“How do you know when to use what counter?”
You may or may not have noticed that in Japanese there are no ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ words like some European languages have. You may or may not have noticed that it’s a very phonetic language which means it’s easy to pronounce words fluently once you know. But to add a spanner to the works, you may or may not have noticed how in Japanese numbers, and more specifically when you are counting different things, are a bit of a pain.
For those who didn’t realise Japanese has the normal counting system 1-10 for numbers. But if you want to say 2 people, or 3 buildings, 5 cars, 2 bus routes, 10 pens, 8 things etc, each one has a different counting system which may or may not be similar to your typical 1-10 numbering.
Basic Numbers Recap
Just to summarise for people the basic 1-10 is really easy to learn:
Besides a few numbers where there are 2 possible readings (which are pretty interchangeable when you’re saying just numbers), all the other numbers are very easy to get. When you go over 10 you just need to say 10 + 1 or じゅういち for 11, likewise 3 10s + 8 is さんじゅうはち for 38. It’s very simple. And once you reach higher numbers you do exactly the same but including the 100s, 1000s and 10,000s.
100 – ひゃく
1000 – せん
10,000 – まん
Again, these have a few irregular readings like 3000 is さんぜん rather than さんせん (combining two “S” sounds together make a “Z” sound more natural), or 300 さんびゃく and 800 はっぴゃく. And you say ひゃく and せん rather than いちひゃく or いちせん, but you DO say いちまん. But these are easy to understand and once you have them under your belt you’re already far into the counting.
The One Counting System You NEED to Know
Yes all the counting systems are useful but one of the most difficult ones is also the most useful. It’s a counter that generally describes “things” and is used most often when you are describing medium sized things that don’t really have a distinct shape, like toys, ice cream, drinks or meals at a restaurant, and because of this they use it a lot in shops and when you eat out.
Why are these numbers so completely different from the numbers I learnt before!? Japanese got their kanji from China and as the language has evolved it’s caused each kanji to have two or more readings (and numbers have a lot of readings). It’s not actually very productive to learn those readings all at once when you learn kanji, I find it easier to learn it in context using vocabulary, such as 一 is いち and 一つ is ひとつ, so you can see which reading you need because of the つ after the kanji. This is actually the traditional way of counting and for some reason this numbering system stuck with counting objects and the counter for numbers changed to how we know it today.
20 is also thrown in there because it’s a special number in Japanese, this is when people come of age. This is why when you’re counting people’s age you would say はたち instead of にじゅうさい (さい being the counter for years old).
Easier But Useful Counters for Things
I will first go through some of the easier counters which draw from the above basic numbering system making them pretty easy to learn, although even these have some irregular readings.
Counter for Paper (and small flat things) – まい
This is a fairly easy one as all you need is the number you want followed by まい. So “I have 8 sheets of paper” would be “かみのはちまいがあります”
Counter for Books – さつ
Counter for Long Thin Items (i.e pens) – ほん
Counter for Drinks/Cups – はい
Living Things Related Counters
I say living things because this includes animal (in Japan plants are not considered to be living or rather animate creatures).
Counter for Years Old (Age) – さい
Counter for Animals – ひき
A Few Tricks to Learning Counters
Besides drilling the counting system over and over (which is useful and you should do although with practising randomly by pointing at things and scaring those around you by shouting “two people!” in Japanese).
Double consonants cause a pause.
The irregular readings are often when similar sounds join together which when spoken is uncomfortable to say and sounds strange, so the first syllable is replaced with a っ, and pause in the word. I.e 8 books sounds strange as はちさつ because of the ち and つ combination, so it becomes はっさつ.
A lot of counters are irregular with numbers 1, 3, 6, 8 and 10
Did you notice this pattern? It’s not with all counters so you have to learn which ones use this pattern, but often 1, 3, 6, 8 and 10 are irregulars.
1, 6, 8 and 10 will often have the pauses as mentioned above combined with a “p” sound such as っぴき, っぱい, and っぽん. Where as 3 will not necessarily come with a pause and instead adopts a “b” sound like びき, ばい and ぼん
This is a great table from GuidetoJapanese.org that summarises some of these useful counters and highlights the irregular ones.
Long thin items
Small round items
Times (done something)