Classifier (linguistics)

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For another type of linguistic object sometimes called "classifier", see Radical (Chinese characters).

A classifier (abbreviated clf[1] or cl), sometimes called a counter word, is a word or affix that is used to accompany nouns and can be considered to "classify" the noun depending on the type of its referent. Classifiers play an important role in the grammar of certain languages, especially East Asian languages, including Chinese and Japanese. In European languages classifiers are absent or marginal; an example of a word that may be considered to have the function of a classifier in English is head in phrases like "five head of cattle".

In languages that have classifiers, they are often used when the noun is being counted, that is, when it appears with a numeral. In such languages, a phrase such as "three people" is often required to be expressed as "three X (of) people", where X is a classifier appropriate to the noun for "people". Classifiers sometimes have other functions too; in Chinese they are commonly used when a noun is preceded by a demonstrative (word meaning "this" or "that"). Chinese classifiers are also commonly called measure words, although some writers make a distinction between the two terms.

Classifier handshapes appear in some sign languages; these may have a somewhat different grammatical function.

Certain parallels can be drawn between classifier systems and noun classes, although there are significant differences. Languages with classifiers may have up to several hundred different classifiers, whereas those with noun classes (or in particular, genders) tend to have a smaller number of classes, not always much dependent on the nouns' meaning, and with a variety of grammatical consequences.


A classifier is a word (or in some analyses, a bound morpheme) which accompanies a noun in certain grammatical contexts, and generally reflects some kind of conceptual classification of nouns, based principally on features of their referents. Thus a language might have one classifier for nouns representing persons, another for nouns representing flat objects, another for nouns denoting periods of time, and so on. The assignment of classifier to noun may also be to some degree unpredictable, with certain nouns taking certain classifiers by historically established convention.

The situations in which classifiers may or must appear depend on the grammar of the language in question, but they are frequently required when a noun is accompanied by a numeral. They are therefore sometimes known (particularly in the context of languages such as Japanese) as counter words. They may also be used when a noun is accompanied by a demonstrative (a word such as "this" or "that").

The following examples, from Standard Mandarin Chinese, illustrate the use of classifiers with a numeral. The classifiers used here are 个 (traditional form 個, pinyin ), used (among other things) with nouns for humans; 棵 , used with nouns for trees; 只 (隻) zhī, used with nouns for certain animals, including birds; and 条 (條) tiáo, used with nouns for certain long flexible objects. (Plurals of Chinese nouns are not normally marked in any way; the same form of the noun is used for both singular and plural.)

  • "three students": 三个学生 (三個學生) sān gè xuéshēng, literally "three [human-classifier] student"
  • "three trees": 三棵树 (三棵樹) sān kē shù, literally "three [tree-classifier] tree"
  • "three birds": 三只鸟 (三隻鳥) sān zhī niǎo, literally "three [bird-classifier] bird"
  • "three rivers": 三条河 (三條河) sān tiáo hé, literally "three [long-wavy-classifier] river"

In fact the first of these classifiers, 个 (個) , is also often used in informal speech as a general classifier, with almost any noun, taking the place of more specific classifiers.

The noun in such phrases may be omitted, if the classifier alone (and the context) is sufficient to indicate what noun is intended. For example, in answering a question:

Q. "How many rivers?": 多少条河 (多少條河) duōshǎo tiáo hé, literally "how many [classifier] river"
A. "Three.": 三条 (三條) sān tiáo, literally "three [classifier]", following noun omitted

Languages which make systematic use of classifiers include Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Southeast Asian languages, Persian, Austronesian languages, Mayan languages and others. A less typical example of classifiers is Southern Athabaskan.

Classifier handshapes are found in sign languages, although these have a somewhat different grammatical function.

Classifiers are often derived from nouns (or occasionally other parts of speech), which have become specialized as classifiers, or may retain other uses besides their use as classifiers. Classifiers, like other words, are sometimes borrowed from other languages. A language may be said to have dozens or even hundreds of different classifiers. However, such enumerations often also include measure words.

