Classifier (linguistics)

Classifier (linguistics)

A classifier, in linguistics, sometimes called a measure word, is a word or morpheme used in some languages to classify the referent of a countable noun according to its meaning. In languages that have classifiers, they are often used when the noun is being counted or specified (i.e., when it appears with a numeral or a demonstrative). Classifiers are not used in English (for instance, "people" is a countable noun, and to say "three people" no extra word needs to be added), but are common in many East Asian languages (where the equivalent of "three people" is often "three classifier people").

Classifier systems should not be confused with noun classes, which often categorize nouns in ways independent from meaning, such as according to morphology.


Definition and examples

In a language with noun classifiers, a noun may or may not be accompanied by a noun classifier, which shows a conceptual classification of the referent of a noun (not the noun itself) and is commonly used when counting. Noun classifiers are not grammatical but lexical items, and a language may have hundreds of noun classifiers. For instance, in Mandarin Chinese, the general noun classifier for humans is ge (個), and it is used for counting humans, whatever they are called:

3-ge xuesheng (三個學生) lit. "3 human-classifier of student" — 3 students

And for trees, it would be:3-ke shu (三棵樹) lit. "3 tree-classifier of tree" — 3 trees; for birds: 3-zhi niao (三隻鳥) lit. "3 bird-classifier of bird" — 3 birds; for rivers: 3-tiao he (三條河) lit. "3 long-wavy-shape of river" — 3 rivers;

As this example shows, the noun classifier agrees with the referent of a noun, not with the noun itself. Since noun classifiers are words, not grammatical functions, it is not uncommon to import them from other languages. They are very much like measure words in this respect; when counting cups of coffee, it does not matter what the type of cup is, or the brand of the coffee. The referent can also be omitted in both systems when answering a question about quantity:

Q: duo-shao tong(classifier) shui? (多少桶水?) — How many bucket(measure word) of water?
A: liang-tong. (兩桶.) — Two buckets.

Languages with noun classifiers include Chinese (see Chinese classifier), Persian, Japanese, Korean, Southeast Asian languages, Austronesian languages, and Mayan languages. Classifiers are a very typical feature of sign languages.

A less typical example of classifiers is explained at Southern Athabaskan grammar: Classificatory verbs.


English does not use classifiers productively, although a few idiosyncratic nouns do sometimes appear with classifiers:

  • five head of cattle (said by ranchers)
  • ten stem of roses (said by florists)
  • three pair of pants (or pairs)

Note that the preceding measure words are singular in form. If they were plural, the first two phrases would have different meanings.


French does not use classifiers productively, although a few idiosyncratic nouns do sometimes appear with classifiers:

  • Une tête de bétail (same meaning as a head of cattle in English)
  • Une paire de lunettes/jumelles/gants/chaussures/baguettes (a pair of glasses/binoculars/gloves/shoes/chopsticks...)
  • Une botte de radis (a stem (literally: boot) of radishes)
  • Un pied de roses (a stem (literally: foot; used for trees/berries) of roses)


Korean uses special counting words to count objects and events.

In English, one must say, "two sheets of paper" rather than "two papers". In Korean, the term jang (장) is used to count sheets, or paper-like material in general. So "ten bus tickets" would be beoseu pyo yeol jang (버스 표 열 장), literally, "bus ticket ten 'sheets'".

There are two systems of numerals in Korean: native Korean and Sino-Korean. Native Korean numerals are used with most counter words. yeol gwa (열 과) would mean "ten lessons" while sip gwa (십 과) would mean "lesson ten". Sino-Korean numerals are used with many time counters.


In Burmese, classifiers, in the form of particles, are used when counting or measuring nouns. They immediately follow the numerical quantification. Nouns to which the classifiers refer to can be omitted if the context allows, because many classifiers have implicit meanings.

Burmese Literal translation English translation
θù tù n̥ə t͡ʃʰáʊ̃ ʃḭ dè
Thu tu hna chaung shi de
He-chopstick-two-[classifier for long and thin items]-[have-particle indicating present tense]. He has two chopsticks.
စားပွဲ ခုနစ်ခုရှိလာ
zəbwé kʰù̃ n̥ə kʰṵ ʃḭ là
Zabwe khun-hna khu shi la
Table-seven-[general classifier for items]-have-[particle indicating question] Do you have seven tables?
lù tə ú
lu ta u
one-[classifier for people]-person one person or a person


In Mandarin, nouns are not declined for singular or plural number; a noun without a classifier can be translated as either singular or plural. Classifiers are used when enumerating a count noun:

Chinese Literal translation Grammatically correct/idiomatic translation

Tā yǒu sān shuāng kuaìzi.

He have three pair chopstick. He has three pairs of chopsticks.

Nǐ yǒu méi yǒu qī zhāng zhuōzi?

