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Counting in Japanese

This lesson's content is divided into five sections:

With three notes that deserved their own listing:


 

Expressions

Like lessons one through three, this lesson too will start with some useful expressions, this time related to care. Interpersonal relations are everything in Japan, and expressing your care or worry over someone is an integral part of that, so it helps to know how to express which level of caring at what occasion. Of course, each occasion requires a different kind of care or mental support, so what follows are expressions for when you need to express social involvement:

大丈夫ですか

Based on the kanji form, 大丈夫 would literally mean "big strong man". However, in the more figurative way of speech, 大丈夫 means "alright" or "okay" in the sense that there is nothing wrong. Asking the question 大丈夫ですか, "Are you okay?", is typically followed by the waiving answers 大丈夫です(よ) or 平気です(よ) where the first is "I'm okay" / "I'm alright" and the second literally says "I am at peace", which translates to the expression "I'm fine". It is not recommended you use this second word in a question form such as 平気ですか, as this supplants the normal expression with something that's not an established expression and as such can sound quite odd.

元気ですか / 元気(が)ないんですね

The first of these two expressions is a type of greeting, used to enquire as to whether the person you're greeting is in reasonable spirits or not, and is equal to the English "How are you doing?" or "How's it going?" (some people emphasise that it does not mean "hello", though to be honest I would imagine this to be fairly self-evident given the translations I just gave, and the fact that we already covered day-greetings in lesson 1). The second is used when it is already quite clear that the person you're going to greet is not in any high spirits at all, but rather looks down, lifeless, depressed, generally not brimming with energy and ready to tackle life. In this case, you use the expression "元気ないんですね" to say "Looks like you're not at your best, what's wrong?". The んですか part (explained in detail in the "particles I" section) creates an implicit request for information beyond the short yes or no answer that usually follows the more direct question "are you feeling down?"

どうしました / どうした

If your greeting partner seems upset rather than just a bit lifeless, an explicit enquiry as to what's wrong can be made using these two constructions, depending on the formality.

をつけて(さい)

This expression is used when parting with someone, and is roughly the same as the English "Take care!" kind of parting. Adding 下さい makes the whole expression a lot less trivial, but implies a real wish for the person to be careful, rather than just saying it for good measures, being translatable with "please be careful".

(お)大事に(してさい)

大事 is a curious but very nice word. Literally it means "great matter", but it's translated with 'important'. However, the kind of importance is very typical: since "" applies to non-physical things, it implies importance over matters of the heart and mind. お大事にして could be translated as really actually meaning "please make yourself important enough to yourself so that you may not come to any harm". It's quite different from 気をつけて, which is a much more direct form of saying 'be careful'.

にしないで(さい)

When someone is worrying and you want to comfort them, there are two options. Shift blame (a good practice) and making it sound like it wasn't important (equally effective!). The first requires a lot of ratting and evil plotting, and the second uses expressions of which 気にしないで is one. It literally says "do not make this a matter that you care about". It's a rather odd request, but in English we have a similar request: "Don't worry about it". While it's hard to command someone to not mind something (after all, how can you possibly command emotion?) it's still quite acceptable as a suggestion that shows your concern.

心配しないで(さい)

This is a stronger form of 気にしないで. Where 気にする means 'to worry about', 心配する mean 'to have worries [about...]' which simply expresses a deeper form of worry. The difference between this expression and the previous one is that 気にしないで is a suggestion but 心配しないで is a real request. You ask of the person in question to not worry. Whether they will grant this request is another matter, of course.

安心してさい

While shifting blame is fun and ignoring the matter is effective up to a certain point, you can go further. There's also hidden option number 3: making it better. Saying 安心して下さい translates to saying "please, relax [it's all good]" implying that what the person is worried about isn't just not really that much of a problem, but really isn't a problem at all. For instance, if someone is worried because they missed the last train, but you know that there's been a change of train schedules and there will be another train coming in 3 minutes even though it's not listed on the schedule, then there is no problem. Particularly if the person that missed their train is now quietly starting to panic, it's a good idea to use this expression. Using this expression, paired with an explanation why there is no reason to worry, is usually met with something like ああ、よかった ("oh thank goodness") or どうもありがとうございます ("thank you very much").

になってさい

Do not confuse this with 楽にして下さい, because they are radically different things. The expression 楽になって下さい means "please stop worrying", in the sense that someone might be uncomfortable in a particular situation, and this expression is used to put them at ease. 楽にして下さい on the other hands means "please make yourself comfortable", said in pretty much the situations when you'd use this English translation, such as when you have guests over and you want them to just make themselves at home.

世話になります

世話 is best described as a "helping of others". If you are in a restaurant and offer to pick up the tab for everyone else, you are offering 世話. If someone breaks their leg preventing them from getting around for a week or two, the if you offer to help them out for that time you are offering 世話. In practice 世話 is a double-edged sword: by offering 世話 you are both being kind by helping someone out, as well as insidious because this will indebt them to you. Offering 世話 can be a tricky business. Likewise, accepting 世話 sometimes requires care; if someone is offering to pay the tab for your lunch, then this may not seem such a big deal, but if you just had a business dinner and the tab runs close to 10,0000 yen, then what do you do? Similarly, if you break your leg and your best friend offers to help you a few days, this might seem like a good thing, but what if you know this will interfere with important exams they are supposed to take soon?

When you do decide to accept their generous offer of aid, you use the above expression to indicate you understand and accept the situation in which you will receive favourable treatment from someone.


 

Particles I - some normal particles

In addition to a set of expressions, we'll also cover a few more "particles", this time for joining sentences, mostly because it would be silly to not look at these until lesson 5. Most of these are fairly straight forward, helping us to glue together multiple sentences, without having to rely on the verb て-form or the 連用形 in general. We will look at the following set:

  • と - quoting particle
  • でも - contrast
  • そして - continuative
  • のです - stating
  • ので - continuative
  • しかし - contrast

This first particle is probably unexpected because it might feel it does not link up sentences at all. However, we'll be looking at a "new" role for this particle, namely the quoting role. Right now if you wanted to say "I like 'The Merchant of Venice'", you would probably be stuck. There is no way you would know how to put the sentence "The Merchant of Venice" (or any other sentence for that matter) inside another sentence so that it makes sense, so that's why we need to take a moment to look at this role of と, because it opens up a world of possibility.

While this particular role is called "quoting", that should be taken with a grain of salt, what it really does is mark something as "thus", which is a tad more complicated than calling something a quote. If we look at と in action, we might get a better idea of this:

日本語: ジョン・ブラウンいます。
English, lit.: [I am] called 'John Brown'.
English, nat.: My name is John Brown.

言います comes from, obviously, 言う, which means "say" or "call" (in the calling something something else sense, not in the calling someone by shouting or phoning them sense). In this sentence, と marks the "what" that is being said. This applies to much more than just names of course:

日本語: 駄目言った。
English lit.: [He] said "駄目だ".
English nat.: [He] said it was no good.

This example shows why と is often called the quoting particle. By using と in combination with an entire phrase and following it up with 言う, we can quote an entire sentence. However, this somewhat misleading, because this doesn't have to be literal quoting, just like in English: if your mother told you you were not allowed to play with your friends until you had finished your homework, then you could quote her as having said "you have to do your homework" when your friends ask why you're not coming over to play. It's not a literal quote, but it captures the essence of what she said.

We can extend this idea of not-literally-quoting even further to for instance thought:

日本語: うよ。
English: [I] think [he] will come.

It's hard to call saying what you think the same as quoting what you think, since you can't really quote yourself on something you never said before, but the idea is the same. This use of と is essentially restricted to certain verbs. 言う and 思う are probably the two most important ones, but any verb that is related to providing information can work with と in this way.

