Dwindling measure words in Mandarin

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Tweet from the University of Westminster Contemporary China Centre Blog @CCCblogUoW:

We all know this super-famous meme of the Distracted Boyfriend.  According to Ben Zimmer, it can be categorized as an "object labeling" meme. See the Know Your Meme page for more analysis of Distracted Boyfriend meme variants.

Here the Distracted Boyfriend meme is being applied to an expanded repertoire of measure words versus a radically pared-down set.  The most extreme version of the latter would be to use the so-called generic measure ge (gè) 個 / 个 for most nouns that may be counted.

When I began the study of Mandarin more than half a century ago, I learned and regularly used about fifty different measure words, but my impression is that people nowadays use fewer of them than before.

Yesterday I was with a Chinese friend and I used the classifier chǎng 場 / 场 for a performance (also used for public spectacles, games [contests, matches], dramas, films, etc. , and she told me that, while correct, it wasn't necessary.  Instead, I could just say ge (gè) 個 / 个 and that would be all right.

For an extensive list of measure words / massifiers, classifiers, and quantifiers (liàngcí 量詞), see this Wikipedia article.

Readings

[Thanks to Donald Clarke]



27 Comments

  1. Michael Watts said,

    February 13, 2020 @ 8:38 pm

    The non-个 list includes many that I would have said (still would say, really) are in very common use, like 张, 条, 支, 只, and 只 again (measuring paper and cards / lots of different things / pens and pencils / animals / individual items that might ordinarily occur in pairs, as in "one eye").

  2. Leo said,

    February 14, 2020 @ 3:58 am

    So "Me" would rather have a partner with a reduced measure word vocabulary, which is implied to be more attractive than an extended repertoire among young people? Have I got that right?

  3. David Marjanović said,

    February 14, 2020 @ 4:27 am

    When I began the study of Mandarin more than half a century ago, I learned and regularly used about fifty different measure words, but my impression is that people nowadays use fewer of them than before.

    Case in point: some twenty years ago, I was taught there are something over twenty.

    (That was a beginners' course, though, where we definitely didn't venture into literary registers or anywhere near rare vocabulary. The course ended long before we actually got to twenty measure words, too.)

    So "Me" would rather have a partner with a reduced measure word vocabulary, which is implied to be more attractive than an extended repertoire among young people? Have I got that right?

    No, the sets themselves are the metaphorical partners.

  4. Meme said,

    February 14, 2020 @ 11:03 am

    https://i.imgur.com/Dr27d5g.jpg

  5. Ellen K. said,

    February 14, 2020 @ 12:02 pm

    @Leo

    No, it's not that "Me" would rather have a partner with a reduced measure word vocabulary. It's that he'd rather use a reduced measure word vocabulary. Or rather the language had a reduced measure word vocabulary. The white boxes don't represent what the women are thinking. Rather, they are labels for what he's interested in. The women aren't women.

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    February 14, 2020 @ 4:42 pm

    Although I think that Ellen's analysis is pretty much on the ball, I would completely disagree with the final statement. If I understand the situation correctly, virtually the only thing that matters to the male protagonist is the fact that the object of his desire is a woman. He is almost certainly not interested in whether or not she has a brain, but it is absolutely essential that she be a woman (and a young, attractive, woman at that). My male perspective.

  7. Ellen K. said,

    February 14, 2020 @ 5:06 pm

    That may be the case in the original picture, but not in the meme.

  8. NBL said,

    February 14, 2020 @ 11:14 pm

    I probably won't notice if someone said probably won't notice if someone said 一个戏 in casual conversation, but it would look very odd in print.

  9. unekdoud said,

    February 15, 2020 @ 12:43 am

    Recently for lack of vocabulary I've been code-switching between Mandarin numbers and English terms, losing several of the measure words in the process.

  10. Leo said,

    February 15, 2020 @ 7:33 am

    @David Marjanović, @EllenK – Thanks for setting that straight for me!

  11. jin defang said,

    February 15, 2020 @ 10:23 am

    We have many decreasingly used measure words in English as well: a pride of lions, a gaggle of geese, a pod of whales, a rasher of bacon….
    They are typically useless, but for fun one can invent new ones. Observing a bunch of tween-age females, for example  a giggle of girls.

