To kick off our second semester of Mandarin school, here’s a post about a post about “measure words.” If you’re learning Chinese, this is funny. If you’re not… maybe it’s interesting.
I bring it up mostly because the funny è€å¤– at LaowaiChinese.net does a great job of introducing Chinese measure words (here’s a helpful list), and has a funny post speculating on their origins. Why does Chinese have measure words?
Maybe the cave men were sitting around and they had a conversation like this:
Zhang Thor: Hey look! Big animal coming!
Li Ugg: Whatâ€™s it called?
Thor: Me not know.
Ugg: Is it â€œlong thinâ€ kind?
Thor: No itâ€™s â€œbig sharpâ€ 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 â€œsmall roundâ€ or â€œlong pointy?â€
Thor: â€œLong pointy.â€
If you’re learning Chinese, then you already know that Chinese nouns have “measure words” that go before them. You can’t say “one cat”; you have to say (overly literal here) “one zhÄ« cat.” ZhÄ« is a common measure word for animals, but not all animals. Snakes are long skinny things, so you say “three tiÃ¡o snake” (three snakes) and “this tiÃ¡o road” (this road), since roads also count in the long and skinny category (along with fish, pants, and bread). In English we sort of have measure words, but not in the same way: one pile of paper, three bags of groceries, a piece of cake – and we don’t require measure words for everything.
So why does Chinese have measure words?
… perhaps homonyms are to blame …
A: Hey Iâ€™m in the market for a new â€œma.â€
B: What?! Whatâ€™s wrong with your current mother?
A: No not â€œyi ge ma,â€* stupid. â€œyi PI ma.â€**
B: Oh, why didnâ€™t you say so! Weâ€™ve got these measure words, everyoneâ€™s life would be better if youâ€™d just USE them.
A: Maybe if we add tones to our language. That would help tooâ€¦
It’s worth a click, for the chuckles and the information. We’re in the first week of the semester, and it looks like it’s gonna be good.
* one mother
** one horse