occurrences) and 銭 sen (0.01 yen, now rarely used) follow the euphonic changes listed above, homophones 階 kai (storeys/floors) and 千 sen (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 nin gatsu ji 時間 jikan kai hyaku sen sai
1 tsuitachi* hitori issen
2 futsuka futari
3 mikka sangai sanbyaku 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 hatachi
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 幾人 ikunin and 何人 nannin are used to mean "how many people".

*** In remote rural areas (e.g. Northern Honshū and Eastern Hokkaido) older speakers might use yottari.[2]

Ordinal numbers[edit]

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, 目 me is added to the end of the counter. Thus "one time" would be translated as 一回 ikkai, whereas "the first time" would be translated as 一回目 ikkaime.

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

Periods of time[edit]

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

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ http://www.punipunijapan.com/japanese-counter-ko/
  2. ^ "Language Contact and Lexical Innovation" (PDF). Retrieved 2007-02-14.  Table 1. Native Counting in Japanese

External links[edit]