You have-not-have seven [flat-thing classifier] table? Do you have seven tables?
yí gè rén
one [general classifier] person one person or a person

Classifiers are not used often in Classical Chinese, and it is not obligatory to use them. In all modern Chinese languages, however, measure words are obligatory with enumeration of all count nouns; yī rén in modern Chinese is grammatically incorrect. The choice of a classifier for each noun is a matter of grammar, is somewhat arbitrary–though frequently corresponds with a relatively well-defined classification of objects based on physical characteristics–and must be memorized by learners of Chinese. The classifier assigned to a noun often has an imagistic association with that object. Thus, zhāng has table as one of its meanings, and is used for large and thin objects. (Though uncommon, it is even possible to omit the noun if the choice of classifier makes the intended noun obvious–like the Bengali example above.) Not all classifier words derive from nouns. For example, the word can also be a verb meaning to grab, and is the measure word for objects that have handles.


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.

Japanese English, literal English
enpitsu go-hon
pencil five cylindrical-things five pencils
inu san-biki
dog three animal-things three dogs
kodomo yo-nin
child four people-things four children
niwatori san-ba
chicken three bird-things three chickens
yotto san-sō
yacht three boat-things three yachts
kuruma ichi-dai
car one mechanical-thing one car
toranpu ni-mai
playing card two flat-things two cards


Although not typical 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 ţa, although there are many more specific measure words, such as jon, which is only used to count humans. Still, the number of measure words in Bengali is much less than that of Chinese or Japanese. As in Chinese, Bengali nouns are not inflected for number.

Bengali Literal English translation Normal English translation
Nôe-ţa ghoŗi Nine-CL clock Nine clocks
Kôe-ţa balish How.many-CL pillow How many pillows
Ônek-jon lok Many-CL person Many people
Char-pañch-jon shikkhôk Four-five-CL teacher Four or five teachers

Similar to the situation in Chinese, measuring nouns in Bengali without their corresponding measure words (e.g. aţ biŗal instead of aţ-ţa biŗal "eight cats") would typically be considered ungrammatical. However, it is common to omit the classifier when it counts a noun that is not in nominative case (e.g., aţ biŗaler desh (eight cats-possessive country ), or panc bhUte khelo (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 -ţa suffix comes from /goţa/ '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.


Nepali has a system very similar to Bengali's, using -waṭā (-वटा) for objects and "-janā" (-जना) for humans.

Global distribution

Classifiers are part of the grammar of most East Asian languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Malay, Burmese, Thai, Hmong, and the Bengali and Munda languages just to the west of the East and Southeast Asia linguistic area. Among indigenous languages of the Americas, classiiers 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, Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic and mainland Paleosiberian languages), from Australian Aboriginal languages, and also from the indigenous languages of the southern parts of both North and South America. In Austronesian languages, classifiers have been acquired as a result of contact with Mon–Khmer languages but the most remote members such as Malagasy and Hawaiian have gradually lost them.

The World Atlas of Language Structures has a global map showing 400 languages and chapter text including geographical discussion:

Numeral classifiers exhibit striking worldwide distribution at the global level. The main concentration of numeral classifiers is in a single zone centered in East and Southeast Asia, but reaching out both westwards and eastwards. To the west, numeral classifiers peter out as one proceeds across the South Asian subcontinent; thus, in this particular region, the occurrence of numeral classifiers cross-cuts what has otherwise been characterized as one of the classical examples of a linguistic area, namely, South Asia. However, numeral classifiers pick up again, albeit in optional usage, in parts of western Asia centering on Iran and Turkey; it is not clear whether this should be considered as a continuation of the same large though interrupted isogloss, or as a separate one. To the east, numeral classifiers extend out through the Indonesian archipelago, and then into the Pacific in a grand arc through Micronesia and then down to the southeast, tapering out in New Caledonia and western Polynesia. Interestingly, whereas in the western parts of the Indonesian archipelago numeral classifiers are often optional, in the eastern parts of the archipelago and in Micronesia numeral classifiers tend once more, as in mainland East and Southeast Asia, to be obligatory. Outside this single large zone, numeral classifiers are almost exclusively restricted to a number of smaller hotbeds, in West Africa, the Pacific Northwest, Mesoamerica, and the Amazon basin. In large parts of the world, numeral classifiers are completely absent.

Noun classifiers vs. noun classes

The concept of noun classifier is distinct from that of noun class.

  • Classifier systems typically involve 20 or more classifiers (separate lexemes that co-occur with the noun). One hundred classifiers are common, and 400 are attested.[clarification needed] Noun class systems 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 more than one classifier. 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 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 inflecting words, i.e. through bound morphemes which cannot appear alone in a sentence. Class may be marked on the noun itself, but will also always 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 of style 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 affixes 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.

See also

External links


  • Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. (2000). Classifiers: A typology of noun categorization devices. Oxford studies in typology and linguistic theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-823886-X.
  • Allan, Keith. (1977). Classifiers. Language, 53, 2, 285-311.
  • Senft, Gunther. (ed.) (2008). Systems of nominal classification. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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