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The Beauty of Chinese Measure Words

Author: Joe Varadi

One of the distinguishing features of the Chinese language is the importance and variety of measure words.  It is true that measure words can be found in English as well: for example, when we say a strand of hair or a head of cattle, these are considered measure words. But for the most part, they are needed only to specify a collection of things, such as a flock of sheep, or an uncountable quantity, such as a gust of wind.  But in Chinese, even single, countable objects require measure words, so that you cannot simply say “a flower”, “two people” or “five houses”.

The reason why measure words are so important in Chinese (and other Southeast Asian languages like Thai or Vietnamese) is because names of simple objects are typically words with one or two syllables, and so there are many homophone word pairs which are pronounced the same but having different meanings. The measure word serves as a kind of context that helps us to identify the meaning of the word that follows. Without measure words, the chance of misunderstanding what someone is saying becomes higher.

Chinese measure words can categorize the noun that follows it according to its function, shape, or some other property related to that noun.  In some cases, more than one measure word may be used for the same noun, and our choice depends on which characteristic we wish to emphasize.  With this in mind, “measure word” may not be the best label; we could also call them “specifiers”.

It’s difficult to count exactly how many there are — partly because most measure words also serve as other parts of speech.  Chinese often uses simple object or action names to count other objects with similar properties.  This construct can be observed in English as well, as with phrases like a slice of bread or a handful of salt. The Measure Word Dictionary, published by China Daily in Taiwan, contains over 420 measure words, and mentions that there are over 500 currently in use.

Since I am a big fan of learning by recognizing patterns, I compiled 115 frequently used measure words, grouped into sixteen logical categories.  There are seven that appear in two categories each. There is one, 场/場 (chǎng), which appears in three, and another one, 条/條(tiáo), which appears in four.  These categories will be presented in seven parts:

People, Animals, Plants
People, Size & Shape, Wrapped Items
Events, Buildings & Structures
Foods, Household Items, Clothing
Pairs, Groups, Collections
Speech & Writing, Machines & Vehicles
Time, Units of Measure
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