This question is inspired from a recent question here about 列车.

The question: How is this word formed, and/or where does it come from?

(When I am asking this question, I have my own guess: this word is formed by the nominal element 车 referring to 火车, preceded by a noun classifier 列, as in 兩列火车. But I wonder why the noun classifier should precede the noun. In many other phrases the classifier should follow the noun, as in 犬只, 鸡塊, 纸张, 木条. Is 车列 also an acceptable word?)

  • the central part of 车列 is 列... that sounds like the vehicle progression in a parade. Similarly, the central part of 木条 is 条 not 木.
    – user58955
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 14:12

3 Answers 3


About morphology: 列車 is a compound noun made up of two morphemes, with the head being 車. According to Chaofen Sun’s ‘Chinese: A Linguistic Introduction’ (p. 50), about 90% of compound nouns in Chinese have the head (nominal formant) on the right. Thus the structure of 列車 is not unusual at all. The morpheme on the left tells us what kind of car it is, as in similar compounds like 汽車, 公車, 三輪車 etc. It’s just a coincidence that 列 also happens to be used as a classifier. (So @Rephinx is correct.)

About etymology: steam engine trains were only invented in the 19th century, so this word won’t be very old. It’s instructive here to look at the origins of the English word ‘train’. (See link here: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=train)

‘Train’ comes from a Latin root meaning ‘pull, draw’, which is quite similar to the meaning of 列. It seems that 列車 is a kind of calque on the English word.

Generally Chinese word formation is an interesting topic. Besides Sun, I would recommend Jerome Packard’s ‘The morphology of Chinese: a linguistic and cognitive approach’ (Cambridge UP 2000), although parts of it make use of X-bar theory and thus might be difficult to follow if you don’t have a background in linguistics.

  • 1
    Another book I would recommend regarding Chinese word formation is The Chinese Lexicon: A Comprehensive Survey by Yip Po-Ching. It doesn't go into linguistic theory as much so it's easier to follow for people who are not versed in linguistics.
    – Claw
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 22:29

It's not a classifier here. From dictionary:

列车 lièchē

(1) [train]∶众多连续的车辆。一般指火车,尤指由牵引机车和运货或载客的车厢组成的连挂成列的火车

So you can see, 列 is short for 成列的 (lined up in a row), therefore it's put before 车 as an adj.

  • 2
    Guifan, Longmans, Hanyu Da Cidian and Taiwans Ministry of Education all pretty much the same thing: it forms a line (or row) - so it's called the "line car" (or "row car" if you prefer).
    – Mou某
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 6:03
  • (1) I understand that 连挂成列(的) is used as an attributive to modify the head 火车. However, can you tell me whether the word 列 in 连挂成列(的) is an adjective, or a noun? (Compare: 排列成队的士兵 the word 队 is a noun, and this word can also be used as a noun classifier as in 两队士兵. However, I find that the morphology of the word 列车 quite special, because there seems no other words formed in any way similar to this example. For example, we do not form *队兵. We also do not form *兵队.)
    – HYC
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 12:31
  • (2) Perhaps you are correct that "It's not a classifier here.", but the argument that "It's not a classifier... it's put before 车 as an adj" is not valid. I assume you deduce that "it's not a classifier" from the fact that "it's put before 车 as an adj". 茶杯/酒杯 are 盛茶的/盛酒的杯子. You will conclude that 茶/酒 are put before 杯 as an adj. Is it sufficient for you to conclude that 茶/酒 are not classifiers? You're right, they aren't classifiers, but that's just because we do not use them in a way we use classifiers, but not because they are used as an adj.
    – HYC
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 12:45
  • (3) Thank you for suggesting that 列车 is 连挂成列的火车. It really helps the discussion.
    – HYC
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 13:00
  • @HYC the morphology of the word 列车 is 偏正结构 which is very common. People could tell from context that 列车 is a kind of 车, and 列 describes 车. For 列 to act as a classifier AND be put before 车, there must be a number or a determiner (or other kind component to constrain 列) before it, e.g. 两列车相撞了 or 那列车出轨了.
    – Rephinx
    Commented May 4, 2014 at 7:24

While the other answers here are interesting, one should not overlook the possibility that 列車 is a loan word from Japanese.

  • Good point, but if it is a calque on the English term as I suggest in my answer, it doesn't really matter whether the person doing the coining was Chinese or Japanese.
    – neubau
    Commented May 4, 2014 at 0:30
  • @user2619 Ha haa, but if it's a loanword from Japanese, and the Japanese word 列車 was a domestic coinage rather than a loanword, then it doesn't really matter how the English word "train" came up ;-D Anyway, I don't think we have any conclusive evidence here.
    – user4086
    Commented May 4, 2014 at 18:22

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