Measure words for robots

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Christian Horn was reading an article in Japanese Endgadget (8/11/21) about the introduction of a new kind of robot called a "Cyberdog".

Says Christian:

You don't need to know Japanese to understand the fascinating part:  in Japanese, when counting things, the type of "thing" you are counting is relevant.  So you count "flat things" differently than "long shaped" things.  Or machines, fish, or animals.

The article states that Cyberdog is aimed at developers, and is limited to "1000台(匹?)", showing hesitation over which measure word to use, dai 台 (counter for machines, including vehicles) or hiki 匹 (counter for small animals​; counter for rolls of cloth; counter for horses​).  If you use dai 台 as a measure word for counting Cyberdogs, it would indicate that you think of them as machines.  If you use hiki 匹 for counting them, it would indicate that you regard Cyberdogs as animals.

In English, I would skirt the problem by saying "1,000 units", or you could just say "1,000".

Sometimes measure words / numerary adjuncts / classifiers / counters make things more precise, at other times they lead to ambiguity and confusion.  Increasingly, when people don't know which is the "proper" one to use, they resort to the general, universal measure word: "ge 個/个".


Selected readings


  1. Gregory Kusnick said,

    September 4, 2021 @ 7:25 pm

    I'd use "units" for inanimate or nonliving objects; for animals, I'd use "individuals" (e.g. "That herd of cows contains 1000 individuals").

    My question is why Japanese considers rolls of cloth to be in the same category as horses and small animals.

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 4, 2021 @ 7:34 pm

    Such measure words are much less common in English than in certain other languages, but Gregory Kusnick's example overlooks the perfectly idiomatic "1000 head of cattle." (An alternative analysis is that that construction is a way of getting a countable singulative out of a mass noun, a la "grain(s) of sand" or "piece(s) of furniture," yet it seems potentially significant that we don't say "heads of cattle.")

  3. Carl said,

    September 4, 2021 @ 8:19 pm

    When I studied Japanese at school, we read a story with some magical Buddha statues that came to life. Our teacher pointed out that the counter word changed from stones to persons at the crucial part of the story.

  4. Jenny Chu said,

    September 4, 2021 @ 8:28 pm

    I wonder what Czech does. That is the origin of the word "robot" and also, IIRC, distinguishes between animate and inanimate when declining nouns.

    Vietnamese definitely refers to humanoid robots with the classifier "con" (which is otherwise used for people, animals, rivers, and, oddly, knives). So I am sure the Cyberdog would be "con" … unless it was a mechanic talking about its innards, who might very well end up using máy …

  5. Jim Breen said,

    September 4, 2021 @ 8:44 pm

    In Japanese, the generic counter 個 for pieces, articles, etc. is pronounced こ (ko). 个 is usually pronounced か (ka). (I think "ge" is Chinese.)

  6. David Morris said,

    September 4, 2021 @ 9:13 pm

    Korean would also have the choice between the default 개 (gae), 마리 (mari) animals or 대 (dae) cars and machines.
    Are those default terms related or borrowed?

  7. Phil H said,

    September 4, 2021 @ 10:29 pm

    I love measure words in Chinese, though. They're such a lovely resource for suggestive language. You can leave nouns unspoken, but create clear expectations by using a measure word. Or you can produce odd associations by playing with measure words. Or you can introduce intriguing precision, because measure words are also units of measurement… They're one of the most fun parts of Chinese grammar.

  8. Chau said,

    September 4, 2021 @ 10:35 pm

    @Gregory Kusnick

    匹 (MSM pī / Tw phit), as a measure word for horses, may be related to German Pferd 'horse', which traces its origin through MHG pfert and OHG parafrid to Late Latin paraverēdus 'extra post horse'. Perhaps pfert or the -frid of parafrid provides the source for phit 匹. Very often synonyms are utilized as measure words.

    匹 (MSM pī / Tw phit), as a measure word for rolls of cloth, may be related to Ancient Greek speíron (σπείρον) 'a piece of cloth'. If we take a look at words related to speíron, it would immediately make sense: speíra (σπείρα) 'anything wound or coiled', and speírama (σπείραμα) 'a coil, spire, convolution'. Therefore, the meaning the Greek word speíron is more like 'a wound piece of cloth', i.e., 'a roll of cloth'. How about the sound changes? Starting with the stem speír-, three steps are involved: (1) simplification of the initial consonant cluster sp- > p-; (2) sound change of ei > i; and (3) -ir > -it, with the sequence of changes as follows: speír- > *pir > phit 匹. By the way, the sound change of -ei > -i in step (2) was well attested in Classical times. A town in Lydia (now in Turkey), mentioned in Acts 16:14, was called Θυατειρα in Greek and Thyatira in Latin. And Greek speíra sees its cognate in Latin spira (> English spiral).

    The measure word for small animals in MSM and Taiwanese is usually 隻. So, I am not familiar with the Japanese use of 匹 for small animals.

  9. David J Moser said,

    September 4, 2021 @ 11:12 pm

    Qian Zhongshu (in his book Weicheng "Fortress Besieged", I think) refers to an enormous dog as 一匹狗 yi pi gou, where pi 匹 is the measure word for horses. I'm surprised more Chinese writers haven't played with measure words in this way. Or maybe they have, I just haven't encountered them.

  10. Krogerfoot said,

    September 4, 2021 @ 11:19 pm

    I had no idea 匹 was used as a counter for rolls of cloth in Chinese/Taiwanese, as it is definitely not used for that in Japanese. How certain are we that the Chinese term is related to Ancient Greek?

