5.3. Counters


5.3.1. Basic counters


To count things in Japanese, you cannot put nouns immediately after a number. Counters, which are added after numbers, are necessary. Do you think it is strange? English also has some counters for nouns representing things that cannot be counted as discrete objects. For instance, you would say two cups of coffee, ten pieces of paper, and fifty head of cattle. Japanese nouns resemble English abstract nouns.

There are three basic counters in Japanese.

CategoryCounterDescription
human
(ni)(n)
nin
human beings
animate
(hi)(ki)
hiki
life that can move, such as animals and protists, excluding human beings
inanimate
(ko)
ko
life that cannot move, such as plants, fungi, and eggs, and non-life including abstract concepts

Before counting things with counters, I'd like to introduce the genitive marker (no) "no", which is similar to the English suffix 's and the English word of. The word (no) is a postposition, which is a suffix to add a grammatical function to a noun. Postpositions are similar to prepositions, but the order of words are opposite as the name implies. The order of words for (no) is the same as that for 's, so A's B is the same as A (no) B, and A of B is the same as B (no) A.

It is important to know that phrases that add information to a main phrase are always placed before the main phrase in Japanese. This is a consistent rule with no exception. Linguists call it head-last. English is a head-first language, where a main phrase is placed before additional phrases, but it is not so consistent as Japanese. That-clauses and preposition phrases are good examples of the head-first rule of English; both a dog that is white and a dog with white hair are dogs. But adjectives break the rule because they are placed before a main phrase. A white dog is a kind of dog, not a kind of whiteness.

Let's get back to (no). Here is an example:

Kana:(ne)(ko)(no)  (mi)(mi)
Romanization:nekonomimi
Structure: noun
(cat)
genitive
marker
noun
(ear)
Meaning:a cat's ears

Japanese doesn't care much about singular, plural, definite, or indefinite, so the example can mean any combination of either a cat, the cat, cats, or the cats and either an ear, the ear, ears, or the ears. Anyway, the phrase means a kind of ear, because of the head-last rule.


Now that you know (no), you can count things with counters.
Put (no) after counters like this:

Kana:(sa)(n)(bi)(ki)(no)  (ne)(ko)
Romanization:sanbikinoneko
Structure: noun
(three)
noun
(counter)
genitive
marker
noun
(cat)
Meaning:three cats

Since cats are animals, the counter for cats is (hi)(ki) "hiki". The Japanese word for three is (sa)(n) "san". The euphonic change rules of small numbers are applied to counters, so the "san" changes "h" in the "hiki" into "b". The result is (sa)(n)(bi)(ki) "sanbiki".


The counter (ni)(n) "nin" is not used for counting a person or two. There are other words for one person and two people.

Kana:(hi)(to)(ri)
Romanization:hitori
Meaning:one person

Kana:(hu)(ta)(ri)
Romanization:hutari
Meaning:two people

Kana:(sa)(n)(ni)(n)
Romanization:sannin
Meaning:three people (three + counter)


Example:

Kana:(hu)(ta)(ri)(no)  (mu)(su)(me)
Romanization:hutarinomusume
Structure: noun
(two people)
genitive
marker
noun
(daughter)
Meaning:two daughters


Note: If a language has counters for general nouns, it doesn't have genders, and vice versa. Both counters and genders are ways of categorizing nouns, and they don't coexist. East Asian languages and Native American languages often have counters, and other languages often have genders. English is a rare language that has neither of them.

Further readings:

5.3.2. Traditional numbers


Japanese has another set of number names from the ones I explained in the small numbers chapter. They are the original number names of Japanese but were replaced by the new ones, most of which were imported from Chinese more than a thousand years ago. Now they are used only for counting inanimates, and treated as combinations of a digit and the inanimate counter (ko) "ko". The traditional numbers are often used to count abstract things.

NumberTraditional Japanese
1
(hi)(to)(tu)
hitotu
2
(hu)(ta)(tu)
hutatu
3
(mi)(small tu)(tu)
mittu
4
(yo)(small tu)(tu)
yottu
5
(i)(tu)(tu)
itutu
6
(mu)(small tu)(tu)
muttu
7
(na)(na)(tu)
nanatu
8
(ya)(small tu)(tu)
yattu
9
(ko)(ko)(no)(tu)
kokonotu
10
(to)(o)

The ancient Japanese numbers larger than ten were almost lost. Notice that the special human counter for one person (hi)(to)(ri) "hitori" and that for two people (hu)(ta)(ri) "hutari" are similar to the traditional number for one (hi)(to)(tu) "hitotu" and that for two (hu)(ta)(tu) "hutatu". In fact (ri) "ri" was a human counter in ancient Japanese. The last (tu) "tu" in the traditional number names was an inanimate counter, but modern native Japanese speakers don't feel a boundary between a digit name and (tu) because they are too old.

You may notice that two number names are similar when one is twice the other such as 1 and 2 ((hi)(to)(tu) "hitotu" and (hu)(ta)(tu) "hutatu"), 3 and 6 ((mi)(small tu)(tu) "mittu" and (mu)(small tu)(tu) "muttu"), and 4 and 8 ((yo)(small tu)(tu) "yottu" and (ya)(small tu)(tu) "yattu"). If you find a language that has this kind of number name pairs, it will suggest a relationship to ancient Japanese. Linguists are still looking for the origin of Japanese; some say it came from Korea, some say from west Pacific islands, and some say even from south India.

