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Why does Chinese have measure words?

As I finished these measure word posts I had to ask myself (again), “Why does Chinese have all these darn measure words?” Is it like the tones, which seem to exist only to keep foreigners from learning Chinese? As I mention here, the “measure words ” (liàngcí 量词) don’t really serve any linguistic purpose usually.

So where did these measure words come from? I have three theories.

Theory 1

Maybe the cave men were sitting around and they had a conversation like this:

Zhang Thor: Hey look! Big animal coming!

Li Ugg: What’s it called?

Thor: Me not know.

Ugg: Is it “long thin” kind?

Thor: No it’s “big sharp” kind.

Ugg: Oh. We should kill. Eat. Good.

Thor: Dui dui dui. Give me weapon.

Ugg: Which one?

Thor: Me not care.

Ugg: You want “small round” or “long pointy?”

Thor: “Long pointy.”

Maybe that’s where they came from: “When categories ruled the language.”

Theory 2

Another idea I’ve had is that aristocrats and scholars wanted to show off their knowledge and created these measure words for their own entertainment and promotion. Then it may have become a status symbol to show off how many of these esoteric words someone knew.

Theory 3

Or perhaps homonyms are to blame (just as I blame them in my post about the “zi” 子 suffix). For example, if people disagreed on the right tone (as many dialects do), or maybe before there were tones, the measure words might have come in handy to differentiate stuff.

A: Hey I’m in the market for a new “ma.”

B: What?! What’s wrong with your current mother?

A: No not “yi ge ma,” stupid. “yi PI ma.”

B: Oh, why didn’t you say so! We’ve got these measure words, everyone’s life would be better if you’d just USE them.

A: Maybe if we add tones to our language. That would help too…

But who knows how these measure words came into being? If you do, leave a comment and tell me.

By the way,

if anyone tries to tell you “Hey! English has measure words too!” you can feel free to admit that, yes, it does indeed have one. I only know of one (maybe two).

It’s not fair to call the “partitives” (like “a cup of water,” and “a sheet of paper”) measure words because they actually tell you how much of something you are talking about. We say “a loaf of bread” because we don’t want to talk about “a slice of bread.” Chinese measure words do that sometimes too with container words (bēi 杯 = cup) and talking about paper (yì zhāng 一张 = 1 sheet, yí fèn 一份 = 1 batch/stack)

But more often then not, the Chinese measure words are saying things like “1 small-round-thing peanut” (yí lì huāshēng 一粒花生 ). Well in English we just say “1 peanut.” If it’s a peanut, it’s a peanut, and we don’t have to add that extra word before we can count them. We say “a grain of sand” because we don’t mean “a bucket of sand.”

I guess you COULD say that “piece” is a measure word in English because “give me a chalk” doesn’t sound right and “give me a piece of chalk” does (because chalk is uncountable for some reason–maybe because it was originally powder…?). But for all countable nouns, the “piece” tells how much you want and could be omitted (“a piece of candy” = “a candy”) or is just wrong (“a piece of shirt”).

So besides “piece,” the only real measure word I know of in English, that serves no purpose whatsoever, is “10 head of cattle.” Interestingly it’s the same word in Chinese. But in English there is no reason at all for that “head” to be in there. I don’t want to talk about the actual head or the beast. It would four times the work to count cattle by the “hoof.” So yes, you can admit that a “head count” is a sort of measure word in English.

English learners have to deal with countable and uncountable nouns…but that’s nowhere near the hassle of the Chinese measure words. I’m done.

PS: This is the first post using hanzi characters. I’ve added them because several people have requested hanzi be incorporated. Please let me know through either a comment or email if you had any trouble displaying the hanzi or pinyin. Thanks!

Chinese is very easy to learn, Want to know more, check out on our other posts to learn more.

Such as

10 Chinese measure words easy to learn for beginners

3 Chinese measure words indicating “a pair”

The use of 把 as a measure word

Verbs used as measure words

Usages of measure words in Chinese

3 measures to tackle China’s ageing problem

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