Classifier (linguistics) - Definition and Examples

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;

Since noun classifiers are words, not grammatical functions, they are sometimes borrowed 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: duoshao-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.

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