Some languages possess a class of words linguists call “classifiers.” The Chinese languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, and so on) are among these languages, and there are many others. A classifier is placed before a noun to indicate what kind of thing the noun is, in regard to pointing it out or counting it. English doesn't have a word class of classifiers, but some familiar phrases can give the idea:

With these meanings, you wouldn't say “six scissors”, “three pants” or “five eyeglasses.” In these phrases “pairs of” acts the way a classifier does.

In a number of languages, the list of classifiers includes words that mean units of weight and measure. In some languages these words also exist as a noun, and in other languages they only occur as classifiers. Such words are always preceded by a number word, or in some languages by “this”, “that” or similar words.

For example:

tê kû. [Lahu.  “” is “one,” and “” is a classifier meaning the breadth of 8 fingers.]

Glossaries and dictionaries of such languages often follow the practice of using a classifier phrase as the headword for the entry on a classifier, and make the phrase from the word for “one” plus the classifier. This policy reflects the fact that the classifier cannot occur without an accompanying number word or demonstrative.

If an entry in says the word is a classifier, it will also indicate whether part of the headword means “one.” Similarly, if you are trying to look up a term you suspect may include a classifier, try replacing the number word with the language's word for “one.”


A very accessible introduction to classifiers in Mandarin (see subchapter 4.2.1):

Charles N. Li and Sandra A. Thompson.
Mandarin Chinese: a functional reference grammar.
Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1981.

And for those who are already into linguistics:

Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald.
Classifiers. A typology of noun categorization devices.
Oxford Studies in Typology and Linguistic Theory.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

home | units index | search |  contact drawing of envelope |  contributors | 
help | privacy | terms of use