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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Chinese nouns

First of all, many apologies. It has been a while since I last blogged about Chinese language and linguistics, and the reason is that I have been blogging about many other interesting topics of late and have kind of put Chinese to one side, which is very very naughty of me, though the other things that I have been blogging about are fascinating not only for me but also for many of my readers, so I guess I may have some justification for defence here (!). Nonetheless, I must apologise to those who have been following my blogs on Chinese ling/lang and let me make it up to you by presenting to you an extremely fascinating phenomenon in our language, namely the Chinese nominal structure.

I have posted quite a few blogs about Chinese ling/lang (for which see my blogs under ‘linguistics‘) where I have mainly focused on the dialectal forms and distributions of verbal and clausal structures like verbal affixes, adverb placement, sentence-final particles, copulas etc. It is now appropriate, in my view, to discuss our nominal structures and the fine differences herein between our various dialects. I recently had a discussion with a colleague of mine who was researching on Chinese classifiers and asked me about the differences between Cantonese and Mandarin. We had a long and fascinating conversation about this, which motivated me to write this blog today.

First of all, it is well-known that nouns in all languages tend to be accompanied by certain elements to the left which denote some kind of referentiality or specificity. e.g. the, a, these, that etc. These are known as determiners, since they determine the deictic properties of the nouns in question, and there seem to be quite a few types of determiners, namely definite articles (e.g. English the), indefinite articles (e.g. English a/an), demonstrative pronouns denoting spatial deixes, namely proximal (e.g. English this) and distal (e.g. English that), and these often inflect for number (plural) as well (e.g. English these/those). Talking of grammatical number, there are also numerals (e.g. English one, two, three…) and quantifiers (e.g. English some, several, any, a lot of etc) which also precede the noun in denoting the numerical and quantificational properties of the noun. In addition, East Asian languages (Chinese/Japanese/Korean) also have classifiers, which are unit words that quantify the noun, and these words typically have an idiosyncratic relationship with the head noun in that certain types of nouns are used exclusively with certain types of classifiers which are etymologically related e.g. ‘book’ (書), for which it is obligatory to use the classifier ‘volume’ (本), which can also be used with all nouns that come in the form of a book (e.g. magazines, catalogue, novel etc):

一    本                   書/雜誌/目錄/小說

one CLASSIFIER book/magazine/catalogue/novel

‘One book/magazine/catalogue/novel’

As seen in this example, the classifier (here 本) comes before the noun meaning ‘book’ of some sort (book/magazine/catalogue/novel) and represents the unit of which the number is expressed (here 一 ‘one’). Classifiers are also used with demonstrative pronouns in denoting deixes:

這/那        本                   書/雜誌/目錄/小說

This/that CLASSIFIER book/magazine/catalogue/novel

‘This/that book/magazine/catalogue/novel’

Classifiers are hence obligatory in nominal constructions where the noun is determined by numuerals/quantifiers and demonstratives, and the fascinating thing about Chinese dialects is that southern ones (e.g. Cantonese) seem to have a finer-grained nominal structure in that it is possible to use classifiers on their own without a preceding quantifier or demonstrative, and the sole use of classifiers typically have weak reference comparable to English the/a e.g.

本                  書/雜誌/目錄/小說

CLASSIFIER book/magazine/catalogue/novel

‘A/the book/magazine/catalogue/novel’

In Mandarin, on the other hand, this is totally ungrammatical as all classifiers have to be accompanied by a higher element to reinforce deixes or number:

*(一)本 書/雜誌/目錄/小說

one  CLASSIFIER book/magazine/catalogue/novel

*(這/那)   本 書/雜誌/目錄/小說

this/that CLASSIFIER book/magazine/catalogue/novel

In Mandarin, therefore, weak and general reference requires the coercion of the number ‘one’ for indefiniteness and the demonstratives for definiteness:

一     本                   書/雜誌/目錄/小說

one  CLASSIFIER book/magazine/catalogue/novel

Lit. ‘One book’, or ‘a book’

這/那       本                   書/雜誌/目錄/小說

this/that CLASSIFIER book/magazine/catalogue/novel

Lit. ‘This/that book’, or ‘the book’

As classifiers denote units of nouns, they are always inflectable for number, and the Chinese plural classifier is, strangely, universal in that we only ever use one plural classifier for all nouns, which happens to be 些 in Mandarin and 啲 in Cantonese (as a caveat, Cantonese demonstratives are 呢 (proximal) and 嗰 (distal), which correspond to Mandarin 這 and 那 respectively) e.g.

這/那       些                   書/雜誌/目錄/小說 (Mandarin)

呢/嗰       啲                   書/雜誌/目錄/小說 (Cantonese)

this/that CLASSIFIER book/magazine/catalogue/novel

‘These/those books’

As above, it is impossible to use the plural classifier (些) without a higher element in Mandarin whereas in Cantonese the plural classifier (啲) can be used independently, in which case it denotes weak deixis again, though with plural reference comparable to English the (plural)/some e.g.

*(這/那)    些                  書/雜誌/目錄/小說 (Mandarin)

this/that CLASSIFIER book/magazine/catalogue/novel

啲             書/雜誌/目錄/小說 (Cantonese)

the/some books/magazines/catalogues/novels

‘The/some books/magazines/catalogues/novels’

The Chinese nominal structure, therefore, can be schematised thus:


Assuming this universal hierarchy to underlie all nouns in Chinese (and perhaps beyond), we can account for the dialectal differences between northern and southern dialects by arguing that in the former classifiers obligatorily occur with higher elements (demonstratives/quantifiers) whereas in the latter classifiers can occur on their own and denote weak and general reference comparable to articles in western European languages. There hence seems to be a fine-grained gradation of meaning in the hierarchical arrangement of nominal elements, which in linguistic terminology is called ‘cartography’ and may be represented thus:


Chinese nouns, therefore, seem to rely on an incremental bottom-up formation where higher elements are stacked onto lower ones to which deixes, specificity and quantification are expressed. Fascinating, eh?

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