A particularly useful pattern to know involving と and 言う is the ~と言う(こと/もの/の)は pattern. Okay, so that's really three patterns, ~と言うことは, ~と言うものは and ~と言うのは, but all three operate on the same principle: they fix the statement before と as a "something", about which you'll be talking. For instance, in English I could say "Freedom is more of a mental state than a physical state". While this uses the same kind of phrasing as "red is a colour", the underlying thought is very different: rather than defining freedom as "more a mental state than a physical state", which would be an empty definition, I'm remarking on what freedom means in this world. In Japanese the three constructions just provided make this "talking about something" explicit:

日本語: 自由と言う外界より心境のものだいます。
English: I think that rather than a physical thing, "freedom" is more of a mental state.

Whenever you wish to say something about a certain thing, you can use any of these three patterns to establish you're talking about "the thing we call ..." or "that which is ...", with the difference being that ~の refers back to something in the conversation, ~こと refers to an abstract concept (like "freedom") and ~もの to some tangible thing.

でも

This is a combination of the copula て-form "で", paired with the same emphatic particle も, pretty much in the same way as the the verbal ~ても construction is formed. The difference is that this particle can be used as a sentence starter instead, such as in the following example:

日本語: 昨日るかったで、今日るいです。でも明日だそうです。
English: Yesterday was bright, and today's also bright. But I heard that it'll be rain tomorrow.

This word can be translated as quite a few things, all expressing the same thing: "but", "still", "thought", "however", etc. It's all about accepting the bit before でも, and then slapping on something that works as a contrasting remark.

そして

Composed of a contraction between the こそあど word そう and the verbal form して, the meaning of this word should be relatively easy to guess. Literally we might translate it as "doing so, ..." but of course literal translations are not always the best idea, so we can translate it with really any word or set of words that mean taking the presented information, and continuing from there. This is another word that comes at the start of a sentence with common translations "so","thus", "and", "that way, " and probably some more that I'm simply forgetting right now.

日本語: 東京って遊園地きました。そしてその友達とおみにきました。
English: I went to Tokyo, and went to an amusement park. [And then] after that I went drinking with friends.

In this case, the [and then] part is the translation for そして. You can leave it out, and it will still sound fine, but adding it in implies an additional structure in events, aside from joining up two sentences. Like most continuatives, we could of course leave it off entirely and just join up the two sentences in a large single sentence, such as the following:

日本語: 東京って遊園地って友達とおみにきました。
English: After going to Tokyo and visiting an an amusement park I went drinking with friends.

however, this has as effect that feel of the sentence changes: the going to Tokyo and visiting and amusement park has now become completely dominated by the going out drinking, as if they're far less important. This is why continuative words are a good thing... in the first example sentence there is a clear sense that going to Tokyo and visiting an amusement park are things on themselves, worth a closed sentence.

のです (のだ, んです, んだ)

This is the same substantiating の that we saw earlier when explaining と言うの, paired with です. When used in a statement, the の adds the emphasis of "it is that ..." to the statement, such as in the following example:

A: りそうですね。
B: うん、あんまりられなかったんだ

In this example A states "you look sleepy", to which B replies "I do - [it is that] I couldn't sleep very well". Rather than just saying あんまり寝られなかった, the addition of のです in the plain contracted form んだ adds a factual emphasis to the statement, which turns the statement into a "reason" of sorts explaining the situation.

When used in a question something interesting happens. Normally questions involving です are yes/no questions, but when we use のです the substantiating の changes the nature of the question: rather than just knowing the answer, the speaker is also asking for the reason behind the answer:

A: もうんですか。
B: はい。友達っていますから……

Here the question is "Will you be going already?" but using のです (in polite contracted form). Rather than just responding with はい, B also lists the reason she has to be leaving, "I have a friend waiting, so..."

When using のです, it is typical to place the preceding phrase in plain form, rather than polite form. There is no grammatical reason for this, but rather a practical one: keeping the phrase before のです in polite form creates a "politeness overkill" as it were. Rather than saying 友達っていますのです for instance, you would say 友達っているのです instead.

There is one final note before we move on, which concerns だ (the plain copula) preceding のです. This may sound a bit odd, why would you need a copula twice, but if you want to say "[it is that] he is my teacher", you would want to combine 先生です with のです. First of all, we make the first part plain, so that we have 先生だ + のです, but the combination is not 先生だのです: instead, it's 先生なのです. This is a particularity of だ, which is a terribly capricious copula, changing the way it sounds all over the place and sometimes plain disappearing altogether. More on this in lesson 5, but for now I'll teach you that whenever the copula だ is followed by の, it changes pronunciation to な instead. Not unimportant to note, this also happens when の is contracted to ん, so phrases that you hear or see ending on ~なんです are pretty much always is ~[な for だ][ん for の][です], rather than ~[なん for 何][です].

ので

This is really just のです, in て-form. This means that we technically know what it represents: "it is that ..., [and]" where the "and" is implied due to the 連用形 nature of the て-form. This particle combination is used in situations where in English we would use "due to..." or sometimes "because". However, there is something importantly different between ので and から, the particle we already know means "because". ので, you may remember from the section just above this one, works because of の acting as a substantiating particle. Because it states something as a factual matter, we cannot use this to set up a reason for quite a few things. We cannot use it for:

  • causative for requests (because ..., please do ...)
  • invitations (which take the form of request)
  • suggestions (which take the form of request)
  • commands (because ..., do ...)
  • opinions (because ..., I think that ...)
  • volitional actions (because ..., I will ...)

This seems like a lot, and you'd be right in wondering if that leaves anything, but it does: objective causality:

日本語: 病気ので授業られません。
English: Due to an illness, I cannot attend class.

This sentence uses the verb 出られる, which is actually the potential form of 出る, a form we have not treated yet; 出る means "to go out [to attend]", the potential form means "to be able to go out [to attend]".

That said, we clearly see that this is a very objective statement. "It is a fact that I am ill. A direct consequence of this is that I will not be able to attend class." - The easiest way to remember when to use ので if you are in doubt whether to use ので or から is that ので is used in any objective situations. If the situation is something that you in any way sort of control, either in the reason or consequence, use から (for instance, if instead you had a mild headache and you decided not to go to class because of it, that would warrant から instead, because a headache in no way really prevents you from going to class).

しかし

This particle is similar to でも in that it sets up a contrast, but the perceived contrast is stronger for でも. It has a fairly obvious meaning, but this relies on you knowing where this one comes from: it is derived from , which is a classical word meaning "thus" or "thusly", and was (and is still) used as しながら, meaning "doing, while [something] be the case". It's not a very difficult word, and its use is easily illustrated;

日本語: 美術うのはしいものです。しかし、にほとんどたないものです
English: "Art" is something that is beautiful. However, it is [something] of almost no [practical] use.

And so with that base covered, it's on to counting. Hold on to your hats, this one is theorilicious.


 

Grammar I - counting

Counting in Japanese is comparable to the English (or most other languages) system where you add a counter for what you're counting, such as "I'll have three pints of beer please" or "I'll take these 2 volumes of the Encyclopædia Britannica". Except where in English the statements "three beers please" and "these two books" are a completely normal way of indicating counted items, things work a little differently in Japanese. In Japanese you need to keep the counter in for whatever you're counting, a bit like saying "these two volumes of books" rather than "two books", and then for everything...

This is quite a problem for people who start learning Japanese and hit the proverbial counting wall, so we'll spend pretty much the entire rest of the lesson on at least learning basic counting, as well as basic counting particles. The most logical place to start is to teach you Japanese numbers, which in itself is an interesting exercise already: there are several ways to do even basic counting!

counting

In order to count, we need to be able to use numbers, and Japanese numbers (while simple as kanji) are a bit of a handful when it comes to pronouncing them. First off, let's look at which numbers actually exist:

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 100 1000 10000 100000000 1000000000000
ゼロ/零

Okay, first things first: those last few seem unruly, what gives?

