December 9, 2010 | Japanese
I am learning to count, but very carefully.
My German test results are in! The highest score you can get is 12. I got an 11 on the oral exam (“nearly fluent”) and a 10 on the writing exam (“advanced plus”). That may sound pretty good, but I was hoping for two 11’s, especially since I got two 10’s right before I began my German review two months ago.
Don’t Do Rosetta Stone on an Empty Stomach
The thing is, I was shocked by those original 10’s. I did not agree with those original 10’s. Yes, I know, I have a degree in German. However, I have barely used my German in 20 years, and when I took the test, I couldn’t even remember how to say basic things like “wife,” “company,” “fork,” and “apartment.” In two months, I know I have revived a lot of dead language in my head.
Now, I did have a slight problem on the second (post-studying) writing test in that there were only five essay questions, and I did not know the central word in one of the five questions. I thought I had maneuvered around that vocabulary hole pretty effectively, but perhaps my artful attempts to conceal my ignorance were inadequate. I would say what the problem word was, but the testing company might get mad at me.
Okay, back to the present. In said present, Japanese numbers are kicking my ass.
The first challenge is that for the basic numbers one through ten, there are two sets of numbers—one of Japanese origin and one of Chinese origin. Meaning, for example, there are two words for the mathematical concept of “two”: ni (from Chinese) and futatsu (Japanese). I’m not yet sure when you use which; I’m just barely hanging on here.
In addition, as my grammar book calmly informed me today, “To count things in Japanese, you use special classifiers, or counters.” Here are some of the consequences.
Let’s say you are counting two people (yes, the math will remain fairly primitive in this entry). In that case, neither ni nor futatsu would be appropriate; instead, you would use the counter futari.
If you are counting animals, fish, and insects, “two” becomes nihiki.
If you are counting long, thin objects (the book offers pencils, bottles, and trees as examples), “two” is nihon.
If you are counting bound objects such as books or magazines, “two” is nisatsu.
Nihon (Two) Bottles; Vinegar Variety Is Important
Nisatsu (Two) Books, Coincidentally Written by Me!
But wait! There’s more!
For thin flat objects (such as paper, tickets, dishes, etc.), “two” is nimai.
For two houses or buildings, you use niken.
Nimai (Two) Tickets, to the Natural History Museum!
Niken (Two) Buildings, Including One Mansion
These are just some of the common ones. As I like to say: holy shit.
Now, suppose you refer to five people and their five dogs in the same sentence. If I am understanding this correctly, and I think I am, you would use two different fives: gonin for the people, and gohiki for the dogs.
While I believe that very little in the world is impossible, right at this moment that seems a little impossible.