Classifiers versus measure words[edit]

Measure words play a similar role to classifiers, except that they denote a particular measurement of something (a drop, a cupful, a pint, etc.), rather than the inherent countable units associated with a count noun. The terminological distinction is often blurred – classifiers are commonly referred to as measure words in some contexts (such as Chinese language teaching), and measure words are sometimes called mass-classifiers or similar.

Classifiers are sometimes called measure words, although technically a measure word is one that denotes a particular quantity of something ("drop", "cupful", "litre", etc.), while classifiers merely refer to the inherent countable units denoted by the noun (for example, in counting people, the inherent unit is one person). This means that classifiers are used with count nouns, whereas measure words may also be used to quantify mass nouns, which denote things without inherent countable units (e.g. "three splotches of mud"). Measure words in this sense may also be called mass-classifiers.[2][3]

Examples by language[edit]

European languages[edit]

Classifiers are not generally a feature of English or other European languages, although classifier-like constructions are found with certain nouns. A commonly cited English example is the word head in phrases such as "five head of cattle". This parallels the more pervasive classifier constructions found in many Asian languages: the word cattle (for some speakers) is considered an uncountable (mass) noun, and requires the word head to enable its units to be counted. The parallel construction exists in French: une tête de bétail ("one head of cattle") or in Spanish: una cabeza de ganado.

Note the difference between "five head of cattle" (meaning five animals), and "five heads of cattle" (meaning specifically their heads). A similar phrase used by florists is "ten stem of roses" (meaning roses on their stems).

European languages naturally use measure words. These are required for counting in the case of mass nouns, and some can also be used with count nouns. For example, one can have a glass of beer, and a handful of coins. The English construction with of is paralleled in many languages, although in German (and similarly in Dutch and the Scandinavian languages) the two words are simply juxtaposed, e.g. one says ein Glas Bier (literally "a glass beer", with no word for "of"). Slavic languages put the second noun in the Genitive case (e.g. Russian чаша пива (chasha piva), literally "a glass beer's"), but Bulgarian, having lost the Slavic case system, uses expressions identical to German (e.g. чаша пиво).

Certain nouns are associated with particular measure words or other classifier-like words that enable them to be counted. For example, paper is often counted in sheets as in "five sheets of paper". Usage or non-usage of measure words may yield different meanings, e.g. five papers is grammatically equally correct but refers to newspapers or academic papers. Some inherently plural nouns require the word pair (or its equivalent) to enable reference to a single object or specified number of objects, as in "a pair of scissors", "three pair(s) of pants", or the French une paire de lunettes ("a pair of (eye)glasses").

Bengali, Maithili and Nepali[edit]

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 ṭa, 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-ṭa ghoṛi Nine-CL clock Nine clocks
Kôe-ṭa 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. aṭ biṛal instead of aṭ-ṭa biṛal "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., aṭ biṛaler 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 -ṭa suffix comes from /goṭa/ '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.

Maithili and Nepali have systems very similar to Bengali's. Maithili uses -ta for objects and -goatey for humans; similarly, Nepali has -waṭā (-वटा) for objects and "-janā" (-जना) for humans.

Persian (Farsi) has a scheme very similar to the Indo-Aryan languages Bengali, Maithili and Nepali.


In Burmese, classifiers, in the form of particles, are used when counting or measuring nouns. They immediately follow the numerical quantification. Nouns to which classifiers refer can be omitted if the context allows, because many classifiers have implicit meanings.

Burmese Literal translation English translation
θù tù n̥ə t͡ʃʰáʊɴ 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.
စားပွဲ ခုနစ်လုံးရှိလာ
zəbwé kʰwɛʔ n̥ə lóʊɴ ʃḭ là
Zabwe khun-hna lon shi la
Table-seven-[classifier used for round, globular things]-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


Although classifiers were not often used in Classical Chinese, in all modern Chinese varieties, such as Mandarin, nouns are normally required to be accompanied by a classifier or measure word when they are qualified by a numeral or by a demonstrative. Examples with numerals have been given above in the Overview section. An example with a demonstrative is 这个人 zhè ge rén, meaning "this person", literally "this [classifier] person".