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    February 15, 2020 @ 11:19 am

    Not convinced that your examples are "decreasingly used", Jin Defang — I don't think I have ever heard any of those collective nouns being replaced by a more generic alternative except by a very young child (or possibly an older person with learning disabilities).

  13. Peter Grubtal said,

    February 15, 2020 @ 12:10 pm

    jin defang
    I don't know any Chinese, but I'm thinking these measure words are more-or-less like the counter suffixes in Japanese. In which case they wouldn't correspond to the collective nouns you mention.

    For English speakers learning Japanese they used as one of the few examples in English fifty-head of cattle.

  14. y said,

    February 15, 2020 @ 2:16 pm

    "Less is More."–Coco Chanel

  15. Michael Watts said,

    February 15, 2020 @ 4:14 pm

    For English speakers learning Japanese they used as one of the few examples in English fifty-head of cattle.

    A better example would be "4 loaves of bread" or "a pair of scissors".

    There is a theory, featured at least at one point on Wikipedia, that true measure words can't have plural forms, but that's bunk.

  16. Jonathan Smith said,

    February 15, 2020 @ 7:17 pm

    It is interesting that the image features esp. bei1 杯 'cup', ping2 瓶 'bottle', pan2 盘 'plate', and wan3 碗 'bowl' because (1) these "quantifier"-type words behave differently from classifiers proper and (2) relatedly, these words are not noticeably on the decline in terms of frequency. So it would have been linguistically funnier to feature real classifiers which are increasingly replaced by ge4 (架? 台?口?把?your favorites here)

  17. Michael Watts said,

    February 15, 2020 @ 7:47 pm

    these "quantifier"-type words behave differently from classifiers proper

    In what way?

  18. Jonathan Smith said,

    February 16, 2020 @ 1:10 am

    ^ There is a long literature going back at least to Y.R. Chao's grammar of 1968 that I don't know that well; various terms have been employed and various syntactic tests applied. In contrast to measure words / quantifiers, classifiers proper are a small/closed class of items associated with particular count nouns with CL and N in a sense "coreferring". One of a number of syntactic effects of the difference is that, e.g., 长长的一条蛇 and 一条长长的蛇 both = 'a really long snake', whereas 大大的一壶水 = 'a great big kettle of water' but 一壶大大的水 '??a kettle of great big water' is ill-formed… or with verbal modifier, 昨天买的那辆车 and 那辆昨天买的车 both = 'that car [someone] bought yesterday', whereas 一杯昨天买的啤酒 and 昨天买的一杯啤酒 are not in general equivalent because we can have 给我倒一杯昨天买的啤酒 'pour me a glass of the beer [someone] bought yesterday' from the former but the latter must be 'the glass of beer [someone] bought yesterday.'

  19. Michael Watts said,

    February 16, 2020 @ 4:37 pm

    Hm, I agree with the "coreference" and the examples, but I don't really see why that's grounds to say the semantic measure words "behave differently from classifiers proper". I just see it as a reflection of their different semantics. I wouldn't say that "adjective"-like verbs [stative verbs, e.g. to believe] behave differently from verbs proper, and I don't see why that case is different from this one.

  20. Michael Watts said,

    February 16, 2020 @ 4:44 pm

    (expanding a little, it is obviously the case that (1) stative verbs behave differently in several ways from non-stative verbs; and (2) the prototype "verb" concept is a non-stative verb — but they have so much in common that I don't think designating the statives as second-class, not-really-verb-verbs makes sense.)

    (for an example of very different behavior, consider that "I read [rid] the New York Times" is forced into a stative interpretation by the inflection of the verb.)

  21. Michael Watts said,

    February 16, 2020 @ 5:40 pm

    I'd also be interested in your thoughts on whether the kettle and the water share this "coreference" property in the English phrases "A kettle of really hot water" and "A really hot kettle of water". By default, I would interpret the second phrase to refer to a kettle containing hot water, not a hot kettle containing water of any temperature. "A kettle of really big water" doesn't work because "water" can't support the adjective "big". "Kettle" can. They can both support "hot", but at first glance it looks like "hot" passes through by default no matter where it's syntactically applied. Is this true in Chinese?