In Japanese once you reach 万, or ten thousand in English, everything starts going in factors of 万, while in English things go in factors of a thousand instead. In English we have a thousand, then a thousand times a thousand, which we call a million. After this we get a thousand times a million, which is a milliard (or a billion in American English), and so forth until we run out of ridiculous words for super large numbers. In Japanese the factor is 万, so when we go past 万 we get 万 times 万, which is 億. After that comes 万 times 億 which is 兆, and so forth in that fashion. Aside from the fact that I haven't told you how to pronounce these yet, you can appreciate that this will give you problems, because it means you will need to do head-math when you want to list large numbers: a million, for instance, is not a nice clean number in Japanese, but a hundred 万. You're going to love this for quite a while.

Then on to the simpler numbers: 0 has two possible "forms", much like in English but you never really noticed. 0 is either "zero" (in which case it's ゼロ in Japanese) or "naught", in which case it's 零, pronounced れい. Continuing with still reasonably normal numbers, 100 is 百, pronounced ヒャク, and 1000 which is 千 pronounced セン. That's where the simple bit stops. Notice none of this covered the normal numbers yet...

The reason I haven't explained the normal numbers yet is because there are three ways to count the simple numbers, which requires a tiny diversion so that we can focus on Japanese history a bit. Japanese, well before it had a written language, was a spoken language, and like almost every language, one could count in this language (I say almost, because counting is certainly *not* a universal language construction. I can think of at least two tribal languages where there are words for "1" and "more" and that's it). This most ancient form of counting has a very simple pronunciation, and is still used in situations where you need to quickly run through at most 10 numbers, like taking head count for a small group, or counting on your fingers:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
いつ なな ここの とお

This counting series has an interesting myth involving the sun goddesss 天照 hiding in a cave, depriving the world of sunlight, and the priest よかね coaxing her out by speaking this series of numbers. The interesting part is that this series sounds pretty close to a Hebrew phrase, related to a similar legend about the sun goddess having taken up recluse in a cave: "Hifa mi yotsia ma na'ne ykakhena tavo". This phrase apparently means "The beautiful (Goddess), who will bring her out? What should we call out (in chorus) to entice her to come?" which to some people is a proof that there was at one point some kind of contact between Israelite tribes and the proto-Japanese. Make of it what you will, but it makes for good trivia when talking about Japanese, so I would not dare deprive you of this tidbit.

This counting series also has an alternative pronunciation involving counting "things" or units, which for the most part involves a pairing with the counter つ, except for 十:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
一つ 二つ 三つ 四つ 五つ 六つ 七つ 八つ 九つ
ひと ふた みっ よっ いつ むっ なな やっ ここの とお

And then finally there's another variation involving the counter for days, 日:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
一日 二日 三日 四日 五日 六日 七日 八日 九日 十日
いちにち ふつ みっ よっ いつ むい なの よう ここの とお

These three variations are quite important to know, but not nearly as important as knowing the one that came from China when Japanese finally acquired a written language, and through this the spoken language got changed as well including which numerals were used to count a great many things:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
イチ サン ロク シチ ハチ キュウ ジュウ

This is the most used series for counting in modern Japanese, but probably as you expect, you're going to have to know all four really. Just because this one is the most used, does not mean that you are free to pick which to use, and just stick with this one instead. Oh no, that would be far too easy!

You may at this point wonder why you ever bothered with this language, if something as simple as counting is this mad. On itself a valid thought, but of course it begs the question "was what you learnt so far horrible?" If the answer is "yes", then you might as well give up and take up an interest in something else, but if you answer with "no, come to think of it", then counting is really not going to be that horrible, it's just going to be more complex than you're used to from your own language. It's just one of those things particular to a small family of languages, of which English happens not to be part. After you memorise the four counting pronunciations, and the rules for counting, and know enough basic counters, things will start to look just as easy as everything else in the language.

proper numbers

Just knowing the individual numbers is of course not going to get us anywhere productive, What if I need 23 somethings, or 19278412 of them? In English we do this by replacing the "1" in 1, 10, 100, 1000 with the relevant numeral, so that 1423 is 1000 + 4x100 + 2x10 + 3. Japanese (and Chinese, and various other languages) don't use the zero to indicate order, so instead they simply write out what I've just written in numerals but without the x and + symbols: 1423 would be 1000, 4, 100, 2, 10, 3: 千四百二十三

In modern Japanese most people figured out that Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.) are actually quite convenient for large irregular numbers, so you will encounter those too when you cannot particularly cleanly write out a large number, but for low numbers or clean high numbers, this is the rule to follow: multiplication number for high factor, followed by factor, multiplication number for lower factor, followed by factor, multiplication number for even lower factor, followed by factor, etc. etc. It's a relatively simple scheme, but it takes some getting used to.

Which really leaves us with one thing... learning to actually count things.

counters

In order to really count, just numbers don't get you there in Japanese: you need counters too. Counters are particles that follow numbers to indicate a particular class of items, such as cylindrical objects, or flat objects, or more specific things like bales or liters or dollars. If you can count it, then there's a counter for it. This is the bit about Japanese counting that makes it really hard, since you not only have to be able to count numerically, but also categorically; every item that you can count will have some kind of - often not logical - counter associated with it. I say not logical, because most counters are for categories of items, and some of these make very little sense to English speakers. For instance, round things. If a round thing is shorter than it is wide, it will be counted as , which is the counter for "piece". If it is about as long as it is wide, it could be either 個 or , and if it is longer than it is wide, it's 本. Now, you know 本, it means book... except as counter it doesn't mean that at all, in any way. You can see where the confusion for people who start learning to count may come from.

So, how are proper counting statements formed? There are two valid patterns, so we'll just look at both:

[number] [counter] の [counted item]

This is the standard pattern that you would expect from Japanese the way you've learnt it so far. Some concrete examples would be:

日本語: 五本のビール
English: 5 bottles (本) of beer

日本語: 九冊
English: 9 [volumes (冊) of] books

The alternative pattern involves "shifting" the count around, and using it as if it's an adverb instead, such as in for instance "I will have four oranges please". This sentence can be turned into Japanese in two ways. The normal way:

日本語: 四つのオレンジをさい。
English: Four oranges please.

and the 'adverbial' way, where it is places in front of the verb instead of being linked to the items we are counting:

日本語: オレンジを四つさい。
English: Four oranges please.

The difference between these two structures is basically, as ever, importance. The first sentence is typically used when you are for instance ordering four oranges, but nothing else. The second makes more sense when you are ordering several things, and you already said you'd have 3 apples and a bunch of bananas, and you now also want oranges, namely four of them.

There is also a question word which is used rather than a number when the question "how many ... " needs to be asked. Rather than using the word in question, like "how many beer bottles are you carrying", just asking "how many [counter for bottles] are you carrying", using the word , "what", pronounced なん instead will do the trick. If for instance the counter that you use for books (or more accurately, bound volumes) is , then the question word "how many books" is is 何冊.

sound changes

We're almost ready to start looking at which counters to use for what purpose, but first we need to deal with one more issue; sound changes associated with counters. A bit like how kanji compound words change sound when combined sometimes, certain numberal/counter combinations lead to changes in pronunciation. However, unlike kanji compounds, there *are* fairly useful rules on what happens when.

か... いっか ろっか はっか じっか ひゃっか
さ... いっさ はっさ じっさ
た... いった はった じった
は... いっぱ さんば ろっぱ はっぱ じっぱ ひゃっぱ なんば
いっぱ はっぱ じっぱ

The way to interpret this table is quite simple. First, all these sound changes apply to the Chinese reading series. If you're using the native Japanese counting series, these sound changes do not apply. That said, the table has "counters starting with ..." on the left, and the numbers that combine with them on top. The intersections indicate how things change. For instance, 一 is pronounced いち normally, but if you combine it with a counter that starts with か (or き, く, け or こ for that matter) its pronunciation changes to いっ instead, so いち + かい turns into いっかい, and いち + こ turns into いっこ, and so on.