The noun in a classifier phrase may be omitted, if the context and choice of classifier make the intended noun obvious. An example of this again appears in the Overview section above.

The choice of a classifier for each noun is a matter of grammar, is somewhat arbitrary—though it 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. 張/张 zhāng, one of whose meanings is table, is used with many nouns denoting flat objects. Not all classifiers derive from nouns; for example, the word can also be a verb meaning to grab, and is the classifier for objects that have handles.

Technically a distinction is made between classifiers (or count-classifiers), which are used only with count nouns and do not generally carry any meaning of their own, and measure words (or mass-classifiers), which can be used also with mass nouns and specify a particular quantity (such as "bottle" [of water] or "pound" [of fruit]). Less formally, however, the term "measure word" is used interchangeably with "classifier".


Main article: Japanese counter word

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.

Japanese English, literal English
enpitsu go-hon
pencil five cylindrical-things five pencils
inu san-biki
dog three animal-things three dogs
kodomo yo-nin
child four people-things four children
niwatori san-ba
chicken three bird-things three chickens
yotto san-sō
yacht three boat-things three yachts
kuruma ichi-dai
car one mechanical-thing one car
toranpu ni-mai
playing card two flat-things two cards
shatsu san-mai
shirt three flat-things three shirts


Main article: Korean count word

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 nouns, including concrete nouns, abstract nouns[4] and 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. The Malay term for classifiers is penjodoh bilangan.

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?
Tiga buah.
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 mendengar empat das tembakan pistol. I heard four [classifier for gunshots] gunshots. I heard four gunshots.
Saya minta sebatang rokok. I would like one [classifier for cylindrical objects] cigarette. I would like a cigarette.
Tiga biji pasir. Three [classifier for small grains] sand. Three grains of sand.

Vietnamese and Khmer[edit]

Vietnamese uses a similar set of classifiers to Chinese, Japanese and Korean.

Vietnamese English, literal English
ba chiếc áo dài three [inanimate object counter] upper garment+long three (sets of) áo dài[5]

Khmer (Cambodian) also uses classifiers, although they can quite frequently be omitted. Since it is a head-first language, the classifier phrase (number plus classifier) comes after the noun.

American Sign Language[edit]

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.[6]


  • 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

Global distribution[edit]

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[citation needed] 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[citation needed] but the most remote members such as Malagasy and Hawaiian have lost them.

The World Atlas of Language Structures has a global map showing 400 languages and chapter text including geographical discussion:

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 versus noun classes[edit]

The concept of noun classifier is distinct from that of noun class.

  • Classifier systems typically involve 20 or more, or even several hundred, classifiers (separate lexemes that co-occur with nouns). Noun class systems (including systems of grammatical gender) 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 different classifiers. 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 to 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 inflection, i.e. through bound morphemes which cannot appear alone in a sentence. Class may be marked on the noun itself, but will also often 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.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Comrie, Bernard; Haspelmath, Martin; Bickel, Balthasar (2008). "Leipzig glossing rules: Conventions for interlinear morpheme-by-morpheme glosses". 
  2. ^ Tai, James H.-Y. (1994). "Chinese classifier systems and human categorization". In Willian S.-Y. Wang, M. Y. Chen, and Ovid J.L. Tzeng. In honor of William S.-Y. Wang: Interdisciplinary studies on language and language change. Taipei: Pyramid Press. p. 2. ISBN 978-957-9268-55-4. 
  3. ^ Cheng, Lisa L.-S.; Sybesma, Rint (1998). "yi-wan tang and yi-ge Tang: Classifiers and mass-classifiers". Tsing Hua Journal of Chinese Studies. 28 (3). 
  4. ^ Sneddon, James Neil; Adelaar, K. Alexander; Djenar, Dwi N.; Ewing, Michael (2012-12-06). Indonesian: A Comprehensive Grammar. Routledge. p. 141. ISBN 9781135873516. 
  5. ^ 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]"
  6. ^ 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.

External links[edit]