TYJ Counters

By Takasugi · May 22, 2017 ·
  1. Takasugi
    5.3. Counters

    5.3.1. Basic counters

    To count things in Japanese, you cannot put nouns immediately after a number. Counters, which are added after numbers, are necessary. Do you think it is strange? English also has some counters for nouns representing things that cannot be counted as discrete objects. For instance, you would say two cups of coffee, ten pieces of paper, and fifty head of cattle. Japanese nouns resemble English abstract nouns.

    There are three basic counters in Japanese.

    CategoryCounterDescription
    humanにん
    ni n
    human being
    animateひき
    hi ki
    life that can move, such as animals and protists, excluding human beings
    inanimate
    ko
    life that cannot move, such as plants, fungi, and eggs, and non-life including abstract concepts
    Before counting things with counters, I'd like to introduce the genitive marker の "no", which is similar to the English suffixes and the English word of. The word の is a postposition, which is a suffix to add a grammatical function to a noun. Postpositions are similar to prepositions, but the order of words are opposite as the name implies. The order of words for の is the same as that for 's, so A's B is the same as AB, and A of B is the same as BA.

    It is important to know that phrases that add information to the main phrase are always placed before the main phrase in Japanese. This is a consistent rule with no exception. Linguists call it head-last. English is a head-first language, where the main phrase is placed before additional phrases, but it is not so consistent as Japanese. That-clauses and preposition phrases are good examples of the head-first rule of English; both a dog that is white and a dog with white hair are dogs. But adjectives break the rule because they are placed before the main phrase. A white dog is a kind of dog, not a kind of whiteness.

    Let's get back to の. Here is an example:

    Kana:ねこのみみ
    Romanization:ne ko no mi mi
    Structure:noun genitive noun
    (cat) marker (ear)
    Meaning:a cat's ears
    Japanese doesn't care much about the singular, plural, definite, or indefinite so that the example can mean any combination of either a cat, the cat, cats, or the cats and either an ear, the ear, ears, or the ears. Anyway, the phrase means a kind of ear, because of the head-last rule.

    Now that you know の, you can count things with counters.
    Put の after counters like this:

    Kana:さんばきのねこ
    Romanization:sa n bi ki no ne ko
    Structure:noun noun genitive noun
    (three) (counter) marker (cat)
    Meaning:three cats
    Since cats are animals, the counter for cats is ひき "hiki". The Japanese word for three is さん "san". The euphonic change rules of small numbers are applied to counters, so the "san" changes "h" in the "hiki" into "b". The result is さんばき "sanbiki".

    The counter にん "nin" is not used for counting a person or two. There are other words for one person and two people.

    Kana:ひとり
    Romanization:hi to ri
    Meaning:one person
    Kana:ふたり
    Romanization:hu ta ri
    Meaning:two people
    Kana:さんにん
    Romanization:sa n ni n
    Meaning:three people (three + counter)
    Example:

    Kana:ふたりのむすめ
    Romanization:hu ta ri no mu su me
    Structure:noun genitive noun
    (two people) marker (daughter)
    Meaning:two daughters
    Note: If a language has counters for general nouns, it doesn't have genders and vice versa. Both counters and genders are ways of categorising nouns, and they don't coexist. East Asian languages and Native American languages often have counters, and other languages often have genders. English is a rare language that has neither of them.

    Further readings:

    5.3.2. Traditional numbers

    Japanese has another set of number names from the ones I explained in the small numbers chapter. They are the original number names of Japanese but were replaced by the new ones, most of which were imported from Chinese more than a thousand years ago. Now they are used only for counting inanimates, and treated as combinations of a digit and the inanimate counter こ "ko". The traditional numbers are often used to count abstract things.

    NumberTraditional Japanese
    1ひとつ
    hi to tu
    2ふたつ
    hu ta tu
    3みっつ
    mi t tu
    4よっつ
    yo t tu
    5いつつ
    i tu tu
    6むっつ
    mu t tu
    7たたつ
    na na tu
    8やっつ
    ya t tu
    9ここのつ
    ko ko no tu
    10とう
    The ancient Japanese numbers larger than ten were almost lost. Notice that the special human counter for one person ひとり "hitori" and that for two people ふたり "hutari" are similar to the traditional number for one ひとつ "hitotu" and that for two ふたつ "hutatu". In fact, り "ri" was a human counter in ancient Japanese. The last つ "tu" in the traditional number names was an inanimate counter, but modern native Japanese speakers don't feel a boundary between a digit name and つ because they are too old.

    You may notice that two number names are similar when one is twice the other such as 1 and 2 (ひとつ "hitotu" and ふたつ "hutatu"), 3 and 6 (むっつ "mittu" and むっつ "muttu"), and 4 and 8 (よっつ "yottu" and やっつ "yattu"). If you find a language that has this kind of number name pairs, it will suggest a relationship to ancient Japanese. Linguists are still looking for the origin of Japanese; some say it came from Korea, some say from west Pacific islands, and some say even from south India.