  22. Vsnya said,

    February 16, 2020 @ 11:58 pm

    How do measure words from other Chinese languages map onto standard Mandarin? It doesn't surprise me that standard spoken Mandarin has been shedding complexity as it has been acquired by hundreds of millions of Chinese as a lingua Franca over the past 80 years.

  23. Michael Watts said,

    February 17, 2020 @ 4:11 am

    Some followup: I asked a native speaker about this, and was told that 好烫的一壶水 can only mean that the water in the kettle is scalding hot, and can't be used to indicate that the kettle itself is hot. (Though, by implication, if the water is hot then so is the kettle.)

    This would appear to be evidence (n=1) that the semantic measure word 壶 "kettle" has just as much coreference as the largely-semantically-empty measure word 条 "strip", but that coreference is muted where the description being applied cannot logically apply to one of the coreferents.

  24. Johannes Pong said,

    February 17, 2020 @ 11:05 am

    If it were Hong Kong Cantonese the girl would be labelled 條.

    我個女 is "my girl (as in daughter)"
    & 我條女 is "my girl (as in girlfriend/ lover/ chick)"

    Same with 我個仔 "my boy (as in son)" VS 我條仔 "my boy (mah boo)"

    We Cantonese can switch from classical Chinese to slang with just a twist of classifier.

    I wonder if 條 started with Hong Kong gangsters objectifying women as slim & slender beings, & then females co-opted as something phallic…

    That said, Cantonese has a different set of classifiers than Putonghua, like 駕 for 車 instead of 輛, & probably double the amount of classifiers/ quantifiers used in Putonghua, and those are just common counters, not slang or for comedic purposes.
    & they show no signs of being eliminated/ simplified, especially since a classifier is used as the definite article like "the" in English, with the number dropped. And you simply cannot drop the classifier as you can in Putonghua.

    條女 – "the girlfriend/ the chick"
    個女 – "the daughter"
    個女仔 – "the girl"
    個女人 – "the woman"
    隻魚 – "the fish" (alive, swimming in the restaurant tanks)
    條魚 – "the fish" (dead, swimming in soy sauce on a plate, steamed & topped with cilantro & scallions)
    個杯 – "the cup"
    杯水 – "the cup of water"
    駕車 – "the car"
    枝筆 – "the pen"
    張 [fo:m] – "the form"

  25. Jonathan Smith said,

    February 17, 2020 @ 11:43 am

    @ Michael Watts Yeah I don't know that dividing these (or even finer) "classes" would be very useful e.g. pedagogically. Clearly your kettle examples are right. The argument would only be that modifier position is to large extent free in the case of what we might call (Mandarin) classifiers proper. The literature proposes lots of other means of separating these from "measure/quantifier words" that correspond to count noun vs. mass noun, a basic point again being that with [number]+[measure-type word] +[mass noun], there are few practical co-restrictions on measure word vis-a-vis mass noun (such that, e.g., these structures are intuitive for speakers of other languages), contrasting starkly with classifiers proper.

  26. Alison said,

    February 17, 2020 @ 7:01 pm

    Its interesting that NBL suggested measure words make more sense in text than speech. For me as a foreigner I feel like it is the opposite.

    The impression I've gotten is that measure words can be especially useful in spoken communication between two people who don't share fluency in a common Chinese language. They can give a better hint of a noun's meaning – even if you don't recognize the noun, you might recognize the measure word and fill in the gaps.

    It's like how many Chinese words have a single character version and a variety of two character versions that add precision. Most of the time you don't strictly need to use the two character word, but if your pronunciation is wack or the person you're speaking to doesn't speak very standard Putonghua, then adding the second character can help to clarify what you mean.

    But in written text you can just use the short version and it's clear. (See 不明觉厉 etc.)

  27. Jonathan Smith said,

    February 18, 2020 @ 1:54 am

    "The argument would only be that modifier position is to large extent free in the case of what we might call (Mandarin) classifiers proper."

    This was not clear… I mean that for "measure words", scope of modifier X in NPs of the form X # MW N is # MW N, whereas scope of X in # MW X N is N. So we can even have 大大的一盒大大的石头 'a big big box of big big stones', with no parallel examples for "classifiers proper" since we have no such nested scopes. This seems to point to further implications that may or may not have been explored in the recent literature.

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