December 9, 2010 | Japanese

Japanese Math

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

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

Nihon (Two) Bottles; Vinegar Variety Is Important

Nisatsu (Two) Books, Coincidentally Written by Me!

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!

Nimai (Two) Tickets, to the Natural History Museum!

Niken (Two) Buildings, Including One Mansion

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.

Comments (6)

Jordan • Posted on Sun, December 19, 2010 - 7:39 pm EST

You’ll find a similar circumstance in Mandarin. The numbers themselves don’t change, but there are “classifiers” for many groups of things. Objects, people, flat paper things, etc. However, there is a universal classifier “ge” that you use when you don’t know the actual classifier.
  I have said: Wo you yi ge mao. (I have one cat.) I usually say things with a questioning look as I lean on the classifier and the listener will gently correct me if need be. “Ge” actually is correct in a lot of cases, not with cats though. It should have been: Wo you yi zhi mao. Zhi is used for animals.
Chinese people are great, they love anyone who dares to attempt their language! Two excellent books for studying Mandarin are “Beginners Chinese” and “Intermediate Chinese” both by Yong Ho. They are published by Hippocrene Books on Madison Ave. And of course I began my Mandarin studies at SUNY Pimsleur.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Mon, December 20, 2010 - 5:30 pm EST

Thank you, Jordan! This was very helpful. I didn’t know math would be such a challenge in this project, but I’m slowly getting used to it! I think a lot of it is just about being comfortable making mistakes.

Jordan • Posted on Mon, December 20, 2010 - 10:29 pm EST

Yes Ellen, I know what you mean about making mistakes. I also “chicken out”, as you put it in a previous post, far too often. In fact it’s going to be my resolution for 2011. When I hear a language being spoken that I have even a working knowledge of, I’m going to jump in.

Ken • Posted on Wed, December 22, 2010 - 6:08 pm EST

That’s really interesting that the numbers themselves seem to integrate the noun classifier. In Thai it’s noun-number-classifier. Or maybe it’s just written in our alphabet with the classifier tacked onto the number. I noticed that all your examples, except for counting people, start with ni-.  So maybe the classifiers above themselves are hiki, hon, satsu, mai, and ken? Futatsu is similar-looking enough to futari that it could change in certain environments, but I’m just making wild guesses here.

I loved learning how they group things for this purpose.  I wrote a whole paper on noun classifiers of Thai.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Fri, December 24, 2010 - 1:48 am EST

Ken, I am currently still too ignorant to venture guesses on the issues you raise above, but I CAN say that this sentence made me laugh: “I wrote a whole paper on noun classifiers of Thai.”

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sun, September 30, 2012 - 2:04 pm EST

Jordan, nearly two years after your post above: I just bought those books for my upcoming Chinese unit. Thanks again.

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