    A few ancient words for larger numbers survive in modern Japanese as shown below, but they are used only for a person's age and Japanese people rarely know they were numbers.

    NumberTraditional JapaneseMeaning in modern Japanese
    20はたち
    ha ta ti
    twenty years old (= being an adult in Japan)
    30みそじ
    mi so zi
    thirty years old
    5.3.3. Additional counters

    The three basic counters you have just learned are not all counters Japanese has. Here is a list of important additional counters.

    Animate

    SubcategoryCounterDescription
    large animalsとう
    animals larger than human beings.
    This word literally means head, so it is the same as head in fifty head of cattle.
    birds
    wa
    birds
    Inanimate

    SubcategoryCounterDescription
    long thingsほん
    ho n
    things that have length - pens, ropes, trees, movies, programs, etc.
    thin thingsまい
    ma i
    pieces of paper, leaves, plates, tickets, etc.
    booksさつ
    sa tu
    books, magazines, etc.
    cups of liquidはい
    ha i
    same as the English counter cup and glass
    (cups of coffee, glasses of water, etc.)
    lifelikeたい
    ta i
    dead bodies, mannequins, human-shaped robots, etc.
    machinesだい
    da i
    cars, televisions, etc.
    shipsせき
    se ki
    ships
    Don't be afraid of many counters, because counters are not so strict as genders. Using the additional counters is better for the subcategories listed above, but using the three basic counters is always understandable.

    The subcategories for the additional counters are not strict. Are sheep large animals? In fact, both とう "" and ひき "hiki" work fine in this case. Penguins are counted with わ "wa" because they are birds, but some people use ひき "hiki" for them because they don't fly.

    Examples:

    Kana:ごほんのさくら
    Romanization:go ho n no sa ku ra
    Structure:noun noun genitive noun
    (five) (counter) (genitive marker) (cherry tree)
    Meaning:five cherry trees
    Kana:にはいのおちゃ
    Romanization:ni ha i no o tya
    Structure:noun noun genitive noun
    (two) (counter, cup) (genitive marker) (green tea)
    Meaning:two cups of green tea
    5.3.4. Continuum counters

    A continuum, which cannot be measured by an integer only, always needs appropriate units in Japanese just as in English. Length is a good example of continuum because it cannot be measured without using a unit, and it can have a decimal value. Japan uses the metric system for scientific values. Most metric units are written with katakana because they are imported words.

    Length:

    CounterDescription
    メートル
    mê to ru
    meter
    キロ
    ki ro
    1 kilometer = 1000 meters
    Abbreviation of キロメートル "kirotoru".
    ミリ
    mi ri
    1 millimeter = 1/1000 meter
    Abbreviation of ミリメートル "miritoru".
    センチ
    se n ti
    1 centimeter = 1/100 meter
    Abbreviation of センチメートル "sentitoru".
    Mass:

    CounterDescription
    キロ
    ki ro
    1 kilogram = 1000 grams
    Abbreviation of キログラム "kiroguramu".
    グラム
    gu ra mu
    gram
    トン
    to n
    1 metric ton = 1000 kilograms
    Volume:

    CounterDescription
    リットル
    ri t to ru
    1 liter = 1000 cubic centimeters
    Temperature:

    CounterDescription

    do
    degree Celsius
    Currencies:

    CounterDescription
    えん
    e n
    Japanese yen (not "yen" but "en" !)
    ドル
    do ru
    American dollar
    ユーロ
    ro
    EU euro
    ポンド
    po n do
    British pound
    Example:

    Kana:よんトンのてつ
    Romanization:yo n to n no te tu
    Structure:noun (four) noun (counter, ton) (genitive marker) noun (iron)
    Meaning: four metric tons of iron
    5.3.5. Euphonic change

    I have explained the euphonic change rules of small numbers, and they are also used for counters. Even though counting things without using the rules is understandable, memorising the following charts will help you speak natural Japanese.