There is one note I should add, and that concerns 十 - the table tells you all the contractions turn into じっ... colloquially you will often hear じゅっ. I've not added that here, because for one it's colloquial, and two you should of course always know that what people are actually using is better than what you've been taught, but as far as "proper grammar" goes it's じっ, not じゅっ.

So that's it for the theory. On to the actual counters, because by now I would hope that, like me, you're tired of all this theory and just want concrete examples ^^;


 

Particles II

The wonderful world of counters. We'll look at about 35 of them, which will probably be more than enough for one lesson. Per counter I will list the pronunciation series in a convenient table, with some notes on special pronunciations and use. On a practical note, most of these will not have examples, because there is very little merit to examples in this section - you now know how to create a counting statement (you know two ways in fact), so unless there is something special with the counter being treated, there is really no advantage to having an example. Be assured you'll be practicing them lots in the practice section of this lesson though =)

First off, two requires "counters": those for 100, and 1000, . Interestingly, while being "numbers", these are also counters, a fact sometimes overlooked. They have the following "count" system:

二百 三百 四百 五百 六百 七百 八百 九百 何百
ひゃく にひゃく さんびゃく よんひゃく ごひゃく ろっぴゃく ななひゃく はっぴゃく きゅうひゃく せん なんびゃく

Note that 一百 is not in this table. This is because it is effectively never used - you only use when you really need to stress it is one hundred rather than any other multiple. When you have to just say there are a hundred somethings, you just use 百 which already means "a hundred" on its own. Also, quite obviously, there is no entry for "ten hundred", since this a thousand, and there is a special character 千 for that:

二千 三千 四千 五千 六千 七千 八千 九千 何千
せん にせん さんぜん よんせん ごせん ろくせん ななせん はっせん きゅうせん まん なんぜん

This series has an irregularity for 三 and 何, where せん becomes voiced to ぜん. There is no why, so this is just one of the few irregularities you'll need to memorise. Finally, there is まん and up, for which it is customary to use them as if they're normal counters, meaning that 10000 would be 一万, and 100000000 would be 一億.

Then, there is also the word ~, which just means "number", but can be combined with counters to create a counting statement meaning "a number of ...", similar to how 何 can be used to create a counting question.

So with this established, it's time we start looking at "real" counters. I've split them up into four parts, namely the categorial counters, counters for living things, counters for occurrences, and time-related counters. There are a few entries in this list that aren't counters on their own, but are important in manipulating counters to play different roles, so when relevant you'll see a non-counter explained anyway. So with that, onwards.

categorial counters

- cylindrical objects

Let's start with a nicely unintuitive counter: the cylindrical objects, counter with the kanji that you know to mean "book". However, as a counter this kanji loses all its intrinsic meanings and simply covers such divers items as pencils, bottles, support columns, arms and interestingly enough, hits in baseball (you hit them with a cylindrical object, the bat) and phone calls (presumably because they are associated with the old phone horn, which would have been counted with 本). The series is pronounced as follows:

一本 二本 三本 四本 五本 六本 七本 八本 九本 十本 何本
いっぽん
 
にほん
 
さんぼん
 
よんほん
(しほん)
ごほん
 
ろっぽん
 
ななほん
(しちほん)
はっぽん
 
きゅうほん
 
じっぽん
 
なんぼん
 

Immediately we notice there are multiple pronunciations for some of the counts, which to pick? In this lesson I've left the "normal" version unmarked, and have put alternative, less used versions in parentheses. So usually you will say よんほん and ななほん, and it's generally a good idea not to use the other ones unless you heard it used by someone else.

- bound volumes

This counter is used for anything that is a bound volume on itself. books and magazines for instance fall into this categories, but pamphlets for instance do not (those would be single sheets of paper, and fall under the next counter instead). Also, if you are referring to a particular volume of book in a series, such as the 4th volume of a 30 volume encyclopedia, rather than 冊 the counter is used instead. The series for 冊 is:

一冊 二冊 三冊 四冊 五冊 六冊 七冊 八冊 九冊 十冊 何冊
いっさつ にさつ さんさつ よんさつ ごさつ ろくさつ ななさつ はっさつ きゅうさつ じっさつ なんさつ

You can see the sound changes that the sound change table dictates all present and accounted for.

- flat objects

As mentioned this counter is used for flat objects, like sheets of paper, folded T-shirts, mousemats, what have you. A good indication of whether to use 枚 or another counter is to think of the thing you're counting and imagining a circular container around it. if the container is lower than it is wide, then you want to use 枚. If it's as high as wide, or higher than wide, you will want to use different counters; 個 or 本 respectively, typically. This counter is entirely regular:

一枚 二枚 三枚 四枚 五枚 六枚 七枚 八枚 九枚 十枚 何枚
いちまい にまい さんまい よんまい ごまい ろくまい ななまい はちまい きゅうまい じゅうまい なんまい

- cups

This counter is used to count cups or glasses of something, such as cups of tea, glasses of wine, or pints of beer. It says nothing about the size or quantity of the beverage; as long as it's in a glass or a cup this counter applies.

一杯 二杯 三杯 四杯 五杯 六杯 七杯 八杯 九杯 十杯 何杯
いっぱい にはい さんばい よんはい ごはい ろっぱい ななはい はっぱい きゅうはい じっぱい なんばい

A note on いっぱい. While as a counter statement it means "one cup" or "one glass", it also means "full" in the sense that something has been filled to the brink with something else. A common use for this is when you've eaten so much you're full, but there is a difference in pronunciation between the counter statement and the "full" interpretation, even though they are essentially the same word on paper. What differentiates these two words is where and how the accent is placed. The first is pronounced いっぱい with the (いっ) pronounced at higher than normal pitch, and the (ぱい) at a lower pitch. The second is pronounced the other way around, with the (いっ) at normal pitch, and the (ぱい) at a higher pitch..

- machines

This counter is used for machines of any shape and size - forklifts, computers, your Aibo robot dog, it's all fair game. Its series is entirely predictable:

一台 二台 三台 四台 五台 六台 七台 八台 九台 十台 何台
いちだい にだい さんだい よんだい ごだい ろくだい ななだい はちだい きゅうだい じゅうだい なんだい

- heavy things

Technically "heavy things" isn't quite right, but it's the closest short summary; 基 is used for anything that is typically put somewhere and left there, such as sofas and garden ornaments but also things that have been placed somewhere with the intent of never really moving them, like rail road crossings, or pyramids. It behaves as any か counter:

一基 二基 三基 四基 五基 六基 七基 八基 九基 十基 何基
いっき にき さんき よんき ごき ろっき ななき はっき きゅうき じっき なんき

- floors

The counter for floors in a building, any counts with this counter can either mean "n floors" or "nth floor". It behaves like a か counter, but has an irregularity for 三, where it voices (for no real reason...)

一階 二階 三階 四階 五階 六階 七階 八階 九階 十階 何階
いっかい にかい さんがい よんかい ごかい ろっかい ななかい はっかい きゅうかい じっかい なんかい

In addition to the normal counters, there are also a few additional words that are useful to know, being 中二階 for mezzanine, and 屋上 for rooftop, which is a good place to put a beer garden. Underground (or basement) floors are counted with 地下 (lit.: under ground) prefixed to the floor count, so 地下一階 is the first level underground, 地下二地 the second level underground, etc.

- pieces

This counter is a generic counter for pieces. If you need to put two eggs into a batter, then you add 二個, if you have four weight discs for your dumbbell and you can't think of the proper counter, you could just use 個 and no one would think anything of it. If you have a nondescript thing that has roughly equal dimensions in terms of length, width and height, use 個 unless you know a more appropriate specific counter.

一個 二個 三個 四個 五個 六個 七個 八個 九個 十個 何個
いっこ にこ さんこ よんこ ごこ ろっこ ななこ はっこ きゅうこ じっこ なんこ

つ - units

Only used for the numbers one through nine, this counter is another generic counter, this time for units (such as pieces of fruit, or number of problems), but it can also be used to indicate the age of (somewhat obviously) young children.

