Chinese Classifiers - 漢語量詞

Biscuits

這是什麼? 六包餅乾. A fairly simple question with a fairly simple answer. But notice how the answer uses something that doesn’t exist in European Languages: classifiers (apart from in rare cases).

First of all, note that the fact that classifiers don’t really exist in English doesn’t necessarily mean that sentences that use them are inexpressable in the English. The above sentences, for example, translate as: “What is this?” and “Six biscuits”

In Chinese, you can’t really apply a demonstrative to quantify a noun directly without using a classifier. For example, in English, you can just say “Six biscuits”. However, in Chinese you would follow this format: “Six (classifier) biscuit”.

There are 3 parts to the sentence “六包餅乾”: A number, the classifier and the noun. You can also add a demonstrative and an adjective like so: “六包可口餅乾” which would mean: “These six delicious biscuits”.

In this example, you could somewhat translate the classifier (包) to “a pack(et) of” and so translate “六包餅乾” as “Six packs of biscuits”.

Once you get to sentences such as “你的紫只猫” - “Your purple cats”, however, it starts getting difficult to translate the classifier into an English word. Literally translated, “只” (the classifier) means “exclusively”. “Your exclusively of cats”… hmm…


Classifiers Are Awesome

Let’s say you are asked a question: “多少餅乾?” (How many biscuits?).

Using classifiers, we can answer this question in many fruity ways:

No Noun

We can just answer simply with “七百包”. Notice how I used the classifier without the noun after it. We’re already talking about biscuits; we don’t need to re-specify them. This is translated as “seven hundered (of them)”.

Reduplication

You can repeat the classifier to mean “every”. So you could answer with “包包餅乾!” - “Every biscuit!”.

Poetic

If you feeling especially fruity, you could turn and gaze into the clouds, acquire a deep revelation, having pondered on life the universe on everything, then suddenly turn around, reach your hand towards the the horizons and announce in a meaningful tone:

天空一片餅乾

Demonstration

“天空一片餅乾” translates as “The sky was full of biscuits”. The classifier used in the sentence, “片”, is refering to “the sky” and not the biscuits (which is easy to work out since the classifier is different to “包”). You can use “一” (one) before a classifier to mean “(something) full of (something)”, in this case - a sky full of biscuits. You can also use it to mean “the entire” or “all of”.