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A classifier, in linguistics, is a word or morpheme used in some languages to classify the referent of a noun according to its meaning.

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

Contents

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 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 is the type of cup, 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.

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. 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.

Measure words

Classifiers are distinguished from measure words. While classifiers are used to count or identify individual occurrences of a count noun and usually have no direct translation in English, measure words count mass nouns by dividing them into portions (as in one drop of mud; because "mud" is a mass noun, *one mud is ungrammatical) or grouping them into containers (as in one glass of water).

See also

External links

Bibliography

  • 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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