Measure word: Wikis


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In linguistics, measure words, known more formally as numeral classifiers and also called counters, count words, counter words, or counting words, are words (or morphemes) that are used in combination with a numeral to indicate the count of nouns. The term "numeral classifier" arises from the fact that measure words often classify the noun they modify into some semantic class closely akin, but distinct from grammatical number or gender. Measure words are most often used when counting. Their use is analogous to English words that represent units or portions of mass nouns, for example one drop of milk, ten grains of rice, fifty head of cattle, three pieces of cake.


Global distribution

Measure words 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, measure words occur 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, measure words are entirely absent not only from European languages, but also from 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, measure words 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.

Indo-European languages

In contrast to Asian languages and others, measure words are not grammatical in the case of most Indo-European languages including English.



English has a distinction between mass nouns and count nouns, and employs a small number of fixed words that can be considered semantically-oriented counters. Consider the following:

  • 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.

Most measure words in English are more accurately called units of measurement. They are normal count nouns, not grammatical particles. A measure word is the only way to quantify a mass noun:

  • three cups of coffee
  • four kernels of corn, three ears of corn, two bushels of corn
  • one litre of water

A corn (taken in the sense of grain) is ungrammatical and is almost never heard. Note that this is purely for reasons of grammar; semantically, corn usually refers to a plurality of grains and not an amorphous mass. But corn is grammatically a mass noun and so there is no singular form a corn.

With count nouns, however, measure words are unnecessary. A number alone can be used as an adjective to modify the noun to be counted:

  • four pencils
  • three horses

English also features some cases in which the number and the measure word are combined as a single word: for example, when counting

  • golfers: twosome, threesome, foursome...
  • musicians: solo, duet, trio, quartet...
  • wombmates: twins, triplets, quadruplets....

See also collective noun for a concept related to measure words that is found in English.


Although not typical for an Indo-European language, Bengali makes use of measure words. Every noun in this language must have its corresponding measure word (MW) when used with a numeral or other quantifier. Most nouns take the generic measure word 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 certainly does not compare to 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-MW clock Nine clocks
Kôe-ţa balish How.many-MW pillow How many pillows
Ônek-jon lok Many-MW person Many people
Char-pañch-jon shikkhôk Four-five-MW 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, also note that it is common to have situations where the measure word is omitted when it counts a non-nominative word: e.g., aţ biŗaler desh (eight cats-possessive country ), or panc bhUte khelo (five ghosts-instrumental ate). Also, for large count values, the measure word is redundant, e.g., ek sho lok esechhe ("One hundred people have come.").

Also interesting to note that it is grammatical to hear sentences without the measure words, e.g., amar char chhele (I-possessive four boy, I have four sons). In this case, the semantic stress is not on the actual counting, but a statement of fact, which is a case similar to English. The -ţa suffix comes from /goţa/ 'piece', and is also used as a definite article.

Omitting the noun and preserving the measure word is grammatical and not uncommon to hear. 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.

East Asian languages

Languages such as Ainu, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Thai use measure words as the standard way of indicating the count of the number of items, rather than, as in most Indo-European languages, allowing numbers to count a noun directly.


Korean uses special measure or 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, measure words, 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?
yī gè rén
one [general classifier] person one person or a person

Measure words are not used often in Classical Chinese, and it is not obligatory to use them. In all dialects of modern Chinese, however, measure words are obligatory with enumeration of all count nouns; yī rén in modern Chinese when used as a measure word 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, most nouns are effectively mass nouns, and measure words must be used with a number when counting them. The appropriate measure word is chosen based on the kind and shape of the noun, and combines with the numeral, sometimes adopting several different forms. This is similar to noun classes in many African languages, except that the classifiers are used only when counting.

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-wa
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

See also


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