classifiers in East Asian languages

David Gil gil at EVA.MPG.DE
Fri Nov 6 09:16:15 UTC 1998

Two minor comments on Hideaki's posting:

> Asian languages, including Japanese, Korean, all the Chinese dialects,

> Malay/Indonesian and Bangkok Thai.  These languages have well
> classifier systems and lack plural inflections/productive morphology
that derives > plural words from the singular counterparts.

Among the languages listed above, it is important to distinguish between
*obligatory* and *optional* usages of a classifier in a given context,
and among optional usages between those of various frequencies.  Any
grammar book will tell you that with numerals, classifiers are
obligatory in Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Thai but optional in Malay /
Indonesian.  But there's more to it than that.  Imagine for example that
you're in a McDonalds and you've just ordered 3 Big Macs, and then the
guy behind the counter shouts your order to the guy back in the
kitchen.  Will there be a classifier after the numeral?  Not in Bangkok
Thai, in spite of what the grammar books say.  Nor in Vietnamese for
that matter.  So we need to posit a cline of frequency, which, for the
NUMERAL - CLASSIFIER - NOUN construction (abstracting away from
differences in word order), might look something like this:

obligatory:   some Chinese languages
very frequent:   Thai, Vietnamese
frequent:   Banjar Malay
infrequent:   Kuala Lumpur Malay
very infrequent:   Riau Indonesian
absent:   Tagalog

A second point.  Hideaki writes:

> In Hokkien, there is a classifier which is homophonous to the
possessive marker
> so one may claim that there is some kind of iconic relation between

I see no reason to assume that the form in question [e24] is not a
*single* form with a very large range of functions.  The only arguments
that I have seen in favour of "two homophonous [e24]'s" are (a) they're
written with two different characters, and (b) they correspond to two
different grammatical markers in Mandarin.  Neither argument is at all
convincing.  It's about time the synchronic study of Chinese languages
was dragged out from under the shadow of Mandarin.

This is why I wrote "some" before "Chinese languages" in the above
frequency cline: I don't think the NUMERAL - [e24] - NOUN construction
in Hokkien is a classifier construction.  (But of course Hokkien does in
addition have constructions with other, more specific classifiers.)  For
a preliminary written version of this argument see:

Gil, David (1997) "Macrofunctionality in Chinese Noun Phrases" in Gu
Yang ed., Interface Strategies in Chinese: Syntax and Semantics of Noun
Phrases, LSA Linguistics Workshop, Cornell University, July 12, 1997,

All the best,


David Gil

Department of Linguistics
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Inselstrasse 22, D-04103 Leipzig, Germany

Telephone: 44-341-9952310
Fax: 44-341-9952119
Email: gil at

More information about the Lingtyp mailing list