一つ 二つ 三つ 四つ 五つ 六つ 七つ 八つ 九つ 幾つ
ひとつ ふたつ みっつ よっつ いつつ むっつ ななつ やっつ ここのつ いくつ

An interesting note is on the "number of problems" I mentioned; while in English you would list problems (or rules, or whatever) as "First, ....., second, ......, third, ....." - Not so in Japanese. Instead, you list each individual problem, rule, or whateveryagots with ひとつ. The reasoning here is that you are not listing them in an ordered fashion, ticking them off, but you're listing them one by one, and each thing you list is only one thing, therefore you count them as one thing, not two or three or more.

This counter has a special question word, いくつ, which can be made more respectful by prefixing it with the honorific お to form おいくつ to enquire about the age of a young child. This 幾 is also found in the wonderful word 幾ら, to which we shall devote a short note here.

幾ら means "in which number", and because of this can mean three things: how much, how long or how often. If we look at the seemingly simple question:

日本語: 幾ら読みますか。
English: "in which number" do you read?

then this could be any of three questions, with consequently three possible answers:

日本語:  (一時に)百ページぐらい(読みます)。
English: ([I] read) about 100 pages (at a sitting).

日本語:  (一時に)二時間ぐらい(読みます)。
English: ([I] read for) about 2 hours (per sitting).

日本語:  一ヶ月一二冊ぐらい(読みます)。
English: ([I] read) about 1 or 2 books per month.

Of course, which answer to give depends entirely on the context.

(The 一二 in this last sentence is to be taken as "1, 2". In the same way, 十二三 would mean "12, 13". This might sound odd, but we do this in English too: "It costs around four, five hundred dollars" for instance is perfectly understandable as meaning it costs around four hundred or five hundred dollars, not around four dollars or five hundred dollars. In Japanese this particular range can be written as 四五百)

- count prefix

This is not actually a counter as such, but a prefix used in certain counting statements. When preceding counting statements it indicates that the count is actually part of a collection, such as 第一課 meaning "first chapter in a set of chapters" or 第一 being used to refer to the first of several arguments in an argumentative paper.

These are in fact the two most often occurring combinations you will see this prefix used in, and there is not a great deal more to say about it other than that it's very weird that a younger brother under bamboo should be a set-position indicator...^_^

- section, chapter, lesson

This counter is used to indicate sections of a larger work, such as lessons in a lesson plan, chapters in a book, or parts in a play.

一課 二課 三課 四課 五課 六課 七課 八課 九課 十課 何課
いっか にか さんか よんか ごか ろっか ななか はっか きゅうか じっか なんか

- the Japanese currency

The currency of Japan, it might interest you to know, is not the yen, but the en. Of course, you could guess this since you know there is no "ye" syllable (not now, not any time in the past), but the slurring that occurs between the numbers and the え in えん can make it sound like "yen", which is what most western people heard when the Japanese used it, and so it stuck as yen, rather than en. That said, this series has two irregular pronunciations for 四 and 九, which you should remember:

一円 二円 三円 四円 五円 六円 七円 八円 九円 十円 何円
いちえん にえん さんえん よえん ごえん ろくえん ななえん はちえん くえん じゅうえん なんえん

 

counters for living things

- small animals

This counter is used for small animals, as well as fish (when there is no more appropriate counter to be used). This means that puppies, cats, squirrels and the like are all counted with 匹. Birds don't fall under this category because they have their own winged counter, but interestingly bunnies aren't counted with this either - we'll get back to this when looking at 羽 as next counter. For now, this series:

一匹 二匹 三匹 四匹 五匹 六匹 七匹 八匹 九匹 十匹 何匹
いっぴき にひき さんびき よんひき ごひき ろっぴき しちひき はっぴき きゅうひき じっぴき なんびき

- winged animals

As mentioned this counter is used for birds... and bunnies. There are two theories as to why this might be the case. The first is fairly obvious running along the lines of "bunnies have floppy ears, which look like wings, the end". The other one is far more interesting: from the 6th century until the mid-19th century, most Japanese people were forbidden to eat meat due to Bhuddist influences. However, this applied only to meat with four legs, so birds and fish could still be eaten. In order to be able to eat meat anyway, people started calling certain animals by different names, referring to them as birds or fish, and rabbits became referred to as birds, and counted with 羽. It wasn't until the Meiji restoration in 1872, with the warming up to western influences that eating meat was allowed again after a more than 1300 year period of "abstinence". (another fun renaming was monks calling boars "whales of the land" so they could eat them, the irony being whales are not fish, though arguably not four-legged either)

So with that interesting tidbit covered, the counter series itself is wholly unremarkable:

一羽 二羽 三羽 四羽 五羽 六羽 七羽 八羽 九羽 十羽 何羽
いちわ にわ さんわ よんわ ごわ ろくわ ななわ はちわ きゅうわ じゅうわ なんわ

- big animals

horses, cows, alligators, giraffes, anything that is a big animal, is counted with this counter.

一頭 二頭 三頭 四頭 五頭 六頭 七頭 八頭 九頭 十頭 何頭
いっとう にとう さんとう よんとう ごとう ろくとう ななとう はっとう きゅうとう じっとう なんとう

Dogs, even if particularly big like great Danes, are generally counted with 匹, so this gives you an impression of at which size something becomes 頭..

- humans

This counter is quite special, because of the counts for one person and two people, in which case the classical reading り is used instead. In these readings they can also carry additional nuance as we'll see in the example phrases. First though, the series:

一人 二人 三人 四人 五人 六人 七人 八人 九人 十人 何人
ひとり ふたり さんにん よにん ごにん ろくにん しちにん はちにん きゅうにん じゅうにん なんにん

And then for the explanations. 一人 doesn't just mean "one person", but also "alone", and when combined with で (instrumental particle) or きり (a particle you haven't learnt yet which fixes something as something) means "on one's own", such as can be seen in:

日本語: 一人でりました。
English: I went home on my own.

Similarly, 二人 not only means two people, but also implies considering two people one thing, so in effect thinking of 2 people as a pair, rather than 2 distinct people:

日本語: あの二人、いつのまにかカップルになった?
English: Wait, when did those two become a couple?

 

counters for occurrences

- degrees, times

This counter can count two things: occurrences (one time, two times, three times), and temperature in degrees Celsius.

一度 二度 三度 四度 五度 六度 七度 八度 九度 十度 何度
いちど にど さんど よんど ごど ろくど ななど はちど きゅうど じゅうど なんど

This series is not really remarkable, but the role of occurence counter is: usually 度 is only used for up to three occurrences. If you want to go beyond 三度, then you will want to use 回 instead. There is a semi-"pattern" involving 二度 which you might find useful to know (or which allows something in your brain to click, linking the expression to the counter):

日本語: 二度と許さない。
English: [Doing that] a second time won't be tolerated.

of course the verb that comes after can be a different one, but this will be the expression most people will have heard at least once while enjoying Japanese cinematographic material.

- times

This counter is for counting indefinite "times", whether it be doing something once, or seven hundred times. It acts as you would expect from any ~か counter:

一回 二回 三回 四回 五回 六回 七回 八回 九回 十回 何回
いっかい にかい さんかい よんかい ごかい ろっかい ななかい はっかい きゅうかい じっかい なんかい

- ~fold

This counter is a slight bit special, as there is no 一 version for it, and the standard interpretation is already "two-fold". This means that something such as:

日本語: これで問題が倍になった。
English: This has doubled the problems.

This means that the counter series "starts" at 3, but you are unlikely to use any non-round orders of this (like 十倍, 百倍 or 千倍) in every day life. Still, since it acts like any normal non-changing series, you can guess what the pronunciations are going to be:

三倍 四倍 五倍 六倍 七倍 八倍 九倍 十倍 何倍
ばい さんばい よんばい ごばい ろくばい ななばい はちばい きゅうばい じゅうばい なんばい

Interestingly, there is an alternative counter for ~fold, 重, which is truly remarkably odd - it has three pronunciations, only some of which work for certain numbers, and which don't all use the same numbering system. As a curiosity I shall show you the pronunciation table for it, but unless you really, really want to memorise it, I don't recommend learning this one as anything more than a "look at how crazy counters are!" example.