  11. Steve Jones said,

    September 5, 2021 @ 1:02 am

    A reminder of Paul Kratochvil's account of learning English with American GIs:,

    one of several fine stories from Paul, notably

  12. Tom Dawkes said,

    September 5, 2021 @ 2:45 am

    Another view of classificatory systems is found in Navajo: see the Wikipedia article and the paragraph on classificatory verbs.

  13. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    September 5, 2021 @ 2:49 am

    2. (animals) To do with heads.
    .2.1 (plural head, measure word for livestock and game) A single animal.
    12 head of big cattle and 14 head of branded calves
    At five years of age this head of cattle is worth perhaps $40
    2.2. The population of game: "we have a heavy head of deer this year"

  14. Peter Grubtal said,

    September 5, 2021 @ 2:50 am

    Krogerfoot –
    I abandoned my attempts at Japanese some years ago, but as my (possibly imperfect) memory tells me: wouldn't the counter-suffix (that was the terminology in my tuition) for rolls of cloth be
    -hon , as with umbrellas, pencils…

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    September 5, 2021 @ 3:11 am

    Antonio — your ?quotation? seems to have suffered during copy-and-paste, and I can find no mention of (e.g.,) " The population of game" at the URL cited …

  16. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    September 5, 2021 @ 4:31 am

    @Philip Taylor

    Long time no read! Hope you are staying healthy in these 'rona times.
    My bad! I forgot to add it

  17. David Marjanović said,

    September 5, 2021 @ 5:12 am

    I think "ge" is Chinese.

    Yes (Standard Mandarin at least).

    Are those default terms related or borrowed?

    Some of them look borrowed. They can't be related otherwise, because Chinese definitely isn't more closely related to Japanese or Korean than English is, and it's hardly closer to Vietnamese either.

    匹 (MSM pī / Tw phit), as a measure word for horses, may be related to German Pferd 'horse', which traces its origin through MHG pfert and OHG parafrid to Late Latin paraverēdus 'extra post horse'. Perhaps pfert or the -frid of parafrid provides the source for phit 匹. Very often synonyms are utilized as measure words.

    Uh, yes, except you're postulating that all of Sinitic, even Southern Min, borrowed that kind of word from very specifically Middle High German during the Yuan or maybe late Song dynasty. The history of those times is too well known to make this possible. It follows that we're looking at a random coincidence, as we usually do when isolated words in different languages look similar.

    may be related to Ancient Greek speíron (σπείρον) 'a piece of cloth'.

    By "may be related" you mean "they both contain [pi]".

    You just keep underestimating, by orders of magnitude, how likely chance resemblances between different languages are.

    How certain are we that the Chinese term is related to Ancient Greek?

    Not remotely.

  18. anhweol said,

    September 5, 2021 @ 8:04 am

    Czech distinguishes at least two meanings for robot; the 'artificial person in SF' type is grammatically animate, while non-humanoid robots – including 'food processor' (kuchynský robot) can be either animate or inanimate, though dictionary examples seem to prefer the more logical inanimate version.

  19. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 5, 2021 @ 9:43 am

    The Japanese "counter words" have the look of a borrowed class… one could try to typologize in terms of the extent of compulsory classifier (Cl) application…

    Japanese: just enumeration? N + Num + Cl / Num + Cl + no + N…
    Mandarin: the above (generally Num + Cl + N) plus singular demonstrative DPro + Cl + N and related stuff?
    Cantonese: the above plus definite reference Cl + N and (relatedly) possessive PPro + Cl + N (…more?)
    Hmong langs: the above plus more ??

    I don't know about Tai languages and VN but perhaps similar to last? If so, the typological center of "noun classifier land" feels like northern SEA… right near the center of "lexical tone land".

    Incidentally students of Chinese at least tend to use the (itself imperfect) term "classifier" since "measure words" proper for the quantification of mass nouns naturally exist but may behave a bit differently from noun classifiers proper.

  20. Jonathan Lundell said,

    September 5, 2021 @ 1:25 pm

    @gregory kusnick, we do have grazing units in livestock management (eg a cow and her calf, or a horse, constitute a unit).

  21. Jonathan Lundell said,

    September 5, 2021 @ 1:41 pm

    When I was a kid in Japan, and couldn’t remember the right measure, I’d fall back on the Kun reading, which felt OK to me at the time.

    BTW the relevant Wikipedia article mentions loaf/slice of bread, comparing to pan ikkin/ichimai.

  22. Christian Horn said,

    September 6, 2021 @ 5:16 am

    When fish is caught, and gets processed, and finally eaten as sushi, the counter-words are also changing multiple times:

    Also counting words for other things are interesting: for phone calls, one would use 本, the counter for long/slim things, which you also use for example for bottles. I guess because the phone cable could be seen as long/slim.

  23. 번하드 said,

    September 6, 2021 @ 6:13 pm

    @David Morris:

    개(gae): used for countable things in general, I found three(!) corresponding hanja: 個 箇 介
    There is also an exotic use case as a weight unit for gold, it seems,
    maybe distinguishable by choice of hanja?
    마리(mari): used for all kinds of animal (check out on yogurt!). Native Korean.
    대(dae): used for cars, airplanes, music instruments and machines. Hanja: 臺

    When Koreans complain to me about German's "der/die/das" I point them to the panoply of counters in their own language^^

    The URI pointed to by my name is a horrible way to waste time, you have been warned.

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