Measure words

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 老外 at 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: 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.”

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 tiáo snake” (three snakes) and “this tiáo 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 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…

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

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