一重 二重 三重 四重 五重 六重 七重 八重 九重 十重 幾重 何重
ひとえ ふたえ みえ いつえ ななえ やえ ここのえ とえ いくえ
いちじゅう にじゅう さんじゅう しじゅう ごじゅう しちじゅう くじゅう なんじゅう
よんちょう ごちょう ななちょう きゅうちょう なんちょう

Clearly this is just too ridiculous. Three pronunciations, no count for 6 at all, super irregular numeral pronunciation... luckily this counter is typically only used for 1/2/3-folds, which means you really just need to remember the words ひとえ, ふたえ and みえ if anything at all.

- rank

This counter is used to indicate a "turn" or number in a series. For instance, if you're playing a game of pool the first play is 一番, the second 二番. Or, say you're out with your platoon guarding some pointless outpost in a military exercise and you're taking turns to guard while the rest catches some sleep, the first guard will be 一番, the second 二番, the third 三番 and so forth in that most obvious fashion. Similarly, if you have people finishing at a race, the first one to finish is 一番, the second ... well you get the idea:

一番 二番 三番 四番 五番 六番 七番 八番 九番 十番 何番
いちばん
 
にばん
 
さんばん
 
よんばん
 
ごばん
 
ろくばん
 
ななばん
 
はちばん
 
くばん
(きゅうばん)
じゅうばん
 
なんばん
 

However, we need to pause at the word 一番 for a moment, because it's special. 一番 can also be interpreted as meaning "most" when combined with adjectives, and can therefore be used to create the superlative step in adjectives. A note follows =)

Adjectival comparative and superlatives

Adjectival specification come in three "flavours": an attributive flavour, which simply says that something is something else, a comparative flavour, which says that something is more something than something else, and the superlative flavour, which says that something is the most something else.

Now, in Japanese the first two roles use the same construction. Similar to how for verbals the present and future tense just use the same verb form, for adjectives the attributive and comparative form are the same. This means that saying "this is more fun that that" in Japanese is simply saying "this is, rather than that, fun":

日本語: これはそれより楽しいです。
English: This is more fun than that.

However, that leaves the superlative flavour of adjectives, and that's where 一番 comes in: adding 一番 in front of an adjective, you have successfully made it the most [adjective]:

日本語: あの黒い車は一番速いのです。
English: That black car is the fastest.

As a side note, this is not the のです you learnt about earlier in this lesson, but just 速い車です, with の taking the place of くるま as a back referral pronoun. As is fairly evident from this sentence, 一番速い means "fastest".

It deserves mention that you cannot use 一番 with nouns. Most students who start using 一番 as a superlative marker forget that you really really need adjectives to turn into superlatives: when trying to say "best teacher", 一番先生 does not hit the spot, since it does not mean "best teacher", but "most teacher". Even in English, this constitutes strange phrasing at the very least. The series "good, better, best" is simply いい, いい, 一番いい in Japanese

- number in a series

This counter is used for numbers in an "issue"-series, such as the current issue number of a monthly magazine, room number on a floor of an apartment building, or tanks in a tank platoon.

一号 二号 三号 四号 五号 六号 七号 八号 九号 十号 何号
いちごう にごう さんごう よんごう ごごう ろくごう ななごう はちごう きゅうごう じゅうごう なんごう

- ordinality marker

This is not a counter on itself, but is used as a suffix to rank counters to turn cardinal numbers into ordinal numbers.

Usually counters reflect cardinal numbers, which means they're numbers expressing amount, such as "one bottle". Ordinal numbers on the other hand represent position in a list or set, such as in "first bottle". You cannot blindly combine it with everything, but you can certainly combine it with a lot, one of the most common ones is 番目. To see the difference between the cardinal and ordinal version, let's look at a reasonably obvious example:

日本語: この停留所から5番のバスにってさい。
English: Please take the no. 5 bus at this bus stop.

If we add 目 however, things change quite drastically:

日本語: この停留所から5番目のバスにってさい。
English: Please take the 5th bus at this bus stop.

Suddenly it doesn't matter which number the bus itself has, as long as it's the 5th bus all is well.

counters for time

- seconds

一秒 二秒 三秒 四秒 五秒 六秒 七秒 八秒 九秒 十秒
いちびょう にびょう さんびょう よんびょう ごびょう ろくびょう ななびょう はちびょう きゅうびょう じゅうびょう

with the question word 何秒 not actually in the table because it wouldn't fit ^^;;

- minutes

This counter has alternate pronunciations for 三, 四 and 何. The reason, if it can so be called, for this is that the counting statements さんぶん, よんぶん and なんぶん are already used by the counter for "division" or "part", which is ぶん ... written 分!

So in order for there to be no confusion, these alternate pronunciations are used:

一分 二分 三分 四分 五分 六分 七分 八分 九分 十分 何分
いっぷん にふん さんぷん よんぷん ごふん ろっぷん ななふん はっぷん きゅうふん じっぷん なんぷん

- clock hour

This is the counter for clock hours, which means "1 o' clock" and the like. Like in English there is a distinct difference between clock hours and durational hours in Japanese, where the second uses the counter 時 suffixed with the interval marker 間 instead, as we shall see in the next counter section. The counting series for 時 is not entirely regular, but still fairly easy:

一時 二時 三時 四時 五時 六時 七時 八時 九時 十時 十一時 十二時 何時
いちじ にじ さんじ よじ ごじ ろくじ しちじ はちじ くじ じゅうじ じゅういちじ じゅうにじ なんじ

If you've ever seen a Japanese TV guide, you will know that the Japanese aren't fussy about putting more than 24 hours into a day; hours past 24 are comfortably counted as 25, 26 or even further, for as long as the "next day listings" haven't started yet. So, a show that starts at 2:00 on the morning of Friday would probably be part of the Thursday listings with 26:00 as time marker.

- interval marker

Not a counter on itself, this suffix is used to indicate a clock/calendar/era time as a durational time instead. For instance, we can combine it with 時 to form the following counter:

時間 - hours duration

Unlike for seconds and minutes, there is a clear difference between hours on the clock and hours of duration, so in order to indicate an hour-count is durational, the suffix 間 is used:

日本語: 三時に練習します。
English: I will practice at 3 o' clock.

日本語: 三時間に練習します。
English: I will practice for three hours.

- days

This counter has two pronunciations, and acts both as calendar date and as durational counter. The listed readings are all for the ~か pronunciation of this counter except for the first day, which is somewhat special. counts not listed here are normal counts with the counter 日 read as にち.

一日 二日 三日 四日 五日 六日 七日
いちにち
ついたち
ふつか
 
みっか
 
よっか
 
いつか
 
むいか
 
なのか
 
八日 九日 十日 十四日 二十日 二十四日 三十日
ようか ここのか とおか じゅうよっか はつか にじゅうよっか みそか

ついたち comes from 月立ち, "beginning of the month", みそか comes from 晦日, "end of the month" (晦 meaning disappearance).

On a purely trivia note, はつか comes from 廿日, where 廿 is an old way to write 20 as single number character rather than according to the "compositional" number system employed in modern Japanese. Still known by some but never used are the old characters for 20, 30 and 40: 廾 or廿, 卅 or 丗, and 卌 respectively

This counter acts both as a calendar count as well as durational count, which may lead to some confusion some times:

日本語: 三日に泊めています。
English (1): [I]'m staying for three days.
English (2): [I]'m staying [over] on the 3rd.

Typically context will help a little, but sometimes you'll just be scratching your head wondering which interpretation to go with.