    NumberPeopleAnimatesInanimates
    1ひとり
    hi to ri
    いっぴき
    i p pi ki
    いっこ
    i k ko
    2ふたり
    hu ta ri
    にひき
    ni hi ki
    にこ
    ni ko
    3さんにん
    sa n ni n
    さんびき
    sa n bi ki
    さんこ
    sa n ko
    4よにん
    yo ni n
    よんひき
    yo n hi ki
    よんこ
    yo n ko
    5ごにん
    go ni n
    ごひき
    go hi ki
    ごこ
    go ko
    6ろくにん
    ro ku ni n
    ろっぴき
    ro p pi ki
    ろっこ
    ro k ko
    7ななにん
    na na ni n
    ななひき
    na na hi ki
    ななこ
    na na ko
    8はちにん
    ha ti ni n
    はっぴき
    ha p pi ki
    はっこ
    ha k ko
    9きゅうにん
    kyû ni n
    きゅうひき
    kyû hi ki
    きゅうこ
    kyû ko
    10じゅうにん
    zyû ni n
    じゅっぴき
    zyu p pi ki
    じゅっこ
    zyu k ko
    100ひゃくにん
    hya ku ni n
    ひゃっぴき
    hya p pi ki
    ひゃっこ
    hya k ko
    1000せんにん
    se n ni n
    せんびき
    se n bi ki
    せんこ
    se n ko
    NumberLarge animalsBirdsLong things
    1いっとう
    i t tô
    いちわ
    i ti wa
    いっぽん
    i p po n
    2にとう
    ni
    にわ
    ni wa
    にほん
    ni ho n
    3さんとう
    sa n tô
    さんわ
    sa n wa
    さんぼん
    sa n bo n
    4よんとう
    yo n tô
    よんわ
    yo n wa
    よんほん
    yo n ho n
    5ごとう
    go
    ごわ
    go wa
    ごほん
    go ho n
    6ろくとう
    ro ku
    ろくわ
    ro ku wa
    ろっぽん
    ro p po n
    7ななとう
    na na
    ななわ
    na na wa
    ななほん
    na na ho n
    8はっとう
    ha t tô
    はちわ
    ha ti wa
    はっぽん
    ha p po n
    9きゅうとう
    kyû
    きゅうわ
    kyû wa
    きゅうほん
    kyû ho n
    10じゅっとう
    zyu t tô
    じゅうわ
    zyû wa
    じゅっぽん
    zyu p po n
    100ひゃくとう
    hya ku
    ひゃくわ
    hya ku wa
    ひゃっぽん
    hya p po n
    1000せんとう
    se n tô
    せんわ
    se n wa
    せんぼん
    se n bo n
    NumberThin thingsBooksCups of liquid
    1いちまい
    i ti ma i
    いっさつ
    i s sa tu
    いっぱい
    i p pa i
    2にまい
    ni ma i
    にさつ
    ni sa tu
    にはい
    ni ha i
    3さんまい
    sa n ma i
    さんさつ
    sa n sa tu
    さんばい
    sa n ba i
    4よんまい
    yo n ma i
    よんさつ
    yo n sa tu
    よんはい
    yo n ha i
    5ごまい
    go ma i
    ごさつ
    go sa tu
    ごはい
    go ha i
    6ろくまい
    ro ku ma i
    ろくさつ
    ro ku sa tu
    ろっぱい
    ro p pa i
    7ななまい
    na na ma i
    ななさつ
    na na sa tu
    ななはい
    na na ha i
    8はちまい
    ha ti ma i
    はっさつ
    ha s sa tu
    はっぱい
    ha p pa i
    9きゅうまい
    kyû ma i
    きゅうさつ
    kyû sa tu
    きゅうはい
    kyû ha i
    10じゅうまい
    zyû ma i
    じゅっさつ
    zyu sa tu
    じゅっぱい
    zyu p pa i
    100ひゃくまい
    hya ku ma i
    ひゃくさつ
    hya ku sa tu
    ひゃっぱい
    hya p pa i
    1000せんまい
    se n ma i
    せんさつ
    se n sa tu
    せんばい
    se n ba i
    Further readings:

    ← Previous page (Large numbers) | Next page (Decimals and fractions) →

    About Author

    Takasugi
    My name is TAKASUGI Shinji. TAKASUGI is my family name, and Shinji is my given name; a family name is placed before a given name in Japan, as in other Asian nations. My family name is capitalized to avoid misunderstanding.

    I have been living in Yokohama since I was born. Yokohama is the second largest city in Japan, which is just 30 kilometers away from the biggest city Tôkyô. It takes 30 minutes to go by train from home to Shibuya, which is the hottest town now in Tôkyô.

    I work as a display engineer.

    One of my hobbies is creating things with computers; creating programs, computer graphics and web pages is the thing I spent a lot of time doing. I am also interested in a wide range of sciences, and linguistics is my favorite. I like English and I like using it, but my focus is mainly on Japanese, which is my native language. I'm proud of knowing the language, and the difference between English and Japanese has been fascinating me. I have been thinking whether I can introduce it to people outside of Japan. My attempt of introducing Japanese with some Java applets has had more than 1 million visitors.


    More from JREF

Comments

In order to add your comment please sign up and become a member of JREF through the registration form at the top right of the page; you can also sign up under your Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ account.
  1. This site uses cookies to help personalise content, tailor your experience and to keep you logged in if you register.
    By continuing to use this site, you are consenting to our use of cookies.
    Dismiss Notice