20 September 2008

Language Geeking - Equivalent of Japanese Counters in English

One of the hardest things for a native English speaker studying Japanese (or Chinese) is the idea of counters, or as linguists call them, classifiers.

In Japanese when counting things, you can't just use the number: you have to append a counter to the number to refer to that thing. You can't see, "As for pencils, I had three"; you have to say, "As for pencils, I had three-long-thin-things". This is a generic rule, with lots of different counters for different kinds of things, which need to be memorized.

In fact, as Japanese teachers like to point out, we do have counters in English, but they're quite rare. The famous example is "sheets" for paper. You can't have "one paper", you have "one sheet of paper" (you can have one scientific paper, but that's a different use of the word paper). I recently realized that 'pair' is a counter for both pants and scissors; it functions exactly like 'sheet of paper' (and all of them are excellent analogies to how counters function in Japanese).

I just finished reading Steven Pinker's new book, "Words and Rules," and as you might expect from the most prominent linguist of this era, at one point he rattles off a whole list of English classifiers! I didn't want to lose track of it, so here it is.
blade of grass
piece of fruit (you can't have "two fruits")
strand of hair *
slice of bread
stick of wood
sheet of paper
head of cattle

* I think this is a weak example -- in the classic joke the customer says, "Waiter! There's a hair in my soup!" not "Waiter! There's a strand of hair in my soup!" I think people do routinely say "one hair", "two hairs" etc.

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