A few ancient words for larger numbers survive in modern Japanese as shown below, but they are used only for a person's age and Japanese people rarely know they were numbers.

NumberTraditional JapaneseMeaning in
modern Japanese
20
(ha)(ta)(ti)
hatati
twenty years old
(= being an adult in Japan)
30
(mi)(so)(zi)
misozi
thirty years old


5.3.3. Additional counters


The three basic counters you have just learned are not all counters Japanese has. Here is a list of important additional counters.

CategorySubcategoryCounterDescription
animate large animals
(to)(u)
animals larger than human beings.
This word literally means head, so it is the same as head in fifty head of cattle.
birds
(wa)
wa
birds
inanimate long things
(ho)(n)
hon
things that have length - pens, ropes, trees, movies, programs, etc.
thin things
(ma)(i)
mai
pieces of paper, leaves, plates, tickets, etc.
books
(sa)(tu)
satu
books, magazines, etc.
cups of liquid
(ha)(i)
hai
same as the English counter cup and glass
(cups of coffee, glasses of water, etc.)
lifelike
(ta)(i)
tai
dead bodies, mannequins, human-shaped robots, etc.
machines
(da)(i)
dai
cars, televisions, etc.
ships
(se)(ki)
seki
ships

Don't be afraid of many counters, because counters are not so strict as genders. Using the additional counters is better for the subcategories listed above, but using the three basic counters is always understandable.

The subcategories for the additional counters are not strict. Are sheep large animals? In fact, both (to)(u) "" and (hi)(ki) "hiki" work fine in this case. Penguines are counted with (wa) "wa" because they are birds, but some people use (hi)(ki) "hiki" for them because they don't fly.


Examples:

Kana:(go)(ho)(n)(no)  (sa)(ku)(ra)
Romanization:gohonnosakura
Structure: noun
(five)
noun
(counter)
genitive
marker
noun
(cherry tree)
Meaning:five cherry trees

Kana:(ni)(ha)(i)(no)  (o)(ti)(small ya)
Romanization:nihainootya
Structure: noun
(two)
noun
(counter,
cup)
genitive
marker
noun
(green tea)
Meaning:two cups of green tea


5.3.4. Continuum counters


A continuum, which cannot be measured by an integer only, always needs appropriate units in Japanese just as in English. Length is a good example of continuum, because it cannot be measured without using a unit, and it can have a decimal value. Japan uses the metric system for scientific values. Most metric units are written with katakana, because they are imported words.

CategorySubcategoryCounterDescription
continuum length
(me)(long)(to)(ru)
toru
meter
(ki)(ro)
kiro
1 kilometer = 1000 meters
Abbreviation of (ki)(ro)(me)(long)(to)(ru) "kirotoru".
(mi)(ri)
miri
1 millimeter = 1/1000 meter
Abbreviation of (mi)(ri)(me)(long)(to)(ru) "miritoru".
(se)(n)(ti)
senti
1 centimeter = 1/100 meter
Abbreviation of (se)(n)(ti)(me)(long)(to)(ru) "sentitoru".
mass
(ki)(ro)
kiro
1 kilogram = 1000 grams
Abbreviation of (ki)(ro)(gu)(ra)(mu) "kiroguramu".
(gu)(ra)(mu)
guramu
gram
(to)(n)
ton
1 metric ton = 1000 kilograms
volume
(ri)(small tu)(to)(ru)
rittoru
1 liter = 1000 cubic centimeters
temperature
(do)
do
degree Celsius
money
(e)(n)
en
Japanese yen (not "yen" but "en" !)
(do)(ru)
doru
American dollar
(yu)(long)(ro)
ro
EU euro
(po)(n)(do)
pondo
British pound

Example:

Kana:(yo)(n)(to)(n)(no)  (te)(tu)
Romanization:yontonnotetu
Structure: noun
(four)
noun
(counter,
ton)
genitive
marker
noun
(iron)
Meaning:four metric tons of iron


5.3.5. Euphonic change


I have explained the euphonic change rules of small numbers, and they are also used for counters. Even though counting things without using the rules is understandable, memorizing the following charts will help you speak natural Japanese.