- nights

The counterpart to 日, 泊 counts the number of nights of some stay. It acts as any ~は counter series would:

一泊 二泊 三泊 四泊 五泊 六泊 七泊 八泊 九泊 十泊 何泊
いっぱく にはく さんばく よんはく ごはく ろっぱく しちはく はっぱく きゅうはく じっぱく なんばく

This counter is typically used in combination with 日 for ... days and ... nights counting statements:

日本語: 予定は二泊三日の旅です。
English: The planning is a 3 days and 2 nights trip.

- weeks

This counter is a counter for weeks, but not for weeks of duration, so be careful.

一週 二週 三週 四週 五週 六週 七週 八週 九週 十週
いっしゅう にしゅう さんしゅう よんしゅう ごしゅう ろくしゅう ななしゅう はっしゅう きゅうしゅう じっしゅう

(with 何週 not fitting in the table ^_^;)

This counter can be combined with 目 to form "the ...th week" in a month or a year, or it can be combined with to form 週間 meaning weeks in duration.

- calendar month

This is not so much a counter series as just learning the names of the months in Japanese. Up until "recently" Japanese months were named, like in most western languages, but they adopted the more Chinese method of denoting months of the year using numbered months instead in the 20th century. What follows is the completely immutable list of names of the months, you cannot use alternate readings for numbers in this "series", they're completely fixed:

一月 二月 三月 四月 五月 六月
いちがつ にがつ さんがつ しがつ ごがつ ろくがつ
七月 八月 九月 十月 十一月 十二月
しちがつ はちがつ くがつ じゅうがつ じゅういちがつ じゅうにがつ

To ask which month it is, such as enquiring which month a particular newspaper article was from or some such, one would use 何月.

There is an alternative pronunciation for this counter which is つき, in which case it is paired with native Japanese numerals instead and means "moons" instead. In this way it's really only used for up to and including three moons, so we get 一月, 二月 and 三月.

ヶ月 - months duration

Unlike the previous series, this is a durational series and is considered a normal counting series starting with a か. It should be noted that the ヶ is not a katakana ヶ, but a simplified version of the kanji 箇 (exceedingly simplified: it is just one of the components in the 竹 that sits on top of the kanji). The table's split because it simply doesn't fit on the screen as one table:

一ヶ月 二ヶ月 三ヶ月 四ヶ月 五ヶ月
いっかげつ にかげつ さんかげつ よんかげつ ごかげつ
六ヶ月 七ヶ月 八ヶ月 九ヶ月 十ヶ月 何ヶ月
ろっかげつ ななかげつ はっかげつ きゅうかげつ じっかげつ なんかげつ

Note that unlike the counter for months, , counting with this counter can be done indefinitely (theoretically) as there are only 12 months in a year, but many more months in longer periods.

- era year

一年 二年 三年 四年 五年 六年 七年 八年 九年 十年 何年
いちねん にねん さんねん よんねん ごねん ろくねん ななねん はちねん きゅうねん じゅうねん なんねん

Note that this is technically the counter for year in an era, where the term "era" should be taken loosely; it can refer to any period of time that is divided in years and has an identifiable first year. This means that historical periods such as the current 平成 era as well as educational programs qualify for the title. The one thing it does *not* refer to is years of age, because this is something different from being in one's ~th year of life (for which you would use 年). For years of age, the counter さい is used, treated as last counter in this section.

A common "extension" is ~年生, which is used to indicate which year in a program someone is in:

日本語: 東京大学二年生松田です。
English: [I am] Hitoshi Matsuda, 2nd year student [at] Tokyo University.

To turn 年 into years of duration, simply suffix again to form 年間

歳 (才) - years of age

This counter has two kanji, the first being the "proper" one, the second being the simplified version. The kanji 才 is used more and more these days, but I personally think it's better to use 歳 simply because there is no reason to go easy on yourself if you have to learn this kanji later on anyway.

This counter is only used for ages over nine years old (for one through nine つ is used instead), and the readings are those for any other ~さ counter, save 20, which can also be read as はたち, while written 二十歳.. The difference between 二十歳 being read はたち and にじっさい is that the first underlines the "being of legal age" aspect of this particular age, where the second has no such connotation.

There are several "special" age words in Japanese which refer to certain ages that used to mark certain periods in one's life. Not that I think you'll ever use these, but it's always nice to know them as trivia:
15 20 30 40 50 61 70 77 80 81 88 90 99 100/120
志学 弱冠 而立 不惑 知命 還暦 or 菓甲 古希 喜寿 傘寿 半寿 米寿 卒寿 白寿 上寿


 

Grammar II - About counting

Just when you think it's over, there's an extra layer of hurray waiting for you: counting without numbers. Or rather, quantification. For instance, we all know that "some" is less than "more", which in turn is less than "everything". There's no real numbers associated to this quantifying words, but we do recognise there is order in the quantities they represent, and so it's important we look at how to quantify without using numbers instead.

The following list shows the more common quantifiers used on a day to day basis, and are part of the essential vocabulary of anyone wishing to advance beyond basic Japanese. Most of these words are adverbial, in the same sense that a counting statement can act quasi-adverbial.

あまり (余り)

also written あんまり, this quantifier is used in combination with verb negatives to mean "not that much". It comes from the noun form of 余る which means "to remain/be left over" or "be in excess", which explains why it needs negatives to mean "not that much": if we used it with a positive verb it would mean the exact opposite!

日本語: 読書があんまり好きじゃない。
English: [I] don't like reading that much.

いつも

A quantifier for time, we've already seen this to mean either "always" or "never", which we've also seen is a distinction that only exists in the English translation. literally, this just says "any and every time" - the two different translations flow quite naturally from use with affirmative and negative verb forms:

日本語: いつも自転車で学校にいきます。
English: [I] always go to school by bike.

日本語: 何でいつもこないんですか。
English: Why don't [you] ever show up?

かなり (可なり, 可也, 可成)

This quantifier means "considerable"

日本語: 自信がかなりあるね。
English: [You] have quite some confidence [in yourself, don't you?]

さっぱり

This quantifier is part of a special group of words called onomatopoeia and mimeses in English. That means it falls under the header "words that mimic something", and more specifically it falls under the mimeses header, which means it's a word that mimics a certain condition or appearance. You may never have heard of this before, so before we continue, time for some education on the linguistic front (and an important one too, these words are an integral part of natural use of Japanese!)

onomatopoeia and mimesis

Throughout the past, there have been claims that the more mimicing expressions a language has, the more primitive it is. Were this true, that would make Japanese vastly more primitive than English, as mimic words for sounds and conditions play an important role in animated conversation or engaging written text. Mimic words come in two classes in Japanese: 擬音語, for "sound mimic word", which describes the class of words that we in English call onomatopoeia (also know as sound effects to some, but that's a slight simplification of the term), as 擬態語, for "condition/appearance mimic word", which describes the class of words which we in English call mimesis.

Examples of onomatopoeia in English are such words as "sploosh!" for a rock being plummeted into water, or "ribbit" for the sound a frog makes. In Japanese we see these same type of words used, but where in English we then use separate verbs to describe what the things do (a rock "plummets" into water, a frog "croaks") the Japanese actually use these onomatopoeia directly, leading to a rock "doing: sploosh", and a frog "doing: ribbit" instead: ザンブリとする and ケロケロとする respectively

This sounds very childlike use of the language to use, because this is how we talk to our own young children, but one has to realise this is merely a cultural phenomenon; because in Japanese these are normal words, there is no such association with "childlike speech". In fact, sticking in some onomatopoeia here and there throughout your conversations will greatly liven it up and make it sound more natural!

The second class of mimesis is somewhat harder to explain, since we don't really use these in English. Allow me to explain through an example: imagine looking at a gem just as the light hits it, so that you can see it sparkle in the light. In English we would use the verb "to sparkle" to indicate this, but in Japanese (like with onomatopoeia), you would say that the gem "does: sparkle", where "sparkle" is a word describing a particular condition of - in this case - the gem.

