A classifier (abbreviated
or ) is a word
that accompanies noun
s and can be considered to "classify" a noun depending on the type of its referent
. It is also sometimes called a measure word
or counter word. Classifiers play an important role in certain languages, especially East Asian languages
, including Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese. Classifiers are absent or marginal in European languages. An example of a possible classifier in English
is ''piece'' in phrases like "three pieces of candy".
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 word
s, although some writers make a distinction between the two terms. In American Sign Language, particular classifier handshape
s represent a noun's orientation in space.
There are similarities between classifier systems and noun class
es, although there are significant differences
. Languages with classifiers may have up to several hundred different classifiers. Languages with noun classes (or in particular, gender
s) tend to have a smaller number of classes. Noun classes are not always dependent on the nouns' meaning but they have 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 referent
s. 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
''gè''), used (among other things) with nouns for humans; 棵 ''kē'', 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 uman-classifier
*"three trees": 三棵树 (三棵樹) ''sān kē shù'', literally "three ree-classifier
*"three birds": 三只鸟 (三隻鳥) ''sān zhī niǎo'', literally "three ird-classifier
*"three rivers": 三条河 (三條河) ''sān tiáo hé'', literally "three ong-wavy-classifier
In fact the first of these classifiers, 个 (個) ''gè'', 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 lassifier
:A. "Three.": 三条 (三條) ''sān tiáo'', literally "three lassifier
, following noun omitted
Languages which make systematic use of classifiers include Chinese
, Southeast Asian languages
, Austronesian languages
, Mayan languages
and others. A less typical example of classifiers is found in Southern Athabaskan
s are found in sign language
s, 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 word
Classifiers versus measure words
play a similar role to classifiers, except that they denote a particular quantity of something (a drop, a cupful, a pint, etc.), rather than the inherent countable units associated with a count noun
. Classifiers are used with count nouns; measure words can be used with mass nouns (e.g. "two pints of mud"), and can also be used when a count noun's quantity is not described in terms of its inherent countable units (e.g. "two pints of acorns").
However, the terminological distinction between classifiers and measure words 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.
Examples by language
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": the word ''cattle'' (for some speakers) is 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"), in Spanish
: ''una cabeza de ganado'' ("one head of cattle") and in Italian
: ''un capo di bestiame'' ("one head of cattle"). Note the difference between "five head of cattle" (meaning five animals), and "five heads of cattle" (identical to "five cattle's heads", meaning specifically their heads). A similar phrase used by florist
s is "ten stem of roses" (meaning roses on their stems).
European languages naturally use measure word
s. 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
''чаша пива'' (), 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 ' (or its equivalent) to enable reference to a single object or specified number of objects, as in "a pair of scissors", "three pairs of pants", or the French ''une paire de lunettes'' ("a pair of (eye)glasses").
Australian Aboriginal Languages
Australian Aboriginal languages
are known for often having extensive Noun class
systems based on semantic criteria. In many cases, a given noun can be identified as a member of a given class via an adjacent classifier, which can either form a hyponym
construction with a specific noun, or act as a generic noun on its own.
In the following example from Kuuk Thaayorre
, the specific borrowed noun ''tin.meat'' 'tinned meat' is preceded by its generic classifier ''minh'' 'meat.'
Whereas in this example, the same classifier ''minh'' stands in on its own for a generic crocodile (''punc''), another member of the ''minh'' class:
Classifiers and specific nouns in Kuuk Thaayorre
can also co-occupy the head of a noun phrase
to form something like a compound or complex noun as in ''ngat minh.patp'' ' hawk' which is the complex noun meaning 'stingray'.
Another example of this kind of hyponym construction can be seen in Diyari
See the nine Diyari classifiers below
Contrast the above with Ngalakgan
in which classifiers are prefixes on the various phrasal heads of the entire noun phrase (including modifiers):
Ngalakgan has fewer noun classes than many Australian Languages, the complete set of its class prefixes are below:
Bengali, Assamese, Maithili and Nepali
Atypically 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, there are many fewer measure words in Bengali than in Chinese or Japanese. As in Chinese, Bengali nouns are not inflected for number.
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 the nominative case
(e.g., (eight cats-possessive country ), or (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.
have systems very similar to Bengali's. Maithili uses for objects and for humans; similarly, Nepali has (-वटा) for objects and - (-जना) for humans.
and other Bengali-Assamese languages
have more classifiers than Bengali.
) has a scheme very similar to the Indo-Aryan languages Bengali, Assamese, Maithili and Nepali.
Although not always used in written language, Farsi uses classifiers regularly in spoken word. Farsi has two general-use classifiers, دانه (''dāne'') and تا (''tā''), the former of which is used with singular nouns, while the latter is used with plural nouns.
In addition to general-use classifiers, Farsi also has several specific classifiers, including the following:
, 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.
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 the phrase for "this person" — 这个人 ''zhè ge rén'', where the character 个 is the classifier that literally meaning "individual" or "single entity", so the entire phrase means "this ''individual'' person" or "this single person". A similar example is the phrase for "these people" — 这群人 ''zhè qún rén'', where the classifier 群 means "group" or "herd", so the phrase literally means "this group f
people" or "this crowd".
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 somewhat arbitrary and must be memorized by learners of Chinese, but often relates to the object's physical characteristics. For example, the character 条 ''tiáo'' originally means "twig
" or "thin branch
", is now used most often as a classifier for thin, elongated things such as rope
, and can be translated as "(a) length (of)", "strip" or "line". Also not all classifiers derive from nouns; for example, the character 張/张 ''zhāng'' is originally a verb meaning "to span
)", and is now used as a classifier to denote squarish flat objects such as paper, hide
or (the surface of) table, and can be more or less translated as "sheet". The character 把 ''bǎ'' was originally a verb meaning ''to grasp/grip'', is now more commonly used as the noun for "handle
", and can also used as the classifier for "handful".
