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One of the weirdest things about Chinese is the classifier. It's 一栋楼, not 一个楼, and 一只鱼, not 一个鱼. My question is: how (and why) did Chinese develop so many different classifiers? It makes sense to me to say something like 一杯水, because just like in every other language, you can't have "one water". This also seems to be the origin of classifiers in Chinese, according the Wikipedia page. However, in many other dialects of Chinese other than Mandarin, there is only one classifier: 个/個 And in historical Chinese, there were also many other general classifiers, like 介 and 枚. So, is there a specific reason why Chinese developed so many classifiers? And how did it develop so many? And why did 个 in particular become the general classifier for Mandarin?

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    “in many other dialects of Chinese other than Mandarin, there is only one classifier: 个/個, and in other dialects the only classifier is 隻/只” absolutely incorrect, such claiming. may i ask, where do you get it? Commented Mar 16, 2023 at 9:53
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    Uhh, English has “a flock of birds”, “a gaggle of geese”, “a herd of sheep”, “a school of fish”. Chinese just uses 群 for most cases.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Mar 16, 2023 at 11:10
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    “a thicket of idiots” Commented Mar 16, 2023 at 12:01
  • @水巷孑蠻 I got it from the Wikipedia page I already linked in my question
    – mucube
    Commented Mar 16, 2023 at 22:06
  • @dROOOze The words you mention, at least in my mind, are basically just units of measurement, just like "a cup of water". Just like with water, you can't have "one birds", so you have to stick a measurement words in front of it. My question is specifically asking about why Chinese has so many classifiers for singular nouns (like 一栋楼). In English you just say "one building" without any measurement words.
    – mucube
    Commented Mar 16, 2023 at 23:08

4 Answers 4

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The emergence of classifiers in the history of Chinese is very well-documented. From Wang (1998), Historical and Dialectal Variants of Chinese General Classifiers:

According to Wang (1994), 个 was a classifier as early as in oracle inscriptions, a variant of 丰 (丯). According to Guo (1962), it means shell or jade used in counting. Wang lists it as an example of what he calls protoclassifiers, which did not form a classifier system yet.

An example:

其貞用三丰(丯)犬羊

its divination use three kai dog, sheep.

... which is quoted by Wang Lianqing (1994) in his Origin and development of classifiers in Chinese:

Chou (1962), followed by Shen (1992), argues that since there was no syntactic structure of "numeral (Nu) + classifier (C) + noun (N)" in the PC, kai should not be interpreted as a liangci ‘measure word’. Instead, it should be interpreted as an adjective.

Thus what really makes a (sortal) classifier system then? The fact that after certain determiners (限定词) nouns in general take them.

This slowly emerges out of the Noun + Numeral + MW structure for numbers (example taken from the 金文 Bronze Inscriptions from the Western Zhou 大盂鼎):

田七田,人五夫

field seven field, person five person{CL?}

Thus we see the emergence of 'classifiers' as an extension of measure words.

And as we come to Classical Chinese sensu stricto these measure words and classifiers increase in number. Rarely do we see Numeral + MW (/ CL) + Noun, but it is attested. From the 初見秦 by 韓非子

不用一領甲,不苦一士民

not use one CL(?) coat, not hurt one CL(?) person

Nonetheless, Numeral + Noun is way more common; Noun + Numeral is also much more common than the structure with the classifier, and Noun + Numeral + Noun repeated (although that has been related to auto-classifiers).

It is only in the Han and the Six Dynasties periods that the classifier system comes into being. A greater range of lexemes starts to be used as classifiers, and the classifier starts to be semantically bleached, relegated to a grammatical role that refers back to a previous, contextual noun. E.g. the chapter 《韋賢傳》 from the 漢書 Han Shu:

徙家於鄒,又作一篇

move family to Zou, again write one CL

The range of classifiers continues to change through the Six Dynasties period, and of course differs between the various varieties of Sinitic. Even in this period though, classifiers are not obligatory, although they are common. This trend continues as Middle Chinese evolves into the modern topolects, and in the 四大名著 it is overwhelming, with classical expressions remaining classifier-less.

Thus we see that range in Chinese classifiers was part of their history from the start, and that levelling to 個 happened later - Dungan is widely reported to be one of those; another is Baoding in Hebei, part of the Ji-Lu Mandarin division.

That levelling can possibly be traced, according to Wang (1994), to the confluence of several different classifiers which were phonetically similar: 箇 for bamboo, 介 for links, and the aforementioned 丰/丯 > 个 > 個. One could also speculate on how the semantics of this "individual" lent itself to taking over a wide range of areas. Other "families" also branched out, although some of these are more semantically-motivated (e.g. 條).