NumberPeopleAnimatesInanimates
1
(hi)(to)(ri)
hitori
(i)(small tu)(pi)(ki)
ippiki
(i)(small tu)(ko)
ikko
2
(hu)(ta)(ri)
futari
(ni)(hi)(ki)
nihiki
(ni)(ko)
niko
3
(sa)(n)(ni)(n)
sannin
(sa)(n)(bi)(ki)
sanbiki
(sa)(n)(ko)
sanko
4
(yo)(ni)(n)
yonin
(yo)(n)(hi)(ki)
yonhiki
(yo)(n)(ko)
yonko
5
(go)(ni)(n)
gonin
(go)(hi)(ki)
gohiki
(go)(ko)
goko
6
(ro)(ku)(ni)(n)
rokunin
(ro)(small tu)(pi)(ki)
roppiki
(ro)(small tu)(ko)
rokko
7
(na)(na)(ni)(n)
nananin
(na)(na)(hi)(ki)
nanahiki
(na)(na)(ko)
nanako
8
(ha)(ti)(ni)(n)
hatinin
(ha)(small tu)(pi)(ki)
happiki
(ha)(small tu)(ko)
hakko
9
(ki)(small yu)(u)(ni)(n)
kyûnin
(ki)(small yu)(u)(hi)(ki)
kyûhiki
(ki)(small yu)(u)(ko)
kyûko
10
(zi)(small yu)(u)(ni)(n)
zyûnin
(zi)(small yu)(small tu)(pi)(ki)
zyuppiki
(zi)(small yu)(small tu)(ko)
zyukko
100
(hi)(small ya)(ku)(ni)(n)
hyakunin
(hi)(small ya)(small tu)(pi)(ki)
hyappiki
(hi)(small ya)(small tu)(ko)
hyakko
1000
(se)(n)(ni)(n)
sennin
(se)(n)(bi)(ki)
senbiki
(se)(n)(ko)
senko


NumberLarge animalsBirdsLong things
1
(i)(small tu)(to)(u)
it
(i)(ti)(wa)
itiwa
(i)(small tu)(po)(n)
ippon
2
(ni)(to)(u)
ni
(ni)(wa)
niwa
(ni)(ho)(n)
nihon
3
(sa)(n)(to)(u)
san
(sa)(n)(wa)
sanwa
(sa)(n)(bo)(n)
sanbon
4
(yo)(n)(to)(u)
yon
(yo)(n)(wa)
yonwa
(yo)(n)(ho)(n)
yonhon
5
(go)(to)(u)
go
(go)(wa)
gowa
(go)(ho)(n)
gohon
6
(ro)(ku)(to)(u)
roku
(ro)(ku)(wa)
rokuwa
(ro)(small tu)(po)(n)
roppon
7
(na)(na)(to)(u)
nana
(na)(na)(wa)
nanawa
(na)(na)(ho)(n)
nanahon
8
(ha)(small tu)(to)(u)
hat
(ha)(ti)(wa)
hatiwa
(ha)(small tu)(po)(n)
happon
9
(ki)(small yu)(u)(to)(u)
kyû
(ki)(small yu)(u)(wa)
kyûwa
(ki)(small yu)(u)(ho)(n)
kyûhon
10
(zi)(small yu)(small tu)(to)(u)
zyut
(zi)(small yu)(u)(wa)
zyûwa
(zi)(small yu)(small tu)(po)(n)
zyuppon
100
(hi)(small ya)(ku)(to)(u)
hyaku
(hi)(small ya)(ku)(wa)
hyakuwa
(hi)(small ya)(small tu)(po)(n)
hyappon
1000
(se)(n)(to)(u)
sen
(se)(n)(wa)
senwa
(se)(n)(bo)(n)
senbon


NumberThin thingsBooksCups of liquid
1
(i)(ti)(ma)(i)
itimai
(i)(small tu)(sa)(tu)
issatu
(i)(small tu)(pa)(i)
ippai
2
(ni)(ma)(i)
nimai
(ni)(sa)(tu)
nisatu
(ni)(ha)(i)
nihai
3
(sa)(n)(ma)(i)
sanmai
(sa)(n)(sa)(tu)
sansatu
(sa)(n)(ba)(i)
sanbai
4
(yo)(n)(ma)(i)
yonmai
(yo)(n)(sa)(tu)
yonsatu
(yo)(n)(ha)(i)
yonhai
5
(go)(ma)(i)
gomai
(go)(sa)(tu)
gosatu
(go)(ha)(i)
gohai
6
(ro)(ku)(ma)(i)
rokumai
(ro)(ku)(sa)(tu)
rokusatu
(ro)(small tu)(pa)(i)
roppai
7
(na)(na)(ma)(i)
nanamai
(na)(na)(sa)(tu)
nanasatu
(na)(na)(ha)(i)
nanahai
8
(ha)(ti)(ma)(i)
hatimai
(ha)(small tu)(sa)(tu)
hassatu
(ha)(small tu)(pa)(i)
happai
9
(ki)(small yu)(u)(ma)(i)
kyûmai
(ki)(small yu)(u)(sa)(tu)
kyûsatu
(ki)(small yu)(u)(ha)(i)
kyûhai
10
(zi)(small yu)(u)(ma)(i)
zyûmai
(zi)(small yu)(small tu)(sa)(tu)
zyussatu
(zi)(small yu)(small tu)(pa)(i)
zyuppai
100
(hi)(small ya)(ku)(ma)(i)
hyakumai
(hi)(small ya)(ku)(sa)(tu)
hyakusatu
(hi)(small ya)(small tu)(pa)(i)
hyappai
1000
(se)(n)(ma)(i)
senmai
(se)(n)(sa)(tu)
sensatu
(se)(n)(ba)(i)
senbai


Further readings:

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Copyright(C) TAKASUGI Shinji (ts@sf.airnet.ne.jp)