Technically a distinction is made between classifiers (or ''count-classifiers''), which are used only with count noun
s and do not generally carry any meaning of their own, and measure word
s (or ''mass-classifiers''), which can be used also with mass noun
s and specify a particular quantity (such as "bottle" f water
or "pound" f fruit
. Less formally, however, the term "measure word" is used interchangeably with "classifier".
, classifiers must be used as a suffix when counting. The appropriate classifier is chosen based on the kind and shape of the noun, and combines with the numeral, sometimes adopting several different forms.
There is a general classifier (-''ua'') which exists in simple numbers (te-ua-na 1; uo-ua 2; ten-ua 3; a-ua 4; nima-ua 5; until 9) and is used when there is no specific classifier and for counting periods time and years; and specific classifiers like:
* -man (for people, animals, small fishes; ''te man'' alone means bird (''man-ni-kiba'', flying animal) or small bug);
* -ai (for big fishes and cetaceans);
* -waa (for canoes and, by extension, all vehicles (''a-waa te waanikiba'' means "4 planes" - ''waa-ni-kiba'', literal meaning is "flying canoe");
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.
The Korean language
has classifiers in the form of suffixes which attach to numerals. For example, ''jang'' (장) is used to count sheets of paper, blankets, leaves, and other similar objects: "ten bus tickets" could be translated ''beoseu pyo yeol-jang'' (버스 표 열 장), literally "bus ticket ten-lassifier
In Malay grammar
, classifiers are used to count all nouns, including concrete noun
s, abstract noun
s and phrasal nouns. Nouns are not reduplicated
for plural form when used with classifiers, definite or indefinite, although Mary Dalrymple
and Suriel Mofu give counterexamples where reduplication and classifiers co-occur.
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'', while the term in Indonesian is ''kata penggolong''.
Vietnamese uses a similar set of classifiers to Chinese, Japanese and Korean.
(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
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
*ILY hand shape: used for aircraft
Classifiers are part of the grammar of most East Asian languages
, including Chinese
, and the Bengali
and Munda languages
just to the west of the East and Southeast Asia linguistic area
. They are present in many Australian Aboriginal languages
, including Yidiny and Murrinhpatha. 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
and mainland Paleosiberian languages
), and also from the indigenous languages of the southern parts of both North and South America. In Austronesian languages
, classifiers are quite common and may have been acquired as a result of contact with Mon–Khmer languages
but the most remote members such as Malagasy
have lost them.
The ''World Atlas of Language Structures
'' has global map
showing 400 languages anchapter text
including geographical discussion:
Noun classifiers versus noun classes
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 lexeme
s 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 morpheme
s 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
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 affix
es 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.
Conceptual similarity to determinatives (writing systems)
Ancient Egyptian scripts, Cuneiform (Sumerian, Akkadian and Hittite), Luwian Hieroglyphs and Chinese
The Egyptian hieroglyphic script is formed of a repertoire of hundreds of graphemes which play different semiotic roles. Almost every word ends with an unpronounced grapheme (the so-called “determinative
”) that carries no additional phonetic value of its own. As such, this hieroglyph is a “mute” icon, which does not exist on the spoken level of language but supplies the word in question, through its iconic meaning alone, with extra semantic information.
In recent years, this system of unpronounced graphemes was compared to classifiers in spoken languages. The results show that the two systems, those of unpronounced graphemic classifiers and those of pronounced classifiers in classifier languages obey similar rules of use and function. The graphemic classifiers of the hieroglyphic script presents an emic image of knowledge organization in the Ancient Egyptian mind.
Similar graphemic classifiers are known also in Hieroglyphic Luwian and in
[Chen, Y. 2016. “The Prototypical Determinatives in Egyptian and Chinese Writing.” Scripta 8: 101-126.]
*American Sign Language grammar
*Southern Athabaskan grammar: Classificatory verbs
* Determiner (linguistics)
* Dixon, R. M. W.
(1982). Classifiers in Yidiny. In R. M. W. Dixon (ed.), ''Where have all the adjectives gone?'' (pp. 185–205.) Berlin: Mouton.
* Walsh, M. (1997). Noun classes, nominal classification and generics in Murrinhpatha. In M. Harvey & N. Reid (eds.), ''Nominal classification in Aboriginal Australia'' (pp. 255–292). Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
* Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y.
(2000). ''Classifiers: A typology of noun categorization devices''. Oxford studies in typology and linguistic theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press. .
* 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.
* Grinevald (Craig), Colette. (2004). “97. Classifiers,” in: C. Lehmann, J. Mugdan et al. (eds.), Morphology, An International Handbook on Inflection and Word-Formation. Volume 2. Berlin – New York: De Gruyter, 1016–1032.
* Goldwasser, Orly
& Colette Grinevald
(Craig) (2012). “What Are Determinatives Good For?,” in: E. Grossman, S. Polis & J. Winand (eds.), Lexical Semantics in Ancient Egyptian. Hamburg: Widmaier, 17–53.
* Bauer, Brigitte. L. M. (2017). Nominal Apposition in Indo-European Its Forms and Functions, and Its Evolution in Latin-Romance. Berlin – Boston: De Gruyter. Chapter 3: 62–88.
External linksSIL: Glossary of Linguistic Terms: What is a noun class?
Category:Parts of speech