TIL: Human Japanese 32 Pt.1 (Counting Objects)

Hot damn, this is a long chapter! I can’t manage it all in one go, so I’m going to break this one up into two blog posts. I took a brief look at counting before. There are lots/heaps/piles/a ton/myriad/plenty/a good deal/a plethora/copious amounts/a cornucopia/a deluge/bountiful/loads/masses/stacks/profuse numbers of counters, so this will by no means be a quick thing to learn. But then, I guess, English wasn’t learned overnight either.

・つ – Generic Counting
・にん – Counting People
・まい – Counting Thin Sheets
・こ – Counting Small Roundish Objects
・ほん – Counting Long Cylindrical Objects
・ひき – Counting Animals

Counting Objects

English has:
-loaves of bread
-scoops of ice cream
-grains of rice
-sheets of paper
-bundles of sticks
-issues of magazines
-ears of corn
So we’re not by any means better.

English has countable objects: cars, dogs, cats… and uncountable objects: water, rice, paper. In Japanese, all objects are “uncountable”. This means measure words must be used for everything. Instead of three cats, you must say three small animal units of cat. There’s ~10 words that are broadly used and will help us to get by if we know.

ーひとつ「one thing」
ーふたつ「two things」
ーみっつ「three things」
ーよっつ「four things」
ーいつつ「five things」
ーむっつ「six things」
ーななつ「seven things」
ーやっつ「eight things」
ーここのつ「nine things」
ーとお「ten things」
ーいくつ「how many things?」

Always place the counter before the verb, with nothing in between.
if りんごがあります means “there are apples”, we insert the number directly before あります to create specific numbers: “りんごがむっつあります”.
ーいしがやっつありました。「There were eight rocks.」
ーりんごをいつつたべました。「I ate five apples.」
ーやまがみっつありました。「There were three mountains.」
ーふたつあります。「There are two.」
ーよっつあります。「There are four.」
ーとおあります。「There are ten.」

My immediate question here, was “Wait… I thought ‘いくら’ meant ‘how many’…” so I looked it up. いくら means “how much” in the sense that you could ask how much something costs. While いくつ means “how many” are there. It also fits in with the だれ・どこ・なに line of questioning.
ーいくつありますか。「How many are there?」
ーよっつあります。「There are four.」
ーいしがいくつありますか。「How many rocks are there?」
ーいしがここのつあります。「There are nine rocks.」

These counters are handy, but are only usable when there are fewer than 10 objects. For larger quantities you must use the proper counter. You must always use the proper counters for humans. You should use the proper counter for everything if you know it.

Counting People 「人」

ーひとり「one person」
ーふたり「two people」
ーさんにん「three people」
ーよにん「four people」
ーなんにん「how many people」

When n syllables follow 四 we drop the n at the end. So instead of よんにん, it is simply よにん. With 九, we pronounce it きゅう not く.
ーせんせいがひとりいました。「There was one teacher.」
ーせいとがさんじゅうにんいました。「There were thirty students.」
ーがっこうにせいとがよんひゃくにんいました。「There were four hundred students at school.」

Unlike with いくつ which is used by itself, we use なん with other counters. So if we count how many people, it’s なんにん.
ーなんにんいますか。「How many people are there?」
ーせいとがなんにんいますか。「How many students are there?」
ーがっこうにせいとがなんにんいますか。「How many students are at school?」

Counting Thin Sheets (まい)

There are no exceptions for sheets, so it’s easy to count: いちまい、にまい、さんまい、よんまい、etc.
ー~まい「counter for sheets」
ーなんまい「how many sheets?」
ーきって「postal stamp」
ーかみをいちまいください。「Please give me one sheet of paper.」
ーきってがななまいあります。「There are seven stamps.」
ーかみがなんまいありますか。「How many sheets of paper are there?」

Roundish Objects (こ)

ー~こ「counter for small, roundish things」
ーなんこ「how many?」
こ is used for a large variety of things that are generally roundish or boxy and smaller than a chair. Mugs, marbles, strawberries, and computer mice can all be counted with こ It also has a cute feeling associated with it, so little things like buttons and thumbtacks are also often counted with こ. It can sound right sometimes even when it isn’t.

