Author Topic: use of numeral classifiers in English  (Read 6754 times)

Offline jstv127

  • New Linguist
  • *
  • Posts: 1
use of numeral classifiers in English
« on: February 26, 2014, 08:53:47 AM »
Hello, newbie here, please be gentle... ;)

I was recently considering the way that certain languages, such as the Chinese languages, have numeral classifiers for objects; for example, you wouldn't say that you have "3 apples," you would say that you have "3 {numeral classifier word} of apples." These numeral classifier words, as I understand it, vary depending on the type of object, its shape & size, etc.

I have listened numerous times to Dr. John McWhorter's lectures for the Teaching Company, which is where I first heard about these numeral classifiers. In his lecture "The Story of Human Language" he mentions that English has a little bit of this in that we don't say "3 cattle," we say "3 head of cattle." In a later lecture, "Myths, Lies, & Half-Truths About English Usage," he discusses the difference between so-called "mass nouns" & "count nouns," to whit:
"How much grain?" (mass noun) vs. "How many beans? (count noun).

Now, consider the following examples:

Person 1: "There's a sale at the department store today, & I'm going to buy a lot of jewelry."
Person 2: "How much jewelry are you going to buy?"  OR
Person 2: "How many pieces of jewelry are you going to buy?"

Person 1: "We need to buy enough furniture to fill this new apartment complex."
Person 2: "How much furniture is that going to be?"   OR
Person 2: "How many pieces of furniture is that going to be?"

In the examples I've just given, does the word "pieces" function as a numeral classifier?

Thank you very much for your time.

Offline Daniel

  • Administrator
  • Experienced Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 1920
  • Country: us
    • English
Re: use of numeral classifiers in English
« Reply #1 on: February 26, 2014, 09:24:59 AM »
Classifiers are grammatical categories in some languages and may be required in order to count nouns.

You have noticed a very similar pattern in English, but it isn't quite the same:
1. They are not required in English. "Two cows" is just as possible as "two heads of cattle".
2. They are not always possible: "Two books" vs. ?? ("Two items/volumes of book"??)
3. They fall within more general patterns of English: "a type of cattle" / "a head of cattle".

As far as I know, these classifiers in other languages do not require additional support from words like "of", but work in themselves to count items. A more literal translation would be the (possible but slightly awkward): "three head cattle".


So you're certainly right that there are parallels, but it's more of a translation explanation than precisely the same system. Where you draw the line about what "is" or "isn't" a classifier is up to you. I'd probably say that classifiers exist in a language if and only if there are certain words that don't belong to any other word class and have unique combinatorial properties. That doesn't quite seem to be the case for English, but you could make the argument.
Welcome to Linguist Forum! If you have any questions, please ask.

Offline ibarrere

  • Linguist
  • ***
  • Posts: 65
  • Country: fi
Re: use of numeral classifiers in English
« Reply #2 on: February 26, 2014, 09:36:04 AM »
2. They are not always possible: "Two books" vs. ?? ("Two items/volumes of book"??)

Interestingly, the term "things" is seeing increasing usage as a classifier in the varieties of English I hear. Admittedly it's pretty abstract and not well-defined yet, but I wonder if it will become standard in the future.

I.e. "two things of books", "six things of bread", "fifteen things of eggs" all sound somewhat grammatical to me, albeit pretty non-specific.
http://americanwerewolfinbelgrade.com/

ymmärtämättömyyttään

Offline Daniel

  • Administrator
  • Experienced Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 1920
  • Country: us
    • English
Re: use of numeral classifiers in English
« Reply #3 on: February 26, 2014, 09:46:16 AM »
"Two things of man"?
"Two things of phone"?

If you use plurals like "books" or "eggs" it does sound better, but note then that you don't need the classifier to mark a plural at all.

But I think you may be right about increased usage of that. I just wouldn't consider it really "grammaticalized" yet.
Welcome to Linguist Forum! If you have any questions, please ask.

Offline jkpate

  • Forum Regulars
  • Linguist
  • *
  • Posts: 130
  • Country: us
    • American English
    • jkpate.net
Re: use of numeral classifiers in English
« Reply #4 on: February 26, 2014, 04:29:16 PM »
Huh, this makes me think of the language used in recipes. It's pretty common to hear someone say "ok, we need three cups flour, half cup sugar" and so on. But this is a pretty specialized case of English usage, where talking about amounts of mass nouns is much more important than usual.
All models are wrong, but some are useful - George E P Box

Offline Daniel

  • Administrator
  • Experienced Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 1920
  • Country: us
    • English
Re: use of numeral classifiers in English
« Reply #5 on: February 26, 2014, 10:25:27 PM »
Yes, that's a good domain for examples. And in fact:
Quote
where talking about amounts of mass nouns is much more important than usual.
I wonder if, in some sense, we should consider normal nouns in a language with classifiers as mass nouns. That's might be why they can't be counted directly.

"A pair of shoes" or "Two pairs of scissors"
"One loaf of bread" or "Two bottles of water"

If these languages operate similarly, where all nouns are mass/numberless it makes sense why quantifiers would always be used.
Welcome to Linguist Forum! If you have any questions, please ask.