In the history of many of the other languages of the region, such as Japanese and Korean, classifiers are already attested in the oldest writings (although those writings significantly post-date the adoption of classifiers in Chinese). Indeed, there are even suggestions that Japanese is still creating new counter words. Some suggest that this areal effect had a single origin.

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  • “ 一領甲” an excellent example 😸 一 (used as one, or, any) 領 (used as a classifier, “ 量詞。古代計算上衣、袍子或被子等的單位。《漢書.卷六八.霍光傳》:「賜金錢、繒絮,繡被百領,衣五十篋。」”) 甲 (盔甲, armour) dict.revised.moe.edu.tw/dictView.jsp?ID=3727&q=1&word=領 Commented Mar 18, 2023 at 1:34
  • “不苦一士民”, well, “士” is not a classifier here. this verse should be read as: not hurting (不苦) any (一) civilians (士民) Commented Mar 18, 2023 at 1:39
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    Do you mean "field (five) seven field, person five person"?
    – PdotWang
    Commented Mar 18, 2023 at 12:58
  • Even today we can still say "歼敌三千", "他送来白面三斤,香油五两"。
    – PdotWang
    Commented Mar 18, 2023 at 13:01
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The question is "how and why did the Chinese develop so many different classifiers?"

I cannot exactly tell "how", "why", "who", and "when" this happened. I think the reasons are deeply rooted in the Chinese language itself. I will only discuss the question based on the modern Chinese Language (白话文).

(1) Chinese nouns do not have a plural form. As in a joke, the Chinese do not have 苹果丝 (apples).

(2) There are many Chinese words that have a number of homophones (a word that is pronounced the same as another word but differs in meaning). Therefore, the modern Chinese Language tends to use multiple-syllable words or various types of combinations (phrases). 一只羊 makes more sense than 一羊 because there are many words that sound almost the same (一样, 一洋, 一扬, 异样, 益阳, 颐养).

(3) Many Chinese words and phrases are combinations. Many adjectives and nouns used as adjectives are prepositioned. Putting an indication word earlier in the sentence would be better. For example, (a) 她把一片无花果树的叶子夹在书中 is better than (b) 她把一无花果树的叶子夹在书中。 Because you can easily tell 一片叶子 in (a) but can be misled to 一树的叶子 in (b).

(4) Chinese has fewer words compared with English. For example, cardinal numbers and ordinal numbers are sometimes confusing in Chinese. For example, (a) 我得病以后,三姐姐来看我。 (b) 我得病以后,三个姐姐来看我。

In Chinese, those words are not called "classifiers". For example, the word 只 can be used in 一只小鸟,一只鞋子,一只耳朵。 Those nouns do not belong to the same class of things.

I prefer to call those words nouns or quantitative nouns. In English, the term "herb" in "a herd of sheep" is a noun. The physics unit "ampere", a measurement of the electrical current, is a noun. For example, "10 amperes of current", or "the electrical current is 10 amperes". I also prefer to call the phrases 一只小鸟,一只鞋子,一只耳朵 noun phrases. Those words can have the following functions in a sentence.

(1) To give the counting units, such as 一个,一只,一口,一头。

(2) To give the collection, such as 一队,一群,一堆,一副,一对,一双。

(3) To give the measurement tools, such as 一杯,一袋,一桶,一盒。

(4) To give the scientific units, such as 一米,一毫升,一公斤,一千瓦。

(5) To give the shape, such as 一片,一块,一座,一粒,一条,一张,一本,一滴,一卷,一把(with a hand)。

(6) To give the category, such as 一棵(植物),一只(动物),一支(步枪),一门(火炮),一架(飞机),一艘(轮船),一列(火车),一辆(汽车)。

(7) To give the time period, such as 一代(英豪),一世(功勋),一场(球赛),一阵(雷声)。

(8) To give the feature of the event, such as 一场(战争),一笔(生意)。

Some quantitative words may have specific combinations, for example,一顿饭,一篇文章,一枝玫瑰花,一栋楼,一间屋子,一座房子。

In many cases, especially in colloquial and informal situations, people can just use 个 as the quantitative nouns, or so-called "classifiers".

The modern Chinese Language (白话文) has only been about 100 years since 1910. The main achievements are by learning from abroad (舶来品). Much research and knowledge on the old-style Chinese books do not apply to the modern Chinese Language. On the other hand, linguistics developed in the West may also have difficulties in correctly describing the grammar of the Chinese Language, assuming it has one.

If you are also interested in old-style Chinese books, I can provide an example that has neither "classifiers", nor punctuation marks.

今有雉兔同笼上有三十五头下有九十四足问雉兔各几何

In modern Chinese:

有若干只鸡和若干只兔同在一个笼子里,从上面数,有35个头;从下面数,有94只脚。求笼中有多少只鸡和多少只兔?