That might have seemed a reasonably easy example to understand, but there are a lot of mimesis, such as the one that prompted this note on them, which are not as intuitive. It may be hard to understand that there are single words in Japanese that "mimic" for instance "someone that is small but moving around rapidly" (つんつん), or "the sudden onset of a strong sensation of heat" (かっ). Japanese has close to a thousand some such words, all of which typically have more than one meaning leading to over 3000 possible applications for 擬音語 and 擬態語 in the language.

Should you be interested in how many there really are and what their applicability is, head over to the "sound/state" dictionary and start searching on category; you'll be surprised by the results you get ^_^

now, back to our mimesis さっぱり. Aside from its role as marker for the condition of being refreshed, which has very little relevance here, it also represents the condition that something being complete, which in terms of quantification is quite useful:

日本語: これはさっぱりかりません。
English: I really don't understand this at all...

すこし (少し)

This quantifier means "a little", deriving directly from its kanji meaning "few". This kanji is also used in the word ない, meaning "few in numbers".

日本語: すこしってて。
English: [Please] wait a little.

日本語: 勇気が少しずつってきました。
English: [She] regained [her] courage little by little.

ずっと

This quantifier is another mimesis, actually being すっ and the particle と in its "stating" role. It is generally translated as "throughout", and is used for time a lot, when it is better translated as "the whole time" or the more expressive "since forever".

日本語: ずっとっていたよ。
English: I've been waiting (figuratively) forever.

すべて (全て)

This quantifier means "everything", in the abstract flavour of everything such as "everything is peaceful" or "I love everything".

日本語: この世界にはすべてはがっています。
English: Everything on this earth is connected.

ぜんぶ (全部)

Similar to the previous quantifier, this quantifier means "all", or when there are distinct parts to a whole can be translated as "everything" to refer to all of them. This meaning flows readily from the kanji form: 全 meaning "every" and 部 meaning "part".

日本語: 全部片付けてください。
English: Please clean up everything [lit.: all parts].

A づ! Yes, a づ - this is one of those instances where a compound kanji actually reveals a remnant that was clearly not quite thought about by the ministry of education: the verb 片付ける is a compound of the kanji 片, かた, and the verb 付ける, つける. Combined, the 付's pronunciation voices, becoming づ.

ぜんぜん (全然)

This quantifier literally means "all", stemming from 全, "every" paired with 然 which represent the concept of "the state of things". It is frequently used with negative verbs where it is taken to mean "not at all", but can in rare cases be paired with affirmatives in which case it's interpreted as meaning "completely".

日本語: そんなこと全然気にしないよ。
English: I don't worry about something like that at all.

たいてい (大抵)

This quantifier means "usually". There is no real way to remember this by its kanji, as it's a combination of "big" and "reach", which leaves me a bit short of a natural explanation of how "usually" follows from that ^^;;

日本語: 地球の極にはたいてい晴れてるんです。
English: [The sky] is usually clear over the earth's poles.

ちょっと

This quantifier means "a little", and is another mimesis (ちょっ paired with と).

日本語: ちょっとやばくないですか。
English: Isn't that a bit dangerous?

日本語: ちょっとがある。
English: I have something (lit.: a little bit) [I want to] talk [to you] about?

This word can also be used in a non-quantifier role to gently decline offers:

A: 君もこのゲームしませんか。
B: あっ、いいえ、僕はちょっと……

A: Won't you play this game too?
B: Ah.. um, no.. thank you

Finally, this word is typically also used as interjection, when someone is taking liberties they shouldn't (like taking your coffee) or generally behaving in a way that requires you to say something about it, like walking straight into you.

ときどき (時々)

This quantifier means "sometimes". The kanji form is actually 時時, the "々" you see used in the section heading is actually a "repeater" symbol, allowing use to write words with the same kanji twice a lot quicker. (however, this only works for single words - compound words where one compound ends on kanji X and the other starts with kanji X should not be simplified this way). Usually when you see this kind of repetition it's a good bet that the second kanji is actually voiced, as in 人々, 所々 or 日々. Getting back to our quantifier, the meaning is fairly evident from the kanji form, as 時 just means "time".

日本語: スキーは時々しますけど、スノーボードすることがありません。
English: I sometimes ski, but I've never snowboarded.

We shall encounter the construction 連体形 + ことがありません more often, and it literally means than the activity represented by the verb has never been performed by the subject it applies to. Literally it states "the concept of ... does not apply [to me]", from which the more natural translation readily follows.

とても (迚も) or emphatically とっても

This quantifier comes from 迚, meaning "some way or other". The emphatic も changes its meaning to "in every way" and this quantifier is therefore commonly explained as meaning "very much" (now you know why ^_^). This quantifier is used with adjectives to make something "very pretty" or "very fast", etc.:

日本語: 昨日はとても楽しかったです。
English: Yesterday was really fun.

もっと

This is an important quantifier to explain: もっと (another mimesis) does not mean "more". It doesn't. Let me repeat that: もっと does not mean "more". As highlighted earlier, the idea of comparative degree in Japanese works slightly different from the English system, and as such もっと only means "even more". This is a ridiculously important distinction: you can only use もっと in situations where the "whatever-ness" you wish to express more of is already established. That sounds a bit cryptic, so a simple example:

A: 新しいペンをしていますけど……
B: ペンですね。これはいかがでしょうか。
A: ちょっといですね。いのがありませんでしょうか。

If we look at the translation, noting that いかが is a formal polite version of どう, and that ありませんでしょう is the supposing form of ありません, we see that this expresses the following:

A:  [Hi,] I am looking for a new pen...
B:  A pen you say. How about this one?
A:  It's a bit heavy. I don't suppose you have a lighter one?

Here we use い in the Japanese sentence to mean "lighter than this one". As noted the normal attributive role and comparative role for adjectives is the same thing in Japanese (a bit like how present and future tense are the same thing in Japanese), so we definitely won't use もっと here. However, we would, if the pen was already quite light:

日本語: いですね。しかし、もっといのがありませんでしょうか。
English: Oh, it's [nicely] light. Still, I don't suppose you have an even lighter one?

In this case, we can use もっと because we are expressing an "even more"-ness, rather than just "more".

 


 

And... that's it

I don't think I'll make your life any easier by sticking more information in this lesson than I already have (believe it or not I cut out a number of counters and two sub-topics for the lesson to make it comparatively more manageable), so that's it for this lesson!

This was a lot of counting, and to tell you the truth, I would be severely impressed if you managed to even remember a quarter of what is in this lesson the first time round, since it's essentially all basic counting skill compressed into a single lesson. Oh yeah, with some expressions and sentence joiners thrown on top. Don't try to remember all of this in one go. Unlike the first three lessons, this is a "dedicated" lesson in the sense that the bulk of the information is about really just one topic, and that makes learning it a lot harder than if you have several different topics to keep your mind interested in it. Take this one slow, and perhaps surprisingly, move on to the next lesson even if you haven't fully mastered all the information in this lesson; we left the basic Japanese station behind, proper counting is most definitely an intermediary skill. As long as you know how to count numbers, and you know the sound change rules, then you can be forgiven for not knowing all the regular counters because in a pinch you can just look up the counter and then form the correct counting statement anyway. It *does* however deserve your attention to learn all the counter series with irregularities, because these are typically (and perhaps annoyingly) some of the more common and expected-you-know-these counters.

The practice session for this lesson comprises mainly counting, making valid counter statements, asking counting questions, and looking up counters in the dictionary to form counter series on your own.

For now though, I recommend you don't do anything counting-in-Japanese related but pride yourself on the fact that you made it through this lesson at least once, and now go do something you really like instead (yes, yes, even if you really like learning Japanese. Go do something *else* you really like =). I'm not just saying this because of the workload this lesson represents but also because it is pedagogically a really bad idea to not take breaks between learning sessions - the material won't stick, it'd be a bit like pummelling your brain into a numb state.

- Pomax