When く or ち sounds come before a k sound, generally, the く or ち is transformed into a small つ. ろくこ becomes ろっこ. はちこ becomes はっこ.

ーいすがさんにあります。「there are three chairs.」
ーごみばこがじゅういっこありました。「There were eleven garbage cans.」
ーコップがなんこありますか。「How many cups are there?」
ージョンさんはいちごをろっこたべました。「John ate six strawberries.」
ーわたしはななこみました。「I saw seven (roundish objects).」

Long, Cylindrical Objects (ほん)

Used for slender objects such as pencils, trees, and even roads and rivers.
ー~ほん「counter for long, cylindrical objects」
ーいっぽん「1」 いちほん doesn’t have a great sound to it, so the ち gets converted to a っ. Double h doesn’t work, so the h becomes p.
ーなんぼん「how many?」
ーえんぴつをさんぼんください。「Please give me three pencils.」
ーみちがななほんあります。「There are seven roads.」
ーペンがなんぼんありますが。「How many pens are there?」

Animals (ひき)

ー~ひき「counter for animals (not birds)」
ーなんびき「how many?」
ーねこがさんびきいました。「There were three cats.」
ーえきにねずみがじゅっぴきいます。「There are ten rats at the station.」
ーうまをなんびきみましたか。「How many horses did you see?」
ーだいどころにねざみがなんびきいますか。「How many rats are in the kitchen?」


ー~じ「o’clock/hour counter」
ー~はん「half past ~」
ー~ふん「counter for minutes」
ーなんじ「what time?」

Special rules: 4 o’clock is よじ not よんじ or しじ. 7 o’clock is しちじ not ななじ. 9 o’clock is くじ not きゅうじ.
ーくじです。「9 o’clock」
ーさんじです。「3 o’clock」
ーしちじです。「7 o’clock」

Use に to indicate that you did something at a specific time
ーしちじにがっこうにいきました。「I went to school at 7 o’clock.」
ーよじにさんぽにいきました。「I went on a walk at 4 o’clock.」
ーごじにばんごはんをたべましょう。「Lets eat dinner at 5 o’clock.」
ーにじはんです。「half past 2」
ーすずきさんはろくじはんにきます。「Suzuki will come at half past 6.」
ーはちじはんにこうえんにいきましょう。「Lets go to the park at half past 8.」

ーいっぷん「one minute」
ーにふん「two minutes」
ーさんふん「three minutes」
ーよんふん「four minutes」
ーごふん「five minutes」
ーろっぷん「six minutes」
ーななふん「seven minutes」
ーはっぷん「eight minutes」
ーきゅうふん「nine minutes」
ーじゅっぷん「ten minutes」
ーよんじゅうよんふん「44 minutes」
ーじゅういっぷん「11 minutes」
ーにじゅうはっぷん「28 minutes」
ーはちじにじゅうっぷんいがっこうにいきました。「I went to school at 8:20」
ーごじさんじゅうごふんにせんせいはいえにきます。「Sensei will come to our house at 5:35」
ーなんじですか。「What time is it?」
ーいまなんじですか。「What time is it now?」

It’s worth noting that while everything has been spelled out above, that’s now how time would be written commonly in Japanese. The above is pronunciation, however when writing one would use roman numerals combined with kanji. 時 for hours, 分 for minutes. So 8:02 wouldn’t be written as はちじにふん but rather as 8時02分.


ごぜん and ごご both go before the time in question.

から and まで go after the element they relate to.
ーごせんはちじはんからごごごじよんじゅっぽんまで「from 8:30AM to 5:40PM」
ーごごじゅうにじからごぜんにじまで「from 12:00PM to 2:00AM」