In English:

There are a number of chickens and a number of rabbits in a cage. Looking from the top, you can count 35 heads. From the bottom, you can count 94 feet. How many chickens and rabbits are in the cage respectively?

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  • What are you trying to say, exactly? Sure, I can call 量詞 "measure nouns" or whatever, but this doesn't answer my original question at all.
    – mucube
    Commented Mar 17, 2023 at 1:15
  • I will add some explanations to your question. Thanks.
    – PdotWang
    Commented Mar 17, 2023 at 1:48
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Almost all languages have classifiers, including english. The only difference is that in english they are often just an optional clarification, while in chinese they are usually the natural sounding speech pattern.

I'm not sure where you heard that some chinese dialects have only one or two classifiers. I only know two dialects of chinese but find this very hard to believe-- again almost every language has classifiers including english.

Much of your question is impossible to answer, the same way I can't tell you why the word big is smaller than the word tiny, or why the word short is longer than the word long. It just is. Language is not neat and tidy, it evolves naturally over time-- most of what we know about language sources are actually just educated guesses. Its reasonable to assume at least some of what we think of etymology etc. is wrong, chinese or english.


That said, lets focus on an important factor of use: there are many classifiers because they all matter, and make a difference. just like there are many names of colors, because there are many colors to tell apart-- periwinkle and lavender have a subtle difference and so the different words exist.

a ream of paper is different from a pile of paper, a sheet of paper, a slip of paper, or a bundle of paper. a booklet of paper vs a shred of paper vs a strip of paper...... hopefully you get the idea, cause at this point the word paper is starting to lose meaning to me haha.

All the subtle differences of these classifiers in english also exist in chinese. Its totally normal if some specific classifiers in chinese don't make sense intuitively to you-- however be clear this isn't because its weird but just another sign of how different english is from chinese, and vice versa :)

As for 個 being the most common measure word, it has two main uses: for round things (simple enough). and for abstract things-- a lot of stuff that are ideas or constructs fall into this category.

It can be a measure words for other stuff too, but most non-item nouns and round nouns is already enough to make it the most common classifier.

As a final note: please keep in mind that classifiers are not one to one, a single classifier can mean more than one thing, just as an item can be described by more than one classifier.

For example, rivers are standardly categorized by 條 as a long narrow thing. However I could in specific context describe rivers with 個-- this would show I was talking about rivers abstractly, or in general as a concept etc.

So as you learn more classifiers and the things they describe, it will all become intuitive eventually-- or at least make way more sense.

Also, welcome!

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A classifier roughly coordinates with an object's shape, size, volume, or a specific feature. To know which is the appropriate classifier for an object, you need to have a mental image of the object first

個 (unit)is the most wildly used classifier because it can be applied to many objects

尾 (tail) is a very specific classifier for fish only

條 (strip) is a general classifier for anything that has an elongated body, that includes fish, snakes, worms, branch

頭 (head) is a general classifier for four-legged animals, e.g. 牛,羊,老虎

Exception: 馬's classifier is 匹 (one-of-a-pair) because we see horses as half of a rider unit, not cattle or beast

座 (setting) is a general classifier for objects that are mostly stationary and of substantial size and weight, e.g. 大廈,獎杯

Basically, you have to learn the classifiers at the same time you learn the object, when you learn the noun 大廈, you need to learn its classifiers are 幢 and 座; when you learn the noun 狗, you need to learn its classifiers are 條, 頭, and 隻

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  • Yes, I know how to use classifiers. But someone changed my question. My original question was how did the classifier develop, not use how to use it.
    – mucube
    Commented Mar 16, 2023 at 22:04
  • I am the one who modifies the original post at the time when I saw that this question is blocked.
    – PdotWang
    Commented Mar 16, 2023 at 23:37
  • In Chinese, those words are not called "classifiers". For example, the word 只 can be used in 一只小鸟,一只鞋子,一只耳朵。Those nouns do not belong to the same class.
    – PdotWang
    Commented Mar 16, 2023 at 23:42
  • @PdotWang 只, 个, ... are called "量词 - measure word; classifier; quantifier.
    – r13
    Commented Mar 17, 2023 at 3:08
  • 量词 can be quantitative nouns (数量名词) and qualitative nouns (质量名词). For accountable objects, such as 鸡蛋, the quantitative noun is a result of counting, 三枚鸡蛋. For unaccountable objects, such as 水, the quantitative noun is a measurement tool, such as 三瓶水. Qualitative nouns indicate the other features of the object, such as the shape or the category. Many qualitative nouns are fixed combinations, which are in fact part of the object, such as 一栋高楼,四匹马,三艘货轮。
    – PdotWang
    Commented Mar 17, 2023 at 6:19

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